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8 Ways Essential Oils Can Be Harmful

Essential oils may be natural, but they’re not always safe — here’s why

If you ask us, nothing beats burning essential oils and curling up with a book after a long day. Essential oils have been around forever, but they’ve burst back onto the health and wellness scene in recent years. Our social media feeds are flooded with friends touting their value, and while essential oils do have plenty of proven benefits — such as helping with anxiety, stress and mental clarity — they can also be harmful if not used correctly. After all, they’re powerful extracts, and they need to be used carefully.

We asked the experts for the lowdown on essential oils so you can use the aromatic oils for the right reasons.

They’re not regulated in the U.S.

In the United States, the FDA doesn’t regulate the essential oil market. In fact, Jessie Hawkins, director at the Franklin Institute of Wellness, says oils are classified as dietary supplements. As such, the labels on oils can be misleading in terms of purity and potency. Not all oils are created equal — some products aren’t therapeutic-grade and others may contain other fragrances, contaminants and chemicals that detract from the quality of the oil. To ensure you’re using the best essential oils, go straight to the source, like your aromatherapist.

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They can interact with medications

Essential oils are the essence or extract of plants, and some oils have major contraindications. As Hawkins explains, they can affect the way medications are metabolized in the body. She says essential oils can especially impact the effectiveness of antidepressants and antianxiety medications.

“For example, lavender essential oil has strong antianxiety properties — it’s even a prescription in Germany — so if you ingest it along with antianxiety medication, it can cause problems,” she tells SheKnows.

Wintergreen is another one to watch out for. It’s a type of aspirin, so it shouldn’t be used while on blood-thinning medication. Likewise, peppermint oil can interfere with antiplatelet and anticoagulant drugs as well as some diabetes medications.

Essential oils may be natural, but they’re not always safe — here’s why
Image: Getty Images/Design: Ashley Britton/SheKnows

They have a toxicity level

Since they’re so concentrated, essential oils have a toxicity level, and it’s important to dilute certain oils for safety reasons. According to Hawkins, “Many people don’t know how to dilute them properly.”

Wintergreen is a good example — it’s known for its pain-relieving properties, but it’s potent and can be dangerous if ingested in its pure essential oil form. To use it safely, dilute a very small amount in a "carrier oil," such as coconut oil or olive oil.

They’re not always safe for ingestion

Some essential oils may be safe to consume in small amounts (under the guidance of a certified aromatherapist), while others should be avoided.

“We can look at oils in the same way as over-the-counter medications. They’re safe to use, generally speaking, but they can be harmful if not used properly,” Hawkins says.

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Tea tree oil, lemon oil and lime oil can disrupt the digestive tract and cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain if ingested incorrectly. The same goes for ginger, frankincense and spearmint oil.

Remember: Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe.

They can irritate skin

“To be honest, we see more issues with topical application,” Hawkins says.

Some people are sensitive to botanicals, and many oils can irritate the skin if applied directly. For instance, lemongrass, cinnamon leaf, citronella and oregano oil are all quite corrosive, so it’s important to dilute them in a moisturizing carrier oil.

“Skin irritation is the most common reaction for the average person, but in extreme cases, [applying essential oils] can result in contact dermatitis. There was a case documented where someone applied peppermint oil and it burnt their skin so badly, they had to get a skin graft, “ Hawkins warns.

They can cause photosensitivity

Applying essential oils can also result in photosensitivity, which causes your skin to burn when exposed to sunlight.

“Citrus oils such as bergamot, lemon and lime can have an adverse effect in that you’ll get a sunburn when you normally wouldn’t have, which can then lead to blisters,” Hawkins explains.

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And what about beauty products? Many skin care brands use essential oils, but Hawkins says to read labels carefully or ask an aromatherapist for advice if you’re unsure about their safety.

“Aromatherapists have learnt that bergamot oil is great for wrinkles, and they’ll often prescribe anti-wrinkle products containing it — but they’ll tell their clients to apply them at night to avoid sun exposure,” Hawkins tells SheKnows.

They may lead to allergic reactions

Essential oils can also cause the same kind of allergic response as their dried herb counterparts. For instance, those allergic to ragweed may also react quite strongly to chamomile oil.

They’re not all safe for pregnant women

During pregnancy, obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Joseph Sgroi says women can use essential oils and carrier oils for massages, compresses and baths to reduce anxiety, aches and pains. The key is to use the highest-quality oils and in small amounts.

“Only use one drop of essential oil at a time. The recommended dilution is 1 percent or less for all skin applications. In the bath, pregnant women should add no more than four drops of essential oil,” Sgroi tells SheKnows.

“Often, pregnancy carries the stigma of a no-go zone for massages and aromatherapy treatments. On the contrary, pregnant women can greatly benefit from essential oils,” he says.

However, Sgroi says there are some oils that should be avoided completely, as they may irritate the skin and respiratory system.

“These include sassafras, wormwood, cassia, pennyroyal, mustard and elecampane.”

He also advises steering clear of the following essential oils during pregnancy:

  • Oregano
  • Thyme

  • Savoury 

  • Clove

  • Cinnamon

  • Cumin
  • Aniseed
  • Fennel

  • Anise star

  • Sweet birch

  • Wintergreen



With a little common sense and a few tips, essential oils can be part of your relaxation routine — just be sure to use them properly.

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