Are Essential Oils Safe for Internal Use?
In this article, you will learn:
- The Great Aromatherapy Debate
- Do's & Don'ts
- Aromatherapy 101
- How Essential Oils are Used
- Tips for Internal Use
- FDA Approved GRAS Essential Oils
As popularity increases, many people are questioning, “are essential oils safe for internal use?” I'm not sure how it exactly happened, but somehow misguided people started to instill fear into essential oils users that these precious compounds are unsafe for internal use. I say “misguided” in the deepest respect, as I understand that we all have differing opinions, and I know that I'm going to get a lot of “love mail” for this post – hate mail sounds too ugly, doesn't it? 😉
With that said, the more I learn about EOs, the less I consume them. I still enjoy a drop of lemon in a 32 ounce glass liter of sparkling water with some liquid stevia as my special soda pop, but that's about it unless I'm battling some specific health condition. It has taken me a year of research & study and literally hundreds (if not thousands) of hours to get to this “revelation.”
The Great Aromatherapy Debate
I regularly get questions from people asking me about internal use and I now understand why there's so much confusion. One myth breeds more myths. Innocent uncertainty breeds more uncertainty. And the vicious cycle continues.
The fact remains that there are no scientific, evidence-based, anatomical, physiological or logical reasons to say that essentials oils are unsafe for human consumption. Paradoxically, aromatherapists are still at odds with each other on this point, which confuses the casual essential oil user all the more. With that said, rest assured that large professional organizations like National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) support safe, internal use.
In the words of NAHA, “Essential oils may be applied on the skin (dermal application), inhaled, diffused or taken internally. Each of these methods have safety issues which need to be considered.” (1) And this makes complete sense to me. Like anything we can easily overdo it, and we must remember a little goes a long way with regard to essential oils – especially internal use! We can also find several local and online schools that will certify you as an aromatherapist and learn how to practice safe, internal use.
The Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy is one organization in particular that I have strongly aligned myself with as it is the oldest aromatherapy school continually run by a practicing aromatherapist. Their founder, Sylla Sheppard-Hanger, has over 40 years of client-based experience, and has been teaching classes in aromatherapy since 1985. The bottom line is that when an organization like this includes together internal use guidelines in their curriculum – with hundreds of case studies to support their recommendations – people should stop for a second a listen, don't you agree?
And let's not forget what the universally acclaimed text, Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals, repeatedly refers to “maximum oral dose” in relation to consuming essential oils safely and effectively.
The thing that really throws me through a loop regarding people who speak out against internal use is that they are in direct opposition of the several human studies in the scientific literature and completely disregard the Food and Drug Administration. Yes, you read that correctly! According to the FDA, essential oils are safe for human consumption. For the exhaustive FDA-approved list of Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) oils see below. (2)
Note: not all oils that are safe for ingestion are included in the FDA-approved GRAS list. I recommend that we use this list as a base point to start the conversation about what is and what is not safe.
Do’s and Don’ts
Before I dive into some of the ways that you can consume essential oils safely, there some “housekeeping” items we need to discuss. Here are some do’s and don’ts.
- Use essential oils aromatically in a diffuser, inhaler, spritzer and other fun ways.
- Add essential oils in your daily body care regimen.
- Be careful – and learn the basics. My Aromatherapy 101 article will help.
- Enjoy the good things in life! There’s nothing like one drop of lemon or orange oil in a 32 ounce glass liter of sparkling water with some liquid stevia as a special soda pop treat.
- Have fun & be empowered! Using essential oils and other natural therapies is a life-changing experience for most people and remember to enjoy the journey as you learn all about them!
Daily Do Not’s:
- Consume essential oils for “prevention.” This is wasteful and dangerous, and I was a victim of the take-a-drop-of-essential-oil under your tongue (or in your water) everyday myth until I irritated my esophagus and developed acid reflux! The more I learn about EOs, the less I consume them – only for specific health conditions, or my special soda. ? And, no, it doesn’t matter how “pure” or “therapeutic” they are. Daily consumption is NOT the most effective (and medicinal) way to use them, and it has taken me 3 years of trial & error (lots of error) and literally hundreds (if not thousands) of research hours to get to this “revelation.” So, please learn from my mistakes! ?
