As the essential oil market continues to grow, so do concerns about whether these highly concentrated plant extracts are safe for common use. Many consumers are unaware of the potential risks while using essential oils in their wellness, beauty, and cleaning routines.

Whether a specific oil is safe for you depends on a number of factors, including your:

  • age
  • underlying health conditions
  • medication and supplement use

When it comes to the oil, it’s important to consider:

  • chemical composition and purity
  • method of use
  • duration of use
  • dosage

Read on to learn how to safely use each method, which oils to try and which to avoid, what to do if you experience side effects, and more.

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Many people turn to topical oils for their skin-healing or pain-relieving properties. However, if administered improperly, rash and other side effects may occur.

Some essential oils can even be poisonous if absorbed directly through the skin. Others, like orange, lime, and lemon, can cause phototoxicity if applied before exposure to sun.

Dilution

Essential oils require dilution to prevent adverse reactions. As a general rule, you should keep concentration levels of essential oils below 5 percent.

Diluting at 1 percent is equivalent to adding 6 drops of essential oil to 1 ounce of carrier oil. Guidelines for safe concentrations vary by age and health condition.

You can easily dilute your essential oils by blending a few drops with a carrier oil. Carrier oils are typically vegetable-based. They carry the essential oil safely onto your skin and help you spread it over a large surface area.

Patch test

Patch tests allow you to see how your skin reacts to a particular oil before you perform a full application.

Here are the steps for conducting a patch test:

  1. Wash your forearm with unscented soap.
  2. Pat dry.
  3. Rub a few drops of diluted essential oil into a small patch of your forearm.
  4. Wait 24 hours.
  5. Remove the gauze.

If the skin patch is red, itchy, blistering, or swollen, you have had an adverse reaction to the oil and should discontinue use.

If you experience discomfort before the 24-hour period ends, immediately wash the area with soap and warm water.

Oils

Popular essential oils that can be used with or without dilution (neat application):

  • chamomile
  • cypress
  • eucalyptus
  • lavender
  • tea tree (unoxidized)
  • rose
  • sandalwood

Neat applications should be done under professional supervision.

Popular essential oils that must be diluted:

  • bay
  • cinnamon bark or leaf
  • clove bud
  • citronella
  • cumin
  • lemongrass
  • lemon verbena
  • oregano
  • thyme

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Essential oils aren't consistently regulated.

You shouldn't use essential oils internally unless you’ve undergone advanced training and certification or are acting under the guidance of a trained professional.

Avoid oral ingestion and internal application, such as in the mouth, vagina, or other mucus membranes.

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The benefits of aromatherapy are well-researched. Inhaling certain essential oils, like sweet orange, can help ease symptoms of stress and anxiety. Inhaling lavender may improve sleep quality.

You can reap the benefits of aromatherapy through inhalation or diffusion. Inhalation is most effective when treating respiratory issues, whereas diffusion is best suited for mood management.

When diffusing oils, use these safety precautions:

Shop for diffusers online.

Oils

Popular essential oils that can be diffused without any potential risks to children or pets:

  • cedarwood
  • fir
  • grapefruit
  • lavender
  • lemon
  • spearmint
  • tangerine

Popular essential oils that should be diffused with caution, because they’re mucous membrane irritants:

  • bay
  • cinnamon bark or leaf
  • clove bud or leaf
  • lemongrass
  • peppermint
  • thyme

This is a highly controversial practice — especially during the first three months.

Some people worry that topical essential oils can cross the placental barrier and harm the fetus.

While there are some essential oils that should never be used during pregnancy, there are a few that are considered safe for use during prenatal massages or through the diffuser method.

According to one study, some essential oils may be effective in reducing anxiety and fear regarding childbirth.

If you’re interested in using essential oils during pregnancy, talk to your healthcare provider and midwife before use.

Oils

Popular essential oils that should never be used during pregnancy, labor, or while breastfeeding:

  • camphor
  • parsley seed
  • hyssop
  • pennyroyal
  • tarragon
  • wintergreen
  • wormwood

This is another highly controversial topic. Infants and children have thinner skin and less developed livers and immune systems. This makes them more vulnerable to potential toxicity associated with oil use.

Following safety guidelines and exercising extreme caution is crucial. You should always consult a healthcare provider before using essential oils on or around infants and children.

After 2 years, certain essential oils can be administered topically and through aromatherapy methods, but at a much weaker concentration than adult dosing. A safe dilution ratio is typically 0.5 to 2.5 percent.

Other examples of safety guidelines for children regarding essential oils:

  • Peppermint shouldn’t be topically applied to or diffused around children under the age of 6 years.
  • Eucalyptus shouldn’t be topically applied to or diffused around children under the age of 10 years.
Remember, diluting at 1 percent is equivalent to adding 6 drops of essential oil to 1 ounce of carrier oil.

Infants and children (or adults) shouldn’t ingest essential oils. As a safety precaution, essential oils should always be kept out of reach.

Oils

A 2007 study reported that using lavender and tea tree oil topically on males who have not reached puberty has been linked to hormonal abnormalities that encourage breast growth. These oils should only be administered through aromatherapy methods or avoided.

Talk to a medical provider before using these essential oils on or around children.

