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The Essential Guide to Essential Oils
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— September 15, 2018

The Essential Guide to Essential Oils

By Jodi Helmer
  • Following guidelines for safe use ensures these popular plant-based medicines will work for—and not against—you.

You cook with cinnamon and sage, and sip peppermint tea. You lather up with sandalwood soap and soak in a lavender-scented bath. You burn wintergreen candles.

The same flavorful and aromatic herbs used all around the house, however, can create problems when used incorrectly as essential oils.

“Essential oils are highly potent, plant-based compounds,” says Eric Zielinski, DC, aromatherapist and author of The Healing Power of Essential Oils (Harmony). “When they are used properly, there are virtually no side effects.” But, he cautions, “You need to know how to use them properly.”

With safe use, essential oils offer a host of health benefits: Studies show that tea tree oil reduces inflammation; chamomile soothes skin and treats sunburn; and lavender eases stress and post-partum depression in women.

Robust research into the benefits of these plant-based compounds, combined with growing interest in natural health, has led to increased use of natural remedies, including essential oils.

The global essential oil market is expected to reach $11.7 billion before 2022—up from $6.6 billion in 2016. Click To Tweet

Misconceptions that these oils are 100% safe have led to rampant misuse. The number of toxic exposures to essential oils in Tennessee, for example, doubled between 2011 and 2015, according to the Tennessee Poison Control Center. 

The biggest issues, according to Robert Tisserand, founder of Tisserand Aromatherapy and author of Essential Oil Safety (Elsevier Health Sciences), are associated with topical applications, inhalation and ingestion. All can have serious health consequences, ranging from allergic skin reactions and vomiting to pneumonia, increased blood pressure and heart issues.


Pet owners are using essential oils in grooming products, flea repellents and calming elixirs for Fido and Tiger. But pets, like their owners, can have adverse reactions to essential oils. 

“My experience in general practice is that essential oils can be harmful or toxic if used inappropriately,” warns Jim Dobies, DVM, veterinarian and president of UrgentVet Pet Clinics in Fort Mill, South Carolina.

Several studies have reported adverse effects.

Research published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association reviewed data from the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center and found that use of 100% tea tree oil on cats and dogs was linked with symptoms ranging from lethargy and tremors to partial paralysis. Another study showed that natural flea control products containing essential oils increased the risk of salivation, lethargy and vomiting in pets, even when products were used according to label directions.

Cats are at the greatest risk; they lack the liver enzymes needed to metabolize and eliminate certain substances, including some found in essential oils. Several oils, including wintergreen, citrus, peppermint, cinnamon, clove and tea tree, are all known to be toxic to cats, causing symptoms such as drooling, vomiting, tremors and respiratory distress.

“Essential oils do contain powerful, active compounds and pets cannot communicate whether a particular treatment is effective,” Dobies says. “Given that olfaction in domestic animals is much more sensitive than it is in humans, it seems reasonable to me that low-level, pleasing odors to us may be noxious to pets.”

Dobies suggests using essential oil therapies only under the direction of a trained holistic veterinarian.


Just the Right Amount

It’s up to you to learn about essential oils safety before you start using them. Taking classes, reading books and seeking out advice from reputable sources, including aromatherapists, can provide important information. 

Your healthcare professional can also be a resource, but Zielinski warns, “Doctors don’t learn about [natural remedies] in medical school. If you’re trying to treat [an ailment] with essential oils, make sure you choose a doctor who is knowledgeable and supports your choice.”

Zielinski argues that proper safety guidelines regarding the use of essential oils are lacking, making due diligence even more important. Without adequate—and accurate—labels or instructions, the risk of adverse reactions is heightened. “Essential oils don’t come with papers that list possible drug interactions or contraindications like the medications you get at the pharmacy.” 

The biggest risk, according to Cristin Gregory, Dipl OM, LAc, owner of Wellbeing Natural Health in Huntersville, North Carolina, is overdoing it.

