Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe.
In the case of essential oils, there are going to be fewer side effects than man-made medications or phthalate-laden fragrances, but if oils are effective, then they have to make actual changes which means there could be negative or even dangerous effects as well. Knowledge is power (and safety)! For example, some essential oils are not safe for children, but some are gentle enough to be safe even for babies.
Jumping in without any research or knowledge is foolish.
A few years ago I asked readers to share their goals for essential oils. These quotes are actual comments people shared:
“I would love to learn more about essential oils and how to use them better (I just dabble in them now!)”
“I so need some help figuring out how to best use mine!”
“I just purchased my first set of essential oils and would love to learn more about the many uses for them.”
I’m not going to pick on them, but it worries me.
It’s just how I started.
And I was wrong.
The Dangers of Learning as You Go
I’m definitely the type of person who is prone to jumping into something new with the bare minimum of information, just so that I can take one of my famous baby steps.
I’ll buy an unfamiliar vegetable or cut of meat and then figure out how to use it.
I’ll try a new recipe without thinking it through all the way, sometimes delaying dinner to a disastrous end.
I over purchase at the Farmer’s Market and find the time to preserve what is already in my house after the fact.
But if I’m in the market for something big like a computer, I always do my research first and painstakingly read reviews and weigh the options (or I make my husband do it). It’s too expensive to mess up.
Really, I understand where the folks are coming from who are beginning to use essential oils and just want to jump in and try something out, but I want you to learn from my mistakes today.
I regret my baby steps with essential oils.
The Most Important Fact About Essential Oils – Efficacy
The truth to establish before we can have an educated discussion about the safety of essential oils is their efficacy.
ARE essential oils effective – or not?
Based on stories you can’t avoid from real people, online and often in person, you may have decided this for yourself already.
But if you’re wondering about actual scientific studies, they aren’t hard to find either. Just a few examples:
- as effective or more than standard treatment for Candida albicans
- effective (although not perfectly so) against Staphylococcus aureus
- showing promise against West Nile
- rosemary and basil essential oils effective antibacterial agents against even multidrug-resistant bacteria
- even aromatherapy is being found to have genuine effects on anxiety
And my own post on essential oils as better antibiotic choices than prescriptions also demonstrates power and efficacy.
Essential oils are either powerful for helping our bodies OR they don’t do much – we can’t have it both ways.
Logic tells us that if they really work, which people bothering to use them must believe, we can’t treat them like there are no limits.
We can’t just use them in any situation without training and feel like there could be no possible side effects because they are “natural.”
Either they work and should be respected, or they don’t. I strongly believe the former is true. But what do we need to know to use essential oils safely?
Could Essential Oils Really be Dangerous to Your Family?
A few years ago, I wrote a post called:
I compared essential oils to other common helpful but potentially harmful tools:
In the Hands of the Untrained
There are plenty of things we use on a regular basis that could be harmful and require both responsibility and training: automobiles, weapons, even kitchen knives.
They’re great to serve a purpose, but they can cause problems if used incorrectly.
For the most part, accidents happen for one of two reasons (or both):
- The people handling the item are not trained to use it.
- Some people, especially young drivers, simply don’t think they will get hurt – the rose-colored glasses and youthful feeling of invincibility prevent them from sensing real danger.
Essential oils often trick well-meaning mamas in the same way.
Plenty of people, even those sharing information about essential oils (raises hand), are untrained to handle them. Yet the Internet makes it very easy for us to talk about natural remedies and for others to listen.
And just because it’s “all natural” doesn’t mean it can’t harm anyone, but we are easily lulled into a false sense of security by “natural remedies” just because of their name.
There was a bit more lengthy analogy to a handgun at first, and boy, did I take heat! One reader on Facebook suggested that I was saying using any essential oil is like holding a gun to your head. Overreaction!
I just wanted to make clear that we need to think critically about something so powerful. If a remedy is effective, then it must have the potential to cause side effects. Although my own family was not hurt (that I know of) by my use of essential oils without understanding all the precautions and risks, neither are most people who have unlocked guns in the house.
But some are.
I really wanted to emphasize that we need to treat essential oils as powerful, potentially dangerous things that can do great good but also great harm. Not everyone who uses one oil needs to be fully trained, but I do recommend that people dig into more than one blog post – including this one – before embarking on home doctoring.
Even when used incorrectly, they won’t often kill or even harm anyone – but we need to understand that they could and stop treating essential oils like a bottle of dishsoap: squirt, lather, rinse, repeat.
However – in that post which made such a splash and I hope was helpful to many, not scaring them away but teaching caution – even I didn’t have allllll my facts straight. I’m sharing the 3 reasons below (still valid!) but correcting any errors.
Reason #1: Not All the Information Out There is Complete
I remember a scene in Person of Interest (I love Jim Caviezel, amen?) where the main character, a military-trained spy-turned-Robin-Hood chastises a group of young gangsters for holding their guns sideways in the classic gang “so cool” manner. He tells them condescendingly that they can’t possibly aim that way.
In other words, learning from someone else who hasn’t been professionally trained can mean that you don’t learn the right way.
