I’ve had a long journey with essential oils now with over a decade of personal use. And the more I learn about them, the more I realize how complicated and complex the wonderful world of essential oils are, and how much more I need to learn. My personal belief is that these very concentrated forms of herbs, spices, and plants are a powerful tool to use in pursuit of better health. But like all tools, it’s not one without risks.
I find this wonderful tool to be a fascinating resource for further research and personal use, but it’s so important to know how to use them properly!
Essential Oil Safety
Just because something is natural, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use proper caution in its use. Essential oil use is exploding, especially because of the efforts of distributors of two large companies who sell them. I’m so glad that the wonderful world of essential oils are reaching more people, but it is also alarming to see so much advice flying around about the use of essential oils when that advice doesn’t often take into consideration basic essential oil safety.
This isn’t to blame those whose enthusiasm for the healing power of essential oils leads them to give bad advice about usage. You will find no judgment from me as I’ve become aware of many of these safety issues myself only recently. The reason I became more aware of safety issues was because I was doing research on essential oil brands. I have been quietly using essential oils for years, but with so many people recently asking me about brands, or joining an essential oil distributor team, I knew I needed to gain a little more knowledge before jumping on board to anything. More on brands in a second, but first, here are some thoughts and resources on essential oil safety for you to consider. (This is in no way going over all of the safety issues – I’m simply trying to wet your appetite to gain more knowledge.)
Today’s post isn’t going over the healing power of essential oils, but don’t let my caution discourage you from discovering that side! We’ve had great results using them in our family.
If you are pregnant or have young children, use extra caution
I know that I have a lot of parents, and pregnant woman who read this blog. You need to know that what is perfectly safe for an adult to use, may not be safe for a child, especially a young child.
One example: Peppermint essential oil safety
One very common (and wonderful) essential oil is peppermint, and it’s often used liberally by essential oil advocates. However, there are some serious concerns about peppermint essential oils and infants and young children. It shouldn’t be used with children under the age of thirty months; it shouldn’t be directly applied to the chest or nasal area, or undiluted on the feet of children. Why? It could cause apnea (that is, it could cause your child to stop breathing) or glottal constriction. That’s scary.
Even for adults, large amounts of inhaled peppermint essential oil could cause nausea, dizziness, confusion, and muscle weakness.
Peppermint oil is the perfect example of how much more powerful the essential oil form is from the herb. Peppermint in its fresh form is not something we need to worry about (as long as we don’t have an allergy to it). Pregnant women and children can enjoy it in foods and beverages without a worry. However, it becomes a whole different story when in a more potent form.
Our scary experience with peppermint
I personally feel passionate about this issue after my then three year old daughter had trouble breathing after we lightly applied a “kid safe” commercial bug deterrent in her bedroom (one of the main essential oils used in the spray was peppermint) during a flea issue we were having. Despite being safe for “kids of all ages” she told us it made her have a hard time breathing, and we felt horrified! Thankfully, it just caused her discomfort, but we also had a newborn infant who could have suffered severe consequences if we had also used it in her room unwittingly.
So please friends, if you have young children, please, please, be cautious in the use of essential oils – even the ones that you have used for yourself for years successfully. Look at the end of this post for resources for child and pregnancy safety
Follow guidelines for diffusing essential oils
Before I became a complete crunchy mama, I loved lighting scented candles in our house to make our house warm and inviting. The crunchy mama’s alternative to toxic scented candles is often diffusing essential oils (which I find wonderful). However, note two things: Only use baby and child safe oils in your diffuser if they are around, and don’t diffuse too long. Generally, my understanding is that you should never diffuse more than an hour long of any essential oil, but some more potent oils or blends should only be diffused for 20 minutes!
Another issue with diffusing essential oils is pet safety. All animals can have severe reactions to certain essential oils, and I know that cats especially don’t have the capability to process many of the same oils we can safely use.
