How Safe are Essential Oils?
Essential oils seem to pop up everywhere, so many brands, so many different oils to chose from. The main question remains, how safe are essential oils. The simple answer is, it very much depends on the quality of the essential oil and the user’s experience and education on essential oils.
The quality of an essential oil is determined by a variety of factors, the central one being the sourcing of the plants used to create an essential oil. Just imagine, a plant grown on a field where heavy metals are in the soil, treated with pesticides, in an environment not native to the plant – this is not a healthy scenario for a plant to be used in essential oil production. But unfortunately, many companies don’t care and most consumers don’t know the difference. The best essential oils come from plants that grow in their indigenous environment as the soil, water, and climate ensure the growth of a plant rich in its chemical constituents. Pair that with organic farming and harvesting at the proper time, and voilà you have the best plants to produce the highest quality grade essential oil.
But it doesn’t stop there, sourcing the right plant material is just the beginning. There are various methods on how essential oils are extracted from plant material. Two methods that are safe and completely natural are steam distillation and compression extraction. Steam distillation is used for most parts of the plant (flowers, leaves, stem, roots, bark, resin) whereas compression extraction is used in citrus oil production by compressing the rind to extract the essential oils. The type of plant material that is being distilled determines the time it takes for distillation. Sandalwood distillation can take up to 23 hours for distilling the shavings from the bark of the tree compared to for instance 3 hours for distilling the leaves from peppermint plants. These distillation methods are time consuming but safe and most definitely the healthiest way to produce an essential oil. Some companies prefer to go the faster and cheaper route by using solvent extraction where a chemical such as acetone or hexane are used to extract the essential oils from the plant material. Just picture the chemical residue from the solvent extraction in those essential oils.
After distillation, for safety purposes, every batch of essential oil should be laboratory tested to ensure the essential oil has the proper chemical constituents, at the right levels, hasn’t been adulterated, and does not contain any heavy metals, microbes, mold or fungus spores, or anything else that does not belong in a 100% pure tested grade essential oil.
Don’t be fooled, only because an essential oil is labeled “100% pure” does not a guarantee it is truly 100% pure, and that the sourcing, distillation, and testing has been performed as described in this article. A first warning signal can be when an essential oil is labeled with “100% pure” and then in fine print reads “not for topical use”. Research the brand you have been using, see whether they publish their sourcing, distillation, and testing methods. Ask for GCMS reports which list all the chemical components present in the essential oil. If your company does not provide such information, find a brand that does publish the information you are looking for as it very much impacts the safety and effectiveness of the essential oil you are using.
Last but not least, the more educated you are as a user, the safer and the more satisfying the results. Consult with a Certified Aromatherapist. Find a good book and trustworthy online resources to learn about essential oils and safe application methods. Take courses or classes with an Aromatherapist or at Aromahut Institute. Always read the label on every essential oil bottle and adhere to its instructions. Pregnant women, people with medical conditions, and those under a doctor’s care should always consult with their physician before using essential oils. Use extra care when using essential oils with children and older people (always dilute appropriately and skin test).
Connecting with someone who is experienced in using essential oils is a great way to get the most benefits from integrating essential oils into your life, and also the safest.
General Safety Tips & Guidelines
Always use oils as directed on their labels, appropriately diluted or blended, with moderation, as this will help you avoid any undesirable side effects.
Please see below several safety guidelines that you should follow when using essential oils and essential oil products.
Top 7 Safety Guidelines
- Be sure to use only 100% pure therapeutic-grade essential oils and follow all label warnings and instructions.
- If redness or irritation occurs when using essential oils topically, apply a vegetable oil such as fractionated coconut oil or olive oil to the affected area and gently wipe off with a soft cloth; discontinue topical use or try at much greater dilution ratio.
- Essential oils should not be used in the eyes, inside the ear canal, in open wounds or other sensitive body parts. In the event of accidental contact with the eye, apply vegetable oil or milk liberally to a cloth and wipe your eye gently DO NOT use water (it will sting and irritate more).
