Recently there has been a lot of information on the internet and social media about essential oils but not much about essential oil safety. Generally, the information is in the form of pretty aggressive marketing campaigns from multi-level marketing companies who are more interested in their bottom line than your health. And sales are booming, with sales of essential oils increasing by almost 40% a year! Because of the marketing structure, people without any formal training in aromatherapy (or any health modality for that matter) are happily selling essential oils and blends of oils to anyone who they can convince to buy them. My concern, as a health professional who is qualified in both herbal medicine and aromatherapy, is the promotion of UNSAFE use of the oils.
ONE PROBLEM IS THAT COMPANIES OVERSTATE THEIR POTENTIAL
What makes an Essential Oil Unsafe?
There are two main factors – one is the way an oil is used and the other is the type of oil, which includes the cultivar as well as the purity of it.
Essential oils are extremely strong concentrates of the plant from which they are produced. Thinking about something like Oregano, a common kitchen herb: in your kitchen you might use 1 teaspoon of dried herbs, or 2 to 4 teaspoons of fresh herbs in a dish to feed 4-6 people. It takes about 1 kg of oregano to produce around ½ mL (10 drops) of the essential oil. (DOI: 10.1080/13102818.2009.10817662)
But it Says: “Therapeutic” Grade.
Bad news: There is no such thing as therapeutic grade, nor perfumery grade or clinical grade. These are terms used to sell the product, rather than being grades that are independently verified. Marketing often includes claims of the “medical uses” of the essential oils but these are actually things that the herb has been, or is used for. This does not necessarily mean the essential oil does the same thing.
In 2014, the FDA sent warning letters to two large companies marketing via MLM/direct-selling (doTERRA and Young Living) for making unsubstantiated claims that their oils could treat everything from herpes to Ebola.
Is it Okay to Take Them?
In France there are some medical doctors that use essential oils and herbs as well as conventional drugs in their treatments and sometimes they will use essential oils intensively. Firstly, they are medical doctors and secondly, they have had in depth training into the pharmacological properties of the oils and know the risks and benefits.
Sellers might use the term “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS) for an essential oil. This means that the oil has been approved by a regulatory body, such as the FSANZ (Food Standards Aust and New Zealand) and/or the EPA or FDA. Such GRAS status is explicitly for the use of essential oils in food flavourings, not for any other use, either topical or for medicinal purposes. GRAS status does NOT mean this essential oil is safe to ingest, it means that the specific essential oil is safe to use in food flavours, the concentrations of which are very low and are tightly regulated.
While this culinary use in a manufactured food item does result in ingestion this does not mean you should add essential oils to your food or your drinks. Neither does it equal “safe to use as a medicine”.
EVEN THOUGH THEY ARE NATURAL PRODUCTS
THEY CAN DO REAL DAMAGE
So, what Can Happen?
The most common adverse effect from ingestion is simply stomach irritation. Mucous membranes are quite sensitive to essential oils. You should NOT put them in your mouth unless they are part of a manufactured food item or you are under the care/guidance of an appropriately qualified health care practitioner.
There are several regulatory authorities that do issue guidelines for to what extent essential oils should be diluted for topical application. This particularly applies to product manufacturers, so for example if you’re using lemongrass oil in a product, the IFRA (International Fragrance Association) guideline for lemongrass oil is 0.7% to avoid allergic reactions.
Accidental use can lead to devastating effects. In 2004 a man used a premade mix of essential oils in his eye, believing they were eye drops. The cornea was severely damaged. The same essential oil mix was used, neat, in the nostrils of an infant – to help clear an infection. The child immediately showed signs of respiratory distress and was taken to the emergency room. Two hours after admission his eyes became inflamed, and examination revealed bilateral superficial corneal scarring.
Are they Safe to Use on my Skin?
Used properly, good quality, unadulterated essential oils have a high degree of safety. There are three types of adverse reactions when essential oils are used on the skin. One is phototoxicity which has always been widely recognized as a risk by trained aromatherapists. Phototoxicity only applies to a very small number of oils (mostly citrus fruit oils) and if they are applied to the skin in very high dilution (or a lower dilution but are on medications that also increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun) and then you go out in the sun, you can have a very, very bad reaction. In there was a case report of a woman getting third-degree burns after applying doTERRA citrus essential oils and then going to a hot yoga session and a session on a tanning bed!
“.. A GROWING NUMBER OF CONSUMERS WITH CHEMICAL
BURNS, ALLERGIC REACTIONS, RESPIRATORY ISSUES,
AND OTHER SIDE EFFECTS FROM USING ESSENTIAL OILS”
The other two types of reaction are allergy and irritation. And allergy and irritation are not the same thing. They are different, but they look similar. If you have an irritation reaction once you stop using the product and remove the oil from the skin, then the reaction dies down very quickly. With an allergic reaction it tends to remain inflamed for many hours, sometimes longer than that, and it will come back every time you use the same product in the same (or even a weaker) dilution. What has happened is your immune system has created antibodies to what you have used, and you can assume that you will have that allergic reaction for life now. So, you really want to avoid this happening. If you were to use lemongrass undiluted on your skin, you increase the risk of an allergic reaction. You may not have one, but the risk increases greatly of that happening. And the risk increases the more often you use the lemongrass.
There are a number of other oils that are high risk and there are guidelines for all of these; sensible guidelines where if you dilute it sufficiently the risk is reduced to being a negligible risk. There is no such thing as zero risk in this world, but it is prudent to reduce the risk to an absolute minimum.
As well as adverse skin reactions, there is also the possibility of interactions with medications, the chance of risks during pregnancy and a higher risk for children and the infirm, frail and elderly.
If you want to read more about allergic and toxic reactions, this article is great. Warning: Images are frightening.
What to do if you have an adverse reaction
Discontinue the use of that essential oil immediately.
Report the reaction via the Centre for Adverse Reactions
Look out for such emotive wording as “nourishing to the brain” and “must be used consistently”. Beware instructions that promote the undiluted use (of even one drop) directly on the skin or for ingestion. Note that these products are being promoted primarily by people with no formal training in health, herbs, nutrition or even aromatherapy.
If you want to study aromatherapy in New Zealand, go to http://www.aromaflexacademy.com/