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The Nitty Gritty on Essential Oil Safety

devon 49 Comments

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The Nitty Gritty on Essential Oil Safety

The Nitty Gritty on Essential Oil Safety

Devon 49 Comments

An essential oil may have great medicinal qualities, but is it right for you? Essential oil safety should be considered before using your first drop of the aromatic oils. Here are precautions, dilutions, & best practices for safe essential oil use.

The Nitty Gritty on Essential Oil Safety

Would you believe me if I told you that I am a trained aromatherapist who doesn’t really like to use essential oils very much?

Oxy-moron?

It’s the truth.  I have a degree in Complementary and Alternative Medicine through the American College of Healthcare Sciences, with a double major in both Herbal Medicine and Aromatherapy.  Roughly 100 different essential oils are currently in my possession.  Furthermore, I love what essential oils can do and how they smell. I do use them in practice and when my client’s needs warrant them.  But they aren’t the go-to in my holistic “war chest”.  And they shouldn’t be the only tool in yours either.

Why my aversion?  It is all about strength.  To illustrate my point– I love a good single malt scotch.  I need to drink liquid.  Scotch is a liquid.  But I am not going to drink a single malt scotch to quench my thirst, when something else – water – is going to be just as, if not more, effective and altogether safer.  So, why rub your feet with costly and potentially toxic essential oils when a cup of tea might do to ward off that nasty cold?

The Nitty Gritty on Essential Oil Safety

Essential oils are the highly concentrated, volatile essences of various plants, resins, and gums.  While essential oils are reflective of the original plant matter, not all constituents are carried over during the distillation process. Most herbalists feel strongly that the “whole plant” is better than that sum of its parts – that there is inherent synergy in the natural state of the constituents.  Distillation is thereby a refinement of sorts and a disruption of the plant’s natural synergy.  As a holistic healthcare practitioner, my “front line” to address concerns of a client are always going to consist of nutritional, herbal and vitamin/mineral recommendations.  Essential oils are an additional tool, but one that I put a lot of forethought and care into using.

I have been moved to write this post after biting my tongue too many times.  Why? Because I see friends and family posting online about how they are using essential oils internally. Sometimes I overhear conversations about using essential oils on babies from other parents when picking the kids up from school.  And finally (spoiler, I am gonna sound like a jerk here), when I mention that I am an aromatherapist, a frequent response is “oh, so is my mother/sister/brother/aunt/neighbor. She sells Doterra/YoungLiving/Melaleuca essential oils” (FYI, solely selling MLM oils does not a proper aromatherapist make, but to also be fair there are some highly educated distributors too).  While this post is not intended to be derogatory to MLM companies or make people feel bad about their choices, it is intended to clear the air, give a little tough love, and offer real, actionable advice on the correct use of essential oils.

So, when we do decide that essential oils are appropriate, how do we use them correctly?  Here is the nitty gritty on essential oil safety and use!

Essential Oil Safety Dilution Ratios

If there is but ONE point that I want to drive home – it is that essential oils should be diluted in a fixed carrier oil (think olive, coconut, avocado oils) before application.  It is one of the most basic tenets of essential oil safety.  Neat (undiluted) application is rarely recommended and usually reserved for individual allergy and sensitization testing.  Safe essential oils dilutions range between 0.5-5%, depending on the individual and application technique.  Please note, that these are general guidelines and that there are certain essential oils that should never exceed 1% of a mixture.  If there is a known allergy or sensitivity to a particular plant group, associated essential oils should be avoided altogether.

  • 0.5%: Pregnant women, small children (12mo-4yrs, I do not recommend applying essential oils to infants), and the frail or elderly.
  • 1-2%: Daily use facial or body lotions/oils
  • 3-4%: Acute needs such as wound care or pain relief
  • 5%: Typically not recommended, short-term use only.

The following table may be helpful for calculating dilutions:

Essential Oil Dilution Ratios drops by ounce of carrier oil {nittygrittylife.com}*
0.50% 1% 2% 3% 4% 5%
1 ounce 3 drops 6 drops 12 drops 18 drops 24 drops 30 drops
2 ounces 6 drops 12 drops 24 drops 36 drops 48 drops 60 drops
3 ounces 9 drops 18 drops 36 drops 54 drops 72 drops 90 drops
4 ounces 12 drops 24 drops 48 drops 72 drops 96 drops 120 drops
*always be informed of dosage and therapeutic margin of any eo used

Essential Oil Ingestion

In a quest to make myself eternally unpopular, I am going make a bold statement – DO NOT INGEST ESSENTIAL OILS.  Sorry, Pam-from-the-gym, dousing your water bottle with grapefruit essential oil isn’t going to burn off those love handles or thunder thighs (although I sure wish it would)  That peppermint essential oil isn’t gonna cure your acid reflux, Todd-from-accounting.  Actually, improperly ingested essential oils can do harm more harm than good by irritating (even burning) mucous membranes and disrupting gut flora.  Unless under the guidance of a qualified aromatherapist or health care practitioner, don’t self-medicate internally with essential oils. There, I’ve said it.

