Introduction to Essential Oil Safety

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I have noticed a large amount of misinformation going around the internet, e-books, and word of mouth about using essential oils. As I have delved deeper into my Master Aromatherapy certification, I am learning more about the SAFE use of essential oils and I think that it is important to share some safety information with you too! If used properly and with care, these wonderful plant essences can be used in everything from naturally cleaning your home to helping clear up your acne, and more! The key here though is to know the safety of using these essential oils! I will be covering a range of safety topics in the coming weeks, including safety during pregnancy, with babies and children, and with animals and cats.

NEVER try to remove an essential oil first with water…

Let's pretend this is chem class and it's our first day. The first thing we learn is going to be What to do if we get something in our eyes (or on our skin). In a normal science class, the teacher will proceed to show you the eye-washing station and how to use it to flush your eyes out, should you somehow get a dangerous chemical passed the required science-geek safety goggles you will be wearing. This practice may work for water based chemicals, but when we deal with essential oils, it's extremely important to remember to rinse the problem area(s) FIRST with a carrier oil or  whole fat milk or cream; NOT WATER. If you rinse the area first with  a fat like a vegetable oil or milk, it helps to quickly carry away any of the excess essential oil. (If rinsing your eyes, milk is the best choice, as it will quickly stop any burning that you might be experiencing, you can then proceed to flush your eyes with water for 15 minutes) Please also note that you should NOT use essential oils in your eyes, ears, or nose. It's best if you didn't use them in any orifice.

Some essential oils are NOT meant for pregnant or nursing women

Although we covered Essential Oil Safety for Pregnant and Nursing Mamas, much more in depth in its own post, I still feel it should be mentioned here briefly, for safety purposes. There is some concern over the use of essential oils during pregnancy, but if used properly and with caution, essential oils can be very helpful to the impending mother, for health and for many of the discomforts that come with pregnancy. According to Salvatore Battaglia in “The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy“, the main concerns of essential oil use during pregnancy is that some essential oils :

  • may have a hormone-like activity, disturbing the normal, finely tuned balance of hormones
  • may cause injury or malformation in the development of the fetus
  • may cause abortion

This doesn't describe EVERY essential oil! There are some that are totally safe to use dermally (Do NOT ingest any essential oils while pregnant or nursing!) or for diffusion.  As with all things pharmaceutical or natural, care should always be taken during pregnancy when using essential oils. (really…this whole post is saying care should be taken with ALL uses of essential oils! Just sayin'!)

Introduction to Essential Oil Safety - thehippyhomemaker.com

Essential oils with babies and children

Keep all essential oils out of reach of children and babies. Certain essential oils could be toxic if ingested. I will be writing more in depth on specific essential oils that are safe to use topically on babies and children, but no essential oils should be given orally to children. According to Robert Tisserand, Essential Oil Safety;

The majority of cases of essential oil poisoning involve accidents with young children, often between 1 and 3 years of age. Approximately 75% of cases in the USA are in children up to 6 years old.

 ALL essential oils should be diluted for use with babies and children. (really, they should be diluted for use for everyone!) It is also important to note that when adding essential oils to baths of children, they must first be diluted in a water soluble carrier, such as raw unfiltered honey or vegetable glycerin. Adding essential oils straight to bath water, without a carrier, runs you the risk of causing irritation to the skin. There are many applications for essential oils with babies and children, but they should be kept away from a child's face. Essential oils should not be used in or around the nose in children. I often suggest massaging the feet with young babies rather than the chest and back, for the safest application of essential oils. For more on Safe Essential Oil Use for Babies & Children, you can read my post! It's a great all-inclusive guide on what oils to use at what age!

What's the deal with ingesting essential oils?

There is a lot of controversy across the internet, as to whether or not to ingest essential oils. I am here to tell you NOT to ingest your essential oils. Much of this controversy over-ingestion, actually stems from French aromatherapy, sometimes referred to as “clinical” or “medical” aromatherapy. In France, you can schedule an appointment with a Doctor who is also a certified aromatherapist. Here, after going over your medical history, ailments, and current prescriptions, this Doctor may prescribe a regime of essential oils to ingest, just as they would prescribe other pharmaceuticals. There is a lot of science and evidence from this school of thought, BUT the key here is that, in this instance, you have a certified aromatherapist and Doctor who knows about what they are prescribing, how it will interact with you, and how to safely prescribe it. You would not (except maybe in a zombie apocalypse situation) go into a pharmacy and start randomly taking certain pharmaceutical drugs without first consulting your Doctor as to whether or not it's safe for YOU to take that medication; would you? 