Buying essential oils and jumping in with both feet before actually taking time to educate oneself about how they work and what precautions should be taken is a little reckless, much like driving a vehicle without a license.
I learned to drive on country roads with my dad, before I took driver’s ed. What made that safe? (1) He knew what he was doing, and (2) we took it slowly.
Just because someone says, “Use X essential oil to treat such-and-such a symptom,” doesn’t mean all the instructions are included or valid.
It’s far too easy to just see a tip like “use lavender to help treat eczema” or “peppermint essential oil helps headaches” and not know how to proceed but feel a sense of safety because hey, “they’re natural.” Better to take it slowly…because, for example, peppermint isn’t recommended for pregnant women or children before a certain age, but that’s not always in every quick note about what you can use an essential oil for, you know?
It’s also important to understand safe dilution for essential oils before slathering them on your body (or your children’s bodies). It’s not hard to do – but I feel it’s vital we take the time.
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Reason #2: Essential Oils are Uber Powerful
Essential oils are the most potent substance of a plant that there is. Thousands of plants can go into one little bottle of essential oil, and different manufacturers can produce wildly different potencies, making recipes without knowledge of individual oils a bit of a gamble.
Many well-meaning sources of information recommend too great a quantity in skincare recipes, use non-kid-friendly oils in family health resources without youth warnings, don’t detail diluted oils for topical use and can be brazen in describing regular internal usage without enough cautionary information.
There are plenty of factoids one should know before using something as powerful as an essential oil.
Essential Oils & Homeopathy
For example, did you know essential oils can’t be combined with homeopathics? I didn’t for quite a long time and used them at the same time as homeopathy for ear infections more than once.
This was one of my more grievous errors in the original post. It’s a blanket statement that I heard from a friend but simply isn’t true – in its entirety. It has elements of truth though, and worth exploring.
Homeopathics don’t always interfere. However, if you use peppermint, eucalyptus, tea tree and a few other very strong smelling oils in conjunction with homeoapthy, they may stop the homeopathic remedies from working. It doesn’t make anything dangerous happen, as I originally thought, it just nullifies something you’re trying to do. (source)
Topical Essential Oil Use – Always Dilute
Topically, many essential oils must be mixed with carrier oils or they can burn the skin or have other deleterious effects.
I didn’t know that either. Ahem.
Plus essential oils do expire – and I always kind of thought they’d last forever!
Internal Essential Oils? Use. Great. Caution.
Whether humans can safely ingest essential oils at all is a topic embroiled in great controversy, but if you’re just dabbling, you might not even know that.
Many oils are recommended for internal use without including cautions about frequency – even gentle oils like lemon shouldn’t be taken internally on a daily basis, and a great many should never be used internally.
I was blindly following incomplete advice years ago and gave my son practically undiluted oregano oil by mouth. Guess what? It burns.
Let’s just say that as much as learning together with your children is a worthy pursuit, this isn’t a topic to learn by experience.
In the same vein, it’s pretty common for people to assume that there are no side effects to natural oils. In fact, antibacterial oils (oregano, Thieves type blends, clove, cinnamon, tea tree, etc.) should be followed up with probiotics, just like prescription antibiotics need to. They can wipe out beneficial gut flora just like the chemical stuff can. (Here are some guidelines on how to rebuild the gut after antibiotics or any infection.)
Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it can’t hurt you, especially if you are just using it without understanding all the potential repercussions.
And guess what else? I’m not a doctor, naturopath, nurse, or anything else. So everything I’m spouting here? Could be wrong too. But I’m learning to err on the side of caution and “do more reading” than just recommending people to step forth in this arena.
Do I think that one needs to be professionally trained to use essential oils at all? Certainly not. But they should do some research and know that there ARE risks so that they’re not running blind.
A few more quick reads on EO safety:
- 6 ways EOs can harm you – just to be informed, not to scare you! But you gotta know the risks.
- This article also lists negative reactions to EOs, but I really like the 5 quick tips to avoid adverse effects: wear gloves, wash hands, always dilute properly, rotate to avoid sensitization for long-term use, and buy from trusted sources. My personal favorite after years of use and trying many brands (there are lots of good ones!) is Plant Therapy, both because I appreciate that they have aromatherapists on staff (you can ask questions via customer service) and because they’re actually affordable. Plant Therapy‘s KidSafe blends were formulated by Robert Tisserand, agreed upon by many to be a foremost expert in our day on essential oil safety.
- Not a quick read, but my friend Katie pulls out more research and details than most, and her post on essential oil risks and safe ways to use them is a must.
In general, the side effects of essential oils include:
- Skin sensitivity (rash, reactions, burns, sores)
- Photosensitivity (some oils are not ok under sunlight)
- Problems for pregnant or nursing women (list of unsafe EOs for pregnancy here)
- Medial interactions with certain diseases (especially asthma, liver disease, high blood pressure, diabetes) and medications (some oils can counter the effects of a med you may be taking)
- Overuse leading to sensitization/allergies (this WebMD story is well worth reading, again, not to scare, but for knowledge’s sake)
- Ingesting oils never meant to be ingested (I would never ingest an essential oil without confirming safety with a professional and probably cross-reference that)
- Katie also reminds us of potential problems with plastics and surfaces and essential oils
- Not always safe around pets
And one of the more important safety notes:
Reason #3: Essential Oils are Not Always Safe for Children
Our drugstores have children’s versions of everything from cough medicine to vitamins, but most people, myself included, don’t always understand at first that there are also “children’s versions” in the world of essential oils.