Popular essential oils that should never be used on or around infants and children:

  • eucalyptus
  • fennel
  • peppermint
  • rosemary
  • verbena
  • wintergreen

There is still much we don’t know about the long-term effects of aromatherapy. Possible long-term effects need to be considered and studied before the use of popular oils becomes a main stream practice in Western medicine. There are dangers.

Here are a few examples:

  • Anise. When used internally, anise lowers the antidepressant effects of some medications and increases the effects of drugs that affect the central nervous system.
  • Bergamot. This oil can cause skin sensitivity and result in burning if applied in a high topical concentration before sunlight exposure.
  • Cinnamon. If applied without diluting or ingested, this oil can cause mucus membrane irritation, contact dermatitis, facial flushing, double vision, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Eucalyptus. If swallowed, this oil can cause seizures.
  • Lavender. Topical application has been shown to affect hormones in males who have not reached puberty.
  • Lemon verbena. If topically applied before sun exposure, this oil can cause photosensitivity and may result in burning.
  • Nutmeg. This oil may cause a rash or a burn if applied topically. It can also cause hallucinations and even coma when ingested in high concentrations.
  • Peppermint. This oil can cause rash and other irritations when applied to skin. It can also cause heartburn if taken internally.
  • Sage. If a large amount is ingested, this oil can cause restlessness, vomiting, vertigo, rapid heart rate, tremors, seizures, and kidney damage.
  • Tea tree. When applied topically, this oil can cause rash or irritation. If swallowed, it can cause loss of muscle coordination and confusion. Ingestion may also affect hormones in males who have not reached puberty.

Essential oils are natural, but that doesn’t mean they can be used without taking precautions. Before using any essential oil, you should ask yourself — and be able to answer — the following questions:

What method do you want to use?

The method you use is based upon the desired effect. Are you looking for mood-altering effects (aromatherapy)? Are you looking to treat a skin ailment or relieve pain (topical)? Or, are you looking to treat a medical condition (oral or aromatherapy)?

Does the oil need to be diluted?

Most essential oils, unless they are considered “neat,” need to be diluted. Always check the dilution guidelines.

Does the oil increase photosensitivity?

In general, citrus essential oils increase photosensitivity. Applying them before sun exposure can cause serious skin burns.

Does the oil have any clinical interactions?

Some essential oils, absorbed into the body through aromatherapy, can cause an adverse reaction when used with other medications or supplements. They may also trigger or worsen symptoms of an underlying medical condition.

Is the oil safe to use around infants, children, or pets?

Always check whether a specific essential oil is safe for children and pets. Keep in mind that what might be safe for dogs may be poisonous for cats. Cats are more sensitive to essential oils than other pets. Avoid using aromatherapy in public.

Is the oil safe to ingest?

Essential oils that are perfectly safe when used topically or in aromatherapy may be toxic when ingested. Certain oils, like wintergreen, can be deadly.

In general, you should treat essential oils like other medications, supplements, or harmful materials. This means practicing caution when purchasing, storing, and using them.

Keep essential oils out of reach of children and pets

It’s not enough to keep your essential oils out of view. In order to ensure safety, place all essential oils in a lockable case and store them in a cupboard out of reach. Alternatively, store them in a high-up cabinet and add a child lock.

When diffusing, don’t exceed 30- to 60-minute intervals

With essential oils, less is often more. Exceeding the ideal times doesn’t amplify the oil’s benefits. In fact, it can actually create stress on your body, especially the nervous system.

Only diffuse in well-ventilated areas

As a general rule, if all you can smell is the essential oil, your area is not well-ventilated. In such cases, you risk irritating your respiratory system.

Ventilation is especially important in the presence of pets — and it includes leaving doors open for pets to remove themselves.

When in doubt, dilute the oil

When using topically, carrier oils shouldn’t be overlooked. Not only are they useful in spreading the essential oil onto a larger surface area, they protect your skin from rash and irritation.

Never use photosensitizing oils before UV exposure

Safety guidelines recommend waiting a full 24 hours after using photosensitizing oils before visiting a tanning booth or spending time in direct sunlight.

Always wash your hands after using essential oils

If you have remnants of essential oils on your hands and you rub your eyes or scratch the inside of your ears, you could experience a serious adverse reaction. Essential oils shouldn’t come into contact with eyes and ears.

Keep all essential oils away from flames

Essential oils are highly flammable. They shouldn’t be used or stored near candles, gas stoves, lit cigarettes, or open fireplaces.

Practicing caution and following safety guidelines will help ensure your experience using essential oils is a positive one. However, adverse reactions can still happen. Part of responsibly using essential oils is knowing what to do if side effects do occur.

In most cases, minor side effects can be taken care of at home.

If essential oils get into your eyes, you can do one of two things:

  • Soak a cotton swab in a food-grade fatty oil like sesame or olive. Wipe the swab over your closed eyelid.
  • Immediately flush the area with cool, clean water.

If you’re experiencing skin irritation: Use a fatty oil or cream to absorb and wipe the essential oil away.

If you’ve accidently ingested or over-ingested an oil, immediately contact your local poison control center. Then, follow these precautions:

  • drink full-fat or 2 percent milk
  • avoid vomiting
  • keep the essential oil bottle handy to show the emergency response team

Michelle Pugle is a Canadian-based health & wellness writer. She has a diploma in holistic nutritional therapy, a double bachelor’s in English and Sociology, and a master’s in research theories. Her work has been featured in magazines, anthologies, and on websites around the world.