Is ingesting essential oils safe?
As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, essential oils have taken the natural health world by storm. As someone who uses essential oils for my own wellness, I understand the amazing properties of these natural remedies.
The fervent marketing of two popular brands of essential oils has introduced many people to these powerful tools for health. On the flip side, I’m left concerned about the lack of proper safety precautions, particularly when it comes to ingesting essential oils. As shown in many studies such as this one, where essential oils measured up to the headache-relieving properties of Tylenol, essential oils are as powerful as pharmaceuticals.
I feel fully confident in stating essential oils are safer than pharmaceuticals. But I encourage due caution and consideration when using essential oils, especially because most of the circulating information about oils carries the weight of multi-level-marketing industry bias.
Therapeutic Grade, Schmerapeutic Grade
Many infographics and blog posts go something like this:
Allergies? Put lavender, peppermint and lemon oil in a capsule and take it daily!
Indigestion? Swallow a couple of drops of peppermint oil in your water!
Want quick weight loss? Shed pounds by adding grapefruit oil to your water!
Chronic pain? Take frankincense, copaiba and basalm oil in a capsule and feel relief!
The only safety disclaimer added to these recipes usually warns, Only therapeutic grade essential oils are safe for internal use. Brand XXX are the only therapeutic grade essential oils.
Let’s get one thing straight: the term therapeutic grade provides marketing weight rather than signifying that the oils meet a regulated quality standard. A helpful Facebook page called Essential Oil University, unaffiliated with any oil company, is dedicated to busting essential oil myths like this one. The author of the page, Dr. Robert Pappas, explains:
“There seems to be a misconception that there is some kind of independent body that certifies oils as therapeutic grade, but to this date there is no such body, at least not one that is widely recognized. Does this mean there is no such thing as therapeutic grade? No, but just realize that any therapeutic grade standard out there right now is an internally derived company standard. Now this standard may be an overall great standard and perfectly acceptable to me or any other analyst or aromatherapist out there but it just needs to be noted that its not an independent standard.” (Source and read more)
The Misleading Nutrition Facts Label
Perhaps you are thinking, “but my favorite essential oils have a nutrition facts label, so I know they are safe to ingest.”
A Nutrition Facts section on an essential oil does not mean it is necessarily top quality. It is a marketing designed to lead consumers into the following – and false – line of logic: “This company is telling me their oil is pure enough to eat, so that must make it more pure than oils without a Nutrition Facts label.”
A Nutrition Facts label does not guarantee an oil meets any element of quality (such as purity or sustainability).
Now that we’ve covered the unregulated use of therapeutic grade, let’s move on to the real question: even if your essential oils are of extremely high quality – whether they are labeled “therapeutic grade” or not – is ingesting essential oils safe? These are three reasons why I’m not comfortable ingesting essential oils without professional guidance.
1. We need more research on essential oils and gut flora
Practitioners, aromatherapists and multi-level-markers agree: ingesting essential oils does affect gut flora, which is the 4 pounds of bacteria lining your digestive tract. The disagreement lies in whether or not it supports a healthy or harmful balance of flora.
The widely perpetuated myth that ingesting essential oils kills only harmful – not beneficial – bacteria lacks any scientific support. Then again, the idea that ingesting essential oils kills beneficial bacteria is not supported by any studies. While we need significantly more research into this area to conclusively answer the question of how essential oils affect flora, we do have some clues into the situation.
In recent years, numerous studies have documented the antibacterial activity of essential oils against infectious bacterial strains (1, 2, 3). Unless future studies show otherwise, I think it is reasonable to theorize that the essential oils studied may demonstrate antibacterial properties against other less stubborn strains of bacteria. This hypothesis is a conservative approach, but I think it is best to err on the side of caution when dealing with antibacterial agents and the vulnerable terrain of our microbiome.
Robert Tisserand, author of Essential Oil Safety, wrote a post in which he states,
It would be useful to know more about particular oils, doses, routes of administration and their effect on the body’s microbiome. But in the meantime, it is rash to assume that essential oils negatively affect the balance of bowel flora, because there is no clinical evidence that this happens.
We do know that enterically-coated capsules of peppermint oil are beneficial in cases of inflammatory bowel disease and that these capsules result in a (substantial) peak serum concentration of 1,492 ng/mL for menthol. We also know from this report that peppermint essential oil had a beneficial effect on the balance of gut bacteria in a case of SIBO (small intestine bacterial overgrowth).
Interestingly, these studies likely point to the fact that the oil acts like an antibiotic. SIBO is bacterial OVERgrowth in parts of the small intestine. A drug is considered to have “beneficial effect” on SIBO if it kills/reduces the excessive bacterial growth, which is why antibiotics – either conventional or herbal – is used to treat SIBO.
We should also ask, why did the peppermint have a beneficial effect for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)? Here’s my theory: because it works as an antibiotic! As someone who has IBD, I can tell you that one of the conventional treatments for it is antibiotics. Just like probiotic therapy, antibiotic therapy helps IBD in many cases, since IBD results from imbalanced gut flora.
2. Aromatherapists don’t suggest internal use unless guided by a professional
Where do you see advice to ingest essential oils? Is it from a licensed practitioner or someone selling oils who obtains their information directly from the oil company?
An individual selling essential oils in a multi-level marketing scheme does better research on the safety of the oils than a licensed aromatherapist not affiliated with an essential oil company. Said no one ever.
The advice discrepancy between those selling the popular brands of essential oils and practitioners should raise a red flag. The Alliance of International Aromatherapists gives this statement on the internal use of essential oils:
AIA does not endorse internal therapeutic use (oral, vaginal or rectal) of essential oils unless recommended by a health care practitioner trained at an appropriate clinical level. An appropriate level of training must include chemistry, anatomy, diagnostics, physiology, formulation guidelines and safety issues regarding each specific internal route (oral, vaginal or rectal). Please refer to the AIA Safety Guidelines for essential oil use. (Read more)
3. Ingesting essential oils isn’t the most effective way to use them
Voracious marketing by the MLMs have led to individuals ingesting essential oils, because “it can only help, and it can’t hurt.” In 2012, 180 moderate-to-major outcomes due to essential oil ingestion/exposure was reported to the American Association of Poison Control Statistics. This is a low number considering the rising popularity of essential oils, and no deaths reported that year. But that is still 180 individuals significantly harmed.
The real question here is should essential oils be taken internally. If the oils could work in an energetic, diluted, or olfactory application, then ingesting drops of oil in water does not honor them as a precious natural resource.
Essential oils do offer potent results when used internally, but in the right application for specific situations. Anal suppositories are more effective than oral ingestion to deliver essential oils into the body. Suppositories allow the oil to bypass the breakdown processes of the liver.
Remember that widely-cited study showed that grapefruit oil supported weight loss? MLM representatives recommended individuals take grapefruit oil in glasses of water. This is one example of marketing that rather blindly focuses on selling product…. because the original study had subjects just smelling oil, not ingesting it.
Please seek a practitioner’s guidance if ingesting essential oils
When it comes to conventional medicine and natural remedies alike, first, do no harm. That’s why ingesting essential oils should be at the end of your natural remedies list. When it comes to issues commonly addressed with ingesting essential oils – allergies, heartburn, immune support, weight loss, and detox – dietary and lifestyle changes should be renovated first.
After diet and lifestyle are addressed, I suggest moving to food-based supplements and herbal preparations, along with topical application of essential oils.
Let’s use essential oils to support our healing. But let’s also honor them as a precious natural resource. When it comes to oils, use as little as possible, not as much as necessary.
Do you use essential oils? What role do they have in your life?
Thanks for sharing your well balanced and helpful perspective on ingesting essential oils. It’s scary how much misinformation is being shared by well-meaning but misinformed essential oil MLM sales reps. I’m grateful for your insights and look forward to reading more!
I have endured a long year of seasonal allergies. So out of desperation and not wanting to take over the counter drugs, I turned to a MLM E.O. for relief. After ingesting 3 capsules daily for about a week, with lemon, lavender, peppermint and copaiba, I began to feel negative effects which resulted in a not so pleasant stomach situation. I feel it did affect my gut flora even though I was taking a good probiotic. As I began to research, I found your website. Thank you for sharing this info. I am convinced that oils need to be used externally only. How do you feel about diffusers?
I enjoy diffusing oils, but only in moderation. My primary concern is that it uses a ton of oils, which carries a significant ecological burden. My mantra around essential oils is always, “as little as necessary, not as much as possible.” And this is the opposite mantra from the MLM essential oil companies.
