Many blogs, Facebook posts, and emails are currently making the rounds, warning against taking essential oils internally. One for example, provides the comparison of drinking a single drop of chamomile oil to drinking 30 cups of chamomile tea in a day, and of course you wouldn’t drink that much tea so why would you drink a drop of the oil? First of all, let’s be clear. Essential oils are very concentrated, it is true. However, even assuming you know the source, and that the oil is pure without synthetic additives, a great many factors affect their therapeutic properties and actions. Seeds must first be carefully identified and selected from the correct species. Optimal conditions for planting, soil, weather, growing and harvesting are necessary, not to mention correct distillation procedures. Oil distilled from the same plant can have very different properties depending whether it is distilled from needles or leaves, bark, stems, buds, fruits, or flowers. Wide variation may also result if you simply harvest it on a different day or different time a day, or if you use different distillation parameters.
Chamomile tea is generally made from steeping the dried flowers and leaves in hot water. Is the chamomile tea you are drinking even the same species as the essential oil in question? Did it even come from the same locality? German Chamomile essential oil is steam distilled from the flowers and Roman Chamomile from the flowering tops. If you think about this at all, you will quickly realize that steeping a few dried chamomile flowers in hot water for a few minutes is hardly the same thing as the complicated process of correctly extracting a pure therapeutic oil through steam distillation. The fact that the oil is more concentrated really has nothing to do with it – you wouldn’t drink 30 cups of water in a day either!
The FDA has a very long list of essential oils on their GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) list, and/or listed as Flavoring Agents (FA), most of which were added due to a long history of safe use prior to 1958, which of course assumes it is really the pure oil. For that, you have to know who you are dealing with. But the essential oil dealers who do put synthetics in their oils are no worse than all these other companies putting the stuff on grocery shelves for you to consume, or the Pharmaceutical companies patenting these drugs. You just have to use common sense, know your supplier, and if you are serious about using essential oils, it is good to consult knowledgeable experts and try to learn everything you can.
When you begin to understand what it takes to produce some of these oils, you begin to realize there is no way some of these places offering them for extremely cheap prices can even be pure, much less therapeutic, but we have also been unfortunately conditioned to think cheaper is better. But you get what you pay for, and when it comes to your health, things like essential oils and natural supplements and healthy foods are important; you are not saving money by wasting it on cheap oils. Then there are those who, admitting the FDA has such a list of GRAS essential oils, complain that the dosages are not also listed. However, essential oils are not drugs. We are, unfortunately, very conditioned to trusting all these synthetic prescription drugs as safe, and we believe items in the grocery and drugstore are safe for human use and consumption, because we assume if they were not, the FDA or someone would not allow them to be there for sale, or would not allow doctors to prescribe these drugs. So it is funny how we trust those things but tend to be afraid of natural things.
Well, it is right to be cautious with the essential oils because you want to be sure it is what it says it is and not something adulterated with harmful synthetics or chemical additives (which is common among essential oils you may find for sale in the health food store or other online places, even though the label may claim they are “pure” or “therapeutic”). Most of these do say NOT to take them internally, and that causes people to be afraid. But often the reason for these disclaimers is because they know or suspect the oil they are selling as “pure” is not really pure but has harmful chemicals in it, and they of course don’t want to get sued. So they would like to give you the impression that the oil itself is not safe rather than admit they adulterated it, or don’t have enough confidence in the testing they are able to afford, to be sure it is not.
According to the National Capital Poison Center, there were more than 17,000 cases of poisoning reported for children under 6 during 2012. Cosmetics and personal care products topped the list with 2692 cases, followed by pain medications with 1760. Other top causes in descending order included cleaners, foreign bodies, topical medicines, vitamins, antihistamines, batteries, plants and mushrooms, antimicrobials, arts and crafts, pesticides, and finally cough and cold medications with 419 cases. For adults 20 and older there were more than 13,000 cases reported with pain relievers topping the list at 2705, and sedatives and hypnotics second with 1966 cases. Following in descending order were cleaning substances, cardiovascular drugs, antidepressants, alcohols, food products/poisoning, pesticides, cosmetic and personal care products, antihistamines, stimulants and street drugs, and finally hormones and hormone agonists with 593 cases. Essential oils are not on either of these lists. Although essential oils are not drugs, it is true that they are very potent, concentrated substances and need to be treated with respect. Young children are quite capable of ingesting almost anything they can get in their mouths. This could range from anything like bugs, dirt, garden or household plants, unsecured medications, personal care products, and cleaners, to small parts of toys or other objects. A 1953 article by J.O. Craig discusses cases of toxicity in Edinburgh and Aberdeen occurring in the 20 year period between 1931-51. Of 502 cases of childhood poisoning, 74 were said to involve volatile oils, and of 454 deaths involving poisoning, 54 were said to be caused by volatile oils. The death of anyone is a tragedy, and any deaths involving children are especially heartbreaking.