Also, keep essential oils out of the reach of children and pets.  And for the love of all things sacred, please do not put essential oils in your eyes.  It should go without saying — but there is a popular article circulating that says otherwise.  Sigh…

The Nitty Gritty on Essential Oil Safety

Essential Oil Toxicity and Therapeutic Margin

Another key part of understanding essential oil safety, is knowing not everything that is “natural” is “safe”.  In fact, there are a few essential oils considered toxic at otherwise safe dilutions.  The therapeutic margin of herbs and essential oils refers to the line between a helpful dose and potential toxicity. For instance, wintergreen (a potent pain reliever), should never exceed 0.5-1% of a total blend.  Toxicity, sensitization, irritation, and phototoxicity (increases damaging effects from UV exposure) factors of ALL essential oils are well beyond the scope I could cover in this blog post, but here are a few “usual suspects” for which to consider when blending and diluting:

  • Toxicity potential and contraindicated for pregnancy: anise seed, basil, birch, camphor, hyssop, juniper, mugwort, parsley, pennyroyal, sage, tansy, tarragon, thuja, wintergreen, and wormwood.
  • Mucous membrane irritants: bay, caraway, cinnamon bark/leaf, clove, lemongrass, peppermint, and thyme
  • Dermal sensitizers: cassia, cinnamon bark/leaf, and peru balsam
  • Photosensitizers: angelica root, bergamot, cumin, expressed citrus essential oils, and rue

Diffusing Essential Oils

While it may seem relatively harmless, inhalation via diffusion into the atmosphere is the quickest way that essential oils are absorbed into the bloodstream. As such, it is imperative that you “know your audience” before diffusing.  Those with acute and chronic respiratory issues, allergies, infants, small children and the elderly can have serious and even life-threatening reactions to certain essential oils — especially those with camphor-y aromas.  Avoid diffusion in the classroom, offices, and areas with poor ventilation.  Discontinue use immediately if respiratory issues arise.

Don’t Be Fooled by Essential Oil Marketing

Don’t be fooled by clever marketing when determining essential oil safety.  It is terribly easy to get sucked in by terms like “pure”, “natural”, and “therapeutic grade”.  Clearly, these are qualities that we want in our essential oils, right?  Truth is, those terms are essentially meaningless as they are not properly verified by an independent third party.  Beware of companies that use these ambiguous terms freely and seek those that can substantiate their claims via an independent body or produce lot testing.  For instances, I order many of my essential oils from a Mountain Rose Herbs (while I am a brand partner, this is not a paid link), whose commitment to batch testing and quality standards is second to none in my experience — I have toured their lab and I have a thorough understanding of their testing equipment.  Other labeling indicators of high-quality essential oils include:

  • Both common and Latin/botanical names
  • Country or origin
  • Chemotype
  • Growing conditions (organic, farmed, wildcrafted)
  • Production method (steam or water distillation, expression)

The Nitty Gritty on Essential Oil Safety

I hope my tough love essential oil lesson hasn’t upset too many folks.  Really, my goal is not to shame anybody, but rather to spread the good word on essential oil safety.  It certainly does not take a degree in Aromatherapy to properly use these essential oils (although it does help).  Careful planning, forethought, and some “best practices” will ensure a safe and pleasurable essential oil experience.

Essential Oil Safety


FDA Disclosure

I am a trained herbalist with a degree in Complementary and Alternative Medicine, I am not, however, a doctor. Posts in this blog are for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Before using any herbs, check for appropriate dosage, drug interactions, and contraindications. Information contained herein is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prescribe. Please consult your primary care physician regarding your specific health concerns.


References:

National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.  Explore Aromatherapy

Dorene Petersen.  Aromatherapy 101, ACHS 2015

E. Joy Bowles. The Chemistry of Aromatherapeutic Essential Oils. Allen & unwin, 2003.

Devon

Devon is a writer and author on subjects of holistic and sustainable living. She has a degree in Complementary and Alternative Medicine from the American College of Healthcare Sciences, and her first book, The Backyard Herbal Apothecary, was published by Page Street Publishing in Spring 2019. Devon's work outside of NittyGrittyLife.com can be seen at LearningHerbs.com, GrowForageCookFerment.com, AttainableSustainable.net, and in the magazine The Backwoods Home. Devon's second book, The Herbalist's Healing Kitchen, will be published Fall 2019.

