Are Essential Oils Safe?

are-eos-safeThoughts on Essential Oil Authenticity, Adulteration, Safety and Ethics: Part 1

I got this email just the other day, responding to recipe I had created using essential oils.

“If you are pushing essential oils, you know nothing about natural medicinal gifts. You are becoming well versed in making money off of uneducated people who do not want to be bothered with using wild plants for medicines. I do not believe that plant poisons should be used in this manner and also if you are aware it takes tons of plant material to make a small amount.  A rape of the planet and a quick way to make money all go hand in hand.”

Obviously, there is hot debate in the herbal community about the use of essential oils. As an herbalist who has studied, written and taught about aromatherapy for many years, I think it’s time to address this complicated issue in more detail.

Firstly, though, I’d like to clarify. If you know my work, or me, I hope you know I care deeply for this planet and all life on it. Secondly, I make absolutely no money selling essential oils.

In my opinion, it isn’t so much the use of essential oils that is problematic. After all, humans have been using them for thousands of years and plants have been using them way longer than that. Rather, I think that the excessive and misuse of essential oils is problematic. Like all plant-based remedies, essential oils need to be used with thoughtfulness, care and respect for all life.

Synthetic Fragrances:

Let’s start with what essential oils are not: synthetic fragrances. Synthetic fragrances have either been chemically created (mostly from petroleum), or are modified chemical structures of naturally derived fragrances. They can irritate the skin, respiratory and nervous systems, as well as create problems for those with chemical sensitivities. I actually think of them as air pollution.

Essential Oils:

Also called volatile oils, essential oils are the scent molecules of plants. Plants make essential oils for various reasons. Essential oils help plants communicate with each other, attract pollinators, compete with other plants, prevent microbial infections and deter herbivores and insects.

Many, but not all, essential oils are healing to the body. They are useful for diverse health issues and can be healing for the skin, respiratory system, mind and mood. Essential oils have a long history of use by humans, dating back to at least 4500 B.C.E. They are used in perfumes, cosmetics, soaps, incense and household cleaning products. They are also used as flavorings for food and beverages.

Be Skeptical:

There is a lot of unreliable information about essential oils out there, both on-line and by word of mouth. I cringe when I see a careless, or worse, dangerous aromatherapy recipe posted on social media. I know people who have been burned by “raindrop therapy” (a practice of dropping full strength essential oils along the spine) and hurt using essential oils internally, without expert guidance.

Internal Use:

Essential oils are extremely potent. For instance, there are about 70 petals in every drop of rose essential oil. That is potent stuff! Producing essential oils uses a lot of plants; therefore oils should be used with respect and conservation in mind. If you want to use essential oils internally, I recommend working with a trained aromatherapist.

External Use:

Most essential oils need to be diluted before being applied to the skin. Exceptions to this rule are lavender and tea tree oil, which are generally safe applied full strength to the skin. To determine if an oil is safe to use externally, do a patch test on the inner wrist, applying the diluted oil and the looking for any redness or irritation for twenty-four hours. Some oils are most appropriate for diffusers, or even for use in cleaning products.

Essential oils are fat soluble, and are best diluted with fixed oils, also called vegetable or carrier oils, such as olive, almond or jojoba oil. For most people, a 2% dilution works well. Simply add 10-12 drops of essential oil per fluid ounce of carrier oil. Essential oils can also be added to products such as massage oils, salves, whole milk, salts, shampoo, conditioner, lotions, whole yogurt and ethyl alcohol.



Be cautious using essential oils with babies (never under 6 months old), small children, elders, people with allergies and with women who are pregnant or nursing. Some essential oils, such as citrus oils, can cause photosensitivity on the skin when exposed to ultraviolet light or sunshine.

Choose Carefully:

There are a lot of poor quality oils on the market, including some offered by multi-level marketing companies. Make sure you purchase unadulterated, pure, therapeutic essential oils. I recommend looking for oils that are tested using gas chromatography. A gas chromatograph will help confirm the authenticity of an oil by revealing its chemical composition. These individual compounds act like a “fingerprint” unique to each botanical species.

Questions to Ask Before Purchasing an Essential Oil:

  1. Is the plant threatened or overharvested in the wild? Use an ethical substitute instead.
  2. What is the country of origin?
  3. What is the botanical name?
  4. Is it sustainably and ethically grown or wild harvested? I have the delight of buying some of my oils from local friends that grow and make their own essential oils and hydrosols (a product of the steam distillation of essential oils). Look for local sources.
  5. If the seller isn’t making the oils themselves, how do they know it is sustainable? What is the company’s process to evaluate this? Sometimes companies go and visit the people they purchase oils from. I find companies that develop personal relationships with their suppliers to be more reliable.
  6. Has the oil been tested for purity, correct identification, and adulteration? What test(s) did they run? As I said, I like companies that test using gas chromatography. Can they send you a copy of the tests? In my next article, I will be discussing some home tests you can do to determine the quality and adulteration of your oils.

This is part one of a two-part article. Here is part two.
© Elaine Sheff, Clinical Herbalist 2016

ElaineAbout the Author:
The author of several books on herbal medicine and healing, clinical herbalist Elaine Sheff has been passionate about sharing herbal knowledge for over 25 years. Her latest book is Naked: Botanical Recipes for Vibrant Skin and Healthy Hair. Elaine is the Co-Director of Green Path Herb School, located in Missoula, MT, where she strives to inspire and empower students and clients to remember their connection to the earth, the plants and their own healing process. As a certified Instructor of the Natural Family Planning and Fertility Awareness Methods, Elaine has helped many couples to avoid or achieve pregnancy naturally. An artist and writer, Elaine has written numerous articles about her family’s journey with epilepsy and a special needs child. You can often find her bent over an herb in her garden or marveling at small flowers in mountain meadows with her husband and sons.

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7 Comments on “Are Essential Oils Safe?

  1. Paul Bergner said in a webinar that he sometimes uses essential oils to “boost” an herbal tincture. It depends on what is needed.

    Can you please address using essential oils on animals in your series? Especially for pain and inflammation.
    Thanks for the info. Will be moving up that way and will look up your school.

    • Marita, I agree with Paul. Sometimes I will use the herb and the essential oil of the same plant for a more profound effect. I’m sorry I won’t be talking about using essential oils with animals. We did have a weekend workshop at Green Path recently where Michelle Coburn taught us about Zoopharmacognosy. Super interesting! Here is is her website:

      • Lack of understanding and scientific information is creating a lot of misguidedly notions about aromatherapy. I just gave a lecture at he Conference “unlimited possibilities” in San Francisco on use of essential oils and childcare. Herbalists and home care takers should study with a certified aromatherapist and understand safety precautions. Unfortunately they’re actually I don’t know schools who truly certify aromatherapists in United States at this point in time, because of lack of regulations .

        Author of healing with Aromatherapy


        Aromatically yours and have a great day

  2. Would you be willing to share names of essential oil companies which have passed gas chromatography tests. Which companies do you suggest?

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