Whether or not essential oils may be safe to ingest is not the real question. Virtually everyone keeps large quantities of all kinds of substances in their homes which, if accidentally ingested by a child, could be potentially very harmful, even lethal. These may include all kinds of prescription or over the counter medications, vitamins, soaps, cleaners, perfumes, cosmetics, and the child’s own toys. People need to be responsible and vigilant where children are concerned, plain and simple. One case described by Craig refers to a five-year old boy being given a teaspoon of camphor oil for a cold when the mother said she had intended to give him olive oil. It seems more likely that she was confusing camphor oil with castor oil which was a common home remedy and since the boy got sick she was afraid to name either camphor or castor and said she meant to give him olive oil. The child experienced vomiting, sleepiness and confusion, but although he was admitted, no specific therapy was given and he fully recovered without any ill effects within 24 hours. Other incidents refer to Oil of Wintergreen or Methyl Salicylate, and Oil of Turpentine. It appears that most if not all of these cases involved synthetic versions or chemicals, and all cases were accidental with large quantities consumed. As very concentrated and potent substances, essential oils have a long history of needing only a single drop to a very few drops, however they are used.
Many of the warnings being passed around seem to imply that people are recklessly drinking essential oils by the bottle and that serious illness or fatality from use of essential oils, particularly ingesting them is a common thing. Some suggest that anyone who advocates ingesting an essential oil is only trying to get you to go through bottles of essential oil faster so they can make more money. This kind of talk has no real basis in fact and only serves to scare people unnecessarily.
The FDA states there are over 2 million Adverse Drug Reactions and 100,000 deaths each year. These are drugs properly prescribed by doctors and used as intended. They are the 4th leading cause of death overall, killing more people than pulmonary disease, diabetes, AIDS, pneumonia, accidents, and automobile death. As for money, at least 11 major pharmaceutical companies brought in more than $85 million apiece during 2012. This number pales in comparison to the huge payoffs the FDA is collecting, however. The Prescription Drug User Fee Act of 1992 authorizes the FDA to collect fees from companies that produce certain human drug and biological products. PDUFA established three types of user fees – application fees, establishment fees, and product fees. According to the FDA 2012 PDUFA Financial Report, in FY 2012, FDA collected $699.8 million in prescription drug user fees, spent $636.9 million in user fees for the review process, and carried a cumulative balance of $178.5 million forward for future fiscal years.
A 2012 article in the Huffington Post points out many food additives that are causing a host of health problems, even numerous fatalities, which the FDA has failed to protect us from even when large bodies of evidence about harmful effects continues to mount. In fact, when the safety statistics of essential oils is compared with these food additives and prescription drugs, incidence of adverse reaction to essential oils are quite rare, and when sifted down usually prove to be caused by one of the following: 1) fragrance grade oils of questionable purity and quality 2) synthetic, adulterated, or extended oils, and 3) isolated compounds. Pure essential oils have a very long history of safe use going back thousands of years. Given these statistics, the idea that certain individuals or companies are trying to encourage a harmful practice of ingesting oils to get customers to consume a few more drops of oil each month so they can rack up large profits is rather absurd.
That said, since very few truly pure therapeutic grade essential oils exist while increasing numbers are labeled as such, it is well to be cautious. Individuals are all different and may respond to oils differently, so it is a good thing to get familiar with each new oil to try to learn how your body responds. It is also important to understand that synthetic, adulterated, or extended oils, or isolated compounds are simply not the same as a pure oil. Even when the oils are pure and properly distilled, there are often different chemotypes and there may be considerable differences in oils that were grown in different localities, or sometimes even different batches. A few companies, such as Young Living do have high quality therapeutic grade oils, many of which are on the FDA’s GRAS list and have been safely ingested by thousands for many years as a dietary supplement. I personally use several regularly for internal use and have never had any problems with internal use of these essential oils which have been listed by the FDA for dietary supplement. Young Living carefully oversees the entire Seed to Seal process at all of their nine farms around the world, as well as the many produced by partner growers in other worldwide locations. Young Living rigorously tests all oils in their own labs which have some of the most extremely sophisticated testing equipment in the entire world. In addition, all oils are further tested by highly regarded third-party labs for verification. Thus they are able to produce batches of oil year after year with a high degree of consistency. Young Living also offers a wide range of training with many books, introductory classes, and training sessions regularly held across the country so people can easily learn and direct others to appropriate materials on the safe and beneficial use of essential oils.
