The dangerous practices of consuming essential oils and applying them undiluted on the skin have gone viral on the internet, chat rooms and via sale representatives of many dōTERRA and Young Living MLM representatives. Beware of anyone who tells you to ingest essential oils either by putting a few drops in your water or putting them into a capsule. The only cases of death, organ failure and hospitalization in the history of aromatherapy have been caused by ingesting essential oils. It is THAT dangerous.
Another dangerous practice many dōTERRA and Young Living representatives teach is to apply essential oils undiluted directly on your skin. Please don’t.
I am so passionate about the safe use of essential ones that I dedicated an entire chapter to it in my book The Art, Science and Business of Aromatherapy. I decided to share a section Chapter 10 in response to the overwhelming number of people I am hearing from who are being taught to ingest essential oils and use them undiluted. Please share with your friends and family. Keep aromatherapy safe.
My Top 12 Aromatherapy Safety Rules from Chapter 9 of The Art, Science & Business of Aromatherapy
History and safety testing have given us useful aromatherapy data. For review of this chapter, please study the following twelve rules that I think are the most important when it comes to using essential oils safely.
Do not ingest essential oils. Even if you read a book by an aromatherapist from a country that uses essential oils internally, they should never be consumed. The practice of consuming essential oils is dangerous and was designed to be done under the care of an aromatherapist trained in that form of therapy. Also, please keep in mind that oil and water don’t mix, so when consuming essential oils in a glass of water the oils are not emulsified. This means that the essential oils reach your mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach undiluted.
Always dilute your essential oils before applying them to the skin. There are a very small handful of exceptions to this rule including lavender and tea tree which can be occasionally applied neat, or directly, to the skin. In different aromatherapy books there may be recommendations of essential oils over 3% in massage oils but it simply isn’t necessary. Less is more in the world of essential oils. There is no need to over use and it is always better to be safe than sorry.
Essential oils are incredibly potent and need to be dispersed into a carrier before applying them to the skin. You wouldn’t wrap your body in 30 lbs. of plant material so don’t apply that much or more directly onto your skin.
Typically, essential oils are diluted into products at 1 to 3% – sometimes less and sometimes more, but that is the general rule of thumb. Some essential oils have an intense aroma and price tag combination that allows for their use as low as 0.1% Take jasmine, blue chamomile and neroli for example.
Essential oils are incredibly potent and need to be dispersed into a carrier before applying them to the skin. Typically, essential oils are diluted into products at 1 to 3%–sometimes less and sometimes more, but that is the general rule of thumb. Some essential oils have an intense aroma and price tag combination that allows for their use as low as 0.1%. Take jasmine, blue chamomile and neroli for example.
Raindrop Technique and AromaTouch Technique are good examples of the use of undiluted and high of concentrations of essential oils. Raindrop Technique is a method is the practice of dripping pure undiluted essential oils directly onto the skin which has many adverse effects. People have had burns, skin irritation, and intense sensitization that could have been avoided if this dangerous practice was no longer taught. AromaTouch is the practice of massaging a series of 1 to 3 drops of undiluted essential oils onto a subject and massaging it in. The human body does not need to large doses of essential oils, and the skin should not come in direct contact with undiluted essential oils. Please report injuries at the Atlantic Institute. You can read the 2014 Injury Report here. You can read the October 2015 Injury Report here or read the statistical break down of the 2015 report here.
As the debate rages on over undiluted usage I wonder, “Why not dilute?” A chorus of trained aromatherapists, as well as aromatherapy organizations, are all recommending that consumers dilute essential oils. So why not dilute essential oils if the practice will decrease your risk of sensitization, irritation, inflammation and adverse skin reactions?
If you skin develops a rash, becomes red and irritated, develops a rash or blisters—that is not your body detoxifying. As Dr. Pappas puts it, “A rash or burn from an essential oil is basically your skin screaming at you ‘hey, stop that and stop it now!’” I have received countless desperate emails from people who were told that they were just detoxifying, only to find out that they have a chemical burn or have developed sensitization.