It's important to understand that all essential oils, no matter the quality of the oil, are an extremely concentrated combination of multiple chemical constituents. Without the supervision of an aromatherapy certified medical practitioner, ingestion of essential oils could lead to poisoning. I do not care how pure your essential oil company claims to be, that does not change the fact that the chemical composition of a specific oil, might lead to a serious or deadly reaction.  According to both Robert Tisserand and Salvatore Battaglia, there are many recorded cases of poisoning from essential oils, and ALL of those cases were from oral ingestion of essential oils.  If you are not a certified aromatherapist, then it is safest to utilize your essential oils dermally or through diffusion into the air. You can read more about ingesting essential oils in my post The Case for Ingestion – Is Ingesting Essential Oils Safe?

Dilution is key to safety

No matter the method you choose to use essential oils, dilution is key. You should NEVER apply an essential oil to your skin, neat (alone, without a carrier oil to dilute it). Some essential oils can cause irritation to the skin if  not highly diluted. These “hot oils”, (oils that produce some sort of warming or burning sensation when applied to the skin) such as cinnamon, peppermint, marjoram, clove, nutmeg, black pepper, etc. should be highly diluted to prevent irritation on the skin.

There is also quite a bit of erroneous information across the internet about the use of much gentler essential oils such as lavender and tea tree, being used neat. By using just one drop of ANY essential oil neat, you could develop a permanent sensitization to that essential oil. According to Marge Clarke, in her book “Essential Oils and Aromatics

“One of my mentors reminds me ‘sensitization is forever.' And I know she is right. Years ago I read the books saying that lavender oil could be used neat (undiluted). I very unwisely used undiluted lavender on broke skin, and consequently set up a sensitivity reaction. Today, almost two decades later, if I come in contacts with lavender in any form, I will immediately start a new round of contact dermatitis that can take months to heal.”

A basic dilution chart that is taught in many aromatherapy schools is below. It is important to keep in mind that this is a GENERAL REFERENCE chart for blends, but some essential oils require more dilution than others, so educating yourself on each oil that you are using, is highly recommended, to prevent any unforeseen reactions.

Essential Oil General Reference for Blending - thehippyhomemaker.comLess is more

With essential oils, It has been said, that one drop of essential oil is roughly equivalent to 75 cups of tea of that herb. It makes sense, that with something that strong, you would need much less of it to get the job done. Pure essential oils are highly concentrated and only a very small amount is needed to achieve the desired end result.

Some essential oils can cause photosensitization when going out in the sun

Some essential oils should not be used before going out into sunlight or sunbathing because they can cause photosensitization to the skin. What's that, you ask? It means that if you use certain citrus essential oils on your skin, (with the exception of products that wash off in the shower, such as body wash and shampoo) before exposing your skin to the sun's rays  or UV lights used in tanning beds, you may get a red rash around the area of application. Some of these essential oils do not take very much to garner this reaction, while others you can safely use in small percentages without issues.

Essential oils known to be phototoxic

  • Bergamot essential oil (maximum use to prevent phototoxic reaction 0.4%)
  • Grapefruit essential oil (maximum use to prevent phototoxic reaction 4.0%)
  • Lemon (expressed) essential oil (maximum use to prevent phototoxic reaction 2.0%)
  • Lime (expressed) essential oil (maximum use to prevent phototoxic reaction 0.7%)
  • Bitter orange (expressed) essential oil (maximum use to prevent phototoxic reaction 1.25%)
  • Mandarin leaf oil (maximum use to prevent phototoxic reaction 0.17%)
  • clementine essential oil

Non-Phototoxic citrus essential oils

  • Bergamot essential oil (FCF aka bergapten-free, this can be found at Mountain Rose Herbs)
  • Lemon essential oil (steam distilled)
  • Lemon leaf oil
  • lime essential oil (steam distilled)
  • mandarin essential oil
  • Sweet orange essential oil
  • orange leaf oil
  • tangelo essential oil

Essential oils are flammable

Do not use essential oils near an open flame as they are  highly flammable.

Introduction to Essential Oil Safety - thehippyhomemaker.com

Books that are worth a read for anyone interested in learning more about aromatherapy

There are a TON of books that you can buy on the topic of essential oils and aromatherapy. The problem is that not all of them are filled with great information on this topic! Some of the MOST informative books I have read so far and should be in everyone's library are:

  1. Essential Oil Safety – By Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young
  2. The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy – By Salvatore Battaglia
  3. Essential Oils: A Handbook for Aromatherapy Practice – By Jennifer Peace Rhind
  4. The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils: The Science of Advanced Aromatherapy – By Kurt Schnaubelt Ph.D.

  5. Aromatherapy for Health Professionals – By Len Price and Shirley Price
  6. Aromatherapy Workbook – By Shirley Price

  7. Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art – By Kathi Keville and Mindy Greene 

  8. Holistic Aromatherapy for Animals – By Kristen Leigh Bell

  9. The Animal Desk Reference – Melissa Shelton
  10. Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy – By Suzanne Catty

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