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Your Guide for Using Essential Oils and Aromatherapy Safely

Essential oils may seem like a buzzy, modern trend. But these oils, made from concentrated plant extracts that contain the aroma and flavor of the plants, blended with another oil, have been used for centuries. “Fragrant plants were soaked in fats to create essential oils as early as 5000 BC in Egypt,” said Mari Ricker, MD, an integrative medicine specialist with Banner - University Medicine. 

You’ll find essential oils extracted from a lot of familiar plants, including chamomile, jasmine, lemon, lavender and peppermint. People use essential oils for holistic healing, to enhance well-being and as part of a healthy lifestyle. Essential oils are popular choices for improving the mind, body and spirit. Your body can use and benefit from essential oils thanks to two unique characteristics—their compounds are very small, and they are soluble in fats.”

Different types of essential oils are promoted as treatments for various health conditions, including:

  • Nausea and other digestive tract problems
  • Pain and body aches
  • Anxiety, agitation, stress and depression
  • Fatigue and insomnia
  • Muscle aches
  • Headaches
  • Infections
  • High blood pressure
  • Menstrual problems
  • Menopausal problems
  • Alopecia or hair loss
  • Some types of psoriasis and other skin conditions
  • Toothache and mouth sores

Essential oils are often used in conjunction with other complementary or integrative medicine treatments like massage therapy and acupuncture, as well as with standard medical treatments. People who have cancer often turn to them to improve their quality of life and reduce stress, anxiety, pain, nausea and vomiting caused by cancer and its treatment. 

Is there evidence that essential oils work?

Essential oils are a natural and complementary therapy. They don’t cure major illnesses, diseases, rashes or illnesses, but they can support conventional treatment and may alleviate many of the discomforts that come with various conditions. Proponents claim that a wide range of symptoms respond well to essential oils, but not all the uses are supported by scientific evidence.

That said, there is a lot of ongoing research on the benefits of essential oils. Many studies in animals have found that certain essential oils interact with receptors in the brain that could trigger a relaxation response. Essential oils may have antimicrobial, antiviral, antiparasitic, antifungal, insecticidal and antioxidant properties. 

How do you use essential oils?

Most of the time, people use essential oils in aromatherapy, either inhaled or applied topically. “Inhaling them and applying them to your skin are the safest ways to use them,” Dr. Ricker said.

Popular options include:

  • Inhalation, where you breathe in an essential oil by using a room diffuser, which spreads the essential oil through the air, float essential oil drops on top of hot water, or place drops on a tissue or piece of cotton.
  • Massage, where you dilute one or more essential oils in a carrier oil, like olive oil, avocado oil, jojoba oil, coconut oil or grapeseed oil, and massage the diluted oil into your skin.
  • Skin application, where you mix essential oils with bath salts or lotions or apply them to bandages.

What are the risks of using essential oils?

Natural products like essential oils are powerful substances and can be harmful if you don’t use them carefully. The plant extracts in bottled essential oils can be 50 to 100 times more concentrated than they are in the plant. Used properly, however, most essential oils are safe. 

You need to dilute essential oils before you use them:

  • For inhalation, add three to five drops of essential oil to a diffuser or a pot of hot water.
  • For aromatherapy massage, use 10 drops of essential oil for an ounce of carrier oil. You can use as little as five drops of essential oil if you have sensitive skin. 

Possible risks and side effects include:

  • Skin irritation. “You should never apply essential oils directly to your skin without diluting them,” Dr. Ricker said. And always test your sensitivity to essential oils before trying one for the first time.” Dilute your essential oil, apply a small amount to your inner elbow and cover it with a bandage. Check it in 24 hours, and if your skin isn’t red or irritated, that type of essential oil is probably safe for you to use. 
  • Liver or kidney damage. You shouldn’t ingest essential oils, since using them this way could damage your liver and kidneys. CalmAid® is an exception—this version of lavender oil, used to treat anxiety, has evidence to support its use internally.
  • Eye or mucus membrane irritation. You should keep essential oils away from these parts of the body.
  • Miscarriage or pregnancy complications. You should avoid using essential oils in your first trimester.

Are essential oils safe for children? 

Some are. The ones that have been studied and found to be very safe with inhalation or dilution in massage oil for young children are spearmint, peppermint, lavender, sweet orange and lemon, according to Dr. Ricker.

The bottom line

Essential oils can be a great addition to your wellness routine, whether you use them in aromatherapy or massage. But before you test them out, be sure to speak with a medical professional about what is best for your body.

Have questions about using essential oils?

Schedule an appointment with a primary care provider near you.

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