Odds are you know someone who sells essential oils for a multi-level marketing company, and they might just tout them as a miracle remedy for just about everything. While that's a stretch, the plant-derived oils do offer a wide range of benefits — when used properly, that is. They've even gone mainstream: "We are using a growing number of essential oils in our practice at the Mayo Clinic – such as lavender to help deal with stressful times and peppermint for nausea," says Brent A. Bauer, MD, an internal medicine doctor and director of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program in Rochester, Minnesota. Studies support those benefits and show that essential oils can have positive effects on , , and more. If used improperly, however, there can be dangerous consequences, so we rounded up a few expert tips to help you stay safe.
Don't be fooled by nature.
Anything powerful enough to have a beneficial effect on the body could also have negative effects, says Bauer. "Whether it's a drug, an herb, or an essential oil, all should be treated with respect," he says. "What works for one person may not work for the next – or may interfere with medications," he says, or have other side effects. Don't assume it's safe because it's natural, and be aware that "not all essential oil companies test their oils for quality," says Roz Zollinger, a certified aromatherapist, instructor, and founder of the Heal Center in Atlanta. Research the company before you buy.
Avoid taking by mouth.
Unless you're an expert or consulting with one, it's best to stick to external use, a la basic aromatherapy. "These essences are highly concentrated and have various levels of toxicity if not used properly," Zollinger cautions. She is not against , but says "there are many distributors advocating internal ingestion – some of them without any deeper training in this field." She has heard some reps advise clients to add drops of citrus oil to drinking water, which can lead to burning of the esophagus.
Don't expect one size to fit all.
"Risks vary depending on age of the individual, the manner in which they are using the oils, their personal health history, medications taken, and their personal body chemistry," says Katharine Koeppen, a registered aromatherapist and owner of Aromaceuticals in Dallas, Texas. Don't use on babies and toddlers, she advises, since most children under three or four cannot fully metabolize them. Use caution with older children, as some oils can cause adverse reactions, especially in children who have hyper-reactive airways. Excessive intake can cause , especially in . "Consult with a professional if you're unsure," she recommends.
Mind your medications.
Some essential oils interact with common prescription drugs or are not advised for people with certain medical conditions. "For example, something as seemingly innocuous as peppermint essential oil has a surprisingly long list of drug interactions and medical contraindications," says Koeppen. If you're not certain about whether to use the oil with the medication you're taking, just don't, and avoid all essential oils if you're taking multiple medications. "Doing so exponentially increases the chance of a drug interaction," she says.
Don't apply straight to skin.
Using undiluted essential oils on the skin can lead to reactions "ranging from mild dermatitis to blistering rash to complete and permanent loss of skin pigmentation," says Koeppen. Permanent sensitization can also occur – sometimes after one or two uses, or it may take weeks or months. Straight-to-skin in babies and toddlers can cause breathing and nervous system problems, seizures and coma. Some oils can cause photosensitivity – especially citrus oils like bergamot and lime, so "caution should be taken when applying these essential oils on the skin when exposed to direct sunlight and UV waves," says Zollinger.
Turn to the experts.
Even the experts do it. "For more detailed use, we turn to our colleagues who have been trained in the proper use" of the given method, says Bauer. Since aromatherapy is a growing field, there is much variation in training, credentialing, and more, he notes. "Until national standards are created, consumers have to do their homework." Look into where the practitioner was trained, and how many hours of class time and supervised practice they completed. "Talk to friends who have used the service — like finding a good doctor, it can take some homework but is worth it," he says.
Expand your knowledge.
If you're interested in exploring the various benefits of essential oils and how to use them safely, dive into learning as much as you possibly can about them from a variety of sources. "There are many excellent books on aromatherapy, and I feel that even an intro class would be beneficial, since there are definitely guidelines and basic cautions with certain essential oils to be aware of," says Zollinger. "Educate yourselves, read, take classes, and understand that these are potent aromatic medicines not to be taken lightly."