Certain oils are not to be used on children under two years old, and others aren’t safe for kids under six.
I have used oils on children in both age groups that I later found out were not recommended. You want to talk about mommy guilt, I’m right here.
If you are looking to get started with essential oils, here’s a list (which may be incomplete) of oils to avoid for children (copied from this SOURCE):
- Cajuput Melaleuca cajuputi, Melaleuca leucadendron – avoid using on children under 6
- Chaste Tree Vitex agnus castus – avoid using (all routes) on prepubertal children
- Clove Bud, Clove Leaf, Clove Stem Syzygium aromaticum, Eugenia caryophyllata, Eugenia aromatica – avoid topical use on children under 2
- Eucalyptus Eucalyptus camaldulensis, Eucalyptus globulus, Eucalyptus maidenii, Eucalyptus plenissima, Eucalyptus kochii, Eucalyptus polybractea, Eucalyptus radiata, Eucalyptus Autraliana, Eucalyptus phellandra, Eucalyptus smithii – avoid using on children under 10
- Lemon Leaf/Lemon Petitgrain Citrus x limon, Citrus limonum – avoid topical use on children under 2
- Lemongrass Cymbopogon flexuosus, Andropogon flexuosus, Cymbopogon citratus, Andropogon citratus – avoid topical use on children under 2
- Marjoram (Spanish) Thymus mastichina – avoid using on children under 6
- Oregano Origanum onites, Origanum smyrnaeum, Origanum vulgare, Origanum compactum, Origanum hirtum, Thymbra capitata, Thymus capitatus, Coridothymus capitatus, Satureeja capitata – avoid dermal use on children under 2
- Peppermint Mentha x Piperita – avoid using (all routes) on children under 6
- Rosemary (1,8-cineole chemotype) Rosmarinus officinalis – avoid using on children under 6
- Wintergreen Gaultheria fragrantissima, Gaultheria procumbens – avoid due to methyl salicylate content
- Ylang-Ylang Cananga odorata – avoid topical use on children under 2. (not for use when pregnant)
This post is one that I continue to go back to, if only to remind me to do my research well before trying something as potent as EOs. Who knew there were different kinds of eucalyptus and that some are great for kiddos while others are super harmful?
Do you ever see people recommend a certain kind of eucalyptus for congestion? Nope. They just say “eucalyptus.” You have to do the digging to find out the rest of the story.
I recently got some “Eucalyptus Dives” from Plant Therapy because it’s a KidSafe alternative for congestion. I looooove that PT does the legwork for me on child safety, and every bottle that IS safe for children over 2 has a KidSafe label right on it. This helps a lot when your child is coughing in the middle of the night and you’re reaching for that diffuser with groggy sleep in your eyes!
Just like gun safety, I don’t want you to be left untrained with essential oils, unaware of the risks, or using the wrong ones on children.
Here’s a post with some lists of EOs that ARE safe for kids, how to use them, and even some info on how to use EOs with babies (it’s a “hydrosol” which I had never even heard of before!).
Still Want to Use Essential Oils? Learn to do it Safely!
If you’re wondering, I do still use essential oils. I still recommend them to friends.
But I am cautious and lean on the side of using them aromatically first, which is much less potentially volatile than topically or internally. (Did you know there are various schools of thought on that based on your oils training and whether it’s based in French, British or German foundations?)
If you’ve got a stash of bottles and no training, or if you keep hearing about the power of essential oils and want to “dabble” with them – don’t.
Don’t just dabble.
Learn it right.
You certainly don’t have to be a trained aromatherapist to use a few oils for home doctoring, but please make sure you’ve dug in a little bit and learned enough to know what you don’t know, to know to use caution and move slowly, just like driver’s training.
Note: I’ve been asked a dozen times to sell essential oils. I’d love to, in one way. I would love to help arm mothers and fathers with tools to help them treat their families naturally. It’s empowering. But I don’t feel like I know enough to (a) commit to a brand and (b) teach proper use. So I’ve always declined the invitations, even though I know people make buku bucks doing it. Just sayin’.
Since I don’t know much and am in no position to teach you about essential oils, I feel helpless that so many readers are hungry for the information.
I’ve often been sent to other blogs or blog posts about EOs, but so many sources are from a particular brand and/or someone who isn’t a certified aromatherapist. I just don’t know who to trust, so I’m not including a long list of resources for you to “learn more” here, and I’m sorry about that.
A real life friend has said that the EO eCourse here is comprehensive:
Vintage Remedies has become pretty well known for being both a balanced and thorough source of natural health information, particularly for herbalists and about essential oils.
Disclosure: I am an affiliate for Vintage Remedies which means I will earn a commission if you make any purchases.