Risks and Dangers of Essential Oils

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Warning- risks of essential oild and how to use them safely
Wellness Mama » Blog » Natural Remedies » Risks and Dangers of Essential Oils

Essential oils are all the rage lately, and with good reason. They are, in a sense, a pharmaceutical grade natural remedy with incredible power. But with great power comes great responsibility, and there are many essential oil resources online giving worrisome blanket advice about their use.

Don’t get me wrong. I love oils and I use them daily. Most often, I use them diluted in natural beauty or natural cleaning recipes, but I also use them aromatically and therapeutically at times.

Because of the strength of essential oils, I am cautious of over-using them and want to make sure that my family always uses them safely. Here are some important things to know about essential oils (and of course, check with a certified herbalist, aromatherapist or doctor) before using them.

Essential Oils are Highly Concentrated

Did you know that it takes:

  • 256 pounds of peppermint leaf to make one pound of peppermint essential oil
  • 150 pounds or more of lavender flowers to make one pound of lavender essential oil
  • Thousands of pounds of roses to make 1 pound of rose essential oil

Essential Oils contain very concentrated properties of the herb or plant they are derived from. A very small amount of EOs often has the qualities of many cups of herbal tea from the same plant. For instance, one drop of peppermint essential oil is equivalent to 26-28 cups of peppermint tea. This isn’t to say essential oils should not be used, but they should be used carefully, with proper education and in safe amounts. If you wouldn’t ingest dozens of cups of an herbal tea, you should probably think twice before consuming the equivalent amount of essential oils.

Essential Oils on the Skin

I use essential oils in many of my beauty recipes like lotion bars and herbal face oil but in diluted amounts. The key word is “diluted.”

In most cases, essential oils should not be used undiluted on the skin. There are exceptions, of course, but most of the time, essential oils should only be used undiluted under the care and guidance of a trained medical or aromatherapy practitioner. Due to the small molecular size of essential oils, they can penetrate the skin easily and enter the bloodstream.

As a general rule, essential oils should be diluted in a carrier oil like coconut oil or almond oil in a 3-5% solution. On  practical level this is 3-5 drops of essential oils per teaspoon of carrier oil (and much less if using on a baby or child).

Undiluted use on the skin can cause irritation or an allergic reaction in some people, and I’ve even read cases of someone getting a permanent sensitivity to a certain oil after using it undiluted on broken skin. Some oils, like lavender, rose and chamomile are typically considered safe for undiluted skin use, but I’d still personally dilute them (most of these are expensive oils and would be costly to use undiluted anyway).

I personally test any essential oil, diluted, on my arm before using on a larger part of my body. Some essential oils are considered ok to use undiluted on the skin if an individual isn’t sensitive to them, but again, always check with a qualified practitioner first.

From a personal perspective, I have first hand experience with the potential problems with undiluted skin exposure. I tried a new massage therapist in our small town since she had a special deal for “aromatherapy” massage. I assumed this meant that there would be essential oils in a diffuser during the massage. To my surprise, as the massage began I felt drops on my back. I realized a few seconds later that she was pouring essential oils on my back… a lot of them. I asked her what oils she was using and she assured me that they were safe, but I got a headache soon after.

In all, she probably poured 80+ drops of undiluted essential oils on my back. I had shivers and a headache for the rest of the day and a large red spot on my back (12 inches in diameter) that lasted several days. Certainly, I should have asked her to stop instead of just asking what the oils were, but what shocked me was that she did not ask if she could use essential oils on me, she did not ask if I was pregnant or had a health condition first and I found out after that she was not even a trained massage therapist or aromatherapist but that she had just “invented” the technique as a way to therapeutically use essential oils.

Again, I should have acted differently and probably asked to see her massage license first, but my experience with this amount of essential oils on the skin was not a positive one.

Bottom Line: Exercise caution and do your research before using essential oils on the skin, even undiluted.

Photosensitivity of Certain Oils

I always include a caution on my recipes that include citrus oils that they may make the skin more sensitive to the sun. These oils have certain constituents that can make the skin more sensitive to UV light and can lead to blistering, discoloration of the skin or burning more easily from minor sun exposure.

Though the risk of photosensitivity or phototoxicity varies based on the way the oil was distilled, oils generally considered photosensitive are: orange, lime, lemon, grapefruit, and bergamot.