- Do NOT consume an essential oil internally unless labeled with a Supplement Facts box with specific dietary supplement use instructions and warnings.
- Discontinue the use of an essential oil if you experience severe skin, stomach, or respiratory irritation or discomfort.
- When using on children and with the elderly, use at suggested dilution ratios and skin test (apply very small amount of oil to test skin). Please see additional information here along with a list of “caution” essential oils for children.
- Consult your physician before using essential oils if you are pregnant or under a doctor’s care or have other safety questions regarding essential oils.
Aromatic Use Consideration
Inhalation presents a very low level of risk to most people. Even in a relatively small closed room, and assuming 100% evaporation, the concentration of any essential oil (or component thereof) is unlikely to reach a dangerous level, either from aromatherapy massage, or from essential oil vaporization.
Topical Use Consideration
Essential oils rich in aldehydes (e.g., citronellal, citral) and phenols (e.g., cinnamic aldehyde, eugenol) may cause skin reactions. Essential oils rich in these constituents should always be diluted prior to application to the skin. According to Schnaubelt, “diluting such oils so that the resulting solution becomes non-irritant, may require diluting them to concentrations much lower than in normal circumstances. Another option is to blend such irritant oils asymmetrically with other essential oils, which mitigate their irritant effects.”
Dilution: Most aromatherapy oil based blends should be between 1 and 5 percent dilutions, which typically does not represent a safety concern. Using essential oils neat topically or at dilution ratios higher than 10%, potential dermal (skin) reactions may take place depending on the individual essential oil’s chemical composition, the area in which the oil is applied, and other factors related to the person’s own sensitivity levels. Any excessive usage of essential oils may cause irritation or other undesired effects due to their lipophilic nature.
Damaged Skin: Damaged, diseased, or inflamed skin is often more permeable to essential oils and may be more sensitive to dermal reactions. It is potentially dangerous to put undiluted essential oils on to damaged, diseased or inflamed skin. Under these circumstances the skin condition may be worsened, and larger amounts of oil than normal will be absorbed. Sensitization reactions are also more likely to occur.
Photosensitization: Some essential oils can cause photosensitization, which can cause burning or skin pigmentation changes, such as tanning, on exposure to sun or similar light (ultraviolet rays). Reactions can range from a mild color change through to deep weeping burns. Do not use photosensitizing essential oils prior to going into a sun tanning booth or the sun. Stay out of the sun or sun tanning booth for at least twenty-four hours after applying photosensitizing essential oils to the skin. Certain drugs, such as tetracycline, increase the photosensitivity of the skin, thus increasing the harmful effects of photosensitizing essential oils under the necessary conditions.
Lists of some common essential oils considered to be photosensitizers:
Angelica root (Angelica archangelica)
Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)
Cumin (Cuminum cyminum)
Grapefruit (low risk) (Citrus paradisi)
Compression Extracted Lemon (Citrus limon)
Compression Extracted Lime (Citrus medica)
Bitter Orange (Citrus aurantium)
Rue (Ruta graveolens)
Non-Phototoxic Citrus Oils:
Bergamot Bergapteneless (FCF: Furanocoumarin Free – Citrus bergamia)
Distilled Lemon (Citrus limon)
Distilled Lime (Citrus medica)
Mandarin – Tangerine (Citrus reticulata)
Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis)
Expressed Tangerine (Citrus reticulata)
Yuzu oil (expressed or distilled) (Citrus juno)
Green Mandarin (Citrus nobilis)
It is important to remember that therapeutic-grade essential oils are highly-concentrated plant extracts and should be used with reasonable care. Consulting with an Aromatherapist will make your experience and journey of integrating essential oils into your lifestyle more enjoyable and rewarding. As you learn how to use essential oils through personal experience, share your knowledge with others in a safe and responsible way and encourage others to do the same.