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Essential Oils: Natural Doesn’t Mean Risk-Free

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When Rachael Armstrong of Omaha, NE, first discovered essential oils, she went all in. She started using a variety of essential oils for everything from appetite suppressants to migraine relief to DIY fragrances for her laundry. “I admit I was probably overusing them,” says the 44-year-old mother of five. “But I don’t think people are aware that even though they’re natural products, they can do real damage.”

Unfortunately, soon after she discovered the benefits of essential oils, she also learned of their true strength the hard way. Rachael developed an extreme rash on her skin (thanks to the photosensitivity caused by certain oils she was rubbing into her skin and exposing to the sun). Eventually, her doctors put her on steroids to help overcome the serious rash. 

Rachael’s story isn’t uncommon- many people hear about the true benefits of using essential oils, but fail to recognize just how powerful they actually are, and are left with chemical burns, allergic reactions, and more. That’s why we’re sharing this helpful guide for both first-time users and long-time essential oil fans to stay safe!

This article is shared with permission from our friends at Natural Living Ideas.

Essential oils offer a wide range of benefits for your health, beauty, household cleaning and more – there’s a reason so many people use them. In fact, it may seem like every other friend on your Facebook feed has been touting their miracle abilities.

But, beware, before you haphazardly slather on one of your friend’s favorites, that just because they’re natural, that doesn’t mean they don’t come without some risks. Essential oils do have lots of amazing powerful therapeutic properties, and there are lots of scientific studies to back that up, but they aren’t 100% safe. There are also more than a few essential oil resources online that give some blanket advice about their use that could potentially be dangerous.

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Essential oils are very highly concentrated. Just a tiny amount of an essential oil typically has the quality of many cups of herbal tea from the same plant. For example, just a drop of peppermint oil is equal to roughly 26 cups of peppermint herbal tea. You’d probably never ingest that much tea, right? That’s a clue that it’s important to think carefully before consuming that equivalent amount of essential oil.

Before you start using essential oils on yourself, your family, or your pets, keep these dangers in mind, and note how to best avoid them.

1. Increasing photosensitivity

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Certain oils can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, which can set you up for a sunburn, even with just minor exposure. Before heading to the beach or spending any time outdoors, make sure you don’t have a photosensitizing oil on your skin. If you do, you could end up with a reaction that can range from slightly red skin to a blistering burn.

The oils that are considered to be photosensitizing generally citrusy types of oils and include:

  • Lemon essential oil
  • Lime essential oil
  • Grapefruit essential oil
  • Orange essential oil
  • Bergamot essential oil

Never apply any of these essential oils to your skin just before going out into the sun, or being exposed to UV rays, such as in a tanning bed (which should be avoided anyway but that’s a whole other topic!). The oils won’t help you tan faster, but are likely to cause pain, blistering, swelling and irreparable damage to your skin. If you have used any of those oils on your skin, wait a minimum of four hours after applying before being exposed to the sun.

2. Not all essential oils are considered safe while pregnant or nursing

You’re careful about what you eat and drink while pregnant or nursing, and would never consider chugging down a shot of Jägermeister, we hope, but you may not realize that you also need to take extreme care when it comes to using essential oils. That’s because the oils can cross the placenta, and get to your baby. In utero, the effects of essential oils may be compounded, so it’s crucial that you research every type of oil before use.

While there are many oils that are considered safe during pregnancy, particularly following the first trimester, checking with a professional is a must. Some oils that are considered to use, can be harmful to certain women. As some oils have effects on hormones, they can even cause a dangerous hormone imbalance during pregnancy.

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), recommends that pregnant women avoid the following essential oils:

  • Wintergreen essential oil
  • Sage essential oil
  • Mugwort essential oil
  • Tarragon essential oil
  • Birch essential oil
  • Aniseed essential oil
  • Camphor essential oil
  • Hyssop essential oil
  • Parsley essential oil (seed or leaf)
  • Pennyroyal essential oil
  • Tansy essential oil
  • Thuja essential oil
  • Wormwood essential oil

If you’re nursing, you may want to avoid peppermint essential oil as it can decrease milk supply. On the other hand, if you’re in the process of weaning, it can be helpful when used topically on the breasts.

3. Pay attention to potential medication interactions

If you take a prescription drug, it’s important to find out if the essential oil you plan to use may interfere with it. If you’re uncertain about whether to use the oil with a medication you’re taking, don’t use it. And, you may need to avoid all essential oils if you’re taking multiple medications as doing so is said to “exponentially increase the chance of a drug interaction.”

According to Aromaceuticals, as sourced from a December 2008 Denver, Colorado presentation, Drug-Essential Oil Interactions: Risks and Reassurances, persons with liver or renal disease, a compromised immune system, or those taking multiple medications, should consult with a qualified, professional aromatherapist before attempting to use essential oils.