Internal Use of Essential Oils

This will be a controversial point, but many essential oils are not safe for internal use and others should be used with extreme caution. Since essential oils are the equivalent of 10-50 cups of herbal tea (depending on the herb) or 20x the recommended dose of an herbal tincture of the same herb, they should only be taken internally in situations where they are absolutely needed and with extreme care (and under the guidance of a trained professional).

Here’s the thing- essential oils are extremely potent plant compounds that can have a very dramatic effect on the body. Many online sources tout their “antibacterial, antimicrobial, antiviral and antifungal” properties. You know what is teeming with many types of bacteria? Your gut.

Research is emerging constantly about our extremely diverse gut microbiomes, but we do not fully understand them yet. We do know that gut health drastically affects other aspects of health and that imbalances in the gut can cause problems in the skin, brain and other parts of the body. The effects of essential oils on gut bacteria have not been well studied yet and the very real antibacterial properties of essential oils may kill many types of bacteria in the gut (including beneficial and necessary bacteria).

In fact, the studies conducted about the antibacterial properties of essential oils compare them to antibiotics and suggest that they may be an effective alternative to antibiotics (here’s one study).

Antibiotics can be life-saving and necessary in some cases (they saved my husband’s life several years ago) but they should not be used regularly, preventatively or without the oversight of a medical professional. If essential oils can act in the same way as antibiotics, we should exercise the same caution in using them internally.

In most cases, some of the same benefits of an essential oil (taken internally) can be obtained by using the herb itself (fresh or dried) or a tea or tincture of that herb.

Many essential oils are considered “GRAS” or Generally Recognized as Safe for food and cosmetic use. However, most essential oils have not been studied, especially in concentrated internal amounts. Things like vinegar, salt and baking soda also are given this status, but that doesn’t mean they should be consumed regularly or in large amounts. Always do your research first!

Essential Oils During Pregnancy or Nursing

Essential oils can affect hormones, gut bacteria and other aspects of health and extreme care should be used when taking them while pregnant or nursing.

There is evidence that essential oils can cross the placenta and get to the baby. The effects of essential oils can be compounded in utero and extreme care should be taken with essential oil use during pregnancy. Again, I’m not saying they should not be used during pregnancy, but that extreme care should be taken and research done first.

I personally would not take any essential oil internally during pregnancy (or even while nursing). At these times, I stick to aromatherapy and very diluted use of approved essential oils in skin care recipes and baths. I also always re-test an oil in a diluted skin test before using it during pregnancy.

Many oils are considered safe during pregnancy, especially after the first trimester (depending on the source), but again, I’d check with a professional and use caution with any herbs used during pregnancy. Even oils that are considered safe may be harmful to certain women and there is some speculation that the actions of some oils on hormones can cause dangerous hormone imbalances during pregnancy.

Oils Considered NOT Safe During Pregnancy

Aniseed, Angelica, Basil, Black pepper, Camphor, Cinnamon, Chamomile, Clary Sage (often used during labor by midwives safely), clove, fennel, fir, ginger, horseradish (should not be used by anyone), Jasmine, Juniper, Marjoram, Mustard, Mugwart (should not be used by anyone), Myrrh, Nutmeg, Oregano, Peppermint, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme, Wintergreen.

I would personally recommend checking with a doctor or midwife before taking an essential oils during pregnancy.

Peppermint essential oil may decrease milk supply while nursing, and as such, I avoid it topically while nursing.

Use on Babies and Children

This is one of the things that concerns me the most with a lot of the essential oil recommendations I see online. In my opinion, essential oils should never be given internally to children or used undiluted on the skin. They should be diluted  more than they are for adult application and care should be taken with any essential oils considered “hot” as they may cause damage to the skin.

In general, oils like lavender, chamomile, orange, lemon and frankincense are considered safe for diluted use on children, but I would personally still do a skin test and check with a doctor first.

Some oils have caused seizures in children and extreme caution should be used (this article from a naturopathic pediatrician explains more and gives some case studies– since people have commented, I want to mention that I do think her post is overly alarmist but she makes some good points as well). To clarify- these seizure reactions were rare and most were in people who were predisposed to seizures, but this still isn’t a risk I would take with small children.

Others, like peppermint, rosemary, eucalyptus and wintergreen should not be used around young children or babies. These herbs contain menthol and 1,8-cineole. These compounds can slow breathing (or even stop it completely) in very young children or those with respiratory problems. Of course, they should never be used internally or undiluted on the skin for children, but these particular oils warrant caution even for aromatic use. I would not personally ever use these oils on or around babies for this reason.

