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. Sara Avatar

    Thank you for posting this! I think many people think that because something is natural and plant based then it is safe and gentle compared to conventional products. I had one reader ask me one time why there was a warning label on her essential oil bottle when she thought they were supposed to help not harm. I would like to link back to this post in one of mine, if that’s ok with you.

  2. Sarah Avatar

    I have had 12 years of headaches, starting with a constant, daily headache my first year in high school. Come to find out, peppermint essential oil can take the pain away and reverse my headaches. I use it on my jaw, base of the skull, forehead, and neck when I get a headache, and then I take a steam shower and put a few drops on the shower itself to be able to breathe it in. This allows me to cope without having to take Advil! Love it! It also helps take the bite out of cramps. (P.S.- I’ve now discovered long-term gut and hormone issues that seem to be the missing link. The peppermint EO is a great short-term solution, though!).

  3. Ashley Avatar

    I love using essential oils but have been growing more and more concerned and worried as I have three kids under the age of three. I mainly use them in my cleaning supplies and in a diffuser. I love Thieves, but it does contain Eucalyptus which has menthol. I’ve always been told that Thieves is great to spray (diluted) on children’s feet but now I’m not sure. Do you use Thieves on your kids?

  4. Dori Avatar

    Such an informative post! Thank you so much for your research. I appreciate all the valuable information I have read on your blog.

  5. Kate Avatar

    I always wondered if the caution against using “internally” included toothpaste or oil pulling use. Thanks for clearing that up!

  6. Jen Avatar

    Generally, I agree with everything you wrote. However, I still think you’re a little careless in your treatment of EOs with babies. EOs should not be used topically on infants at all, as their organs just aren’t ready to process them yet. In EO land, there’s a big difference between a baby and a child and I think they need to be addressed separately.

    1. Sue Avatar

      This is incorrect information: “I’ve even read cases of someone getting a permanent skin reaction to a certain oil after using it undiluted on broken skin.” Sensitization is not a permanent skin reaction, it is a systemic immune system reaction. You don’t just get a rash when you get sensitized, you can go into shock and stop breathing. And it can happen from using ANY essential oil undiluted, including lavender and tea tree. There are no essential oils which should be used undiluted unless the patient is under the care of a Qualified Aromatherapist because there is always a risk to any undiluted use, and they should be fully informed of this so they can evaluate whether the risk of a lifetime sensitized, is worth any potential benefit of using the EO undiluted. Usually, the risk outweighs the benefit.

      I agree your safety information regarding children is inaccurate. Most professionals recommend not to use any essential oils on a baby under age two without professional supervision, and under age six and under, only certain child safe oils…not just anything an adult would use but diluted. I encourage you to visit the professional resource on this web site and amend your article accordingly.

  7. Tonia Avatar

    Thanks for this info – I just started using essential oils and I’m trying to be cautious with my use. This is very helpful!

  8. Angela Avatar

    Hi Katie,
    Can I safely use orange, lemon or lime organic oil in my soda stream seltzer? I usually use orange bc the lemon and lime are so strong. If I can use them, is diluting them into 8 oz of water enough of a carrier? Thank you for your blog. I’m from Texas and have 5 kids ages 10 to 2, so I feel esspecially in awe of you!!! I’ve learned so much from you and your commenters since May when I listened to the book, The Big Fat Surprise, and it turned my understanding of a healthy diet upside down. I heartily recommend that book to all your readers because she throroughly explains the adulterated science and politics behind the nutritional guidelines that have taken our country substantially (albeit mistakenly) off course from a healthy diet. I listened to it on AUDIBLE on my phone.

    1. Patricia Avatar

      Mixing essential oils into water does not dilute them; all they do is sit as little drops on the surface of the water, so when you drink the water, the undiluted drops stick to your mucous membranes. This can cause as much damage and discomfort as taking the essential oils neat on the tongue. Some suggestions for emulsifiers are full fat milk or half and half, honey or any vegetable oil. The only one that might work with water is honey…
      And for the Soda Stream, are you putting he essential oils into the carbonated water after its done, or into the machine itself? The essential oils are caustic and might well damage the mechanism.

      1. Donna Avatar

        I’m sorry but the comments about drinking citrus oils in water are incorrect. I drink citrus oils on a daily basis! It doesn’t sit on the top water and burn my mouth and insides… it just tastes good and is good for my liver and kidneys and everything else. I put a drop of Peppermint on my tongue if I have an upset stomach or to just freshen my breath after lunch. PURE solvent FREE oils are GRAS… and please remember the government is who allows the GRAS rating… not that companies!

        I am very shocked and saddened by all the fear mongering and misinformation being given here…

        1. Katie - Wellness Mama Avatar

          Please provide legitimate sources to back up any safety claims, as your own experience is not proof of safety. I’m glad you have had good results with your oil use, but that doesn’t make them safe to ingest.

  9. Erin Avatar

    Thank you! I’m so glad you posted this article! I’m very new to essential oils and have been trying to find good quality information about oils. Most of the information out there that I could find was from the individual companies selling the oils. Thank you for listing medical sources and sources for non-biased places! I love your site and visit it almost daily!

  10. Kate M Avatar

    Great post! I have a question. I’m 13 weeks pregnant, and am fighting two topical staph infections. I’ve wanted to avoid antibiotics and steroids while pregnant, so I’ve taken crushed garlic internally, and diluted tea tree oil topically twice daily. Most research I’ve seen said tea tree is generally considered safe while pregnant, but I’d love some input! My infections have all but cleared, so I’m happy to report that it has worked!

