The Herbal Consumer

Essential Oils, Part III: Safety


EO photoEssential oils (EO) are highly concentrated liquids that can have therapeutic effects when used appropriately. While EO are easy to use, there are guidelines to follow in order to use them safely. Knowing what reactions to look for in the body can provide guidance on how to best proceed with using these oils.

EO and Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy includes the use of EO both through inhaling the vapors of the oils and applying the oils on the skin. One way of inhaling vapors is with a basin of steaming water, a few drops of EO and a towel draped over the head and basin. When using EO in this way, make sure to use the recommended amount of oil. Using too much can cause irritation to the mucus membranes of the nose and throat. Hold the head about 12 inches from the water and make sure to switch between breathing the EO steam and breathing fresh air during the session. If you feel dizzy or nauseous it may be a sign that the body is overwhelmed. Discontinue the session and get some fresh air.

Another way of breathing in EO vapors is through an aromatherapeutic massage. If you know there are certain oils that you have problems with (including carrier oils), let the massage therapist know before you begin. If during the massage your skin feels uncomfortable or suddenly you don’t feel well, say something. You could be having a reaction or you may need some fresh air.

As we covered in Essential Oils, Part I: The Basics, it’s important to dilute an EO with a carrier oil (or cream or lotion) before using EO on the skin to reduce the chance of irritation. Here’s a review of the recipe for dilution:

  • 1% – five to six drops of oil to 1 oz. of carrier oil. This is considered a mild mixture
  • 2% – ten to twelve drops of oil to 1 oz. of carrier oil. This is considered a standard mixture.
  • 3% – fifteen to eighteen drops of oil to 1 oz. of carrier oil. This is used short term for special instances such as acute injuries or specific illnesses

Certain EO can cause photosensitivity. This is when the skin becomes highly sensitive to ultra violet (UV) rays (e.g. sunlight and tanning beds). When these certain oils are applied to the skin and then the skin is exposed to UV rays, a reaction occurs. A rash develops that can look like a severe sunburn or raised, scaly skin. The rash may itch, burn or blister. In severe cases the skin may weep or peel.

There are two types of photosensitive responses with EO: photoallergic and phototoxic.

Photoallergic – This reaction is less common and can take up to a few days after UV ray exposure to occur. The reaction is an immune system response caused by a substance created from a combination of the EO on the skin and sunlight.

Phototoxic – This reaction is more common and usually occurs within 24 hours of UV ray exposure. The response is caused by a substance, created from a combination of EO and UV rays, which damages the skin cells.

Some EO that can cause photosensitivity include:

  • Angelica
  • Bergamot
  • Bitter orange
  • Cumin
  • Lemon
  • Lime
  • Rue

Of course, it is possible to have a skin reaction to EO not caused photosensitivity. Allergies and general skin sensitivities can vary from person to person. It’s possible to be allergic to EO, and some EO can be irritating to the skin of some people even if they have been diluted properly with a carrier oil. Another term to be aware of is dermal sensitization. This involves an allergic reaction to a skin irritant and the initial reaction may often be mild. However, with each additional exposure the reaction can become more severe. Using undiluted EO on the skin can increase the chance of dermal sensitization to the oil.

In addition to causing different types of skin irritation, there are some EO that are toxic including arnica, camphor, parsley, and wormwood. The Alliance for International Aromatherapists provides a more complete list of cautionary oils. Keep in mind that the chemical components of a whole herb and an EO from the same herb will not be the same. In creating the EO, only some of the plant’s components are captured and then concentrated. While the EO of certain plants may be toxic, parts of the whole herb may still be safe for use.

EO and Internal Use

Due to the ways that EO are made (see Essential Oils, Part I: The Basics), the resulting oils are highly concentrated. Ingesting even a small amount can cause serious harm to the body. Internal use of EO can lead to hepatotoxicity. Hepatotoxicity is defined as the capacity of a drug, chemical, or other exposure to produce injury to the liver. This causes the liver to not function normally. Part of the job of the liver is to filter toxins from the body. Some typical symptoms of hepatotoxicity can include but aren’t limited to fatigue, jaundice, nausea, pale stools, dark colored urine, vomiting/diarrhea, fever and/or abdominal pain. For substances that the body is exposed to continually, symptoms can surface within a couple of days to a many months. It is also possible for an individual to have no or unspecified symptoms while sustaining injury.

That being said, EO are sometimes recommended for internal use in herbal medicine by trained practitioners. For this purpose, they are usually used in small amounts for a short duration of time. Because of the concentration and chemical complexity of EO, layperson use of EO internally is strongly discouraged. Also, some EO are used in commercially prepared mixtures of dietary supplements. While there are qualified herbalists creating the formulas for some of these companies, dietary supplements are not pre-approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for safety before being available on the market. As a consumer, you would need to decide how comfortable you feel with the company and their product that contains EO before buying it.

