Essential oils have been around pretty much forever, but recently they’ve been enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Lately, our social media feeds have been flooded with friends and family recommending one brand of essential oils or another, claiming the fragrant cure-alls are the answer to all that ails us. And yes, essential oils are (for the most part) all natural and they do have some proven benefits — but that doesn’t mean they don’t have dangerous elements to them as well.
Here are some guidelines to keep in mind before you take the internet’s word for it and use essential oils on yourself, your children or your pets.
1. Skin discoloration, burning and sores
Some essential oils can cause you to burn in the sunlight. Before you head out to the beach or to a tanning booth, make sure you don’t have a photosensitizing oil on your skin. Reactions can range from discoloration to oozing burns. Did your friend selling oils mention that? Photosensitizing oils include, but aren’t limited to:
- Bergamot essential oil
- Lemon essential oil
- Lime essential oil
- Cumin essential oil
2. Danger to babies and pregnant women
Babies, pregnant women and breastfeeding women should use extreme caution. When dealing with babies, kids, pregnant women and breastfeeding women, oils should be heavily diluted — such as one percent of essential oil in a safe carrier oil, like coconut oil. Rosemary and spike lavender should never be used on pregnant women, even diluted. Don’t use oils at all on babies under one year of age. Your safest bet is to stick to products made specifically for babies and pregnant women instead of making something on your own or using undiluted oils. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy recommends that pregnant women avoid the following oils, among others:
- Sage essential oil
- Mugwort essential oil
- Tarragon essential oil
- Wintergreen essential oil
3. Skin irritation and itching
A drop of peppermint oil on the back of your neck can help a headache — or it can cause serious skin irritation. Many oils irritate the skin when applied undiluted. Do a small spot test before applying oils to your skin, even when they’re diluted in a moisturizing carrier oil. Don’t assume that every oil is safe to apply directly to your skin. These are just a few oils that can cause skin irritation:
- Lemongrass essential oil
- Cinnamon leaf essential oil
- Citronella essential oil
- Bay essential oil
4. Danger to small pets
Essential oils aren’t safe for pets. Unless you own a very large animal, like a horse, don’t try using essential oils on your pets. Only use essential oil products under the supervision of your vet.
5. Dangerous interactions with preexisting conditions
Even inhaling some oils can cause side effects for people with health problems. Don’t use oils on people with preexisting conditions like asthma or heart problems unless you’re working with a trained aromatherapist. Aromatherapy training involves 200 or more hours of classes, and includes studying chemistry and drug interactions. Don’t take your friend’s word for it just because they’re selling oils.
6. Illness or death when swallowed
Really hardcore essential oil enthusiasts take oils orally. This isn’t something an everyday essential oil fan should try. Oils like pennyroyal and wintergreen can be fatal if swallowed. Some toxic oils can cause miscarriage when swallowed. Others can become highly irritating when they’ve been kept on the shelf too long. Skip oral use unless you’re using oils under the supervision of a medical professional.
Don’t be afraid to use essential oils, but use them wisely. Always keep oils out of the reach of children. Treat them as you would any type of medicine. Research any essential oils and blends before you use them — as with drugs, oils have different chemical makeups and different potential side effects. If you’re nervous, start simply with a diffuser. You can enjoy many of the benefits of essential oils without having to use them directly on your body.
Originally published September 2014. Updated April 2017.