Essential Knowledge: The Dos And Don’ts When Using Essential Oils

Are essential oils safe to use? We got insight from experts who dispel common myths and answer our most pressing questions.

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We’ve all been there: sitting at our desks on a dreary Monday afternoon, imagining the long, luxurious baths that await us when we get home—nothings beats those Monday Blues like good old-fashioned self-care! Bubbles are definitely in the mix (why not?), along with music, candles, and our favorite essential oil. Maybe we’ll spice things up and add in a few drops of lavender. It’s easy to lose ourselves in the absolute bliss that comes from inhaling these sweet fragrances. Using essential oils is practically synonymous with relaxation. Plus, lavender has long been known for its calming properties, and you pretty much find it everywhere—lotions, haircare, aromatherapy, and even cleaning products. Whether these oils are harmful or not is probably the furthest thing from your mind. And if you’re anything like me, your trust that the word “natural” on a label automatically gives you a free pass from worrying about potential risks (hello, blind faith). After all, how harmful can something be if it comes from a plant? Well, turns out plenty. Essential oils aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and according to the FDA website, “many plants contain materials that are toxic, irritating, or likely to cause allergic reactions when applied to the skin.” Sure, while they aren’t as concerning as many man-made chemicals, experts believe a little precaution could do us some good. So let’s get down to it. What exactly are the risks? And more importantly, are we even using these mysterious oils correctly? Fear not—we’ve got you covered.

What are essential oils, anyway?

You probably already know that they’ve been around since forever, but have you ever wondered how these magical substances come to be? Why yes, they do originate from plants. But more specifically, they’re extracted from the petals, stems, and roots that later undergo a process of distillation (to get the essence of the plants, thus essential oils). What this means is that in order to produce even one pound of lavender oil, you have to use a whopping 220 pounds of lavender flowers! Basically, it’s liquid gold. Aside from relaxation perks, the purported therapeutic benefits of these essential oils run the gamut from mood elevation and stress relief to remedies for chronic pain, insomnia, migraine, arthritis, and more, according to the Los Angeles Times. In fact, many ancient civilizations like Egypt, China, and India have used aromatherapy as a popular alternative therapy for at least 6,000 years.

What Experts Want You to Know About Essential Oils

Here’s the scoop: If you’ve been slathering up with lavender and tree tea oil, you might want to give it some extra thought. Both have been linked to abnormal breast growth in young boys, called prepubertal gynecomastia, according to a recent study led by co-authors J. Tyler Ramsey and Kenneth S. Korach. The researchers explained by email that both oils can act as endocrine disruptors when used topically. What this means is that the boys’ sex hormones were altered, causing an increase in estrogen levels on the breast tissue the same way a woman’s body would normally develop. Boiled down, this means components found in these particular oils can mimic hormones in the human body. And this isn’t the first time lavender and tea tree oils have come under question. According to prior research from 2007 that examined three otherwise healthy young boys with abnormal breast growth, “repeated topical exposure to lavender and tea tree oils probably caused prepubertal gynecomastia in these boys.” So what’s the deal here? Should we worry, particularly if we have male children? To a degree, yes. While lavender is generally safe for adults to use, it should be avoided by boys going through puberty, says Joseph Feuerstein, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University and director of integrative medicine at Stamford Hospital, as they may be more susceptible to hormonal changes and disrupting chemicals. Above all, he recommends consulting with your doctor to be on the safe side.