EO and Contamination/Adulteration

EO, like other herbal products, can be subject to contamination and adulteration. Contamination is the presence of foreign material that makes the original material impure. Contaminants for EO can be things like heavy metals & pesticides. When it comes to EO, the usual recommendation is to use organic oils. The issue with this is that when it comes to personal care products (many EO are marketed this way) there is no one standard for the term “organic.” A company can use the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) standard (if they meet the criteria), they can abide by a third party’s definition (e.g. Oregon Tilth) or they can set their own definition. A consumer would need to research whatever definition is used to see if it aligns with what the consumer will accept as “organic.”

EO can also be subject to adulteration where other oils are intentionally added to a final product that is then sold as a pure EO. If the consumer has a nut allergy and the EO is adulterated with a nut oil, that product could potentially be dangerous. Unfortunately, there is little a consumer can do to check for this before buying a product, aside from buying from a reputable company. If a consumer is able to test the product before buying, they may be able to tell by the smell of the oil. They can also try adding a drop onto a piece of paper. Most EO will evaporate and not leave an oily ring where an adulterated oil will.

Some companies will provide results from Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (GC-MS) tests of their oils as a way to prove the oil’s purity and quality. The GC-MS are actually two separate tests. Together they show the presence, quantity and concentration of the different chemical components of the EO sample. Each EO has a standard test result or “fingerprint.” The results of the test batch are compared against a standard result for that EO to determine the purity and quality. Unfortunately, these graphs are difficult for average consumers to decipher without having some background in chemistry and essential oils.

EO, Pregnancy and Children

The best advice that I can give when it comes to EO and pregnancy is to work with a qualified practitioner if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant and are interested in using EO. For children, it’s a little – but not much – easier. EO dilution formulas (mentioned in the earlier part of this article) are set for adults. A formula for children would be proportionally less than it is for an adult depending on the weight of the child. Keep in mind children are also susceptible to hepatotoxicity. The list of EO to use with children is much smaller than the list for adults. Again, if you are interested in using EO with your child(ren), consult a qualified practitioner.

So What’s a Consumer to Do?

EO are so easy to use and so easy to abuse. Respect EO for the complex and powerful herbal product that they are. Take some time to learn about these oils and how to use them safely. The Alliance of International Aromatherapists has a list of recommended books and the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy has detailed information about EO and aromatherapy on their site. When buying EO, look on the label for the binomial (genus and species) name of the plant you are looking for to make sure you have the right one. Remember to dilute EO before using them.

Knowing what resources to trust when it comes to EO can be difficult because of the amount of chemistry and biology knowledge necessary to really understand EO and their effects in the body. Trying to figure out which “experts” know what their talking about and which ones don’t can leave your head spinning. It makes it so tempting just to take someone’s word for it. One thing that might help is to ask yourself, “What does this person have to gain if I choose to believe them?” With salespeople, that’s a pretty simple answer. With books or websites, you can see if the author has any vested interest in a particular EO company or product. It might take a bit a sleuthing and a healthy dose of skepticism.

When using a new EO for the first time, do a skin patch test. Whenever you use EO, pay attention to your body. Do you notice any burning or tingling or do any rashes appear? Do you feel lightheaded or nauseous or do you start coughing when you use the oils? If you’re using a particular EO or EO blend for a while, do you have any unusual symptoms that you can’t explain? Any one of these could be signs of a reaction to EO. Pay attention to your body.

One more thing I want to share. I have come across some information that claims that a reaction from using EO on the skin is simply the body’s way of detoxing. I don’t buy it. The liver and the kidneys are the body’s main ways of removing toxins. These toxins are eliminated through urine and feces. The skin’s functions don’t include detoxifying the body. The primary purpose of sweating is to regulate body temperature, not to remove toxins from the body. Any potential toxins that are excreted in sweat are nominal. A rash is the skin’s response to an irritant, period.

Next article  – What in the World Is Wildcrafting

Note to readers: Beginning January 2016, blog posts will come to you once a month on the first Tuesday of the month. The Herbal Consumer website will also undergo changes to make it more consumer-resource friendly. See you in the New Year!

Links to Learn More

Alliance of International Aromatherapists website – Aromatherapy Safety

National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy website – Safety Information

National Capital Poison Center – Essential Oils: Poisonous when Misused

American Academy of Dermatology – Rash 101 in adults: When to seek treatment

Skin Cancer Foundation website – Photosensitivity

AromaWeb website – Detailed information on the book Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young

Robert Tisserand website – Robert Tisserand interviewed on ingestion, dilution and other safety issues