Are Essential Oils Safe? What the Experts Want You to Know
More and more Americans are looking to alternative health to support physical and emotional conditions. Many natural remedies claim to have fewer side effects and tout a holistic approach, treating the root cause instead of merely managing symptoms. Essential oils are just one natural health measure gaining popularity among Americans.
As interest in natural health has expanded, so has the essential oil industry. One report claims that in 2015, the global market for essential oils was valued at over $7.5 billion. The U.S. alone is expected to reach over $10 billion in essential oil sales by the year 2022.
But what exactly are essential oils? The University of Maryland Medical Center defines essential oils as “concentrated extracts taken from the roots, leaves, seeds or blossoms of plants.”
That leads to the next logical question many are asking: Are essential oils safe? We enlisted some experts to provide some insight into the answer. But before we get too far into that, it’s important to first understand how people are using essentials oils.
How are essential oils used?
Though they are known for their scents, uses for essential oils go far beyond just fragrance. Many people apply the oils topically, diffuse them or even ingest them for health and wellness purposes. It’s important to note, however, that while many report health benefits from these oils, they should not be used as a substitute for medical care.
From treating infections to helping with relaxation, here are a few reported benefits of essential oils:
Health and wellness
Dr. Kathy Taghipour, a Dermatologist at Highgate Dermatology, says there are a number of health benefits for essential oils. Some oils, such as citrus, peppermint or lavender oils, can reportedly improve immunity, help with recovery from illness and even help deal with infection. Other oils, like peppermint or fennel, help with digestion-related issues, and there are even some oils thought to support hormonal balance.
Emotional support and relaxation
Relaxation is probably one of the most popular uses for essential oils. Anecdotal evidence has shown some oils, such as lavender or cedar wood, can be effective in helping insomnia. Other oils are reportedly emotionally supportive and can be used as complementary therapy for those with anxiety or depression.
Migraines and headaches
Headaches are another issue thought to be remedied by essential oils. Dr. Mark Khorsandi, a surgeon at The Migraine Relief Center in Houston, says there is anecdotal evidence showing positive effects of essential oils on patients dealing with migraines.
“Essential oils do have positive feedback from many migraine sufferers. Rosewood, lavender, peppermint and eucalyptus oil are all stress-reducing and anti-inflammatory oils,” Khorsandi explains.
“Whether massaged into the head and neck, or diffused in special systems, there have been no negative or safety concerns for these oils.”
Are essential oils safe?
Though many people find essential oils to be helpful for both physical and emotional conditions, there is little evidence beyond anecdotes for their effectiveness, simply because they have not been studied much. So are essential actually oils safe?
Like any other product, it’s important to be mindful of safety when it comes to essential oils. Although many oil users assume oils are safe because they are natural, this is not always the case, according to Jonas Sickler, Director of ConsumerSafety.org.
“Essential oils are not regulated by the FDA, meaning companies don't need approval before bringing these products to market,” Sickler explains. He says because they are natural products, consumers often have the impression that they are much safer than those developed in a laboratory. “But remember,” he warns, “not all oil and plant extracts are good—think poison ivy and THC.”
In short, the safety of using essential oils is a bit of a mixed bag. They’re an unregulated product that some find positive effects from using, so it’s best to tread carefully.
How to use essential oils safely
If you want to take advantage of their benefits, start with safety. Here are some best practices from professionals you can consider for using essential oils safely.
Always dilute essential oils before using them on your skin.
Essential oils are more potent than you might think. Always use a carrier oil such as coconut oil, olive oil, jojoba oil or almond oil when applying them directly to your skin. You can also purchase essential oil products that have been pre-diluted—just check the label before you purchase.
Be careful using essential oils on babies.
Because oils are so potent and powerful, babies and children are extra sensitive to them. It’s important to read up on dilution ratios and avoid applying any oils “neat” (without a carrier oil) on kids. There are some oils that can be very dangerous for little ones. The University of Minnesota recommends avoiding peppermint oil, since it contains menthol, which has been known to stop breathing in young children and can also affect jaundiced babies. Khorsandi says it may be safer to stick with coconut oil, which has a number of health and benefits.
Test your oils topically first.
Khorsandi said some oils can cause a serious skin reaction. Protect your skin and always spot test before using an essential oil, no matter how gentle you think the oil might be. Simply find a small patch of skin and try one drop of diluted oil. If you don’t notice a skin reaction, the oil may be safe to use on your skin when properly diluted.
Always read the label.
Use common sense and pay close attention to the label, just like you would with any other health product. Some essential oils are photosensitive, meaning you should avoid sun exposure for 12 hours after applying. Other oils are never safe to take internally. Pay attention to labels, and if you are still unclear about how to use an oil, ask a healthcare professional.
Use caution during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Some health professionals may recommend gentle essential oils, like lavender for relaxation, during pregnancy. However, Taghipour said pregnant women need to be especially careful, since some essential oils can disrupt hormone levels in mothers and harm the fetus. Ask your healthcare provider which oils are safe to use. Since there is very little clinical research in the use of essential oils during pregnancy, you may feel more comfortable avoiding them altogether.
Pay attention to what you buy.
When it comes to essential oil safety, quality matters. Some oils contain synthetic ingredients or may be diluted with vegetable oil to cut down on cost. The University of Minnesota says, “Look for language indicating purity on the label. It is not necessarily bad if the label indicates, for example, that the bottle contains 20% essential oil and 80% vegetable oil. If you think you are starting with 100% essential oil and you are not, however, you may be disappointed with the results. On the other hand, if you are starting with professional-quality essential oils, which are generally much more concentrated, you need to dilute them to be safe.”
Involve your doctor.
Though essential oils may have physical and emotional beneficial properties for some, they are not a replacement for medication or other treatments. Before using an essential oil or any other natural remedy for a health condition or emotional support, consult with your doctor.
Stay on top of health and wellness trends
If you are interested in learning more about health and wellness, there are plenty of resources online. Start by checking out our article, "21 Wellness Blogs to Help You Stay Happy and Healthy."