Essential Oil Essentials: What Is Safe Oil Usage?

Essential oils are immensely useful and are loads of fun to work with, sniff, and collect. I usually have about 80 of them at any given time! Essential oils are very concentrated aromatic oils that are distilled or pressed from plants. Similar oils, called absolutes, are obtained via solvent extraction from more delicate botanicals like tuberose and jasmine (more on these in a future article). 

Opinions abound on what is safe essential oil usage. One extreme view is that oils have too many unknowns due to lack of research and are, thus, potentially dangerous. Others may use them daily in high amounts: Applying undiluted on the skin while diffusing them all day long into the air and even drinking some daily in water.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the reality of what may be appropriate usage is somewhere in the middle. 

More is not necessarily better

Essential oils can be great support for mood, infections, pain, and so much more. But, being natural doesn’t mean that oils are innocuous. They are strong! It may take six or more pounds of lavender flowers to make just one ounce of essential oil. For thyme, it’s closer to 16 pounds. That’s a big pile of thyme for a small bottle of oil!  And that pile pales into comparison to the 300 or so pounds of rose petals it takes for an ounce of rose oil. That’s 30-50 roses per drop of essential oil

Not much essential oil is usually needed for an effect, whether it’s for fear and anxiety or for cleaning your cutting board. Using less oil means less impact on the environment, given how much plant needs to be grown to make an ounce of oil. It also means less impact on your pocketbook…who doesn’t want that?  And, it means less work for your liver and kidneys. This is particularly important for those with suboptimal liver and kidney function: The very young, the elderly, those on strong or multiple prescription drugs, etc. 

Why drinking essential oils in water may not be a good idea

We commonly stick essential oils into our mouths via toothpaste, chewing gum, breath mints, candy, even restaurant foods.  And cooking with essential oils is a fun way to enhance the flavor of your dishes. But there isn’t much data on the effects of ingesting more concentrated amounts on an ongoing basis.  We do know that oils, particularly after oral intake, may accumulate in tissues and cause toxicity over time

Essential oils added to water just float on the surface and will stick to the first mucus membranes encountered after ingestion. One of the more popular oils being added to water is lemon, a known skin and mucus membrane irritant. For the full benefits of lemon — its vitamins and flavonoids as well as natural doses of the essential oil — stick with lemon juice and peel. It doesn't really make sense to drink the oil in water. Now, consider rose oil.  One drop in your glass of water would equal the amount of oil you’d get from drinking about 30-50 cups of rose tea in one sitting. Holy cow!

Some aromatherapists will dose clients orally for a set period of time to deal with a specific health issue -- say, a nasty infection. In these cases, the oils are given in a way that reduces irritation of the mouth and digestive tract -- for instance, encapsulated together with a vegetable oil.  And they generally are not given for long periods of time. 

I recommend against ingesting oils unless cooking with them or dosing under the guidance of an aromatherapist (not a sales rep). Though, if someone wants to use their oils orally it’s important to (i) understand the chemistry of the oil, (ii) consider the necessity of swallowing it versus other modes of use, (iii) limit the amount of time the oil is used, and (iv) know appropriate ways of oral dosing.

Dilute your oils before slapping them on

Skin sensitization is a real issue. I used to use lavender and chamomile neat in small amounts, but as I’ve gotten more and more anecdotes from students and clients on chemical burns and sensitization, I’ve moved to diluting all of my oils, even the safer ones.  And guess what?  They still work just fine!  

I have a client who years ago used tea tree oil neat for athlete’s foot and she’s been sensitive to it ever since (and likely to oils with similar chemistry).  Another person, under the influence of her sales rep, rubbed undiluted frankincense oil all over her newborn infant. An infant’s liver isn’t ready to deal with such a dose of essential oil and though the little one wound up being OK, that’s a harsh beginning for that tiny liver and sensitive skin. 

Yeah, oils (mostly) smell good, but don’t get carried away snorting them

Though sniffing oils is the safest mode of use, you can still inadvertently intoxicate yourself. I blend perfumes and start getting lightheaded about 20 minutes into it, even with good ventilation.  I’ve also been OD’d by a chiropractor with ylang ylang oil and felt heavily sedated and almost drunk. In my aromatherapy workshops, some students get carried away sniffing the oils and wind up with tingling lips, dizziness, loopiness and/or headache. In fact, one student became so “high” that I was concerned about her driving home. 

To wrap it up, some simple tips….

• Dilute your oils before topical use.  There are many good books and websites out there that can provide guidance on this depending on how nerdy you want to get, for example:

Aromatherapy: A complete guide to the healing art (K. Keville, M. Green)

Essential Oil Safely, Second Edition (R. Tisserand, R. Young)

• Don’t drink your oils in water. If oral dosing seems necessary, work with an aromatherapist, do it for a limited amount of time, then stop when the issue resolves or if the issue is not going away.  

• Don’t diffuse oils 24/7. Give your liver and kidneys a break. Plus, we become desensitized to the oil after not too long, anyway. 

• Have good ventilation with fresh air when working with large amounts of oil (e.g., perfumery or other product making). 

• Avoid oils that have the risk of toxicity.  Why expose oneself to a potentially toxic oil when there are many milder ones that will work?  More on some of the oils to watch out for next time!

Why do I seem like such a nervous nelly?  First, because it can take years for damage to metabolic organs like the liver and kidneys to show up. One of my aromatherapy teachers in her earlier days wound up having elevated liver enzymes after prolonged heavy oil exposure. This means liver damage. Second, I’d rather that oils didn’t get too much notice from the FDA, with increasing numbers of folks using them and reports of adverse effects usually associated with high doses or undiluted application.  Why not reduce amounts a bit and enjoy our oils while respecting their power?