Dr. Pappas debunks the detox theory thoroughly in Essential Oil Myth #6 in which he says in part, “Let’s just think about this logically for a second. Let’s imagine you rub poison ivy on your skin and you get a really bad rash. Is that just your body detoxing? Of course not. Come on people, if you get a rash or burn from putting something on your skin it’s because it’s IRRITATING YOUR SKIN. Furthermore, this ‘detox’ explanation seems to ignore the very definition of what it means to detox. Generally, a detox reaction is a response that the body undergoes when it has something TAKEN AWAY from it. Think of the body of a drug addict ‘detoxifying’ during the withdrawal process as he tries to get off the drugs. But in the case of using an essential oil on your skin we are ADDING something new to our bodies that your body has no prior experience with, any bad reaction could not logically be classified as a detox reaction”
Keep all essential oils out of the reach of children; they are notorious for putting everything in their mouths. Compared to adults, essential oils should be used in half the dosage rate for children for topical application. They are not miniature adults, and their bodies were not designed to process the same ratio of essential oils on their skin. I have safely used aromatherapy on all three of my children since 1998.
I heard of a case of a woman who read that tangerine essential oil would help with hyperactivity in children. She decided to put undiluted tangerine essential oil directly on the palms of her child’s hands. Thankfully, tangerine is a safe enough essential oil and the child suffered no serious ill effect. But she had decided to try it on a day that the child had a big test to take at school, and the high concentration of tangerine oil knocked the child out for the entire day and he slept through his test, lunch, dinner…and into the next morning.
Stay with the tried and true essential oils until you have a solid understanding of essential oil chemistry. Avoid ones that are not the common essential oils used historically in aromatherapy. Unless you understand the chemistry, it is best to stick with the commonly used essential oils. A trained aromatherapist can read the chemical composition of an essential oil profile and make an educated decision about the safety of an essential oil. But without that training you would not know whether you should avoid or use essential oils based on their chemical composition of aldehydes, esters, ketones, phenols, and monoterpene hydrocarbons.
Know which essential oils to avoid or use with caution. Avoid them even if you like the way they smell or the properties that you read about them. For example, let’s look at wintergreen and sweet birch. Whether methyl salicylate is naturally occurring or synthetic, it has the risk of building up in the body and becoming toxic. Wintergreen essential oil naturally contains 98% methyl salicylate and sweet birch essential oil contains approximately 90% methyl salicylate. According to an article on Medscape, “One teaspoon of 98% methyl salicylate contains 7000 mg of salicylate, the equivalent of nearly 90 baby aspirins and more than 4 times the potentially toxic dose for a child who weighs 10 kg [22 lbs.]” (Muhammad Waseem 2017).
The common warnings for anything containing methyl salicylate or acetylsalicylic acid say that they must be avoided by people who have aspirin allergies, blood clotting disorders or are taking anticoagulant drugs. Additional warnings include those with asthma, history of seizures or epilepsy, those with fragile skin and connective tissue disorders, and those with a hyper-sensitivity to salicylates or who are pregnant or breast feeding. Exposure to methyl salicylate can cause Reye’s Disease in children. Methyl salicylate may also raise red flags for those with congenital disorders, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, the elderly and purpura. Since it impacts blood clotting, anything containing methyl salicylate should be avoided altogether, before or after surgery. Wintergreen must absolutely be avoided by anyone taking blood-thinning drugs, since it increases the action of the drugs.
Health Canada restricts anything containing methyl salicylate to 1% for topical application. According to Clinical Advisor, salicylic toxicity can occur from an acute exposure or from lower doses taken over time, internally and topically. In 2009 there were more than 29,000 poison center reports of salicylic toxicity that resulted in 22 deaths (Fletcher Penney 2017).
