Essential Oil Safety: Are Your EOs Harming You?

essential oils, are they harmful?

Essential Oil Safety: Are Your EOs Harming You? Are you confused by all the different companies selling Essential Oils (EOs) and making claims these days? Are there different qualities of essential oils? Which brands are best? Unfortunately, misinformation and conflicting information abound on the Internet.

This brings up the question of Essential Oil Safety. Are your eos harming you? Or are they safe to use? Should you ingest essential oils, or use them directly on your skin? Are they safe to use with your pets?

Are you using EOs safely?

Ask three different essential oil direct sales consultants about essential oil safety, and you might get three different answers. And most likely none of them are Certified Aromatherapists. (I’m not either, but I have taken a Basic Aromatherapy Course. And have done a lot of research on EOs for my own personal use.) I see a lot of misuse of essential oils going on. So I wanted to share some FACTS about Essential Oil Safety to help you use them as safely as possible.

This information is considered best practice for the safe use of essential oils. And it’s backed up by national and international organizations including:

What is an essential oil?

If you’re new to Essential Oil use, here’s a very brief primer. Essential oils are highly concentrated, aromatic plant oils. They can be derived from just about any part of a plant including bark, citrus rinds, berries, flowers, leaves, nuts, roots, resin or sap, seeds, and stems.

Essential oils are typically extracted by one of three main processes.

  1. steam distillation (most EOs are steam and/or water distilled),
  2. solvent extraction (used for extremely fragile flower petals like jasmine and gardenia)
  3. cold pressing (for citrus peels to press oil out of the peel.)

These lovely but volatile plant extracts contain naturally occurring anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal properties. These naturally occurring oils help the source plants survive against bugs and diseases.

Essential oil safety

Ironically, in the US the FDA does not regulate any health and beauty products for safety or toxic chemicals. There are over 1,400 known toxins (banned all over the world except US). These include carcinogens, neurotoxins, hormone disruptors, and more are used in everyday US health and beauty products. Yet if a company makes a health benefit claim from a plant-based essential oil—the FDA considers it a “drug”. And it will pull it from the shelf. And subject the company to a whole different set of testing and certification for that essential oil.

So for the purposes of this article, I won’t be sharing any specific “health benefits” of essential oils. However, there are many fantastic essential oil (EOs) books that can assist you with that. This is my favorite EO book, Essential Oils: All-natural remedies and recipes for your mind, body and home. What I’m sharing below are ways to safely use essential oils.

Essential oil misuse

One place I see a lot of misuse of essential oils is in yoga studios. Savasana massages have become popular at the end of yoga classes. These are short massages to the shoulders, neck, and temple done by some yoga teachers while the student is lying in Savasana pose. The issue is that many teachers are using essential oils neat—directly on the skin—not diluted in a carrier oil. You’ll read below some of the reasons that this is not a safe practice. In a class, I attended recently, a teacher burnt the palms of her hands by pouring peppermint EO directly into her hands. Thankfully she didn’t get it on the students and burn them too.

Ingesting essential oils

I’ve also seen many people adding a drop or two of EO to their drinking water, to flavor it. If you think about it, oil and water don’t mix. Even if you shake it up, the oil will just separate back out. Essential oils can only be diluted in a carrier oil or something with an oil base (lotion, cream, salve), not a water base. And they aren’t safe to ingest without the supervision of an aromatherapist (see below).

So let’s take a look at some facts about essential oil safety. And hopefully get everyone on the same page about how to safely and properly use EOs. Please also share this post with your friends and family who use essential oils.