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49 Comments

  • Kris Hughes March 5, 2017 at 1:02 am

    I have one further concern around the current mania for the over-use of EOs. That is the damage it is doing to the environment. A huge pile of plants go into just one little bottle of EO. This makes it potentially one of the most wasteful forms of herbalism. Not just the discarded plant matter, post distillation, but wasteful of the land required to cultivate the plants or of the natural areas that are disturbed by all that “sustainable wildcrafting” that happens to get the plant material to the stills.

    Perhaps we should be better stewards of this potentially powerfully healing plant medicine, and keep it in reserve for when we really need it.

    • Devon March 5, 2017 at 2:13 am

      this. This. THIS. I very, very much agree with you here. It one of the main reasons that I use them sparingly in practice — and why I avoid “exotic”, rare and otherwise low-yielding essential oils when I DO feel like a situation warrant essential oil use.
      I wanted so badly to touch on this subject, but, in the interest of brevity, I did not. The post was long winded as is, and the subject of sustainability is a WHOLE post itself. Thank you for commenting on such an important matter. I will be sure to cover this topic in a future post as well.

  • Ken Cheeseman March 5, 2017 at 9:52 pm

    I love this, I am a retired massage therapist and teacher. I have been trying to get people to understand that you can’t play around with EO’s .imagine doing a massage with relaxing oils and an hour later an energizing massage it may be all right for your first client but what about your second and what if one of them is pregnant. Then there’s the effect on the therapist, the atomized oil stays in the room and by the end of the day you may have been exposed to quite a mixture. Essential oils are a wonderful tool, but you have to know what you are doing, a two hour lecture or even a week on EO”s is not enough it’s only enough to get you started. To know how to properly use this medicine your should take an organic chemistry glass and a physiology class. If you don’t know what you are doing leave it to some one who does, maybe they can help you learn.

    • Devon March 5, 2017 at 10:40 pm

      Cheers to that Ken! My sister is a LMT and she has been asked to perform “Raindrop” therapy by several clients. Her response is a well advised “no way”… I very much worry about LMT’s risk of reaching toxic levels from conditions essential oil exposure.
      I concur on education — obviously. I have years of chemistry, microbiology, anatomy & physiology, phytochemistry, and pathology under my belt and I still feel like there is far more to learn… I feel like I cannot impress enough the importance of educated decision making. I am glad that my article is resonating with professionals and essential oil enthusiasts!

  • Nancy March 6, 2017 at 2:01 am

    Thank you so much for this article. I use herbs and some EO for my family. I’ve been extremely cautious with EO’s. I would never ingest them. The MLM drive me crazy even with good friends who sell them. I’m glad to see my concerns and cautions are valid. I most definitely have not studied as you have. I really appreciate your article.

    • Devon March 6, 2017 at 3:37 am

      Thank you Nancy! I hope to use my formal education to help others make informed decisions about their health — both as a practitioner and as an educator (through this blog and my other writings). I am so glad that you have been using essential oils cautiously. Your concerns are most definitely valid!!!

  • Betty White March 6, 2017 at 2:06 pm

    Thank you for this very informative article. I’ve always wondered about the pros and cons of EOs but could never quite found the information I needed. I’ve been looking for an EO to add to the coconut oil that I use in my hair but not sure what I can use.

    • Devon March 6, 2017 at 3:43 pm

      I am glad that you found the post helpful! There are certainly eo’s that you could add to your hair oil depending on what you want to achieve. Infusing oils with herbs is another option too – lavender for sensitive scalp, nettle for growth, chamomile for blondes, hibiscus for redheads, rosemary for dark hair, etc… Hmmmm, you have me thinking about new post ideas now1 😉

  • Emily (via Crunchy Mama Science) March 6, 2017 at 2:23 pm

    Yes! Thank you for this.

    • Devon March 6, 2017 at 3:38 pm

      You are very welcome!

  • Renee Kohley March 6, 2017 at 6:53 pm

    Nailed it 🙂 Thank you for you speaking the truth! Great post!

    • Devon March 6, 2017 at 7:29 pm

      Thank you, Renee!!!

  • megan March 6, 2017 at 10:18 pm

    very well said!!

