safe use of essential oils

If you subscribe to the notion that essential oils have various medicinal, therapeutic, and energetic properties, you already understand why you must approach them with reverence, respect, and care. 

Said differently: if you appreciate that essential oils can powerfully impact the body, mind, and spirit, you can likely also appreciate how their careless use can have an adverse effect on same. That doesn’t mean you can’t delight in your exploration or be playful in your discovery of them. (Confession: for years, my greatest joy came in just sniffing the bottles!)

These are just a few of the guidelines and insights I share with my aromatherapy clients and students to keep their initial exploration of essential oils as safe as possible.

basic guidelines & insights

Herbal MedicineEssential oils are powerful and concentrated. Essential oils should be used thoughtfully and with care. Blends intended for therapeutic purposes should be created with the advice of a trained aromatherapist or in conjunction with a recipe provided by an individual qualified to account for the recipe’s safety. (Note: There are far fewer trained aromatherapists than there are people calling themselves aromatherapists. Take credentials seriously: don’t be afraid to ask someone to share how they came by their expertise.)

Store your essential oils thoughtfully.  All aromatherapy products and essential oils should be stored out of the reach of children. To avoid oxidation, essential oils should be kept in a cool, dark place and their exposure to oxygen should be limited. Avoid exposing them to heat and direct light. Ideally, they should be kept at about 65 degrees F in a colored glass bottle with a tight seal and minimal exposure to oxygen in the bottle.

Generally speaking, I don’t recommend using essential oils neat (undiluted) on the skin. Some essential oils are phototoxic, others present skin sensitivity issues, still others can be downright burning on the skin. While there are some essential oils that I would entertain using undiluted, even they can pose a risk of sensitization, especially after long-term use. Also, I don’t see a need for undiluted use as it’s both expensive and typically more than one needs to address one’s concern. As a result, I recommend you dilute essential oils with an appropriate carrier when they are intended for topical use. A rate of anywhere from 5 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier to 18 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier may be warranted depending upon the oil(s), the intended use, and the intended recipient.

Lavender spa treatment on wooden backgroundUnless you have received appropriate aromatherapy training, I generally don’t recommend broadly using essential oils topically in greater than a 3% dilution. (Three percent dilution is about 18 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier.) Because of issues such as skin sensitization, oxidation, photo toxicity, and the like, some essential oils are recommended in even lower dilution — particularly for sensitive populations like infants, the elderly, and the like. Blends should generally be diluted even more when they are intended for a pregnant or lactating woman, an elderly individual, a child, or someone with compromised immune function. Some essential oils are contraindicated altogether for these populations as well as for individuals taking certain supplements, medications, etc.

Always check an appropriate reference for safety concerns and contraindications unique to the essential oil(s) you intend to use and your intended recipient– and remember, the best safety resource may not be the oil’s manufacturer.

Always check the information for your oils for details about possible skin reactions. Read up on the specific oils you are working with–and be weary of marketing materials disguised as “data sheets”. Test every new blend or dilution on a small patch of skin before applying it. In the event of sensitization, wash off the area with mild soap and apply pure carrier oil to the affected area. If irritation persists or worsens, seek appropriate medical attention.

Avoid the use of phototoxic citrus essential oils before sunbathing, skiing or other intense sun exposure. Many citrus oils (including Lemon, Bergamot, cold-pressed Lime, Grapefruit, and more….) can cause photosensitivity and serious skin burns. (Some oils, like distilled Lime, are okay with the right distilling method, but you will want to be absolutely sure to avoid the risk of injury!)

Know your source. Some retailers sell oils that have already been diluted or include synthetic fragrance. Some can’t tell you anything about where an oil came from or how it was procured. (Was it steam distillation? A solvent? Is that Lime possibly photoxic due to having been cold pressed as opposed to steam distilled?)

In my opinion, the highest-quality sellers will not only provide a pure product, they will provide evidence of their product’s quality in the form of readily available details including the Latin name of the oil’s source, the distillation method, and country of origin.

In addition, many suppliers will provide you with a gas chromotography/mass spectrometer (GC/MS) report for every batch of oil.

The very best essential oil providers typically have direct relationships with their distillers which can also add real dimension to their knowledge and your use.

Do your homework. Invest in a reputable book or other resource that you can use to safely engage with essential oils. (Hint: marketing materials created by a multi-level marketing company trying to sell you the oils do not count!) Look to independent industry experts such as Robert Tisserand, Andrea Butje, Kurt Schnaubelt, Lora Cantele. Liz Fulcher, Rhiannon Lewis, Gabriel Mojay, and others to anchor your blending in safe guidelines not only for the oil, but also the intended recipient based on age, health history, constitution, and the like. (The safety “bible” for many aromatherapists is Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young’s tome, Essential Oil Safety, Volume II.) In addition, industry experts like Dr. Robert Pappas often share insight into trends associated with adulteration, particularly for more expensive, threatened, or rare essential oils.