- Think that each health condition within a specific body system should be approached the same way. Meaning this: even though peppermint is great for IBS and nausea, it should not be used for GERD. The University of Maryland Medical Center specifically warns that peppermint tea and essential oil can relax the esophageal sphincter and pose risks for those with reflux.
- Believe that “there is an oil for that.” Essential oils have changed my life so much that I have devoted much of my personal and profession lives to sharing the message that they are truly God’s Medicine. Seriously, I’m the “oil” guy and I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to be featured on countless health summits, conferences and documentaries. Yet, let’s be real. Like anything, essential oils are limited by what they can and we should not fall into the trap that they are the end-all cure because misguided hope will disappoint.
Ok, now that we’ve cleaned house, let’s get to work…
I have written about essential oils extensively, and if you're looking for a quick Aromatherapy 101 course you can check it out in my EO Database. In the meantime, suffice it to say that essential oils are what I like to refer to as God's Medicine. They are chemical compounds found in the bark, leaves, flowers, roots and rinds of plants, fruit, and trees. Interestingly, there are no vitamins or minerals in essential oils as they are made up of compounds that we learn about in organic chemistry class like terpene hydrocarbons (e.g. sesquiterpenes, which have been shown to cross the blood brain barrier) and oxygenated compounds (e.g aldehydes, ketones and esters, which all have unique effects on the human body).
The key to essential oils, and why we should consider them in our natural health regimens, is that they combat pathogens (harmful microorganisms), are a source of antioxidants (needed to prevent and cure disease), and have been shown to contain advanced healing properties in addition to cancer cell cytotoxicity amongst other things.
How Essential Oils are Used
More recently, essential oils have been used under the guise of the aromatherapy profession, although we have records of people using them as far as thousands of years ago. Did they have essential oils like we know them today? Of course not! Modern distillation procedures are relatively new in relation to the Earth timetable.
However, Nicander (b.c. 183—135), a Greek poet and physician for example, “Spoke of the extraction of perfumes from plants by what we should now call a process of distillation” and we have other ancient accounts of crude methods to extract the precious oil from plants. (3) The term aromatherapy was coined to combine aroma and therapy, indicating therapeutic benefits using fragrance. This is still the heart of aromatherapy, but essential oil use has expanded in many ways and toward many uses. The main categories of use are (4):
Not only is inhalation the oldest form of essential oil use, it is also arguably the safest. Oils diffused throughout a room are relatively safe for most people in most cases due to the high level of dilution. More direct effects can be obtained by breathing in a steam directly or inhaling right from the bottle, or from a few drops on a cloth. This carries the volatile oil directly into your respiratory system and mucous membranes, dispersed throughout the steam or air molecules.
Topical use is a step further than traditional inhalation-based aromatherapy, though still familiar in the context of massage therapy, which often utilizes fragrant oils for massage applications. Instead of the broad dispersion through air droplets that inhalation provides, topical use is much more direct. But at the same time, the oil is absorbed through the barrier layers of skin, while inhalation moves quickly through the thinner mucous membranes. Knowing your oil and the goal you have in mind can help you determine which application is more appropriate. In theory and in professional practice, some essential oils can be used on the skin undiluted. However, the safest application is via dilution. Carrier oils like olive, coconut, jojoba and avocado oils usually have benefits of their own, and you can easily combine a couple of drops in a teaspoon to dilute the oils and bypass potential irritation.
Finally, and most controversially, some oils are safe for ingestion. The most basic form of ingestion is in culinary use. Revisiting cinnamon, you could use cinnamon essential oil in a cake batter, but you'd only need one drop for the whole batch vs. a tsp or more of the bark powder. Another common internal preparation is to combine it into a drink. Do remember that oil and water do not mix, so simply adding a drop to water will leave that drop undiluted. Some oils are irritants and all oils are very strong, so it's best to be safe and dilute it with an edible carrier like coconut oil first. Some aromatherapists claim oils are never to be ingested, and most will suggest only trained professionals utilize internal methods. Yet, I am a firm believer of letting common sense be our guide. I would rather people equip themselves to use them safely and effectively than be afraid of them.
Tips for Internal Use
It is important to realize that people consume essential oils all day without even realizing it. Where do you think your processed foods get their flavor from! Virtually anything that is naturally flavored most likely contains essential oils. This is what the FDA says in the official document Code of Regulations, Title 21, Volume 6, Animal Food Labeling: Specific Animal Food Labeling Requirements.
