Essential oils are booming in popularity. Parents are looking for natural remedies without the side effects of prescription drugs. People’s Pharmacy in Austin reports a dramatic increase in essential oil sales over the past few years. Worldwide essential oil sales are expected to reach $13 billion within the next five years.
And essential oils aren’t just a new trend — they’ve been used for centuries for medicinal purposes. When used properly, essential oils can be helpful. However, because there is limited scientific data on the risks and benefits associated with each type of oil, it’s important to pay attention to application instructions. Even though essential oils are natural and made from plants, they can be dangerous if used incorrectly.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are made from the leaves, stems, flowers or other parts of plants. Some commonly used essential oils are lavender, eucalyptus, peppermint, wintergreen, cinnamon and tea tree oil. They are used as ingredients in cosmetics, fragrances, lotions, soaps, pesticides and household cleaning products. Essential oils may be applied to skin, inhaled, diffused or swallowed.
The oils are extremely concentrated. For example, it takes 220 pounds of lavender leaves to make one pound of lavender oil. Because they’re so concentrated, most essential oils must be diluted in a carrier oil, such as almond or coconut oil, before they’re applied to skin.
Each essential oil is unique in chemical composition, the effect it has on the body and how much is absorbed. Some essential oils are safe to apply to the skin, but poisonous if swallowed or dangerous if inhaled. To protect yourself and your family, make sure you’re informed about the potential side effects of an essential oil before using it.
Are Essential Oils Considered Drugs?
In a word, no. The FDA regulates any product that is intended to treat or prevent disease or to affect the structure or function of the body as a drug. For example, claims to relieve colic, treat depression, prevent infection or shrink tumors are drug claims. Under the law, prescription and over-the-counter drugs must meet FDA requirements for safety and effectiveness before they go on the market. No essential oils have been approved by the FDA.
What Precautions Should I Take?
Here are some important precautions to keep in mind:
- Read package labeling carefully. Essential oils differ in whether they should be applied to the skin, inhaled, diffused or swallowed. Each has a unique side effect profile.
- Dilute most oils in a carrier oil, such as almond or coconut oil, before applying to skin. Dilution ratios for adults typically vary from 1 to 5 percent.
- Don’t put undiluted essential oils directly on damaged, diseased or inflamed skin.
- Know which oils increase skin photosensitivity. Avoid the sun and tanning booths for 24 hours after application.
- Don’t get essential oils in the eyes.
- Be aware that many essential oils are very poisonous if swallowed. Even a drop can be toxic to a small child. Store in a secure place, away from children and pets. In case of poisoning, contact the Poison Control hotline at 800-222-1222 right away.
- Seek professional guidance before using essential oils on babies and young children. Certain oils can be toxic in little ones, even when applied to the skin or breathed in.
- Don’t use essential oils if you are pregnant or nursing without doing thorough research on reputable websites and consulting a professional. See the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy website (naha.org) for safety recommendations.
- If you or your child has a medical problem, contact your doctor before you attempt to treat it with essential oils. Not only are some essential oils associated with serious side effects, but delaying medical treatment can increase health risks.
Brenda Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer who shares her time between Austin and Seattle.