      1. Kate Avatar

        Thanks for getting back to me! I checked with my midwife, and she thought it was fine as long as I was diluting it. I hope to be done with it soon regardless!

      2. Patricia Avatar

        I think it’s important to note that health care professionals have no idea about essential oils. And in my experience, most of them don’t believe they have any therapeutic value at all. So, sharing with your healthcare practitioner that you’re using essential oils won’t be very helpful. Always consult a trained Professional or Clinical Aromatherapist. Find them listed on the NAHA or AIA sites.

  11. Janis Avatar

    Thank you so much for sharing this! I recently just found Essential Oil University on Facebook, which echos your sentiments. I was concerned by the MLM companies pushing their brand and suggesting it was safe to drop it under the tongue, etc.

  12. christie Avatar

    Katie- I was just going to ask you an essential oil question when I saw this post. Thanks so much for the information. I am learning. I was wondering if you could answer what brand of essential oils you use? I have some Doterra but was thinking of ordering from MountainRoseHerbs would you recommend their oils?
    Also if their is one book to buy about essential oils, their uses, and dangers what book would you recommend?
    Thanks so much, love your site, look at it almost daily, use recipes and share on FB.

  13. Lisa D Avatar

    I appreciate this article so much. I am an eo user, and after many hours of study came to the same conclusions about safe usage of them. Our favorites are lavender and eucalyptus and lemon for cleaning.

  14. Jennifer Avatar

    This is a great and much needed perspective on essential oils. I’ve been quite alarmed at the rise in use, especially on babies and young children, that I’ve seen on social media.

    I think taking your health into your own hands is great, but just because things are natural doesn’t mean they are nontoxic or always safe at any concentration. Few consider the issues you’ve mentioned here nor the environmental impact of using so much of these herbs to produce incredibly concentrated tiny bottles of oils.

    Something you didn’t mention here which also belongs in this conversation is that many of the oils people use can be just as potent in their plant form. My sister, an acupuncturist and herbalist, talks a lot about this point since they would be safer (from a toxicity perspective), cheaper and more environmentally conscious.

    Thank you again for putting this information out there!

  15. Andrea Avatar

    Great post and I applaud you for writing it. The risks certain companies are encouraging untrained people to take scares me. I’ve known so many people who have been injured using oils “neat” or internally (and yes these were the “good” oils from mlm’s)
    Always remember oils are oils, the constituents are there no matter what brand it is and it’s the constituents that cause the reactions.

  16. Sarah Avatar

    Very useful information thanks,but recently I’ve purchased oregano oil can you suggest how to use it and is it safe to take it internally?

    1. Sue Avatar

      Read the label, is it oregano oil – an infused herbal extract of oregano in an oil like olive oil; sold as a dietary supplement with a proper Nutrition Label? Or is it pure Oregano essential oil, which is distilled? They are two different products and are chemically different with different uses, benefits and different risks. It is not wise to ingest oregano essential oil unless you are under the care of a Qualified Aromatherapist or licensed medical professional.

  17. Maria Avatar

    Thank you, this is a very helpful post! Essential oils being so potent, I’m always confused about all those recommendations to ingest them. I’ve personally decided not to use them even in my homemade toothpaste.

    I think it’s also important to note that essential oils are not safe for cats. A cat’s liver does not digest EOs, which is why they build up in the liver and may with time cause serious health issues. That’s why I’m not using EOs for my homemade cleaning products. Cats also have a very sensitive smell, so being in a room with an EO diffuser is not only unhealthy, but also very uncomfortable for them. I know there are people using EOs for treating cats – I think the risk is not worth taking.

    1. Marilena Avatar

      What about catnip and catnip oil? I can’t imagine it would be much different than peppermint. I believe they are in the same family.

  18. Jamie Avatar

    Thanks for the article! It’s funny because I was just checking out another blog about essential oils to avoid. Below is the link. The writer based her list off of scientific studies (I believe she’s a chemist and she has a beauty line) so you might enjoy reading it and talking with her. You are both so informed. I’m letting her know about this post too. I’m not trying to promote either. I love new resouses so I assume others do too. She list’s essential oils nobody should ever use, the EO’s not to be used during pregnancy, and the EO’s not to be used internally during pregnancy and why. I like how you stressed the point about how careful you have to be with taking them internally! Also, I totally understand not using any oil believed to be bad during pregnancy, data or no data. Here’s the link: https://bubbleandbee.blogspot.com/2010/08/essential-oils-and-pregnancy.html

  19. Sarah Avatar

    THANK YOU!!! I see so many people selling essential oils to their friends on Facebook claiming they are pharmaceutical grade and therefore safe it scares me! I trained with an internationally certified aromatherapist during a time where two very misinformed teenage girls tried to use an essential oil known to induce menstruation to end their pregnancies. Both died of organ failure, the oil they consumed would have been fatal even if they had only consumed a drop. Regardless of how anyone feels about their intentions it was tragedy. There is a reason many essential oils can’t be purchased OTC in many European countries. While I don’t think we need to relegate them to pharmacies I think that the way many of the multilevel marketing companies are portraying their EOs as being totally safe gives consumers a false sense of safety.

    1. Julie Avatar

      I totally agree with you! It’s frightening how many people are taking medical advice from MLM’s.

      1. Ronda Avatar

        Please tell us the name of the fatal oil. Yes, EOs must be used responsibly and with common sense; just like many items in our households: OTCs, cleaners, beauty products, etc.

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