This article from the University of Minnesota cautions about the use of peppermint and similar oils in children under six, because: “Menthol-one of the major chemicals in peppermint oil-has caused breathing to stop in young children, and has caused severe jaundice in babies with G6PD deficiency (a common genetic enzyme deficiency) (Price & Price, 1999).”

Since the effects of essential oils are more concentrated on children, it is prudent to exercise extra caution when using essential oils on them. Personally, I stick to using safe essential oils in a diffuser or in very diluted amounts in beauty and cleaning products.

Important note to add: pets can be just as vulnerable.

Essential Oils in Plastics

Another thing that is not often mentioned is that essential oils should never be stored in plastic containers, especially in concentrated forms. Many essential oils can eat through plastics when undiluted, and even when diluted, they can degrade plastics over time.

I make homemade cleaners with essential oils in glass bottles for this reason (even though they are very diluted) and store homemade beauty products in glass whenever possible.

This caution also extends to other surfaces in the house, which I found out the hard way. A bottle of wild orange oil was left on a piece of homemade furniture in our house and when I picked it up the next day, it had stuck to the piece, pulling off the finish and stain when I picked it up. Apparently, there was a little bit of the oil still on the bottom of the bottle (likely from my hand when pouring it). Be extremely careful about leaving any oils, especially citrus oils, on wood or other stained surfaces.

The Good News

Though there are a lot of warnings about safe use of essential oils, they are wonderful natural remedies when used correctly. I hope that this post doesn’t discourage anyone from using essential oils, but rather encourages proper research and safety first.

I use essential oils almost daily, but I make sure to research each oil and its proper use first. It can also be really helpful to find a trained aromatherapist, herbalist or naturopathic doctor to ask specific questions about essential oils. It is also important to make sure any essential oils you use are organic and very high quality.

Safe Ways to Use Essential Oils:

At the end of the day, essential oils can be a great and safe natural remedy, if used safely. The main ways I use essential oils are:

I reserve undiluted skin use and internal use for times of real need when the benefits outweigh the risk and I avoid using essential oils in this way on babies/children or when I am pregnant.

What essential oils do you use? Have you ever had any negative effects from their use?

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Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. WellnessMama.com is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


498 responses to “Risks and Dangers of Essential Oils”

  1. Dorothy Avatar

    First off, thank you for the warning!! I would like to add from a midwife perspective, that I have seen Clary Sage used internally to induce labor that turned out to cause a still birth. It was a new fad in the community to take it internally at a certain rate, claiming to make easier, smoother births. It worked! It worked great… this first time mom had a very smooth labor and called the midwife near the end. But no heart tones were found when the baby had seemed perfectly normal the day before. There was no other reason that was found to have caused the death.
    Please don’t use oils internally during pregnancy!!

  2. Nancy Hoffman Avatar
    Nancy Hoffman

    It’s a billion dollar industry that no one dares to speak out about. EO’s are VOCs (viotile organic compounds) that are heavily regulated yet EO’s get a pass. They were used by predominantly royalty in ancient times, were not what is being sold today, and were also used in burials to aid in mummification. My friend listened to a doterra “expert” rep, pulled all plug in air fresheners, and candles out of her home… then 2 months later her 2 year old had a seizure and will never be the same…. never have the life he deserved. She has a heavy cross to bare, blames herself for not doing research, and she now knows her candles and air fresheners had hardly any VOC’s compared to EO’s. Wherever big money is involved honest research is silenced and buried by google but invest the time and you can find it. A lot of scientific papers predicting we will see the negative results of the use of EO’S in the next 10-20 years especially in children. Those who use and sell them brutally attack anyone, including my friend, that speak out against them. It’s quite disgusting really. Even the best platforms have been silenced by fear. Livelihood seemingly far more important then truth.

  3. Emily Avatar

    So happy to find this article. I know it’s old and I am not sure you will read this, but it helps me TODAY.
    This past winter, I took the dive into EO: topical, aroma, and ingesting. Membership to oils delivered each month, etc. Well, three weeks ago I broke out into massive hives around my neck, I blamed a new sunscreen. Urgent care, steroids oral and topical, keep the hives at bay, but still seemed mysterious. Then last night, I dyed my hair at home, we are still being careful about being out-n-about there is a real health crisis and it is not my skin nor my roots. Same hives appeared at the base of my neck and ears. I am not as careful as a salon, and have colored at home several times, same product and never had this response. ALL night I said something is missing, what is missing: there is more going on, Googled: do essential oils make skin more sensitive, and bingo found this great piece. Thank you for breaking it down, especially sun sensitivity, nowhere on my essential oil site, is that mentioned. Now, to pull back on the oils and maintain balance in the world of what is labelled healthy and what is healthy for my sensitive skin. thank you.

