Essential oils are widely available nowadays and can be purchased by anyone. Take them home and pour a few drops into a burner, dap some behind your ear because it smells nice or pour half a bottle into the bath. Not always advisable! There are many safety issues that people need to be aware of before using essential oils.
Essential oils can be hazardous when not used properly and to be fair, most of them don’t come with written instructions. Even professionally trained practitioners are regularly coming across new information and guidelines regarding aromatherapy.
For insurance purposes, professional therapists who want to use essential oils as part of a treatment must have a recognised aromatherapy qualification.
Those who wish to enjoy the benefits of aromatherapy in the home are advised to be aware of the possible risks and hazards and take precautions.
Essential oils, like us humans, have a very complicated chemical structure. When the chemicals in the oils enter our blood and other bodily fluids via the skin or by inhalation, they interact with the chemistry of our bodies. For example; hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters are all chemicals and the presence of another chemical in the body can alter the way they work. So it is important that we respect the power of these oils and take care when using them. Essential oils are so potent that they need to be diluted before applying to the skin. The correct dilution is important. (see below)
If you suffer from any of the following, you are 13.5 times more likely to have a reaction to essential oils.
- Allergic rhinitis (inflammation of the mucous membrane of the nose)
- Allergies to wool, dust or animal hair
If you have had a reaction in the past from using a particular essential oil or if you have sensitive skin, it is advised to perform a patch test before using your oils. Add one drop of essential oil to 5ml of carrier oil such as Sweet Almond or Olive, and dab behind the ear or on your breastbone. Leave for 24-48 hours and if there is no reaction, the oil should be safe to use. Follow the recommended guidelines for blending. (below)
Possible skin irritants include Basil, Benzoin, Black pepper, Chamomile (German) Clove, Ginger, Lemon, Lemongrass, Peppermint, Thyme and Teatree. Oils that have been extracted from their plant using a method called solvent extraction, can also cause sensitivity because traces of the solvent used during the process, may be left in the oil. These include Rose, Jasmine, Myrrh, Ylang ylang and /Neroli.
A reaction caused by exposure to sunlight and ultraviolet light. Some oils, mostly citrus oils are known as phototoxic because they contain a furocoumarin bergaptene. A phototoxic substance on the skin magnifies the effect of sunlight and ultraviolet light, leaving it more at risk of burning and more vulnerable to developing melanin disorders.
These oils include: Bergamot, Lemon, Orange, Mandarin, Lime, Grapefruit is not phototoxic unless it is distilled. Patchouli, Ginger and Clarysage are not citrus oils but they may cause phototoxicity. You only need to avoid these oils prior to exposing your skin to sunlight or other ultraviolet rays. It is possible to purchase some of these oils that are bergaptene free, but treat them as phototoxic if you are unsure of their constituents. It is advised to avoid phototoxic oils if you have large dark moles or a history of melanoma.
Essential oils that are considered hazardous and not recommended for use in aromatherapy include:
Aniseed, Arnica, Bitter almond, Bitter fennel, Camphor brown, Camphor yellow, Cinnamon bark, Dwarf Pine, Mustard, Origanum, Pennyroyal, Rue, Sassafras, Savin, Savory (winter & summer), Southernwood, Tansy, Thuja, Wintergreen, Wormseed, Wormwood, Elecampane, Horseradish, Hyssop. Sage is not recommended by some aromatherapists. Robert Tisserand advises against topical use of Cassia essential oil.
The Tisserand Institute is currently carrying out research on adverse skin reactions, focusing on allergies, in particular, the topical use of undiluted and diluted cassia and cinnamon oil.
Fennel and Rosemary should be avoided if you suffer from epilepsy.
Avoid during the first trimester. Certain studies suggest that the only safe essential oil during pregnancy is mandarin. Consult a qualified therapist if you wish to use essential oils during pregnancy.
These are plant produced chemicals that mimic estrogen, the primary sex hormone in women. These can help balance our hormones but avoid using on children, during pregnancy and while taking hormonal medication. Fennel is one in particular that falls into this category.
Do Not Ingest
This is an area in aromatherapy that causes some controversy among aromatherapists. Some essential oil companies are advising that it is safe to take certain oils internally and until I have researched this in more detail, I am still of the belief that essential oils are not safe to ingest.
Essential oils are highly concentrated substances. They can cause gastric irritation and can damage the lining of the stomach. The enzymes in the stomach interact with the chemicals in the essential oils thus changing their therapeutic effects. They can also put an unnecessary strain on the liver.
Aromatherapy is a very effective treatment when used as an external treatment either via the skin or by inhalation. Why ingest something that may cause more harm than good when it is so much easier and safer to use in other ways?
Consult a qualified aromatherapist if you are:
- Suffering from depression
- Asthma (never use steam inhalation as an aromatherapy treatment)
- Present taking prescription or recreational drugs
- Receiving medical treatment for any other condition
Other reactions that may possibly occur include:
- May induce an asthma attack
- Change in appetite
- Change in sleep patterns
- Feeling of despair
- Feeling of sickness
- Healing crisis (Symptoms get worse before they get better)
- Loose bowel movement
- Micturition (Increase in urine production)
- Migraines or headaches
Overdosage may be the cause of many of these reactions. This is why it’s so important to avoid making mistakes when blending essential oils. Stick to the recommended dilutions. (See below)
For a healthy adult mix 2 drops of essential oil per 5ml of carrier oil. Children under 12, pregnant women and elderly people, no more than 1 drop of essential oil per 5 ml. For more dilutions and blends see here.
And very important – Keep out of children’s reach!
This is by no means a very complex guide to essential oil safety. Books are written especially on the safety of aromatherapy. If you are in doubt about the safety of an essential oil, avoid using it. There are so many safe oils available that you can use for whatever condition you wish to address.
If you interested in learning more about the safe use of aromatherapy either professionally or as a hobby contact me via the contact form.