“The process used to make essential oils reduces a very large amount of raw herb into a few tiny drops of essential oils, making the final product exceptionally concentrated compared to raw herbs, teas, tinctures, powders, infusions and oils,” Gregory says. “This makes essential oils rather dangerous if used incorrectly or at the wrong dose.”

It can be easy to overdo essential oils; for example, one drop of chamomile essential oil is equivalent to 30 cups of chamomile tea. Click To Tweet

Practice Caution

Even when essential oils do contain labels or instructions, the information is often insufficient, according to Tisserand.

For example, essential oils with “dilute before use” on their labels fail to offer dilution guidelines; for example, dilution for non-medicinal use might be greater than dilution for medicinal use. Pure essential oils applied to the skin can cause irritation.

“Our bodies aren’t designed to interact with these oils in pure, concentrated form,” Zielinski says.

Gregory recommends starting with a weak dilution of 15 drops essential oil to 6 to 8 teaspoons of a carrier oil such as almond, grapeseed, coconut or avocado oil, and placing a small amount of the mixture on the inside of your wrist. Cover the area with a bandage for 24 hours.

If you have any kind of skin reaction like redness, itchiness, hives, peeling or pain, do not use the oil. 

Even if there is no reaction, proceed with caution. If the use of essential oils causes any side effects, discontinue use and see a healthcare professional.

Diluting essential oils is essential for safe use but the practice also offers other benefits, according to Zielinski.

Carrier oils help open up the pores, allowing the plant essences to more easily penetrate the skin and deliver healing effects. Adding carrier oils also helps stretch the essential oils, making them last longer, which offers cost savings.

It takes up to 35 pounds of lavender flowers to make one bottle of lavender essential oil. Click To Tweet

Essential oils used in a diffuser, which Zielinski calls the “easiest and safest” use of the plant-based medicines, don’t need to be diluted, but it is still possible to experience adverse effects from overuse. Read the directions on the diffuser, stick to diffusing oils in well-ventilated rooms and use small quantities. If the vapors are too strong, it can cause symptoms such as nausea, vertigo, dizziness and headaches.

Ingesting essential oils must be done with caution. Putting a few drops of essential oils in water might seem safe but, as Gregory notes, a few drops of chamomile oil is the equivalent of up to 180 cups of tea.

“If three cups of tea a day will do the trick, then three drops of oil once or twice a day is overdosing and may have a negative effect. Minimal intervention is a key component to holistic healthcare.”

Zielinski advocates incorporating “culinary doses” of essential oils into food for flavor and health benefits, suggesting a single drop of lime in a batch of guacamole or a drop of peppermint in morning coffee or a drop of citrus oil in bottled water. Adding a few undiluted drops on the tongue, he notes, is too risky. “Just because something is ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it isn’t highly potent,” he says. 

Despite the risks, Gregory is adamant that essential oils can be an essential—and safe—part of health and healing.

“Essential oils are a good medical therapy for many things and, when used safely, are a great home therapy for the whole family,” she says. “You should just do your research, be cautious and start slowly with the minimal dose.”


When it comes to buying essential oils, follow these three guidelines to increase the odds that the products are safe and effective:

Purchase smaller quantities: Essential oils have a shelf life. Tisserand notes that, over time, their quality—and effectiveness—degrades, which could increase the odds of an adverse reaction. Instead of buying in bulk and storing unused portions in the back of the medicine cabinet, purchase smaller quantities and use them up before restocking. 

Avoid choosing cheap oils: Price reflects quality, according to Tisserand. Cheap oils are more apt to contain synthetic ingredients, including fragrance, and lesser quantities of pure essential oil. 

Seek out reputable suppliers: Look for manufacturers that sell “therapeutic grade” oils, advises Gregory. Those who sell to professionals such as aromatherapists and massage therapists are a good place to start; speak to a company representative and ask questions. Ask about reports on the sources and quality of their essential oils. 

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