This is a commonly asked question: “Is Ingesting Essential Oils Safe?”  The short answer for the general at home aromatherapy enthusiast is no!  Please do not try this at home!  There are many possible ways you can hurt yourself by ingesting essential oils.

To understand why it can be unsafe to ingest essential oils, this article will first answer the question, “What is an Essential Oil?”  Then, it is important to understand the differences between an essential oil and the same plant’s herb.

Next, you should know some of the dangers that ingesting essential oils can pose to your health.  These include burning your mucus membranes, causing organ toxicity, or having an unsafe reaction.

The same plant’s herb offers an excellent alternative for internal use.  For example, why not brew a peppermint tea instead of putting yourself at risk with the internal use of peppermint essential oil?

And finally, while in some situations the internal use of essential oils can be beneficial, this is only suggested with expert advice.  Internally, essential oil usage is measured in very small amounts, requires oil soluble delivery, and an understanding of possible contraindications.

What is an Essential Oil?

Aromatic plants have adapted the ability to produce essential oils for a variety of reasons.  These include: to attract pollinating insects, to deter pests, to set boundaries, or to fight microbial infections (1).

You may be wondering the origin of the words “essential oil.”  Alchemists from centuries ago invented ways to capture the aroma from plants, which they called the quintessence, the plants soul or spirit (2).  The modified word essence refers to the unique aromatic qualities of a particular plant (3).  We can identify and differentiate the aroma of a rose from the aroma of a lemon.  The word oil indicates that this liquid is oil-based, and not soluble in water (3).

Essential oils are extracted from a plant most often by steam distillation.  In this process, the very light weight, volatile components are separated from the rest of the plant material.  Volatility indicates that these components evaporate quickly and are very chemically reactive.  The essential oil extracted from the plant material is highly concentrated, typically over 100 times more so than in the plant (4).

How Does an Essential Oil Differ from the Same Plant’s Herb?

An herb is a medicinal plant, and its plant material can be extracted in a variety of ways.   Herbal remedies are used to improve health and wellness. Like drugs, herbs have a safe dosage amount and possible side effects.

An essential oil is the steam distilled extraction of an herb.  Essential oils are sometimes also pressed, as with certain citrus essential oils, or CO2 or solvent extracted.

An essential oil represents highly condensed plant material from an herb.  In steam distillation, only the light constituents with a molecular weight of under 250 are retained as an essential oil, leaving the heavier plant matter behind (4).  Thus, water, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals found in an herb are not in the same plant’s essential oil.

In summary, an essential oil is extremely potent, and a tiny amount goes a long way.  Further, there are valuable components in an herb, that cannot be found in an essential oil, including nutrients and proteins such as fatty acids.

What are the Dangers of Ingesting Essential Oils?

Since essential oils are very potent and condensed, it is important to use them on or in our bodies highly diluted.  In addition, like herbs, essential oils have proper usage instructions and possible contraindications. Improperly taken internally, essential oils can lead to adverse effects, including poisoning.

Some of the Dangers of Ingesting Essential Oils:

  • You can burn your mucus membranes, the epithelial tissue in your mouth and digestive tract.
  • Excessive or prolonged use can cause liver or other organ toxicity.
  • You could have an adverse reaction related to the essential oil being a contraindication to use with certain health conditions or prescribed drugs.
  • Sensitization or allergic reaction can occur.

When can Essential Oils be Taken Internally?

There are two instances where it is ok to internally take essential oils.  First, essential oils are included in some product formulations manufactured and sold commercially.  Second, essential oils should only be administered internally by health practitioners with an expert level of knowledge of the chemistry of each essential oil.

1. Essential Oils in Commercial Products

The food, beverage, and pharmaceutical industries utilize essential oils to improve the flavor of products, and sometimes for therapeutic benefits. Essential oils could be found in cough drops, chewing gum, drinks, sauces, and more. In these cases, products are carefully made and mixed with additional ingredients.  Essential oils are heavily and properly diluted, measured in ppm (parts per million), as just a tiny part of the whole product’s recipe.

2. Administered Internally by Healthcare Practitioners with Expert Knowledge of Essential Oils

For at home users with a collection of essential oil bottles, don’t try taking any internally!  Professional aromatherapy organizations agree, internal use of essential oils is only appropriate with an expert level of knowledge (5 & 6).