Know your intended recipient. MANY things inform what makes and keeps a blend safe for the intended recipient: age, health history, medications, pregnancy/breastfeeding, and so on. Be deliberate in sourcing the appropriate safety information for the oils you intend to use, the person using them, and the method in which the resulting product will be used (i.e., topically, diffuser…). Some essential oils have unique contraindications for young children, pregnant and lactating women, the elderly, and those with suppressed immune systems. Blends for children, pregnant/lactating women, and the elderly should be thoughtfully considered and almost always made at a lower dilution.

There are a number of situations in which a specific oil should not be used by certain populations due to safety concerns. Such situations might include pregnancy/lactation, the relative age of the user, a history of epileptic seizures or other seizure disorders, use of blood thinners, etc. ALWAYS CHECK individual oils for safety concerns  that are relevant to the intended recipient or user(s) of a given blend.

Blending for babies, children, and the elderly or those with chronic health concerns poses unique safety challenges. Here again, some essential oils are altogether contraindicated for certain populations and some methods of exposure are not recommended. Be thorough in your consideration of the intended recipient, the oils you are entertaining using, and the unique safety concerns for both.

Individuals with asthma, allergies, skin and/or chemical sensitivities should proceed cautiously in working with essential oils, preferably in partnership with a qualified aromatherapist and medical professional.

pregnant bellyThere are quite a few essential oils that should be avoided altogether during pregnancy–and still others that should be restricted. Generally speaking, we don’t recommend using essential oils in the 1st trimester of pregnancy at all. Use of essential oils in the second and third trimester should only occur after one has checked for contraindications, assured a safe blend, and confirmed an appropriate dilution, preferably under the care of a qualified health care practitioner and educated aromatherapist. Check to make sure you are working with an oil that is safe — and in a safe dilution — before using it during pregnancy or for a pregnant client. You can find a shortlist of the most basic guidelines for blending for lactating and pregnant mamas here.

There are risks associated with the use of some essential oils for individuals with cancer, epilepsy, high blood pressure, and/or low blood pressure. Always check for specific contraindications and safety concerns before using an individual oil or incorporating it into a blend. Some, such as Rosemary, Hyssop, Black Pepper, Clove, Sage, and Fennel (to name just a few), have specific contraindications for unique populations. Always double-check the essential oils you intend to use in conjunction with the health profile and medications for your intended recipient.

In my opinion, ingestion and/or internal use of essential oils should only occur under the advisement of a qualified professional with appropriate medical, clinical, and pharmacological training. Our bodies were not designed to ingest essential oils nor are our fragile and permeable mucous membranes equipped to handle them orally, vaginally, or rectally without proper formulation. Internal use must be informed by both medical and aromatherapeutic expertise as otherwise many oils can burn the esophagus or mucous membranes, negatively impact liver and kidney function, incite gastritis, and worse. (For more on my thoughts on internal use of essential oils, click here…) If you want information about internal use, find a qualified aromatic medicine practitioner.

That doesn’t mean you can’t use essential oils in other ways in your daily life: essential oils are incredibly effective when used thoughtfully and appropriately–even in the smallest quantities–in a host of other ways. Aromatherapists use a variety of methods (including aromatherapy inhalers, diffusion, steam inhalation, lotions, creams, balms, salves, butters, and sprays, to name a few) to safely and effectively create appropriate blends for beauty, wellness, comfort, and delight.

Still contemplating internal use based on something you heard elsewhere? Consider what the Alliance of International Aromatherapists had to say on the subject:

AIA Internal Use Statement

If you are interested in blending safely for diverse clients with a wide variety of oils and need both a more comprehensive and specific form of reference, I cannot recommend Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young’s work, Essential Oil Safety, Volume II, highly enough!

If you’re interested in learning more so that you can safely and effectively work more deliberately with essential oils, I highly recommend taking an aromatherapy course from a trained instructor. If you’re in or around northern Idaho (or need another reason besides mountains, lakes, hiking, skiing, fishing, mountain biking, trees, and wildlife to take a trip to scenic Sandpoint, ID), I offer a variety of courses from short introductory workshops to two-day classes on the therapeutic uses of essential oils. Check out the Untamed Workshop or the Untamed Alchemy Facebook page for further details–feel free to email me with any questions you might have, too!

If you aren’t free to join a course in the Untamed Workshop, Aromahead offers amazing online courses for individuals wanting to learn more about aromatherapy including a fantastic, free online introduction to working essential oils.

Not ready to take a class but wanting to incorporate the use of essential oils for balance and wellness in your life? There are several resources I would trust to provide you with safe, effective recipes that will empower your exploration of essential oils, the first being the fabulous blending ideas and recipes available from Aromatics International.

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*NOTE: These guidelines are intended to provide a beginner with a safe framework for exploring essential oils, not to serve as absolutes around aromatherapy. With some education, a skilled aromatherapist can absolutely blend outside of the guidelines outlined above, but they should have the additional knowledge necessary to safely do so!

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