Ingesting Essential Oils: Safe or Not So Much?
I have friends and colleagues who I swear are involved in an all-out love affair with essential oils. They use them daily in their homes, in their food, on their bodies…all but dousing themselves in the latest favorite scent. Or so it seems.
And I think it was right about the time my hundredth friend handed me a beverage infused with a drop of peppermint essential oil that it occurred to me I was ingesting the chemical equivalent of 15 pounds of peppermint leaves.
Please tell me I’m not the only one to find that concerning?!
Since then I’ve encountered numerous individuals ingesting these oils without so much as batting an eye (or offering a disclaimer), which motivated me to get serious about discovering the truth behind the safety of essential oil ingestion.
But where does one go to know the truth on the safety of using essential oil internally?
I believe the best way is to respectfully discuss and thoughtfully consider:
- What EXPERTS in the field of aromatherapy have to say about essential oil ingestion;
- What RESEARCH has to say about essential oil ingestion; and
- What COMMON SENSE suggests about essential oil ingestion.
So I did just that.
I compiled a database of information to assist me in reaching a personal decision on how to use my essential oils safely.
And it is my hope that this information may guide you (as it did me) in making your own wise and safe decision concerning the internal use of essential oils.
First Things First: A Quick Background on Essential Oils
Derived from botanical material (flowers, leaves, bark, roots, peel — you name it), essential oils (EOs) are volatile substances, meaning they easily evaporate, even at low temperatures. These botanical materials possesses unique chemical compositions responsible for their aroma and healing properties and are found in the oil. These oils carry the name “essential” because they easily dissolve in alcohol to form an “essence” of the flavor and odor of the plant, although others claim it’s because the oil is the “essential” life-blood of the plant.
Many essential oils contain natural chemical constitutions that are antibiotic, antiviral, and antiseptic making them excellent tools for preventing disease. And the therapeutic use of EOs is termed aromatherapy.
Within the practice of aromatherapy there are three primary methods for using essential oils on the body: topical (that is, on the skin surface), oral (by mouth – “ingestion”), and inhalation (either straight from the bottle or through the use of a diffuser). These three methods of application are also termed external, internal, and environmental, respectively.
In the practice of aromatherapy, trained therapists seek to combine or utilize each of these three methods of application, depending on the health concern.
Now, for the question at hand…
What Do the Experts Say About Essential Oil Ingestion?
First and foremost, let me be clear: essential oil companies (those who produce and/or market essential oils and those who represent them) are NOT considered an “expert” for all intents and purposes of this post.
Instead I’ve provided only information taken from independent, well-recognized, experts and organizations in the field of aromatherapy.
LEADING PROFESSIONAL AROMATHERAPY ORGANIZATIONS
–> According to the Alliance of International Aromatherapists (AIA):
AIA does not endorse internal therapeutic use (oral, vaginal or rectal) of essential oils unless recommended by a health care practitioner trained at an appropriate clinical level. An appropriate level of training must include chemistry, anatomy, diagnostics, physiology, formulation guidelines and safety issues regarding each specific internal route (oral, vaginal or rectal). (Source)
–> According to the International Aromatherapy and Aromatic Medicine Association:
Essential oils should not be taken internally. Essential oils should only be taken internally after receiving a detailed consultation and prescription from a trained and qualified aromatherapy practitioner trained in Aromatic medicine. (Source)
–> According to the Aromatherapy Trade Council:
Never take essential oils internally, unless under the guidance of a qualified aromatherapist who has received the necessary training in this very specialised [sic] mode of administration. Most aromatherapists have not had this training, so be sure to check this out first.
You may read articles in magazines and books extolling the virtues of taking essential oils internally, but you should absolutely never attempt this without expert guidance. (Source)
–> According to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA):
With regard to internal use, the safety concerns of this method of application will be explored in more depth by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy over the next two years. (Source)
–> According to AromaHead Institute, one of the leading, international education centers in therapeutic aromatherapy:
Some practitioners and teachers recommend internal use. Internal use requires knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and the chemistry of essential oils. Oils should be used via the skin and inhalation until you understand the potential interaction of drugs and essential oils, know the safe oils to use (the safety issues are different for skin and internal use), and know the right dose and route of application appropriate for internal use. Internal use also requires an understanding of pharmacokinetics–effects of the body on the oil, how the body metabolizes the oil and eliminates it, and what organs might be effected. It sounds complicated because it is—and that’s why we don’t widely recommend internal use. (Source)
LEADING INDIVIDUAL EXPERTS
–> Dr. Kurt Schnaubelt, the founder and director of the Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy emphasizes the consideration of botanical concentrations of essential oils and discusses in depth the internal use of them in chapter nine of his book, The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils: The Science of Advanced Aromatherapy:
Ingesting essential oils is a topic at the center of one of aromatherapy’s culture wars. Let us again try to diffuse some of the tension with common sense. Despite conventional assumptions, topical application of essential oils can be highly effective, as they penetrate lipophilic (fatty) skin tissue effectively and even enter the blood stream via this route. They will be metabolized eventually once they reach the liver.
Ingested essential oils, on the other hand, reach the liver very quickly where they are metabolized and eliminated [within an hour or two]. It is advantageous to ingest an essential oil only if the metabolic intermediates produced during elimination create a desired therapeutic effect and safety parameters are favorable.
–> Robert Tisserand, renown author and authority on essential oils stated recently on his blog:
I do not believe that non-practitioners should prescribe/recommend oral [internal] use of EOs… and I am wary of scenarios involving the liberal oral use of EOs for people who are not [significantly] sick. But I am not, and have never been, against sensible self-treatment using EOs orally, for a limited period of time.
