Essential Oils and Your Health

Essential oils may pose health risks when misused

(RxWiki News) Essential oils have gained popularity in the past few years and continue to do so. However, if used incorrectly, they may pose harm, especially in children.

These oils, made from leaves or herbs, have been marketed to help with stress, headaches and upset stomach, among a variety of other uses. There is some evidence to suggest that essential oils can be helpful for many types of ailments.

Essential oils can be inhaled, massaged into the skin or even taken by mouth. A few common essential oils include bergamot, camphor, cinnamon, clove, eucalyptus, lavender, peppermint, sage, sandalwood, tea tree and wintergreen.

Oils date all the way back to 6,000 BCE, when they were used for religious purposes. Because they have been used for centuries, many people think essential oils cannot cause harm. In addition, people think they are safe because they are derived from plants and are therefore "natural."

However, there have been several cases in which essential oils have caused allergic reactions like rashes. In addition, the National Capital Poison Center notes that many essential oils can actually be poisonous if absorbed through the skin or swallowed.

It is important to note that essential oils are regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but in a retrospective manner. This means that the FDA does not review essential oils for safety or efficacy before they are sold. Instead, the agency can only take action if evidence shows them to be unsafe.

Things to Know

Here are a few things the National Capital Poison Center would like the public to know about essential oils:

  • Peppermint: Used for stomach and intestine discomfort, this essential oil needs to be selected carefully. This is because some species of mint may be poisonous. For example, pennyroyal oil is highly poisonous to the liver.
  • Wintergreen: This essential oil is used in some skin preparations (found over-the-counter) to relieve pain. It works by causing the blood vessels to enlarge. However, it is dangerous to swallow more than a tiny amount of oil of wintergreen. In fact, according to the National Capital Poison Center, swallowing oil of wintergreen is like swallowing a large number of adult aspirin.
  • Tea tree oil: Used for skin afflictions, tea tree oil is poisonous if swallowed. In fact, it is not to be used in or around the mouth at all.
  • Nutmeg: Usually added to food, nutmeg can actually lead to hallucinations and coma when misused or abused.
  • Eucalyptus: When inhaled, eucalyptus can help during a cold or cough. However, if swallowed, this type of oil can cause seizures.
  • Sage oil: Sage oil is used as a scent, seasoning and remedy, but it has caused seizures in children who swallowed more than a very small amount.
  • Camphor: This essential oil is used as a moth repellent and in some skin preparations, and it is dangerous if swallowed. Even a small amount of camphor can lead to seizures. Camphor poisoning has also been reported when camphor was applied to children's skin more frequently than the label recommended.

Safe Handling

  • Use all essential oils according to the label directions.
  • Stop using the essential oil immediately if a rash or other skin reaction occurs. Gently wash it off.
  • Keep all essential oils locked up and out of sight and reach of children and pets.
  • Be sure to discard essential oils safely — especially if you have young children or pets.

Speak with your health care provider if you have any questions.

Written by Anyssa Garza PharmD, BCMAS