    • Devon March 6, 2017 at 11:18 pm

      Thank you Megan!

  • Skye Gilkeson March 7, 2017 at 4:22 am

    Such a useful guide. I never knew how important the dilution was for essential oils. Thanks for sharing.

    • Devon March 7, 2017 at 3:31 pm

      Thank you! Dilution is so very important!

  • linda spiker March 7, 2017 at 3:14 pm

    Great stuff to know. I am an essential oil novice…

    • Devon March 7, 2017 at 3:32 pm

      I am glad you found my post useful! We ALL have so much to learn!

  • Emily @ Recipes to Nourish March 7, 2017 at 5:07 pm

    I love essential oils and have been using them for many years. I do believe they have a purpose and they are very concentrated and strong. I also believe in safely using them. I don’t ingest them but know there are some that are potent and helpful for healing for medicinal purposes. I mostly diffuse them and use them diluted with carrier oils.

    • Devon March 7, 2017 at 10:02 pm

      Thanks for reading Emily! They absolutely have a purpose and when used properly can be enormously therapeutic. I am glad that those like yourself have taken the time to learn how to use them correctly!

  • Anya March 8, 2017 at 3:00 am

    I cringe everytime someone tells me they take essential oils internally. Why, oh why? Love this post.

    • Devon March 8, 2017 at 4:48 am

      Indeed. Lots of cringing… Sadly, too many are just totally misinformed. Internal use is really something best left to when recommended by professionals. Thank you, Anya!

  • Megan Stevens March 8, 2017 at 7:03 pm

    Hi Devon, thank you. Do you EVER ingest EOs, and if so, when and how? I do blend one drop in the blender with warm liquids that are high fat, which I supposed was serving as a carrier oil. That one drop blends well into the base and seems to bless us. I appreciate your education and thoughts.

    • Devon March 9, 2017 at 12:04 am

      Hi Megan! To answer your question — we use essential oil internally VERY rarely in our home. I limit this to an enterically coated lavender essential oil capsules called Lavela, which we only use for acute abdominal cramping and moments of high anxiety/emotions. I have a client that has found the same product helpful for irritable bowel/diverticulitis. I know several people that have gotten candida issues under control with short-term oregano essential oil use.
      I do however think that you are on the right track using your essential oil in a high-fat emulsion (this is FAR safer than, say, in your drinking water) — I just wouldn’t recommend using it every day. Especially without knowing which essential oil you are using, I can’t say altogether whether its internal use, under the right circumstances, is safe. I hope that answers your question!!!

  • Melissa Coleman March 9, 2017 at 5:49 pm

    I LOVE this post! So much great info!! The dilution chart is great too. I was wondering if you have thoughts on diffuser necklaces? I am preggers and have been really sick… I was thinking of wearing lemon and peppermint on a necklace to constantly have the scent around me to ward of the nausea. I haven’t done much research on the safety of it, though. Any opinions?

    • Devon March 9, 2017 at 6:22 pm

      Thank you so much, Melissa! About the diffusers necklace — I am not terribly fond of the idea myself. Inhalation is the fastest delivery method to the bloodstream and constant exposure is something I don’t advocate for. That said, lemon is a pretty safe oil (except for phototoxicity), but I would substitute spearmint for the peppermint as it is safer for pregnant women. Have you tried a weak peach leaf tea for nausea? For those that find ginger too hot and spicy, peach leaf is a good alternative for morning sickness.

  • Chantelle March 10, 2017 at 10:43 pm

    Hello, as an aromatherapist in Australia i see the same issues here. Love this article, I feel very similar and will be sharing all over the place. Thanks

    • Devon March 11, 2017 at 2:30 am

      Thank you Chantelle! I am so glad that you found my article resourceful!

  • Cathy March 11, 2017 at 4:49 pm

    Thank you!!!! Love this post!

    • Devon March 11, 2017 at 5:42 pm

      You’re welcome Cathy! Thank you!

  • Shanna Ciano March 12, 2017 at 12:25 pm

    I know you purchase your oils wholesale but can you share the brand you use?

    • Devon March 12, 2017 at 3:45 pm

      Hi Shanna! The wholesaler that I purchase from is Liberty Naturals. However, they have a minimum order requirement. I purchase from Mountain Rose Herbs when I have a smaller order. Both companies are wonderful!

  • Debbie March 13, 2017 at 3:02 am

    I like hydrosols, much kinder to the environment, less potent and you can make them yourself!