The FDA has a specific regulation in place for wintergreen oil in which it warns, “Because methyl salicylate (wintergreen oil) manifests no toxicity in the minute amounts in which it is used as a flavoring, it is mistakenly regarded by the public as harmless even when taken in substantially larger amounts. Actually, it is quite toxic when taken in quantities of a teaspoonful or more. Wintergreen oil and preparations containing it have caused a number of deaths through accidental misuse by both adults and children. Children are particularly attracted by the odor and are likely to swallow these products when left within reach” (FDA). The FDA Code of Regulations Title 21 states that “the Department of Health and Human Services regards a product as misbranded if it contains more than 5% methyl salicylate (wintergreen oil) without a warning label” (FDA Code of Federal Regulations 2017).
Use common sense. Essential oils are safe when used in moderation. Many substances on earth are toxic when used in the extreme. Too much water can lead to water poisoning, and carrots, tomatoes, saffron, and mustard will all cause illness when consumed in excess.
Always use the botanical name for essential oils when ordering. I never make an aromatherapy decision without reviewing the botanical name. The botanical name tells the genus and species of the plant and includes information about the variety, cultivar, chemotype, and hybrid when needed. Often these details are the difference between an essential oil being safe for use or not.
Check contraindications of an essential oil before using it. You don’t want to be making a sleepy time bath with essential oils that are contraindicated for insomnia like peppermint, basil, lemon verbena, cornmint or rosemary.
Use extra caution when using essential oils on children, the elderly and pets. The dosages should be at least half for children and elderly, sometimes more. Also cats lack the liver enzyme—glucuronyl tranferase—which is important in the metabolism of essential oils. It is best to error on the side of caution by not using essential oils on cats unless you have a firm understanding of which constituents are in each essential oil that could pose a problem for our furry friends to metabolize.
The following three rules apply mostly to those who work in the aromatherapy industry or with large quantities of essential oils.
Always wear protective gear while handling essential oils. Remember that essential oils are very concentrated and should not be applied directly to the skin. If you wear gloves while handling essential oils, you lessen the chance of spilling undiluted essential oils directly onto your hands. Even if it doesn’t hurt at the moment, it could hurt later. A good example is how peppermint essential oil spilled directly onto your hands might not hurt at the moment, but later when you touch your eye, it will burn like crazy.
Work in a well-ventilated area. Remember that essential oils can enter the body through inhalation. Some essential oils can cause euphoria, sleepiness or can be extremely stimulating. In a closed space with poor circulation the essential oils can become overwhelming.
To safeguard your business, do not make healing claims about your products. That would transform your cosmetic into a drug. The rules and regulations for drugs are completely different, and aromatherapy does not qualify on any monograph for approved over-the-counter drugs.
FYI (from earlier in Chapter 10) on the Seriousness of Ingesting Essential Oils
There has never been a reported case of a woman or baby being harmed by topical or inhalation therapy used during pregnancy or labor. Aromatherapists all warn their clients away from pennyroyal essential oil due to a case in the USA in which a woman drank a large dose of pennyroyal in order to induce an abortion that proved fatal to her (Gold and Cates, 1980). One out of four cases in which pregnant women accidently drank camphor oil instead of castor oil resulted in the death of the baby (Weiss and Catalano, 1976). Another reported case in which pennyroyal and parsley seed were taken in large doses caused hepatotoxicity which resulted in the death of the baby.
There are two other cases in which women consumed the same large doses of pennyroyal (100 to 200 times the recommended topical application) in which both the mothers and the babies survived unharmed. It is cases like this that give essential oils their warnings and contraindications.
IF YOU ARE CURRENTLY EXPERIENCING AN ESSENTIAL OIL INJURY PLEASE READ: What to do When Injured While Using Essential Oils.
