There is great debate about whether it is safe to ingest essential oils. If you ask in a group or online forum, you’re likely to see varied responses, from overly positive to dramatically negative. What gives? Are they safe or aren’t they? In this discussion, I assume that you have acquired true quality oils. First, The most common “answers” to the question, and the thinking behind them. Then we’ll let you know what we think! With that, we give you:
The Nancy Regan – “Just Say NO”
“You Should Never Ingest Any Essential Oil Ever!”
Come on now, you’re smarter than that! Ever had a drink “with a twist”? Drink coffee or tea? Maybe eaten some Italian food with basil and oregano, or Asian dishes with lemongrass and ginger? I thought maybe you had. I’m a bit psychic when it comes to these things.
Essential oils are simply derivatives of plants, made from squeezing, steaming, or chemically extracting them. There are essential oils in much of your food and drink, including all those items listed above. The difference is the amount and concentration, and it’s a big difference! A cup of chamomile tea contains chamomile essential oils, in tiny amounts. A drop of chamomile essential oil is like taking 30 or 35 teabags and steeping them into your teacup. Gross, and way too much of a good thing. So the issue isn’t that you can’t ingest oils, the issue is in the details surrounding how, why, when, and how much.
Which brings us to the next most frequent comment…
The George Orwell – “Big Brother is Watching You”
“You Should Never Ingest Essential Oils Without Direction From a Registered or Certified Aromatherapist”
I disagree, but only a little. What this really means is that you should never ingest essential oils unless you or the person who advised you actually knows what the heck they’re doing. It means you or they have done some research beyond a company brochure, and aren’t just trying to sell you something. You’ve looked at studies showing the oil contains the compounds you need, and that those compounds won’t do further damage to some other area of your body. You’ve found the best ways to take the oils, and checked for possible interactions.
Most of the time, the folks who know those things are going to be trained aromatherapists, have no doubt. If you are lucky enough to have someone licensed or certified in your area, they may be a great source of help! I honor their work and their choice to maintain certification. It’s also important to remember that education standards vary in this field, and certification from one place is not the same as certification from another.
I do not buy in to the idea that only the government or a certifying board holds the list of people with knowledge. You or I, if properly motivated, could have the same knowledge without jumping through hoops or paying for certification. It would not be simple, but it can be done. My body, my choice, my responsibility to choose the people I trust. For some folks, that means trusting the system and looking for the most certified person they can find. For others, it means a lot of hard work on their own. Some find a trusted advisor whose wisdom isn’t certified.
The Ozzy Osbourne – “Bats Are Natural, Too!”
“Of Course They’re Safe. They’re Natural!”
Syphilis is natural. That does not mean I want to put it in my mouth. This may be the dumbest and most fallacious commentary about essential oil ingestion. “Natural” does not mean “healthy” just as “chemical” does not mean “bad”. Ingested or otherwise, essential oils can be a safe and natural part of your health and home routine. They can be effective and powerful medicine. And just like nearly everything else in life, if you don’t know how to do it correctly, it might be OK – or you might die.
The Gryffindor – “Bravery, Daring, and Nerve”
“I’ve Done It, So It Must Be Safe!”
I’m glad your experience was a great one! It IS possible to take essential oils safely, it just isn’t possible all the time for everyone. I know of a woman who successfully took several drops of grapefruit oil per day to boost progesterone production, and was able to get pregnant and carry to term. A friend puts one drop of frankincense under her tongue every morning and has ditched caffeine. I personally took a strong combination of “hot” and anti-bacterial oils when three rounds of prescribed antibiotics and surgery hadn’t killed off an infection. We all make choices, and when it turns out that’s fantastic! But the logic is flawed. If any one thing worked the same way and were safe for all people, disease would be a thing of the past.
Some oils are perfectly OK for one person, and dangerous for another. Diabetics on medication need to be careful with cinnamon, for example, because it can dramatically lower blood sugar. Some people use peppermint to indigestion; it makes mine worse, and I’m not the only one. Because it’s your body and your choice, you need to do more than copy your friend’s routine. You need to know it’s safe for you! You may be trying to get pregnant but not need additional progesterone, so grapefruit might actually work against you rather than helping.
The Aunt Polly – “It’s Not Cod Liver, But Oils Are for Illness”
“Only As Medicine”
We’re getting closer! Because they’re so powerful, even a drop of essential oil in a capsule or beverage might be a medicinal or therapeutic “dose”. If you’re choosing a more nature-based lifestyle, you’re probably not wanting to take medicine every day. If there are medicines you must take every day, you probably don’t want to take more. Using oils internally as part of a daily routine can be a lot like taking medicine daily. You can develop tolerances or sensitivities. Your body may have trouble ridding itself of the compounds over time. The risk of overdose is real (the chemical here is found naturally in wintergreen).
Also, it’s important to remember that essential oils do not dissolve or disperse readily in water. You can shake your bottle and spread out the droplets, but they’ll separate out in no time. Forget to shake, and you might as well eat lemon peel. It is decidedly undelicious. And it doesn’t just taste bad, it’s not great for your body. Lemon oil is used in furniture cleaner and will eat through Styrofoam. If you’re going to put it in your body, it should be diluted and dispersed well! There are ways to use carriers and capsules in order to properly disperse oils in your system when necessary – and you learn that as you become certified or do the research.
The Ronald Regan – “The Nine Scariest Words… I’m From the Government, and I’m Here to Help!”
“Only If It’s On the FDA GRAS List”
Only if it’s on the what now? The FDA (that’s the US Food and Drug Administration) produces a list of foods and additives “Generally Regarded As Safe” for use in food – in the concentrations generally needed for use as a flavoring or preservative. Wintergreen is highly toxic when used internally, but it’s on the list. In some countries, wintergreen is limited to a .02% concentration in foods – that’s 2 drops oil to about 10,000 “drops” of whatever you’re making, best measured by weight. Many of the oils on the GRAS list are most frequently used in that way, and the FDA does not suggest appropriate concentrations. So while these oils may be safe to ingest, they may only be safe in quantities not identified by the FDA.
The GRAS list is a good place to start. Certainly if you are considering ingesting an essential oil that is NOT on the list, you should do some additional research. But even if it is there, you should take a deeper look before you put it in your mouth.
The Frank Sinatra – “But, I’d Prefer to Keep Doing Things My Way”
“But, I LIKE My Lemon Water!”
Me, too. But I found a more natural and less jolting way to add lemon oil to my diet. Did you know there’s a word for water that contains naturally-dispersed molecules of a plant’s oils in low concentration? Frequently the by-product of making essential oils, but adaptable to a DIY, I give you hydrosols! You might be familiar with rose water or neroli (also called orange-flower water). But if you’re wanting to get a daily dose of lemon, mint, or some other herb, you can do it without using your bottle of oils. Simply steeping your herb or fruit in water overnight will release some of those compounds for you to enjoy and gain a benefit. Plus, you can still use them in cooking once you’ve made your water (or you could make more water, but plants will provide fewer essences with repeated uses.)
Use this recipe for lemon alkaline water. Do keep a bit of salt in the recipe, even if you cut it to just a pinch – it helps to extract the essences of whatever plant you choose. Use the lemon, or swap it out for another fruit, including grapefruit, watermelon, or berries. If you’re looking for an herbal fix and aren’t into tea, try steeping mint, ginger slices, or lemon balm. You could even make lavender water for calming, just be careful not to use too much or you’ll have room spray instead!
“Or Worse, Expelled!”
Some Oils Are Absolutely Unsafe For Ingestion All The Time Unless You Might Die And Everything Else Has Failed And It’s A New Therapy!
Not drill, and not a common response. This is important. Hemlock essential oil, anyone? Natural, pure, and totally lethal. Some of these oils do have medicinal or household uses when applied topically or diffused. Others have industrial or limited personal uses – think pepper spray or specialty cleansers. Pain, vomiting, organ failure, diarrhea, death, and more! It’s not even as fun as it sounds.
There’s a list below of some of the more common oils that are toxic when ingested. It’s important to note that not all potentially toxic oils are listed, and that any oil can be harmful if it’s used improperly. So maybe…
…It’s Maybe More Important to Avoid Overdose of Safe Oils
Going overboard with essential oils, no matter how you use them, can result in overdose. If you’re diffusing for scent, you don’t need as much oil as when you’re diffusing to prevent or treat illness (mental illness included). For topical applications, always follow dosing and dilution guidelines. If you choose to ingest oils, make that choice an educated one! Improper use of oils can cause all of the above listed and super-fun ailments, along with rash, developing an allergy, chemical burn, heartburn, and hormonal imbalance. The risk is much higher for infants and children, so use additional care and information if you wish to use oils with, on, or near them.
So, They Can and Cannot Be Ingested Safely? (TL;DR)
Abcertainly factactual! Especially when ingested, it should be remembered that essential oils are more like medicine and less like food or vitamins. They are super-powerful and shouldn’t be taken lightly. You can develop sensitivities to oils taken improperly, and if you are unaware of their full effects on your body with it’s peculiarities you can do real harm. But, if you have gotten the knowledge and found a plan that works for you, it might be your best option. If you find it worth your time to investigate, perhaps it’s your thing. If you feel your time is better spent gardening or earning a living or meditating (or whatever), then it probably isn’t your cup of herbal tea. Both are OK in our view.