When to NOT use essential oils
Are you an essential oil user? Chances are the answer is yes!
Recently there has been a huge rise in the use of essential oils from some popular MLM companies like Young Living and Doterra. BUT – with every new craze comes some good news and bad news…
The good news:
I love the fact that so many families have thrown out their Glade Plug-in air fresheners, or other synthetic spray air fresheners. Synthetic air fresheners are notoriously horrible products, in my opinion. The Environmental Working Group (ewg.org) rated 150 products with a grade D for safety, and 78 products with a grade F. (Only 11 got a grade A, and one of those was baking soda!) They even have a warning on their website saying “Avoid air fresheners: they can cause allergies and only cover up bad odors.” I really, really, really, really, really don’t like synthetic air fresheners. They are known to have phthalates and other substances which interfere with our hormones and are known to cause cancer. Using a vaporizer for essential oils is a much better way to diffuse fragrance and naturally reduce odor-causing bacteria.
The second piece of good news: I love it when patients have essential oils on hand. I do actually use essential oils a lot in my practice, usually topically or in steam inhalations. Lavender, tea tree, and thyme are my favorite three to have on hand. These are what I usually recommend families to keep in their herbal first aid kit. (Frankincense would be next.)
Okay, on to the bad news.
As a physician, I am very concerned about the rise in inappropriate use of essential oils.
Did you know that essential oils can cause seizures in children?
Essential oils are the distilled volatile aromatic constituents of the plant that are highly concentrated. Remember that one drop of essential oil is equivalent to 15-40 cups of medicinal tea, or up to 10 teaspoons of tincture. Would you ever give a child 40 cups of tea, or 10 teaspoons of tincture? My goodness, I hope not.
The bottom line is: essential oils can be neurotoxic to children. I never recommend internal use of essential oils in kids. Even in adults I save internal use of essential oils for serious infections or other conditions that are unresponsive to normal doses of herbs (in tincture or tea form). Topical or vaporized essential oils can be safe and very effective in children when used correctly!
1) Always use a carrier oil when applying essential oils to the skin. A “carrier oil” is a type of base oil, to slightly dilute the essential oil and protect the skin against direct contact with the essential oil. Essential oils should never be applied “neat” (undiluted) to the skin. I cannot tell you the number of times I have seen allergic contact dermatitis (big ugly skin rash) with undiluted oils! Mix 1-2 drops of essential oil in 1-3 teaspoons of a carrier oil like olive oil, coconut oil, almond oil, avocado oil, or other mild, gentle, skin-friendly oil. Mix essential oils with carrier oils immediately before applying them. This prevents rancidity.
2) Keep oils away from airways (nose and mouth). One thing I really like about DoTerra’s recommendations is that they usually tell parents to apply essential oils to the feet of children and babies. This is a great idea, because it provides space between the airways and the source of the essential oil. Just make sure your baby doesn’t then put his feet in his mouth! Also make sure the essential oils are mixed with a carrier oil first.
3) Do not use vaporizers in a house where a child or adult lives with a respiratory disease. I have seen a number of asthma patients who were constantly having their airways aggravated from aerosolized essential oils. Use extreme caution when using essential oils in kids with asthma. Most essential oils will inflame a sensitive respiratory tract. I have heard from some of my naturopathic colleagues who have seen frightening cases of children completely unable to breathe because of essential oil-induced asthma attacks.
4) Do not use essential oils in teething recipes. No, no no. This is not safe! Stick with chamomile or lemon-balm tea popsicles. (Super yummy and babies love them!) Clove oil can be used topically (cloves infused in olive oil, not clove essential oil), but use with caution, because if a baby swallows clove oil or any numbing agent it has the potential to numb the gag reflex, and babies can end up aspirating their own saliva.
5) Do not give children essential oils internally. I highly recommend limiting internal use of essential oils to use under physician supervision only, for kids OR for adults. Once again, I have heard from colleagues who have seen everything from ulcers, to chronic gastroenteritis, to asthma, flaring of skin lesions (eczema, acne, psoriasis, you name it), migraines, chronic heartburn, and many more, from taking internal essential oils. Again – remember that one drop of essential oil is equivalent to 15-40 cups of medicinal tea, or up to 10 teaspoons of tincture. Products that have mixtures of essential oils and herbs tend to be safer. The exception to this rule: essential oils that are used for flavoring only tend to be safe (e.g., orange essential oil to flavor ice cream) – in this case the total amount of essential oil is very, very low.
6) Never ever take essential oils internally if you are pregnant. I recommend using extreme caution with topical essential oils and vaporized essential oils. Remember, essential oils very easily end up in the blood stream from topical or vaporized (and inhaled) use. (Topical by fat absorption through the skin, vaporized by diffusion in the alveoli of the lung.) Essential oils do cross the placenta and a fetus is extremely susceptible to the neurotoxic components. Most of the time this ends up being a non-issue though – pregnancy makes women so sensitive to smells that I know very few women who would use too much essential oil – our bodies do a great job of telling us when to stop!
At this point I am sure I will get hundreds of hate e-mails from avid essential oil users telling me how great they are and how much they helped their own personal health. I am in no way denying the fabulous benefits of essential oils! And they can be used internally – with caution!! But for every great success story of how much essential oils have helped, I get to see the other story, of how essential oils have worsened. So please, coming from Dr. Erika here, please use essential oils wisely, and save yourself a trip to my office – or worse, the Emergency Department.
Another note from Dr. Erika: Regarding the comments section – I’m trying, but I just can’t get to every comment anymore. If you are asking a specific treatment question (like “What EO can I use for _______ symptom) – I cannot answer those, you will need to ask your physician for guidance. Remember that symptoms are just symptoms of a bigger problem! If you need to find a naturopathic physician near you who has experience with essential oils, I recommend checking out the Pediatric Association of Naturopathic Physicians, or the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians.