Essential oils: Are they safe to use?
Chances are you’ve probably heard of essential oils — but what can they really do? Can lavender really help you sleep better? Does citrus actually boost energy? The short answer is yes, when used correctly.
From stress relief to minor pain management, essential oils have a wide range of uses and benefits that can complement traditional health care. As with any supplement, talk to your doctor before adding essential oils into your health routine. In the meantime, here’s some information about essential oils and how to use them safely.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are highly concentrated oils extracted from flowers, fruits, seeds, and plants. Each oil has its own unique fragrance and chemical makeup. Here are some popular types of oils and what they’re often used for:
|Why people use them||Types of oil|
|Citrus||To boost energy or use for cleaning||Lemon, citronella|
|Floral||To relax or reduce anxiety||Jasmine, lavender, rose|
|Herbaceous||For a calming effect||Chamomile, eucalyptus, tea tree|
|Camphoraceous||To clear congestion||Camphor, eucalyptus, laurel leaf|
|Minty||For an energizing effect||Spearmint, wintergreen, peppermint|
|Spicy||To increase energy and focus||Basil, cinnamon, ginger|
How are essential oils used?
- Aromatherapy: Inhaling oils to help relax the mind and body, either with a diffuser, aroma sticks, or aromatherapy necklaces.1
- Massage therapy: Applying oils to the skin or mixing oils into lotions for a massage.
- Minor pain relief: Rolling oils, such as lavender or peppermint, onto the temples to relieve headaches and migraine pain.
- Relief from the common cold and nausea: Inhaling oils like eucalyptus and peppermint to open up sinuses, or ginger and peppermint oil to relieve nausea.2
- Insect repellant: Spraying citronella oil onto your clothes or using it in a diffuser for an environmentally friendly bug repellant.
- Household cleaner: Using lemon oil or tea tree oil as a natural alternative to chemical-based household cleaners.
Are essential oils safe?
When used correctly, essential oils can provide some wellness benefits. But there are no federal regulations around them, so try to buy from reputable companies, and beware of unsupported health claims.
Consider the following safety tips:
- Only use diffusers in a well-ventilated space, and make sure to dilute the oil as instructed. As another option, you can use aroma sticks or other aromatherapy accessories.
- Don’t ingest the oils, which can cause vomiting or other toxic reactions.
- Many essential oils are toxic to pets, so use them with caution.3
If you’re planning to apply essential oils topically, like for aromatherapy or massage therapy, consider the following safety tips as well:
- Make sure you’re not allergic to any of the ingredients. If you get a red, itchy rash or hives after rubbing the oil on your skin, be sure to contact your doctor.
- Never apply undiluted oils directly to your skin. When mixing a carrier oil (lotion, cream, butter, shampoo, etc.) with an essential oil, avoid using dilutions above 5% for adults and 2% for kids.4
Looking for a way to relieve stress or minor aches and pains? Essential oils might be a good complement to your regular health care. As with any supplement or alternative treatment, it’s a good idea talk to your doctor before using essential oils for medicinal purposes.
1 “ Stress Management: Why Aromatherapy is Showing up in Hospital Surgical Units,” Mayo Clinic, October 27, 2017.
2See note 1.
3“Is the Latest Home Trend Harmful to Your Pets? What You Need to Know!,” ASPCA news article, January 17, 2019, accessed November 13, 2020.
4“Diluting Essential Oils,” NOW Foods, June 14, 2019.