6 essential oil safety facts

  1. For starters, there is no governing body, group, or organization (national or international) that “grades” essential oils. Many companies claim certain grades such as “therapeutic grade”, “food grade”, or “safe to ingest” to try to represent their oils as being higher quality. These terms are simply marketing gimmicks used by the company making the oil. They do not indicate any type of certification by any national or international organization.
  2. Of course, every company wants you to think that their essential oils are the BEST. However, the therapeutic properties of all essential oils vary greatly depending on where and how the plants were grown. For example, lavender from US has different properties than lavender from Australia or France. Organically grown plants are certified pesticide-free and GMO-free. Some plants are grown pesticide-free but not certified organic. So you may need to ask small businesses and herb shops that make their own essential oils about how they source their ingredients.
  3. The Alliance of International Aromatherapists (AIA) does NOT recommend ingesting essential oils. And the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) recommends ingesting EOs ONLY under the supervised care and guidance of a Certified Aromatherapist. Most direct salespeople and even small businesses, or farmers market vendors are not aromatherapists.
  4. While many companies make excellent, pure essential oils, keep in mind that essential oils are volatile compounds. EOs can easily burn the delicate mucosa of mouth, lips, tongue, esophagus, and stomach. So again, they should only be ingested when working with a trained and Certified Aromatherapist (and in capsule form), not on the recommendation of a direct salesperson.
  5. Applying EOs directly to the skin can cause irritation or burns, and can lead to sensitivity to that particular oil. It can potentially lead to chemical sensitivities to other chemicals as well. There are two exceptions: lavender and tea tree oils may be used neat on occasion. But it’s still not recommended to make a regular practice of it, as that can lead to sensitivities.
  6. Many people assume because essential oils are “natural”, or plant-based that they are safe to use with pets. Sadly very little research has been done on EO use with pets. And many EOs are very toxic to cats in particular. Cats livers metabolize chemicals differently than other mammals. Ingesting EOs from licking their fur, or from the pads of their feet from walking on surfaces cleaned with EOs, can be deadly to cats. In particular, Eucalyptus and Tea Tree EOs are very harmful to cats. A few, like Rosemary, are safe to use around cats (but not ON them.) But PLEASE do your research first, and don’t diffuse EOs around cats. More EOs are safe to use around dogs than cats. But again very little research has been done in this area to date. So please use extreme caution when using EOs around pets.

Blend essential oils with a carrier oil

Because EOs are volatile compounds, they should also never be applied directly to the skin (neat.) EOs should always be diluted in a carrier oil such as grape seed oil, coconut oil, jojoba, etc, before use. Below is a blending table below for how many drops of essential oils to use.

4 qualities to look for when purchasing essential oils

  1. Ideally, you’ll want to use organic or pesticide-free EOs. After all, you’re likely using the EO for some health benefit, so why risk pesticide residue?
    • Look for pure, single-source EOs that are not diluted in other oils—unless you are specifically looking for a pre-diluted EO. Because essential oils are big business these days, there is a lot of deceit going on in this area. Many EOs appear at first glance to be “pure EOs” because they may use meaningless terms like “Natural”. Let’s not forget that lead and arsenic are natural too but we don’t want them in our products! Look at the ingredients and if you see something like “Jojoba oil with lavender essential oil”, it tells you it’s not a “pure” essential oil.
  2. If you’re looking for a pure blend, ensure it’s a blend of pure essential oils (2-3 EOs blended together), not diluted with a carrier oil. Again, unless that’s specifically what you are looking for.
  3. If looking for an EO to use in a diffuser, ensure it’s a pure essential oil. Any type of carrier oil can gum up a diffuser.

Essential oil ethics

I feel strongly about educating people on using essential oils safely, without harming themselves, others, or their pets. The Aromatherapy Trade Council offers these guidelines and Code of Practice. I also subscribe to the guidance of the AIA and NAHA and do not recommend ingesting essential oils. Unless you’re under the supervised care and advice of a Certified Aromatherapist. With few exceptions, most people selling essential oils are not certified aromatherapy practitioners.

It’s also worth noting that there’s NO governing body certifying “Therapeutic Grade” essential oils. That is pure marketing from some unethical EO companies. And as mentioned above, the FDA doesn’t regulate essential oils, so they can claim any type of “certification” they want (they are self-certifying). That being said, several popular brands of essential oils have recently been taken to task by the FDA and the FTC for making false claims.

Buying organic essential oils

My go-to place to purchase essential oils is Mountain Rose Herbs, out of Eugene, Oregon. They have been around since 1987, and are considered the gold standard for responsibly sourced and certified organic herbs and essential oils.

What is your favorite essential oil scent? Please leave a comment below to let us know. In the spirit of Essential Oil Safety, please share this post with your friends and family who use essential oils, so they can be safe too.

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