I just joined one of the MLM companies a few months ago. This is not my first using of EOs…but the company is almost fanatical on using them….way more than my blood. I have used a few in water here and there, but mostly externally and in a diffuser. My daughter has come up with the same conclusions on internal use. A friend of mine years ago, in speaking about using herbs, stated that most herbs are NOT for using everyday. They are for using when appropriate when indicated. I agree…less is more! Thank you for your great overview on this issue.
Lauren….. Can taking 1 drop turmeric,and oregano,and copaiba,in a veggie cap internally cause dirrarea? The essential oil (agent)says it wont. But I have developed that issue.And I sure would like your opinion,thank you,Rick and worried..
Thank you so much for this information. I know people that are ingesting the oils. I have also noticed many people with addiction issues are now using oils like a new addiction. Especially, the Young Living brand. I do not sell the oils. This one seller keeps telling me to use an oil for this, that, and everything in between which I questioned because it sounds over the top. Please also include a segment on over-zealous people who make a living at this. I fear they are promoting harm and not good. They often don’t know about the persons health problems but pressure people anyway. The companies themselves use a discloser. People are uninformed and listen to anything. Thank you for this.
Ouch! Copaiba oil for depression symptoms gave me a horrible tummy ache and diarrhea! I’ve taken it seriously (1-2 gels caps a day) for about 8-10 days now, and as I’m writing this I’m listening to terrible rumblings and gaseous-like noises from my abdomen, practically constantly. I thought I had eaten bad food, so I compared with family members and took Pepto, but did NOT stop taking the copiaba. Now I’m fairly sure it is what’s causing my gut’s “flora” imbalance issues, which I’ve been reading about in studies of the oil. I should have listened to my Physician Assistant son and NOT ingested this oil. Live and learn. I’m throwing it out.
Just researched Copaiba Oil…. and almost 100% of articles say…do not ingest. EOs are super concentrated plant components. How could taking as much as you stated be good for you. If you choose to ingest at all….experiment and start small…see how you feel…then go from there. I would hate to see the FDA suddenly come in and nix the sale of EOs because people are not taking responsibility for use. Of Course, the FDA certifies Opiods like their candy. And for depression a diffuser or some on your lip with a carrier oil. Never read about ingesting it for mood.
Would you share what oil company your prefer?
I am looking for a peppermint oil which can be ingested. I want to put it (a drop) in my morning cup of hot water, lemon, and honey. I have never used EO’s. Ive been reading extensively about them. DO I need organic in order to ingest and if so can you recommend one that truly is organic? I do not want to purchase from MLM? I just don’t want to order from a place that is not 100% truthful and that isn’t giving me a product which could be harmful in any way. I would appreciate hearing from you at your convenience. Any other information that you could supply me would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.
My suggestion is to make peppermint tea and add in the lemon & honey to that. Herbal peppermint tea is much safer and more a more sustainable option than using the essential oil, which as we’ve learned from the article might not be a good idea to ingest. not only this, but essential oils require copious amounts of plant material to create one small bottle, whereas one tea bag only requires a few leaves off of one plant.
Ever since I ingested oils such as lemon in my water or a drop of frankincense under my tongue. I immediately noticed I was getting heart palpitations. After about 1 month it was getting worse and my abdomen was starting to hurt with a painful stabbing feeling. I stopped ingesting and they decreased. But soon I had to stop all oil use, no more homemade cleaning products or diffusing. I reached out to the lady I purchased them from and on other lead sales social media pages. They all shut me down and anytime I’d post a question about my symptoms trying to find if someone else had experienced heart palpitations they would delete my posts. 1 year later I’m still plagued with heart palpitations and I don’t use any oils. I’m fearful that these oils have caused some damage to my heart/vessels. I’m currently in the process of trying to find answers with a Cardiologist. Beware of EO and especially doTERRA it’s like a cult.
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I’ve been taking 1 drop of copaiba,1 drop of turmeric,and 1 drop of orageno,in a veggie capsule for 10 days,and have had diarrhea for the last 4 days. could this be the cause? please answer my question,the sales rep,from do-terra will not,thank you, Rick
It sounds like the copaiba is unsafe to ingest from previous comments. I would stop asap.
Thank you for writing this article – it was very useful and thought provoking.