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?