Essential Oils, Science, and Your Body

We all have that one friend who swears these oils have cured her of innumerable ills, but is there any truth to her claims? Despite being a fairly ancient practice, aromatherapy research is still fairly sparse. Most of its effects are still being tested and researched, although we do have a few bits of insight regarding the scientific aspect of aromatherapy. The Physician Data Query (PDQ) summary of aromatherapy and essential oils sums up oils’ current status: “Studies of aromatherapy massage or inhalation have had mixed results. There have been some reports of improved mood, anxiety, sleep, nausea, and pain. Other studies reported that aromatherapy showed no change in symptoms.” Some research has found that oils, especially lavender, can be great for aiding those with sleeping issues. Of course, the researchers do acknowledge that more studies are needed to fully verify this. Research also suggests that aromatherapy may be beneficial for patients with dementia by alleviating pain and encouraging relaxation—that being said, the authors do state, yet again, that more research is needed before any conclusions can be made. The PDQ summary mentions one study which found that tea tree oil was just as effective as the standard ointment for treating antibiotic-resistant MRSA. Another found that cancer patients that were massaged with Roman chamomile oil felt a decrease in anxiety and improved their symptoms, while those massaged without the oil did not feel those effects.   Feuerstein says he uses an oral form of lavender oil to treat anxiety based on a randomized trial. But it’s also important to keep in mind, he warns, that these oils aren’t without their risks. “The most common reactions are local skin irritations from topical applications or systemic hypersensitivity—generalized rash, swelling and other inflammation—when taken internally.” Also important to keep in mind is that there have been few studies on the safety or effectiveness of ingesting these oils. But according to Audrey Christie McLaughlin, RN, a Texas-based certified clinical master of aromatherapy, ingesting concentrated oils can damage your gut’s microbiome and mucous membrane.

Ways to Use Essential Oils

When it comes to their effects on our skin and body, these oils are powerful enough so that just one or two drops should be more than enough, says McLaughlin. She compares this amount to equaling an astonishing 30 cups of herbal tea. You can breathe in or apply diluted versions of them on your skin through massage, lotions, or bath salts. McLaughlin recommends using diluting the oils with a vegetable-based oil such as olive or coconut oil. You can also do this with creams or bath gels. Keep in mind you’re more likely to have an allergic reaction if the percentage of pure oil is higher than 1-5 percent. Make sure to avoid rubbing oils on sensitive areas like your mouth, nose, eyes, or private parts (lemongrass, peppermint, and cinnamon are especially big no-nos). And while this is obvious, it needs to be said: Keep them far, FAR away from damaged skin. Undiluted oils can be downright dangerous when applied to injured or inflamed skin. Also, be wary of certain essential oils if you suffer from epilepsy. According to the Epilepsy Society, a UK-based epilepsy service provider,  rosemary, sage, and eucalyptus essential oils may trigger seizures in those with epilepsy. Plus, remember to look for pure oils without any added ingredients as they’re more likely to cause allergic reactions. Keep an eye out for any oils older than 3 years, too; if they’re that old, toss ’em. Most importantly, don’t overdo it. Even when diluted, an essential oil can cause a bad reaction if you use too much or use it too often. Talk with your doctor! They’re the only one who can rule out potential side-effects.

Essential Oil Guidelines

A little common sense can go a long way here. Just like anything else you put on your skin, it’s best to test a little bit on a small area and see how your skin responds. Feuerstein says it’s possible to have a local hypersensitivity reaction with any oil when applied topically—in the way of redness, swelling, and dermatitis. He advises to always patch test each oil. Apply a small amount to the forearm only before applying it to other places and then wait to see if you get a reaction which can be immediate or delayed.” He also recommends waiting until the next day after patch testing and to always refer to the oil’s label for instructions on dosage.

When it comes to your body, caution is your ally.

So far, the only oils confirmed to be hormonal mimics are lavender and tea tree oils, according to Ramsay and Korach. And while more research is needed to determine how they might affect children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, we should also keep in mind that, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, even small amounts of “endocrine disruptors may pose the greatest risk during prenatal and early postnatal development when organ and neural systems are forming.” And while these oils contain their risks, McLaughlin believes the study lacks any substantial evidence. “Frankly, the plastic water bottles people drink out of and the soy-laden food additives are a much higher concern,” she says. Although you can’t predict how your body will respond, at the end of the day, consulting with your doctor and erring on the side of precaution is your safest bet when it comes to using essential oils. And lastly: When in doubt, dilute, dilute, dilute!

Cindy Lamothe
Cindy Lamothe is a biracial writer living in Antigua, Guatemala. She has written about health, wellness, and psychology for The Atlantic, BBC, The Cut, Shondaland, The Guardian, Quartz, Teen Vogue, and The Washington Post, among other publications. Visit her site to read more of her work.

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