How do you know if you’ve found a true expert? Brent A. Bauer, MD, an internal medicine doctor and director of the Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program says that you’ll need to do your homework as there are currently no national standards. That includes looking into where the practitioner was trained, how many hours of class time and supervised practice was completed.

4. Using essential oils on children or babies

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You should never take advice meant for an adult and apply it to a child, and that’s especially true when it comes to essential oils. Children have much thinner, more delicate skin than adults, and tend to be extremely sensitive to their potency. Most experts recommend that the oils should never be given internally to a child, or used undiluted on the skin. If used at all, they should always be diluted twice as much than they would be for adult application.

Generally, oils such as orange, lemon, lavender, chamomile and frankincense are considered safe for use on children when diluted, although it’s still advisable to check with a doctor first, and then perform a skin test. There are also certain oils that should never be used around a young child or baby, like wintergreen, eucalyptus, rosemary and peppermint. Those oils contain compounds that can actually slow breathing, or even stop it in those who have respiratory problems.

Additionally, you should always treat essential oils like you would any type of medicine, and keep them out of reach of children – oils like wintergreen can be fatal if swallowed.

5. Essential oils and pets don’t mix

While humans may enjoy the aroma of herbs, flowers and spices from essential oils, along with their benefits, your four-legged friends have a different biology. Not only do they have super sensitive noses, but the oils can be toxic to them. There have been numerous reports of animals harmed, even dying, from essential oils. 

Pennyroyal, for example, is often used by well-meaning pet owners to rid their animals of fleas, and while it’s very effective, it’s considered to be a toxin to an animal’s kidneys and liver. Tea tree oil is another common oil used on pets to treat dermatological problems like scratches and bites, but many pets have ended up taking a trip to the vet’s office after exhibiting signs of toxicity like tremors, weakness, vomiting, depression and ataxia.

Sometimes the oil can cause a gradual buildup of toxins in an animal’s system (particularly in cats but sometimes in dogs as well) causing a slow onset of organ failure. Bottom line? Don’t use essential oils on your pets!

6. Using essential oils internally

While there is a lot of controversy as to whether or not essential oils can be taken by mouth, Roz Zollinger, certified aromatherapist, instructor and founder of the Heal Center in Atlanta, says that “Unless you’re an expert or consulting with one, it’s best to stick to external use.” She cautions that, as mentioned earlier, the oils are highly concentrated and have various levels of toxicity if not used properly.

Zollinger says that she’s even heard some essential oils marketing reps advise their clients to add drops of citrus oil to drinking water, but that can actually cause burning of the esophagus.

Remember, the effects of some oils can range from being highly irritating to fatal when swallowed, like wintergreen as stated previously. While there are some that can be consumed very sparingly, the biggest mistake one can make is to use too much, or too often. Treat essential oils like you would a medication – and, be sure to consult an expert.

7. Skin irritation

Just like everything else, some oils can cause skin irritation in certain people, even when used properly. You should never use an undiluted essential oil on the skin as it can lead to problems that range from a mild irritation to a blistering rash and even permanent loss of skin pigmentation.

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Always dilute your essential oil with a carrier oil like jojobacoconut or almond oil. The general rule is to dilute the essential oil in a carrier oil in a 3 to 5% solution – or, 3 to 5 drops of essential oil per teaspoon of carrier oil.

To find out if you may be sensitive to a particular oil, combine a drop of the essential oil with a half teaspoon of a carrier oil. Rub it onto the inside of the upper portion of your arm and wait for a few hours. If no irritation, itching or redness develops, you’re likely not sensitive to that oil.

When used properly, high quality, organic essential oils, can be a fantastic, and safe, natural remedy.

Buying High Quality Essential Oils

To really benefit from essential oils, it is imperative to use oils that are 100% pure, free from adulterants, additives and dilutions. At Natural Living Ideas, we believe Plant Therapy Essential Oils to be the best provider of high quality oils.

They offer a full range of virtually every essential oil in the world at this page on their official website. Alternatively, they also have a large selection on their Amazon store.

Using Essential Oils Safely

This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and is for information only. Essential oils are very highly concentrated and potent and it is important to always check the specific safety data provided. Keep out of reach of children, the elderly, and pets. For external use only. Avoid contact with mucus membranes and eyes. If any essential oils have contacted your eye, wash out with a vegetable oil such as olive oil, not water.

Some oils may cause skin irritation in people with sensitive skin. It is recommended to perform a patch test before use. To patch test, place one drop on the back of your wrist and leave for an hour or more. If irritation or redness occurs wash the area with olive oil then cold water and do not use the oil.

We do not recommend the ingestion of essential oils except while under the care and direction of a qualified health practitioner.

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Natural Living Ideas

Natural Living Ideas shares some of the best ideas for living a healthier, happier, greener life using the gifts Mother Nature has to offer.

They aim to help improve your life and save the planet by providing you with tips and information on natural and home remedies, herbs and essential oils and healthy living.
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