Foods Containing “Artificial Flavors” and “Spices” do not Contain Oils
“(a)(1) The term artificial flavor or artificial flavoring means any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof. (2) The term spice means any aromatic vegetable substance in the whole, broken, or ground form, except for those substances which have been traditionally regarded as foods, such as onions, garlic and celery; whose significant function in food is seasoning rather than nutritional; that is true to name; and from which no portion of any volatile oil or other flavoring principle has been removed.
- Allspice, Anise, Basil, Bay leaves, Caraway seed, Cardamon, Celery seed, Chervil, Cinnamon, Cloves, Coriander, Cumin seed, Dill seed, Fennel seed, Fenugreek, Ginger, Horseradish, Mace, Marjoram, Mustard flour, Nutmeg, Oregano, Paprika, Parsley, Pepper, black; Pepper, white; Pepper, red; Rosemary, Saffron, Sage, Savory, Star aniseed, Tarragon, Thyme, Turmeric.
- Paprika, turmeric, and saffron or other spices which are also colors, shall be declared as spice and coloring unless declared by their common or usual name.
Foods Containing “Natural Flavors” do Contain Oils
(3) The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional. Natural flavors, include the natural essence or extractives obtained from plants.” By letting common sense be our guide, I propose some tried and true tips on how to take essential oils internally.
- Start off by using oils are GRAS (see below for the FDA-approved list of oils that are Generally Recognized As Safe for internal use).
- Be safe (more on that below).
- Don't overdo it – limit to 2-3 drops at a time, and be sure to wait at least 4 hours before taking consecutive doses.
- Listen to your body, and…
- Discontinue use IMMEDIATELY if adverse reactions occur.
Trust me, people don't break out in hives in a “detox” reaction when using essential oils like I've read out there in cyberspace. Pain, irritation, swelling, inflammation, bloating, burning, reflux, and anything else that isn't pleasant is NOT a good sign. This is your body's way of warning you that something harmful is attacking it.
Some More Practical tips:
- Gentle oils like frankincense and lemon can usually be taken directly under the tongue for quick access into the bloodstream.
- More volatile oils like oregano and clove should ALWAYS be diluted with a carrier oil. 1 drop per teaspoon is usually safe for people.
- Putting 1-2 drops in a capsule can help you avoid esophageal irritation.
- Putting 1 drop of a citrus oil in your water is generally safe and quite enjoyable. My family and I regularly enjoy a drop of lemon/lime + some liquid stevia in sparkling water as our soda pop alternative.
- Include 1 drop of your favorite oils in your food.
Cooking with essential oils is an extremely effective way to enjoy the health benefits as well as the aromatic experience through your taste buds. 1-2 drops of cilantro or coriander with 1-2 drops of lime, for example, goes wonderfully with your homemade guacamole. Dry 1 drop of cumin in your curry next time. Or 2 drops of black pepper in virtually anything savory!
FDA Approved GRAS Essential Oils
PART 182 — SUBSTANCES GENERALLY RECOGNIZED AS SAFE Subpart A–General Provisions
|Sec. 182.20 Essential oils, oleoresins (solvent-free), and natural extractives (including distillates).|
|Essential oils, oleoresins (solvent-free), and natural extractives (including distillates) that are generally recognized as safe for their intended use, within the meaning of section 409 of the Act, are as follows:
[42 FR 14640, Mar. 15, 1977, as amended at 44 FR 3963, Jan. 19, 1979; 47 FR 29953, July 9, 1982; 48 FR 51613, Nov. 10, 1983; 50 FR 21043 and 21044, May 22, 1985]
Safety & Contraindications
When it comes to drug interactions and contraindications, there are literally textbooks devoted to the study of essential oil safety, and I must defer to the chemists, pharmacists and experts who understand this complicated topic more than I.
With that said, as a trained researcher and doctor, I think it’s important to note that there is virtually no research out there discussing how essential oils interact with drugs in human clinical trials. Essentially, what this means is that essential oil safety is still a wild frontier in the science community and no one really knows (for certain) how essential oils will interact with drugs or your body.
Let common sense be your guide. Still, be sure to maintain proper dilutions, and general safety considerations still apply. As always, discontinue use if any adverse reactions occur and consult your physician immediately.