Be aware of a wide range of possible reactions
I also know that many of my readers are much more sensitive to foods (and herbs and spices) than the average consumer. So while this is important for everyone, it’s even more important for those more sensitive. You can have allergies and intolerances to any essential oil, just like you could do any food, herb, or spice. However, since essential oils are so potent, your reaction has the potential to be more severe.
If you think an oil is safe for you personally, but react more often to new products, I’d recommend using only a very small, very diluted amount to start with to test yourself.
Other reactions include skin irritation (in many different forms), and photosensitivity after using certain essential oils (most notably citrus-based oils), which can lead to very bad sunburns.
Personally, I found that even using the oils that were supposedly “safe” to use undiluted made me sensitized to them (that is, I started to react to them over time). Sadly, this may not have happened if I had diluted them properly. That’s another example of “bad essential oil advice” that I’ve seen. Often essential oils are not properly diluted and used in much too strong of doses. I’ve seen a wide variety of essential oils dropped neat into open mouths and used neat on skin when it never should have been. One should fully understand that this could lead to harm, not healing.
Another possible negative effect of essential oils are the fact that many are mucous membrane irritants – that is they can have a drying and irritating effect on your eyes, nose, mouth, and private parts. Another reason to be cautious taking them orally, and even putting them in your bath. Some should never be used in the bath, and all should first be diluted with milk or a type of regular oil before being added (and to be extra cautious, you should add after you’ve gotten into the bath).
The good news
But there is good news in all of this. Most of the “best practices” for essential oils mean that you use a lot less of the oil! This can help stretch your essential oils out to last much longer (and save you a lot of money).
Quality does matter (and why that doesn’t mean we should war over brands)
Over and over again, when reading about essential oil safety, it became apparent that essential oil quality is important for safety. And here’s where it becomes easy to enter the “essential oil brand wars”. Everyone seems to have a favorite and is convinced that their brand is superior. I’ve spent so many countless hours researching brands, going in circles, and even came this close to signing up with a certain company. But in the end, with new information, I decided not too (I’m not comfortable sharing that information at this time, but it was enough to make me back down from that decision for now, despite still being willing to buy certain oils from both companies for personal use).
I see two extremes of misinformation about this online. One being that only their company can be trusted over all of the others. The truth of the matter is, there are many wonderful essential oil companies. Brand loyalty can ignore that reality, and ignore the value of excellent oils available for less expense.
On the other side, you see people saying “all brands are pretty much the same.” It is very true that many brands (yes, even the biggest brands) are all buying some of their essential oils from the same source, but selling at widely different prices. It’s also true that some independent tests done on single bottles of oils from a wide variety of brands showed similar purity, once again despite a wide variety of prices on the bottles. The problem with this view is that it appears that most essential oil experts not affiliated with any company specifically say that there are issues of purity, which lead to safety concerns with essential oil use. It’s over-simplifying the issue to make claims of all brands being equal.
I’m not ready to throw my weight behind any specific essential oil company as of yet, but I do try to buy from companies that work hard to properly test each and every batch of oil before they sell it.
Meanwhile, the most important thing you can do is to educate yourself on how to use them properly, as even the best brands can cause harm if improperly used. I think reading some of this basic information should be required before anyone uses essential oils! I know I would have benefited.
- Essential Oil Safety from the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy
- Safe use of essential oils during Pregnancy (PDF file)
- Essential Oil Safety: This book is for the serious essential oil user, and is very expensive. However, it’s considered the best resource on the topic. I don’t own it yet, but do own this more reasonably priced, user friendly book that covers at least the basics.
COMMENT POLICY ON THIS POST: I am not interested in starting a comment led essential oil brand war on this post talking about why I don’t want to be part of that war. 😉 I know that many people are passionate about their favorite brand, but let’s focus on our passion for essential oils and safely using them! Comments may be deleted if they are too inflammatory, or are wanting to try to sell/promote a certain brand (it’s fine to say what brands you like to use, just avoid saying things like “brand X is the only good company”).