Essential Oils: What You Need to Know
Jul 17, 2019 Cedars-Sinai Staff
Can the scent of lavender calm your nerves?
Will a mixture of eucalyptus and coconut oils massaged on your chest to help you breathe a little easier?
Essential oils like lavender and eucalyptus have gained popularity in aromatherapy and are sometimes used as alternatives to traditional pharmaceuticals.
While they’re generally safe, there are a few things you should keep in mind if you decide to try them.
While it’s true that essential oils offer certain health benefits, they also have the potential to cause harm.
Essential oils 101
Essential oils are made by distilling the roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and bark of plants with steam or water. These highly concentrated oils are then inhaled, ingested, or can be applied to the skin through a lotion, cream, or oil.
“There are thousands of different plants that can be used to produce different extracts,” says Dr. Susan Rabizadeh, chief of dermatology at Cedars-Sinai.
And while it’s true that oils offer certain health benefits, they also have the potential to cause harm, especially in pregnant women, babies, and people who have compromised immune systems.
To enjoy aromatherapy—and play it safe—follow these essential oil dos and don’ts.
Susan M. Rabizadeh, MD, MBA
Susan M. Rabizadeh, MD, MBA
Essential oil dos
Unlike prescription and over-the-counter medications, essential oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The ingredients and percent of oil in each item varies, so it’s critical to read the fine print. Some producers even dilute oils with other ingredients.
Your best bet: Study the different oils, including their risks and benefits, and choose a trusted brand (ask your doctor or an aromatherapist for recommendations).
Use a carrier oil
Essential oils are potent, so much so that they can burn the skin.
If you’re working with a pure essential oil (without added ingredients), dilute the oil with a mild oil, such as coconut, almond, or jojoba oil—and avoid using oils—even a blend—on damaged or broken skin.
Try a test
Instead of slathering a huge amount of diluted oil all over your skin, start small with a test spot, Dr. Rabizadeh suggests. Wait 24 hours to make sure it doesn’t irritate the skin before using it more liberally.
Pay attention to the point of entry
Oils that are safe when inhaled can be toxic if eaten and vice versa.
Only ingest oils that are designed for that purpose—and check with your healthcare provider about potential interactions. Avoid applying edible oils to the skin. And don’t diffuse oils into the air if you suffer from asthma or allergies.
Essential oil don’ts
Don’t overdo it
Oils are potent. "Most oils are too strong to use straight," Dr. Rabizadeh says.
Even a small amount of diluted oil goes a long way. As with over-the-counter and prescription medications, use the lowest possible dose to achieve the desired effect.
Don’t use oils instead of meds
Oils are not a substitute for necessary prescription or over-the-counter medications.
Because they’re not FDA-approved, there are few studies regarding their safety or efficacy, especially for specific conditions.
Don’t ignore reactions
Adverse reactions to oils can be mild—such as red, irritated skin—or severe, such as chemical burns and respiratory distress.
And taking oils by mouth, even just a few drops in a water bottle, can boost the odds of a negative reaction, says registered dietitian Stephanie Cramer.
If you apply or ingest an oil and develop some sort of reaction—even a mild one—stop using the oil immediately and consult a health professional.
Don’t use photosensitive oils in the sun
Citrus oils, such as lime, lemon, and bergamot, for example, can produce a rash or even serious burns if you use them before stepping out into the sun.
Playing it safe
Just because a product is "natural" or "organic" doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the potential to cause harm.
"Poison ivy is natural, but if you rub it on the skin, you’re going to get a reaction," Dr. Rabizadeh says.
There are thousands of plant chemicals that have healing properties, but many can also interact with medications and cause allergic reactions.
"If you’re interested in using essential oils for a particular ailment, talk to a doctor who is well versed in integrative and functional medicine, or make an appointment with a certified aromatherapist—not a company sales representative," says Cramer.