    • Devon March 13, 2017 at 3:30 am

      I love hydrosols!!! I am planning a post on DIY hydrosols for this spring or early summer. I made a cucumber hydrosol a couple of summers ago when we were having record high heat and I was working every day outside — I swear that stuff saved me from heat induced mental meltdowns more times than I would like to admit. 😉

  • Cynthia March 14, 2017 at 1:37 am

    I’ve heard that diffusing essential oils can calm a dog with severe separation anxiety. Is this a bad idea?

    • Devon March 14, 2017 at 2:19 am

      Unfortunately, I have ZERO training in veterinary aromatherapy. I cannot say whether or not it is safe or effective due to the very different physiology involved. Perhaps it may be helpful, but you would want to check for canine contraindications for the essential oil used and avoid prolonged exposure.
      On a side note, the gal at our local feed store is a big proponent of canine homeopathy. Perhaps that is another avenue to look at. I had a large breed dog in his senior years with separation anxiety, so I feel your pain, Cynthia. Sorry I could not be of more help.

  • Julie March 14, 2017 at 11:40 am

    Thank you. Seriously, thank you for this
    article. This needed to be said. I appreciate you stepping up and speaking out about this subject.

    • Devon March 14, 2017 at 2:14 pm

      Thank you, Julie. I sure feel like I should have done it a lot sooner!

  • Meg @ Adventures in Verdance March 14, 2017 at 1:44 pm

    This post needed to happen soooooo hard. Thank you for writing this!

    • Devon March 14, 2017 at 2:17 pm

      Thanks Meg! After seeing such as largely positive response to my post, I wish I had written it sooner… But perhaps I wouldn’t have been adequately appalled enough for my message to be strong.

  • Teresa Lee March 15, 2017 at 1:04 am

    I’ve been trying to understand essential oils and was mainly concerned about how to know if what I buy is real or not, however this has been very helpful in my overall knowledge of how to use them. Thanks!

    • Devon March 15, 2017 at 2:01 am

      Thank you for reading, Teresa! I know how frustrating it is to try to discern the purity of an essential oil. The more information that a company shares on their labels or website like botanical names, country of origin, chemotype, extraction method, etc., — the more comfortable I am making my purchase with them. Good luck in your learning and always feel free to reach out me with questions!

  • Stacey March 16, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    Your post came across my Facebook feed from another blog I follow. I love everything about it, and you’ve gained another follower. I can’t wait to poke around your blog and see what other gems it contains!

    • Devon March 16, 2017 at 2:40 pm

      Thank you, Stacey! I am very fortunate to have my post be shared by other people in the blogging community! Psst, don’t poke too far back in the archives — my early photography is embarrassing! 😉

  • […] There’s An Essential Oil For That! Let me just clear the air here – I am a trained aromatherapist with a legitimate degree in Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (dual major in herbal medicine and aromatherapy).  I respect essential oils and use them in my practice when warranted.  They are not, however, and cure all.  Moreover, in the wrong hands, they can be dangerous.  Internal use should only be done under the guidance of a trained professional (if ever), dilution ratios must be observed for external application, and thorough knowledge of side effects, contraindications, and drug interactions is a must for safe essential oil use.  Just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it is safe, and one must always understand that if a substance is strong enough to help, it is strong enough to hurt.  Use caution and observe best practices when using essential oils.  For more information on essential oil safety, please see this post. […]

  • […] Lavender Essential oil: Lavender is both the essence of summer and a great little first aid essential oil.  Applied to mild topical burns (such as one might get stationed at the grill) or mixed into aloe to apply to reddened and chapped summer skin, lavender is cooling and analgesic.  Check out more on essential oil safety here. […]

  • Rahel October 18, 2017 at 8:47 am

    Very interesting and informative post- thank you!
    Although I would never have internally used essential oils, I do use them in our household.
    I use them for cleaning in the kitchen(tea tree), in my self made deodorant etc…
    I find your table very useful. I noted that I tend to use less than what you stated, but it is good to have a reference.
    Hope to learn more from your blog.
    Have a nice day,
    Rahel

    • Devon October 18, 2017 at 3:18 pm

      I am so glad that you found my post useful and informative. I really wanted to “right” a lot of the “wrong” information out on the great world wide web. It is so wonderfully refreshing to hear from folk like yourself that are using essential oils responsibly! I, too, find myself using less and less, especially as I get better at herbal infusions!

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    About Me

    About Me

    Meet the Nitty Gritty Mama, Devon!

    I am an herbalist, farmer, cook, and forager. I get my hands dirty and am not afraid to do things the "hard way". Sharing my Nitty Gritty Life with you! Read More

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