Other Safety Topics
Chapter 10 of my book The Art, Science and Business of Aromatherapy also includes other safety topics including: essential oil testings, grades of essential oils, drug claims, essential oil adulteration, contraindications, more safety warnings, the use of essential oils during pregnancy, the history of aromatherapy warnings in pregnancy, MSDS information along with my top 12 aromatherapy warnings. You can find it in paperback and on Kindle. The layman-friendly Abridged edition The Art & Science of Aromatherapy is available for a lower price as well.
What makes me qualified to teach about aromatherapy? I am a Certified and was a Registered Aromatherapist with more than a twenty years of experience. The references for this article and my book can be found here. I was certified by a school approved by the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy and was registered by The Aromatherapy Council.
UPDATE: You can now find The Unspoken Truth About Essential Oils on Kindle and in paperback. This book is for you if you or someone you love is seeking a true story about essential oil injury and advice on how to avoid it.
UPDATE: Many of the comments below ask for proof. Others have said injury is only caused by other brands of essential oils. Please take the time to read these articles. I have now turned comments off due to ugly and negative comments. It is clear that most attacks are coming from people who have not read this entire blog post or the comments — they simply read the title. Please read all the articles below and comments. Everything has been asked and answered. Please do not email me asking the same questions answered below. I will not engage in further arguments even if you send me a nasty email.
For further information on the subject of safety please read the links below.
- Essential Oil Safety: Documented Side Effects, Injuries, and Deaths from Essential Oil Ingestion by Lee Tea
- A near fatal case of high dose peppermint oil ingestion– Lessons learnt by US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health
- Essential oils and eye safety by Robert Tisserand
- Truth Seekers – Young Living Deposition on Personal Care Truth
- Adverse Reactions to Peppermint Oil and With Friends Like This, Who Needs Enemies by Aromaceuticals
- Sultan Yusuf Salah – Response to “Gary Young: A Somalian Adventure”
- American Essential Oil Trade Association
- Aromatherapy Studies – Dr Robert Pappas talks about his experience of Young Living and Gary Young
- Top Ten Worst Injuries from Essential Oils of 2014— Part 1 AND Part 2
- An update on Young Living, the Cinnamon Bark Testing, Me, and this Blog
- Fact or Fiction: Drinking Essential Oils is Perfectly Safe
- Fact or Fiction: The Detox Theory
- Fact or Fiction: On the Topic of FDA Approved Brands
- Fact or Fiction: On the Topic of Allergies + Sensitization
- The Safe Use of Essential Oils
- Confessions of an Aromatherapist
- Just Because it Smells Nice Doesn’t Mean You Should Use It
- Ingesting Essential Oils: Controversies and Myths Revealed
UPDATE: The negative response to this blog post by some MLM members inspired me to share what I learned from being in an MLM: 12 Signs of a Cult.
FDA ACTION UPDATE: Many commenters from Young Living and dōTERRA made claims that were against the law and linked to sites that clearly were actively breaking the law. On 9/24/2014 the FDA sent Young Living a Inspections, Compliance, Enforcement, and Criminal Investigations Warning Letter and dōTERRA a Inspections, Compliance, Enforcement, and Criminal Investigations Warning Letter. Ingestion, undiluted usage, claims of medical cures and medical treatment given by a layperson is not only dangerous, but can warrant legal action. To quote the FDA in the Young Living letter, “. . . , in light of their toxicity or other potentiality for harmful effect, the method of their use, or the collateral measures necessary to their use, they are not safe for use except under the supervision of a practitioner licensed by law to administer it.”
If you have questions please read Aromatherapy FAQ.
If you have been injured please read What to do When Injured While Using Essential Oils.
UPDATE: I never imagined the popularity of this blog post when I posted it in 2014. At the time I was on a hiatus from the industry after the sale of my company in 2011. As of December 1, 2017 I am back in the industry that I love so much. I have launched a new brand, Ology Essentials. At Ology Essentials, we take our name seriously, with a research driven brand of high quality products, fluffery-free aromatherapy certification program, experience based business consulting, and honest no-hype custom formulating services.