At first thought,seems completely safe. How harmful can it be to enjoy scents like lavender, lemon and eucalyptus? The rise of brands like Doterra and Young Living, beautiful diffusers that match all home furnishings and the new trend of putting essential oils on fabric face masks make this wellness staple seem completely harmless.
Words and phrases such as “completely natural”; and “therapeutic” make it easy to draw on oils with rich scents. People often assume that “natural” means safe, but there are plenty of natural compounds and chemicals that are not safe (may I offer mercury as an example) and plenty of “good” substances that have shown no benefit in research studies (echinacea isn not as effective as many believe).
This concept also applies to essential oils. Yes, they are natural and herbal, but it’s worth taking a closer look before you slam any oil into your diffuser.
The safety of all essential oils depends largely on the person using it, but like all herbal products, these oils can contribute to skin irritation, respiratory symptoms and even hormone-related symptoms.
Essential oils and the endocrine system
Your endocrine system contains glands that produce hormones to regulate your metabolism, sleep, mood, appetite, sexual function, growth and more. When these glands produce too much or too little of any hormone, it can lead to symptoms including weight gain, mood swings, low libido, disturbed sleep, hot flashes and fatigue.
Dr. Romy Block, board-certified endocrinologist and co-founder of Vous Vitamin, says that essential oils can act as endocrine disruptors, meaning that they interfere with the natural production of your hormones.
“These chemicals can either lower or raise the normal hormone levels in the body,” says Dr. Block, “causes developmental disorders, reproductive changes or even disorders of the immune system.”
There is not enough evidence for all the essential oils as endocrine disruptors to make any felt statements, says Dr. Blocks, but a handful of essential oils have been linked to hormone-related health complications. Research has shown that lavender oil is associated with early breast development in girls, for example. Lavender and tea tree oil are also thought to lead to a condition called prepubertal gynecomastia (abnormal breast tissue growth) in boys.
Dr. Blocks recommend diffusing lavender and tea tree oils due to the potential complications, especially in children and adolescents. Pregnant women and people with hormone-related medical conditions such as diabetes should talk to their doctors before using essential oils topically or with a diffuser.
Essential oils and allergies
The most important and immediate health consequence of using essential oils is probably allergy symptoms. You should know if you had an allergic reaction to an essential oil, as it would result in typical symptoms, such as itchy and watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing and congestion. Topical use of essential oils may lead to dermatological allergy symptoms, including redness, hives, itching and swelling of the skin.
Dr. Sanjeev Jain, a board-certified allergist and immunologist at Columbia Allergy, says that although allergy symptoms depend on the route of administration (inhalation versus topical application), it is not uncommon for people to experience both at the same time.
If you suspect that you have an allergic reaction to an essential oil, stop using the product, says Dr. Jain and contact your allergist or dermatologist for further evaluation.
“It is very important to know which extract triggers a reaction and which extracts are safe for you to continue using,” he says. “You may be sensitized to multiple allergens at the same time, so it is important that you are properly evaluated before continuing to use these essential oils or extracts.”
Unfortunately, allergies to essential oils require strict avoidance, says Dr. Jain. If you are only sensitive to contact, it may be possible to use an essential oil diffuser if you do not develop respiratory symptoms. Be sure to handle the oils carefully to avoid contact with the skin.
Which essential oils are safe?
At the time of writing, there is not enough evidence for essential oils to make a definitive “safe” and “unsafe” list. Right now, most essential oils are considered safe with proper use, and various studies report health benefits of various essential oils. However, this does not mean that they are without disadvantages.
For example, a study from 2019 shows that essential oils of eucalyptus and ginger can support immune health – but the researchers point out that most studies have taken place in eastern countries where the compounds are “traditionally used and valued” and that all pure oil is used in studies does not match always what you find on store shelves.
Here are some examples of the pros and cons of essential oils: Lavender is known to help with sleep and relaxation, but as mentioned above, it can act as a hormone disruptor.
- Eucalyptus is soothing but it can cause cramps when ingested.
- Chamomile can help you unwind, but people with allergies to cloth, daisies and other plants can get serious reactions.
- Peppermint is loved for the cooling effect it has on the skin but it is also known to cause skin rashes, burning and redness, among other side effects.
Again, it is difficult to make a black and white list of essential oils to avoid. Because humans can have different reactions to different oils: Only the individual can know which ones to avoid. A quick internet search will return hundreds of lists that do not match, so it is really up to you to veterinary risks with the essential oil you want to use and to use them safely.
How about pets?
If you have one or more fur children, you may have wondered if essential oils are safe for pets. Personally, I have an orange cat that I love more than most. I also love peppermint essential oil, so I was sad when I learned that peppermint oil is not allowed for kittens.
According to the ASPCA, cats are particularly sensitive to essential oils, says Lambert Wang, founder of Cat Person. “While the safety of using essential oil is individual and varies from cat to cat, a general rule of thumb is to never keep your cat in a room where oil spreads,” he says.
When it comes to dogs, the American Kennel Club says that essential oils can irritate the dog’s skin if applied topically and ingestion can cause gastrointestinal problems.
Keep in mind that cats and dogs have much stronger noses than humans, so a scent that you experience as mild can really irritate your hairy friend.
Keep your doors open so that your pets can move from diffusion areas and never apply essential oils directly to your cat or dog. Be careful with your pets if you are spreading essential oils, says Wang. “If you notice a change in behavior after using essential oils, stop using immediately and visit your veterinarian.”
As always, the security of a particular trend depends on you, your health and your preferences. Take into account factors such as allergy symptoms, sleep quality, pets and other members of your household.
How to use essential oils safely
If you want to enjoy essential oils, these tips can keep aromatherapy safe for you and your pets.
- Talk to your doctor before use if you are pregnant or have any medical conditions.
- If you want to use essential oils on your pet, talk to your veterinarian.
- Stop spreading essential oils that cause allergy symptoms, such as coughing, sneezing or watery eyes.
- Try a patch test before using an essential oil topically. To perform a patch test, place a diluted drop of oil on a small area of skin. If you develop dermatological symptoms, wash it off and do not use that oil on the skin.
- Do not store your pet in a room with an essential oil diffuser running and leave the doors open so that they can move freely.
The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified healthcare provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goal.