How Safe Are Essential Oils?

Written by Posted On Friday, 20 September 2019 13:27

Essential oils come from the extracted parts of certain plants, such as lavender, bitter orange, coconut, peppermint, and eucalyptus, or as a mixture of these various aromatic chemicals; hence, they are the “essence” of these plants. 

Many people use essential oils in a diffuser or purifier; others choose to dab essential oils on their skin, use them to clean, inhale them as vapor, or administer them orally as in a gargle or mouthwash. In either application, the word “aromatherapy” is often used as a substitute.

As with any therapeutic product, questions arise about the safety of essential oils, as well as the best practices for administering them. 

Why Do People Use Essential Oils?

People may use essential oils in an attempt to clear their home’s air of harmful and noxious matter. Others like the sensations the oils provide, such as a feeling of alertness or, conversely, a sense of calm. A wide array of disorders and diseases — including insomnia, anxiety, dementia, auto-immune inflammatory responses, and cancer — have been treated with essential oil mixtures, with some promising results in controlled experiments. However, many American scientists are skeptical of the efficacy of these essential oils beyond the placebo effect.

One popular application of essential oils involves visiting an aromatherapist. Aromatherapists are not recognized as licensed physicians, but consumers can do their homework to feel more secure with whom they visit. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, a member-based non-profit association “devoted to the holistic integration and education of aromatherapy into a wide range of complementary healthcare practices,” provides professional certifications

Clinical trials regarding aromatherapy show inconclusive results. Some trials have shown the application of various essential oils — including Roman chamomile, bergamot, cedar, lavender, peppermint, lemon, ginger, and orange — have had positive effects on reducing anxiety, drowsiness, depression, nausea, and stress. Other trials have shown no difference between groups receiving aromatherapy and those receiving a placebo or other treatment. 

Some people with cancer have also used aromatherapy to help with side effects of chemotherapy like nausea and vomiting, though claims of efficacy are not supported yet by research. To date, no peer-reviewed scientific journal has published a clinical trial studying the results of aromatherapy as a consistent treatment for cancer.

Regulation of Aromatherapeutic Products

Until recently, the FDA did not regulate aromatherapeutic products. The FDA now classifies these products, dependent on their stated effects, labeling, and the general expectation of the consumer, as either “cosmetics” or “drugs.” 

If a product is considered a cosmetic product, i.e. its intent is to beautify or to clean, it does not require FDA approval. Drugs refer to any products with therapeutic intent, and they do require FDA approval. Advertising and marketing of aromatherapeutic products fall under the umbrella of the Federal Trade Commission; room fragrance systems, such as deodorizers, are monitored by the Consumer Safety Protection Commission.

An essential oil that claims to “treat,” “prevent,” “diagnose,” or “cure” a disease or ailment falls under the FDA’s guidelines for drug products; the real-life case of Young Living Essential Oil products is an example of a company making claims on its labels that the FDA did not approve. The majority of aromatherapeutic products are classified as cosmetics, not as drugs, and therefore are available to consumers without prescriptions.

Take Precautions to Protect Your Indoor Air Quality When Using Essential Oil Diffusers

Essential oils and products that disperse their fragrances (diffusers) naturally create volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some of these, namely terpenes, aid in the formation of secondary organic aerosol compounds that can irritate consumers more severely than the original substances they are designed to purify. Other prevalent VOCs found in diffused oils include acetone, ethanol, acetaldehyde, and methanol. Furthermore, pure essential oils themselves contain VOCs — this is what allows them to be detected by the human nose. 

Research from October 2018 that studied two dozen commercial essential oils — half of which used terminology such as “natural,” “organic,” “pure,” and/or “plant-based” — identified 188 individual VOCs emitted, with 33 of those VOCs classified as potentially hazardous to human health.

Essential oil diffusers that use a candle to burn or evaporate oils have shown the potential to decrease total concentrations of indoor fungi and bacteria after 30 to 60 minutes of evaporating oils; this measurable effect notwithstanding, the levels of the same fungi and bacteria increased again after 60 minutes of use of essential oil diffusers, and after a period of 2 to 3 hours, their levels were indistinguishable from background levels. Additionally, use of these diffusers significantly raised the levels of indoor carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide during the same periods when using a candle to evaporate the oils.

Experts with the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology currently advise “caution” for people with asthma when using oil diffusers due to bronchial hyperactivity associated with VOCs. The symptoms exhibited by exposure to oils and fragrances have been likened to sick building syndrome, and they may affect both the autonomic nervous system and disposition

Typically, low concentrations are safe for most people when used as directed, but proper ventilation is key, particularly in the first 30 minutes of diffusing essential oils, in order to reduce the deleterious effects of released organic compounds.

Essential oils, no matter what advertisements report or branding suggests, cannot fully purify smoke out of the air. Despite claims of neutralizing smoke, bacteria, mildew, and funguses, some devices can add more VOCs to indoor air than they remove. What these essential oil-based purifiers can provide is pleasant smelling air, which might confuse a consumer into thinking the air is clean. 

If the goal is to clean up indoor air pollution, the wise investment is in an air purifier with a HEPA filter.

Essential Oil Health Benefits and Safety Tips

Scientists continue to study the curative and beneficial potential for essential oils. One example is treating acne with tea tree oil, which could have fewer side effects than typical benzoyl peroxide products. Some have claimed that tea tree oil is effective in eradicating the dangerous Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) pathogen, and recent studies back up its powerful antibacterial effects. 

Peppermint oil has been used in preliminary studies for relief from irritable bowel syndrome, sinus congestion, headaches, and muscle pain with some success.

Though lavender oil has shown in some small studies to be part of an effective treatment to fight alopecia, the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health considers lavender oil generally safe but having little evidence of efficacy in health uses.

Essential oils may also be massaged into the skin. Because of the potency of these concentrations, consumers should dilute the essential oil with olive oil, vegetable oil, or almond oil. When trying a new essential oil, test it on a single patch of skin before applying elsewhere, and only ever use a few drops at once.

Certain citrus oils may increase the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight, and birch and wintergreen oils can be very dangerous to children under the age of six due to a chemical called methyl salicylate. 

Don’t assume that an oil that is safe to apply to arms and legs is safe to ingest or inhale. Pregnant women should consult with their doctors before applying or inhaling any essential oils. Don’t keep oils more than three years (oxygen tends to spoil them), and always store them out of reach from children.

So, are essential oils safe to use? The evidence suggests they can be, if diluted properly and used appropriately. But using techniques like evaporating oils with a candle flame can increase VOCs and emit carbon monoxide, and raise CO2 levels, which can do more harm than good. 

Though there is some evidence of oils helping with certain health issues, one should be careful in believing claims that essentials oils can cure health-related problems or purify smoke-filled air. Use common sense in using these concentrated oils, and do your research on how to use them safely. You may want to consult your doctor before using essential oils.

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Kevin Burns

Kevin Burns is the President of Bob Jenson Air Conditioning in San Diego with over 29 years of experience in the HVAC Field. He has worked in every aspect of the industry and has trained dozens of people. He has a passion for doing what’s right for each home and customer and sets this standard for his entire team.

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