He expounds on this slightly differently in his popular book, Essential Oil Safety – 2nd Edition , where he instructs:
With oral administration [of essential oils] there is a greater risk of overdose, of gastric irritation, and of interactions with medications. Therefore only practitioners who are qualified to diagnose, trained to weigh risks against benefits, and have a knowledge of essential oil pharmacology should prescribe essential oils for oral administration. (Page 49 & 50, specifically)
This same topic is likewise discussed in the 1st edition of Essential Oil Safety, where Mr. Tisserand states:
Yes there are definitely some essential oils that can be used very effectively internally, however, it is imperative that their formulation in products for internal consumption is undertaken by someone who really understands what they are working with, knows what they are doing and is able to very carefully measure out safe dosages. And even then not all essential oils can or should be used in this way.
Just because someone else tells you that they take a drop or two of an essential oil for a specific health benefit daily, or that they flavor their water with a drop of essential oil, does not mean that it is safe to do so or that it will be safe for you to do so. Keep in mind that each person’s system is quite unique and individual and not everyone’s system can deal as easily with what are relatively large doses of active ingredients.
::UPDATE: Tara over at We Got Real just recently published a wonderful interview she had with Mr. Tisserand addressing the issue of ingestion (and other EO usage guidelines). You’ll definitely want to check it out!
–> Jane Buckle, R.N. and author of, Clinical Aromatherapy*, a manual geared at instructing licensed healthcare practitioners in the methods of aromatherapy, states on pages 138 & 139 of her book:
The oral method [of essential oil use] is perfectly safe and nontoxic, provided the giver is trained in this method and appropriate dosages are not exceeded….
I believe the fear of using essential oils orally is really based on a lack of knowledge. Again, as always, education is the key
*Ms. Buckle’s book offers readers a wonderful overview of seven anomalies surrounding oral/internal use of essential oils. It’s worth the read!
–> Julia Lawless, author of The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils: The Complete Guide to the Use of Aromatic Oils In Aromatherapy, Herbalism, Health, and Well Being claims:
Due to the high concentration of essential oils (and the high toxicity of a handful of essences) it is not recommended that they [essential oils] be taken at home in this manner [internal use]. The International Federation of Aromatherapists also advises against this method of application.
–> Gabriel Mojay, author, Principal of The Institute of Traditional Herbal Medicine and Aromatherapy (ITHMA), and the Founding Co-Chair of the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists (IFPA) is quick to point out the importance of responsible and trained use of essential oils no matter what method of application. His position is well laid out in his article ‘British vs. French Aromatherapy’ – a Myth… or a Smokescreen (which is an article well worth the read).
What Does Research Say About Essential Oil Ingestion?
The previous section clearly depicts a notable pattern in expert opinion relating to EO ingestion: Use EOs internally under the guidance of a trained health professional only.
The reasoning behind their opinion carries us right into this section on research regarding the internal use of EOs.
Simply stated, studies done on essential oil ingestion in general, are not to be found.
The threshold of safe use, whether internal, topical or environmental, varies with each individual oil.
Compiling a study on the safe ingestion of essential oils would be like compiling a study on the safe use of prescription drugs. This category envelopes such a large class of drug substances, each with their own individual medicinal uses and side effects, that it is impossible to provide a blanket conclusion as to their safe use.
As we know, all of the components of essential oils affect the body one way or another. How they affect the body is what published scientific research is starting to make known to us.
That said, studies are available on an oil by oil basis and include information such as: active chemical components, molecular structure, notable safety considerations, etc. Professionals or well-trained laypersons can use this research to confidently provide a safe level of care and administration of these oils.
What Does Common Sense Suggest About Essential Oil Ingestion?
If the previous two sections teach us anything, it’s that responding to the question “is ingestion of essential oil safe?” with a simple “YES” or “NO” answer misses the point.
Essential oils are complex, potent, medicinal compounds that demand our respect, no matter how we choose to use them.
As with all natural remedies, oils have the capacity to harm or the power to heal. And when we use them irresponsibly – that is, without regard for their true strength and without a thorough education of their properties and affects on the body – we do ourselves a disservice.
Essential oils are the most potent medicinal compounds available in the natural health world. There’s a reason why they are equated with prescription drugs in their efficiency to combat viruses and bacteria. In the conventional health world, anti-bacterial drugs are prescription medication, in light of their potential for harmful effects when used incorrectly.
Consequently, common sense would suggest we approach EOs with the same respect we would with prescription drugs, internalizing them only when absolutely necessary and with the utmost caution.
Furthermore, essential oils can be nearly 10 times stronger when ingested than the same dose applied topically.(Source) This certainly constitutes a wake-up call when evaluating safety concerns between the three methods of application. Given the rapid and almost complete absorption of essential oils ingested orally, as well as their direct and undiluted interaction with the soft body tissues when taken internally…
Common sense would suggest internal use of EOs has the highest potential for toxic effects.
Lastly, essential oils are readily absorbed through the skin and can consequently affect most of internal organs and systems of the body by external use. Simply put, ingestion of essential oils need not happen often.
Given this, common sense would suggest we utilize the safer applications of these oils, and leave internal applications to trained professionals who know the safest and best options for each individual.
At the End of the Day…
One of the main purposes of this blog is to equip others to take charge of their health and vitality and nature supplies us with a great many tools to use in accomplishing this goal.
Are essential oils part of our toolkit for achieving better health?
You bet! And with basic training there are many ways for the lay person to use them.
But please be wise in your applications of these natural remedies.
It’s my hope that by seeing the range of information in this post you are better equipped to make your own decision regarding the safety of essential oil ingestion.
To your health!
“Challenges Facing Essential Oil Therapy: Proof of Safety” by Robert Tisserand
“Using Essential Oils Safely” by Lea Harris
“Essential Oil Safety – Internal Use” by West Coast Institute of Aromatherapy