If you have questions about internal use of essential oils, consulting your doctor or healthcare professional is always recommended, especially for those who have health conditions and/or may be taking prescription medications. Do your research and first of all make sure you are dealing with a reputable company who has a long track record of high quality standards and has the means to personally monitor all phases of the growing and distilling process of their own or partner producers, and who conducts rigorous testing. While many feel that dealing with smaller companies is safer, be aware that a number of the smaller companies usually have far fewer resources and funding at their disposal to carry out extensive testing or personally monitor the growers and distillers who supply them.
Do your homework and be sure your supplier does have an active relationship with their growers and distillers and are not simply repackaging and selling you oils they broker simply by placing phone or online orders without any real knowledge of how the oils they are selling are grown and distilled. If you wish to use oils internally, be sure you buy from a supplier who is confident enough regarding the quality of their oils to be able to definitely tell you how their customers are using the oils, point you to supporting educational material, and not simply offer some vague response like “we cannot say, it is up to you whether you want to ingest the oils.” Be sure to carefully research any oil you may wish to use internally, and that you understand the properties of the specific oil you are using and that you follow the recommended use guidelines and are fully aware of any potential concerns that may arise, and know what to look for.
Oils taken internally should always be diluted by taking with food, such as a drop taken in at least 4 oz of liquid, a spoonful of honey, piece of bread, etc. They may also be taken by placing in clear vegetable capsules, and diluted with olive oil, for example, adding 2-4 drops of the essential oil and filling the rest of the capsule with olive oil. However, this may vary depending on the oil being used and what you are using for. Be sure you have done adequate research and know the recommendations for the specific oil you are using.
In closing, it may be said that safe use of essential oils or any other product you would consume or apply topically is always something you should pay attention to, and not just assume that it is safe because it is available for purchase. It is important to pay attention and to realize that not all oils are created equal and while oils from one company may be safe, oils from another may not. Know your source. Also make sure you have information specific to the species of oil and the supplier you are getting it from. Avoid all oils which may have synthetic additives and do not simply rely on a label that says “pure”, “organic”, or “therapeutic”. It is important to understand that synthetically manipulated oils and compounds are not the same as pure unaltered oils and they do not work in the same way. Although some Aromatherapists see no difference in the safety of synthetic vs natural compounds, the isomers (shape or arrangement of the molecules) are not the same. Synthetic versions are also lacking in many minor trace components which may seem unimportant, however they can have a huge impact on the property of the whole oil. For example, as Dr. David Stewart points out in his book, The Chemistry of Essential Oils Made Simple, sulfur compounds probably occur in most essential oils but usually in concentrations of only one part per million (ppm) to less than one part per billion (ppb). These are too low to be detected by Gas Chromatography, however they will almost always affect the fragrance of an oil. The scent of grapefruit is caused by a sulfur compound thioterpineol, a tiny amount of less than one ppb. Dr. Stewart explains that one ppb is equivalent to five drops in an olympic swimming pool – yet its presence dominates the scent of grapefruit. This is just one illustration of why these minute components can be very critical to how an oil works and while laboratories can isolate a few of the main molecules, they cannot reproduce the myriad of components that occurs in the natural oil. These minor components can govern many different properties of the whole oil, and thus safety of a synthetically altered oil or a lab created synthetic copy of one of its compounds is entirely different in safety than the natural substance.
Your supplier should be able to provide substantial information on their quality and testing standards. Organoleptic testing (touch, taste, smell) is simply not enough, there are very few people in the world who have the natural ability and added training to be an expert “Nose” in regard to essential oils.
At the same time, there is no reason to use scare tactics. Sources of pure, therapeutic grade essential oils do exist, and genuine oils of this class used within their recommended guidelines can be very safe as well as beneficial.
To learn more about different therapeutic grade essential oils and their properties and safe use, please visit The Oil Well
For more information on the leading essential oil companies, their history, testing, and quality standards, check out the 45 page Young Living/DoTerra report