So last week I spoke about the unfortunate encounter one unlucky woman had with essential oils, which both saddened and compelled me to write about the things you need to know when using essential oils – whether it is for yourself, your family or even your pets.
A little bit about my background before we go on:
I come from the more conventional side of the wellness aisle: I’m a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA), and have been working in the medical field for over 30 years. I happened upon essential oil therapy back in the early 2000s while working at Miles Hospital in Damariscotta, Maine. I was trying to find an alternative treatment for what we call post-operative nausea and vomiting (PONV), a distressing side effect of anesthesia. Nurses traditionally use isopropyl alcohol to deal with this, but the smell can be overbearing, and I found that using the right combination of essential oil vapor significantly improved upon the age old nursing trick, and it smelled a whole lot better. Fast-forward a few years, and my DIY remedy has grown into a natural medical company that supplies over 1,000 hospitals and clinics in the US.
While it is great to see an overall rise in the use of essential oils in the US, it’s not so great to the see the number of emergency room visits and adverse outcomes rising as well.
When used correctly, EOs can provide significant wellness benefits. If not, they can pose some risks.
Here’s how to use them properly, without the unwanted mishaps:
THING TO KNOW 01: Always dilute essential oils before applying to your skin
There is a reason essential oils are sold in little bottles: They are highly concentrated, and only a few drops are needed to achieve their desired effect. They need to be used sparingly, and should always be diluted before applying to the skin, or they can cause extremely painful skin and eye irritation.
It’s also important to note that some people are just sensitive to certain essential oils, even when applied properly, and can experience a rash-like reaction. So I suggest that it is always wise to apply a small amount on the inside of your wrist (after diluting it of course) to test your EO sensitivity. You’ll know right away if it irritates your skin, and if it does, don’t continue using it.
How to dilute essential oils
The best way to dilute essential oils is to combine them with a carrier oil (some of the more common options include almond, jojoba or sesame oil). If the bottle comes fitted with a built-in dropper, you can simply turn it over and gently dispense the drops into the oil. If not, use a dropper to measure out the essential oils.
When using with Infants or young children: 3-6 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier oil
For adults: 15 – 30 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier oil
THING TO KNOW 02: Allergies are rare, but they do exist.
Thankfully, true allergies are pretty rare. Essential oils don’t contain larger molecules like proteins or amino acids that tend to set off allergic responses. They do, however, contain plenty of small molecules called haptens, which can bind to proteins in the body. When bound, they form complexes that are capable of causing an allergic reaction.
This will typically be a localized skin reaction which leads to redness, swelling, and itching. To treat it, you need to remove the essential oils from your skin with soap and water. An anti-histamine like Benadryl can help with the itching and swelling symptoms.
People with a history of environmental sensitivities will often report multiple “allergic reactions” which include headaches, nasal stuffiness, coughing and irritated throat. While not thought to be true allergies, these reactions can occur from odors — primarily strong perfumes and cleaning products.
If you are a person who has multiple allergies, or environmental or skin sensitivities, please introduce any new essential oil product cautiously. Do a tiny little skin test first to save yourself from this.
THING TO KNOW 03: Swallowing essential oils aren’t likely to kill you, but they’ll hurt.
The latest US poison center data (from 2014) shows that in a total of 2.2 million poisonings reported, the largest number of deaths across all ages (and including intentional exposures) were caused from acetaminophen-containing medications, sedatives and sleeping medications, cardiovascular drugs, opioids, stimulants and street drugs, and alcohol. It should be noted that in this report, no fatalities or serious outcomes were caused by essential oils.
Interestingly, many of these substances listed above are considered therapeutic and are generally prescribed or recommended by healthcare professionals. They don’t act like “poisons” until they are used incorrectly, much like essential oils.
A very small number of essential oil-related deaths have occurred in adults who ingested copious amounts of known toxic essential oils, believed to be the result of suicide attempts, or aborting a fetus. So yes, it’s possible, just as it’s possible to die from drinking too much coffee, or working for three days straight, but it’s hugely unlikely. If you do use EOs incorrectly or in excess, you might end up with some pretty nasty side effects: Over the years there have been rare reports of symptoms such as seizures, respiratory depression and metabolic acidosis after ingestion or inappropriate heavy skin application of essential oils in humans and animals.
My recommendations for safe and happy essential oils usage
- Educate yourself about safe essential oil use (I’ve added my favorite resources below)
- Store your essential oil in an area that is out of reach of children (and pets)
- Always properly dilute essential oils before applying to skin.
- When using with small children, pets or impaired adults, use inhaled essential oil vapor from a device designed with safety features that prevent contact with the undiluted essential oils
The multiple benefits of high-quality essential oils greatly outweigh the few predictable and preventable downsides. Their pure, all-natural characteristics easily earn them a place for multiple wellness solutions in your home. When using essential oils, common sense practices and reasonable care should be all you need to ensure safe and effective outcomes.
It’s all a matter of degree – when safely diluted, safely applied, and safely stored away, they pose little to no risk for anyone, of any age.
Til next time
For more reading, I recommend:
Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals. 2nd edition Robert Tisserand, Rodney Young, PhD. Churchill Livingston 2014
Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Healthcare. 3rd edition Jane Buckle, PhD, RN London, UK 2015.
The national association for holistic aromatherapy – https://naha.org/
Robert Tisserand, leading aromatherapy expert – http://roberttisserand.com/