My Take on Essential Oils

If it’s natural, it must be safe! Right? Not exactly. There’s a common misconception that chemical compounds made in a laboratory are always dangerous, while those assembled by Mother Nature are inherently safe. It would be nice if this were always the case, but it just isn’t so. It’s obvious, if we stop to consider that arsenic and cobra venom, seriously dangerous substances, are both quite natural.

Essential oils are also natural. But, being the skeptic that I am, after hearing from a number of people that essential oils will cure pretty much anything, I started asking two questions: are they effective—do they do what they claim to do—and, more importantly, are they safe?

Wikipedia defines an essential oil as:

… a concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile chemical compounds from plants. … An essential oil is “essential” in the sense that it contains the “essence of” the plant’s fragrance—the characteristic fragrance of the plant from which it is derived.

What does this mean? Hydrophobic refers to the fact that the liquid doesn’t mix with water. That makes sense, as we’re talking about an oil. Volatile indicates that it evaporates easily, and in this case, completely.

I also learned that these oils are separated from the plants that formed them by a variety of methods, depending on their chemical properties, and that there are hundreds of essential oils, with more than 90 in common use.

What do you do with an essential oil? Some are inhaled for their strong scents. Others may be rubbed on the skin. The oils are used in cosmetics and perfumes, and at times (in very small quantities) in foods. And finally, there is some encouraging research on using essential oils as pesticides, which is probably why the plants make them in the first place.

Now for my questions. First, do they work? The Wikipedia comment on aromatherapy is instructive: “Aromatherapy may be useful to induce relaxation, but there is not sufficient evidence that essential oils can effectively treat any condition.[i] Other sites (mainly those not selling anything) tend to agree:

If essential oils merely smell good, then you can decide if their scents are worth your money. But then there is my second question: are they safe? After all, it can be dangerous to assume that they’re safe when in fact they’re not.

Well, there are definitely hazards.

First, anyone may be allergic to anything, and essential oils are no exception. No matter how they’re used, there is the possibility of an allergic reaction, from a simple rash to anaphylactic shock.

All essential oils are potentially poisonous, depending on the dose. Although they’re not meant to be swallowed, children can be attracted to the pleasant smell and decide to take a taste. Depending on the oil, swallowing even a small amount can cause large problems— agitation, convulsions, seizures, respiratory failure, digestive distress, brain swelling, abnormal EEGs, hallucinations, unconsciousness, and even death.

Surprisingly, although essential oils may have an enticing aroma, they taste pretty awful. Children have been known to choke at the unexpected flavor, accidentally inhaling some of the oil, and aspirating even a small amount can lead to pneumonia.

You don’t have to  swallow the oils to encounter problems. They are frequently rubbed onto the skin, where they are absorbed. Children, with their thinner skin, absorb a higher dose than adults. Even if you’re not allergic to the chemicals (and yes, they qualify as chemicals, even if they’re naturally derived), many of these oils can cause irritation, dermatitis, and burns, all of which may be severe.

Inhaling the oils has its own set of risks. Oils are frequently added to a vaporizer to relieve congestion. But eucalyptus and peppermint, two oils often used in this way, contain compounds called phenols that can irritate the respiratory system.

These compounds can cross the placenta, affecting an unborn baby. Recent research suggests that lavender and tea tree oils, which contain both estrogen-like and testosterone-inhibiting chemicals, may cause breast growth in young boys.

“I would certainly advise teens and children not to use essential oils,” says Jessica Krant, MD, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York City.

The risks are real. The Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Tennessee Poison Center reports that “Between 2011 and 2015, reports of toxic exposures to these oils—such as tea tree oil—doubled. Even more alarming, four out of every five cases were in children.”

Given the potential hazards, and the lack of evidence that the oils do more than smell good, you may want to consider this recommendation from the National Poison Control Center:

If, for some reason, you have bottles of essential oils at home, consider discarding them (safely) if you have young children. Otherwise, they MUST be locked up, out of sight and reach of children and pets—all the time.

The bottom line? If you enjoy the scents, go ahead and enjoy essential oils. Don’t expect a miracle cure. And use them safely, keeping them far away from children.

[i] Lee, Myeong Soo; Choi, Jiae Choi (2012). “Aromatherapy for health care: an overview of systematic reviews”. Maturitas. 3 (71): 257–260.

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