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Safe Use of Essential Oils

By: Kelly Smith

By definition, an essential oil is a concentrated liquid comprised of the volatile aromatic compounds isolated from plant parts. Throughout antiquity, humanity has utilized botanicals for preventative and healing properties. The technological innovation of the past couple centuries has expanded our aromatic horizons. With advanced essential oil manufacturing methods such as solvent extraction, the availability of obscure essential oils in present times would blow the mind of the father of aromatherapy, Gattefosse (circa the early 1900’s). Usage of essential oils has grown in popularity since the turning of the 21st century, and the modern perspective of aromatherapy has been blurred by economic demand and capital gain. Generally, people in today’s society seek instant gratification, and believe that more is better. This outlook is being applied to the practice of aromatherapy in recent years, to the detriment of those irresponsibly executing aromatherapy. The intention of this article is to inform, educate and caution those who utilize essential oils, especially in regards to ingestion.

Just because something is natural or derived from something natural, doesn’t mean it can’t hurt you. Arsenic, a deadly poison, is a natural substance; as is bitter almond essential oil, also a deadly poison because it is comprised of hydrocyanic acid (a.k.a. cyanide). With that being said, essential oils should be utilized with care and respect. When executed safely, aromatherapy can improve your quality of life by uplifting/balancing your state of mind and can therapeutically address the side effects of many health issues. The administration of natural remedies has been blurred by modern medical techniques. For example, an old remedy for ocular wellness was to drink 2-4 cups of sage tea a day, for up to 6 months, to improve vision or eye problems. Now, there are multilevel marketing companies advocating undiluted drops of clary sage oil, applied directly to the eye ball. This application is far too invasive, and can cause blindness (Koeppen). “You should never assume that any particular essential oil has the exact same medicinal properties as its original plant form…they are so concentrated, they can work very differently” (naturalfamilytoday.com; Pruitt, V.).

With the growing popularity of aromatherapy, there has been a disheartening increase in the amount of lethal cases of essential oil overdose. Modern demands for instant gratification are now erroneously being applied to healthcare, wellness, and cosmetics. There now exist multilevel marketing companies that distribute essential oils along with their proprietary oil blends. These companies are advocating oral ingestion of their products, claiming that ingestion of essential oils is safe and will cure illness & disease, and even promote weight loss. These claims are not backed by clinical data. Some of the popular ingredients in those dangerous blends are nutmeg and peppermint. There are two specific articles that are included in the literature cited section, “Nutmeg Poisoning” and “A Near Fatal Case of High Dose Peppermint Oil Ingestion – Lessons Learnt”, as overdose information. Eucalyptus oil is another popular ingredient in multilevel marketing blends. “When taken internally, eucalyptus oil is toxic, and ingestion of as little as 3.5 mL has been reported to be fatally toxic” (Khan, Ikhlas, p.272). These forms of poisoning are referred to as acute toxicity.

The International Federation of Aromatherapists states that “No Aromatherapist shall use essential oils for internal ingestion or internal application, nor shall any Aromatherapist advocate or promote such use of essential oils”. Even National Cancer Institute states that “aromatherapy is rarely taken by mouth…the lack of standard method has led to conflicting research on side effects”. An article from aromaceuticals.com describes the short and long term complications of ingesting essential oils. Short term: burning of mucous membranes of the mouth and/or throat, reflux, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, and contraindications with medications and anesthesia. Long term: All of the previous symptoms plus liver cancer and failure, fatty tissue disease, liver enlargement, and kidney failure (Koeppen, 2013). Robert Tisserand explains that “digestive enzymes can destroy some types of essential oil constituents, and the presence of food has extremely unpredictable effects on absorption in the blood stream…all cases of serious poisoning from essential oils arise after oral ingestion.” (p. 50). So there is no way to know how your body is going to process the oils you are ingesting due to the ham sandwich you had for lunch, or maybe the liquor drink you had to wind down at the end of the day. There are many other ways to execute aromatherapy in a safe manner, that don’t involve the painful and dangerous side effects associated with essential oil ingestion.

Again, less is more with essential oils. The British method of aromatherapy advocates that essential oils should never be ingested, and should always be diluted with a carrier when applied topically. The German method also shuns ingestion, and advocated direct inhalation as a therapeutic application in aromatherapy. You will obtain ample therapeutic value from essential oils by diffusing them into the air, or applying topically diluted in a cold pressed oil. Keep in mind that an essential oil is comprised of volatile components that are as condensed as they can possibly be. One drop of essential oil is roughly the equivalent of 75 cups of herbal tea (hubpages.com; Tea, L.). When you ingest essential oils everyday over a sustained period of time, phytochemicals accumulate in the liver and inundate your system. This sends your liver and kidneys into overdrive to process all of the built up chemicals, not to mention that the stagnant phytochemicals turn toxic as they await processing. This form of poisoning is called chronic toxicity. “A relatively small quantity of a toxic essential oil, if applied daily for several months, could cause…tissue damage in the liver and kidneys” (Tisserand, p. 47).

In conclusion, NEVER ingest essential oils! Essential oils should not be used on persons who are seriously ill, the elderly, babies, or those with liver and kidney disease, or epilepsy. Aromatherapy is best executed through the topical application of essential oils diluted in a carrier base, through inhalation, or diffusing. The intended purpose of this article is to convey the importance of safe application of essential oils, and to compile references for the general public to refer to for accurate information on the practice of aromatherapy.

Literature Cited

Cushny, A.R. “Nutmeg Poisoning”. Web. 1908. http://www.hubpages.com

Khan, Ikhlas; Abourashed, E. “Leung’s Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients – Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics”, 3rd Ed. John Wilet & Sons, Inc. New Jersey. 2010.

Koeppen, Katharine. “Naked Aromatherapy – The truth laid bare update”. Web. June 25, 2013. http://www.aromaceuticals.com

Kristen. “Essential Oils: Questions About Dilution and Ingestion”. Web. November 10, 2013. http://www.theessentialfamily.com

National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy. Web. http://www.naha.org

National Cancer Institute. “Aromatherapy and Essential Oils”. Web. October 16, 2012. http://www.cancer.gov

Ozbek,H; Ozturk, A.; Ozturk, M.; Cevlan, E.; Yener, Z. “Determination of Lethal Dose of Volatile and Fixed Oils of Several Plants”. Web. http://www.naturalfamilytoday.com

Pruitt, Vanessa. “How To Use Essential Oils Safely”. Web. July 24, 2013. http://www.naturalfamilytoday.com

Soumyas, N.; Pandey, C.; Roy, D. “A Near Fatal Case of High Dose Peppermint Oil Ingestion – Lesson Learnt”. Web. November 2012. http://www.aromaceuticals.com

Tea, Lee. “Why Are All the Articles that Suggest Ingesting Essential Oils is Safe Written by Young Living Sales Reps?”. Web. http://www.hubpages.com

Tisserand, Robert; Balacs, Tony. “Essential Oil Safety – A Guide for Health Care Professionals”. Churchill Livingstone. New York. 1995.

Safety References

National Poison Data System. http://www.aapcc.org

Poison Control 1.800.222.1222

Animal Poison Control 1.888.426.4435