According to the Alliance of International Aromatherapists, an expert has knowledge of essential oil chemistry along with formulation guidelines.  Further, they must know the contraindications of specific plant species and chemical constituents.  In addition, the expert should be educated in anatomy, physiology, and pathophysiology (6).

Using the Herb Instead of the Essential Oil

Using a plant’s herb instead of its essential oil is the preferred way to enjoy the benefits of a botanical internally.  Plus, you often get the added nutrients that essential oils do not contain! Herbs can be prepared in a variety of ways. One of the easiest ways is to make a tea.

As an example, let’s compare the differences between placing a drop of peppermint essential oil in water and drinking it, or soaking peppermint leaves in water and then drinking the water.

1. Placing a Few Drops of Peppermint Essential Oil in Water to Drink

First off, it is important to note that essential oil is not soluble in water.  This is an unsafe way to dilute an essential oil. The oil will remain as an undiluted globule in the water.

Next, let’s look at the chemical makeup of peppermint essential oil.  It contains mainly menthol, as well as menthone, iso-menthone, and 1,8-cineole (1).  It also contains small amounts of the toxic constituents of menthofuran and pulegone (3).  A dose of over 1g / kg of the menthol constituent related to body weight can be lethal (7).  Just a few undiluted drops of peppermint essential oil can cause an acute allergic response, burning of the mucus membrane, or even fatality in children (1).  Peppermint essential oil should also be avoided with pregnant and lactating women (1). Plus, peppermint oil may interact with certain medications (7).

2. Drinking Infused Peppermint Leaves as a Tea

Fresh peppermint leaves contain about 79% water, 15% carbohydrates, 4% protein, and 1% fat.  Two tablespoons contain about 2 calories, plus a small amount of potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, vitamin C, iron, and magnesium (8).

Tea made from peppermint leaves recovers about 20 – 25% of the volatile oil with ten minutes of steeping (9).  The strained water is generally safe for anyone to drink. It is often taken to ease digestive upset. Adults can drink up to 4 cups a day (9).  The only know contraindication is for those with gallstones (9).

In Summary…

In summary, an essential oil is a concentrated and very potent extraction of a plant that can be dangerous if used inappropriately or in excess.  At home users should avoid the internal use of essential oils with two exceptions. These are 1) if it is an ingredient in a commercially made product, or 2) if it is administered by an expert health practitioner.

Alternatively, try the same plant’s herb.  Instead of lemon essential oil, squeeze a lemon.  Instead of oregano essential oil, cook a meal with a small amount of fresh or dried oregano as an herb.  Instead of ingesting peppermint oil in water, make a tea from the leaves.

It is important to note that contraindications exist for both herbs and essential oils, especially when ingesting amounts or concentrations beyond that which is normally in our food and drinks.  Even with natural herbs and oils, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

References

  1. (1) Lis-Balchin, M.  (2006). Aromatherapy Science.  A guide for healthcare professionals. Pharmaceutical Press.
  2. (2) Peace-Rhind, J. (2012).  Essential Oils. A Handbook for Aromatherapy Practice.  2nd Edition.  Singing Dragon.
  3. (3) Tisserand, R. & Young, R. (2014).  Essential Oil Safety, Second Edition.  Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.
  4. (4) Clarke, S. (2008). Essential chemistry for safe Aromatherapy. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.
  5. (5) National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA).  Safety Page. Downloaded on 7/31/19. Downloaded from: https://naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/safety
  6. (6) Alliance of International Aromatherapists (AIA).  Aromatherapy Safety Page. Downloaded on 7/31/19. Downloaded from:  https://www.alliance-aromatherapists.org/aromatherapy-safety
  7. (7) Ulbricht, C.  (2010). Natural Standard.  Herb & Supplement Guide. An Evidence Based Reference. Mosby Elsevier.
  8. (8) USDA (2018). National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.  Retrieved on 7/31/19. Retrieved from: https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/
  9. (9) Witchl, M.  (2004). Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals.  A Handbook for Practice on a Scientific Basis. Third Edition. Medpahrm Scientific Publishers. Stuttgard.