  4. Marcie Avatar

    What is good home made solution to use to prevent tick bites. We are constantly get ticks on us. Please help. Thank you. Can you please notify me my email

  5. Olivia Avatar

    Could you recommend a good EO to use in my blend of one teaspoon of castor oil and two teaspoons of sweet almond oil that I use for OCM(Oil Cleansing Method)? I have combination skin but more towards oily. I was thinking about using tea tree, rosemary or lavender. TIA!

    1. Sarita Avatar

      I read a scientific study showing that important flora in the mouth that keep teeth and gums healthy are disturbed by essential oils, so am not sure you really need it… you might want to do your own research on this.

  6. Claudia Avatar

    Is it okay to be applying black pepper oil directly on the scalp? If used in conjunction with castor oil, should it be in a specific ratio to avoid adverse effects? Both were recommended for thinning hair (not sure if it’s helpful if you suffer from female-pattern baldness as I do), but when I did it and left the blend in for 60 minutes the first time, 30 minutes the second time and followed with shampooing (after initially applying just the black pepper oil to the scalp on a separate occasion), it looked as if my “parts” that I have on my scalp got wider and the bald spots bigger. Internet searches don’t come up with anything negative about the black pepper as a stand-alone other than skin sensitivities, and nothing negative comes up when discussing using it in conjunction with the castor oil. I did read that some people who used castor oil directly on their eyebrows experienced brow hair fallout. I thought I noticed that initially when I tried using the castor oil directly in my hair (letting it sit for 30 minutes, then shampooing), it appeared too strong and seemed to have a similar reaction as I described earlier, just not as dramatic. Not sure where else to turn and if people just aren’t reporting such risks of essential oils used as topicals.

  7. Kirstyn Avatar

    I’ve used Plant Therapy essential oils and NOW essential oils exclusively as they are the brands I trust the most. I’ve both diffused in an essential oil diffuser and applied to either my skin or hair in the proper dilution percentages depending on the end goal, using a mild carrier oil like grapeseed, almond or occasionally fractionated coconut oil. I never experienced better sleep, improved hair or skin, tranquility, or any other claimed potential benefits. Only the occasional headache (migraines w/nausea, using the smallest drop of ylang ylang)…As I’ve used essential oils like lavender and clary sage with my diffuser hoping to get a more relaxing night’s sleep, it has not really helped at all after about one year, and I can’t imagine it ever will. I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. Maybe they work well for others, just not for me.

  8. Barb H. Avatar
    Barb H.

    Thank you so much for this article!! It is great to hear a voice that has so much reach speaking out against the proliferation of dangerous EO use. I am so tired of hearing the phrase “you can use it internally if it is organic 100% therapeutic grade EO”. No. Therapeutic grade is a marketing term made up by one of the big MLM companies it has absolutely no quantitative value! I really find it odd that people are willing to take health advice from salespeople and not certified aromatherapists. Again thank you for this very sound article. Hopefully it will help save some people from very dangerous practices.

  9. Katee Avatar

    It quite honestly is hard for me to believe that one drop of mint essential oil in my (glass) water bottle that is 20 ounces would be problematic. Thank you for the info, though. 🙂

  10. Nicole Avatar

    Hi! I’ve noticed that black pepper is listed as an oil not safe to use during pregnancy. Ever other site I have researched states that it IS safe, but black seed is not. Can you send me a link for black pepper safety? I love this oil for a variety of uses and just want to make sure.

  11. Choong Avatar

    Hi…I.would like to ask if there is permanently alergic and having red spot plus itchiness, what should I do in order to stop that?

  12. Angela Avatar

    Thanks for posting this article! I found it very interesting. I’m very concerned because I was told an EO I’ve been using on my wrists each day was fine. I was told it didn’t need to be diluted. I was using Vetiver by YL. Should I be worried? Also, if I put a couple drops of an EO in a bath, is that fine? Does it matter what scent?

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