Essential oil safety seems to be a huge topic with widely varying answers, and with a rapidly growing interest among those who seriously wish to use them for therapeutic purposes, it is a valid question. However, it does not need to be nearly so confusing, and certainly does not need to deter people from enjoying the benefits of high quality therapeutic grade oils. It is important to understand the different schools of thought in the application of essential oils. The German model relies primarily on inhalation as a way to receive the benefits of essential oils. The British model takes a very conservative approach of using very diluted oils for massage. They have a long list of oils which they believe should NEVER be used for any reason, and generally frown upon applying the oils neat (undiluted) or taken orally unless under the direction of a licensed healthcare professional. The French model, however, embraces application of essential oils through both neat (undiluted) and diluted topical application, internal use through ingestion and suppositories, and inhaling or diffusing the oils.
Most Aromatherapists in the U.S. are trained according to the British model, and the prominent National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) relies heavily on this school of thought. Generally, they do not recognize therapeutic grade oils but tend to adopt safety precautions that do not distinguish between the many classes and grades of oils available, and make the assumption that the general public is likely to come to great harm using essential oils if they do not adhere to this very conservative philosophy. Much of the fear-mongering results when these ideas are posted widely on various blogs and forums as broad generalizations and promoted as being widely accepted by leading authorities. The inherent implication is that any other school of thought is automatically wrong regardless of reasoning. Unfortunately this very narrow approach has little basis in fact and is very confusing for those who are simply and honestly trying to learn what essential oils may have to offer. One often repeated theme is advising people to purchase only from small dealers and not from MLMs or large corporations due to integrity or quality concerns.
Here is what Dr. Daniel Pénoël, M.D. one of the foremost authorities on the therapeutic use of essential oils has to say about Young Living, the world’s leading essential oils company which also happens to be MLM:
Another common theme in fearmongering is that all representatives of MLM essential oil companies recklessly recommend, advocate and prescribe unsafe practices and uses of essential oils for the sole purpose of trying to sell the oils or sign up distributors. It is interesting that many of these generalizations often come from small private aromatherapy practitioners who stand to gain customers of their own products and services by frightening them away from the MLM companies. Sadly, these kind of practices are harmful for all essential oil companies, and for everyone who wishes to enjoy essential oils.
In fact, Gary Young of Young Living was the first health company leader willing to actively work with the FDA to achieve full compliance. Young Living was audited by the FDA in January of 2015 and was the only health company in 7 years to receive a grade of 100% compliance for the company website and materials. Young Living is actively working to make its members aware of what they can and cannot say while sharing their products to remain in compliance with FDA rules.
The truth is that a wide range exists in both MLM and large and small companies of experts truly knowledgeable in the many uses of essential oils. Whether the company is large or small, MLM or not, really is not the defining factor. It is also not accurate to portray that independent distributors who practice applying certain oils undiluted or ingesting them orally are doing so out of blatant ignorance and/or greedy motive, or that all or even the majority of respected authorities frown on such practices. Such a philosophy completely ignores the French model of teaching about essential oils, which has been in existence much longer than the British model has, and is sustained by a large body of current and ongoing scientific research which has worldwide respect.
Aromatherapists aligned with NAHA and the International Federation of Aromatherapists (IFA) continue to warn loudly about undiluted application or oral ingestion and imply that anyone advocating or daring to do this without the explicit guidance of a licensed healthcare professional is engaging in something highly dangerous. While it is true that essential oils can be very potent and powerful when properly grown and distilled for therapeutic purposes, they are not drugs. If an essential oil is on the FDA GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) List, this means they have a very long history of safe use when used as intended, going back more than 50 years.
Influential author and educator Robert Tisserand is often widely regarded as the father of modern aromatherapy, and to him we are certainly indebted for the English translations of Gattefossé’s Aromatherapy, the first aromatherapy book written by Dr. René-Maurice Gattefossé in 1937, as well as Dr. Jean Valnet’s 1964 book, The Practice of Aromatherapy, which Tisserand also translated. A native of Great Britain, Tisserand began practicing spiritual healing on his friends at the age of 17, and was fascinated the next year when his mother returned from Paris with an autographed copy of Valnet’s book. He began selling essential oils out of his bedroom apartment four years later, and founded his essential oils company in 1974. He still serves as a consultant for this company, now known as Tisserand Aromatherapy. His 1977 book, The Art of Aromatherapy, became an international best seller. Later he become increasingly concerned with essential oils safety and his most recent updated version of Essential Oil Safety: A Guide For Health Care Professionals is widely considered the go to book for answers. Although Tisserand himself is neither a physician nor a chemist, and in fact does not claim any degree on his website, his intensive research and years of personal experience with the use of essential oils have gained him a worldwide reputation. He has won many awards and presented at numerous conferences. Tisserand, who came to the U.S. in 2000, generally represents the more conservative British view, however even he notes in the first edition of his Essential Oil Safety, “We are aware that a book such as this could have the effect of presenting essential oils as generally dangerous substances – this is certainly not our intention. On the contrary, there are several instances where we have shown that supposed dangers do not in fact exist. The majority of essential oils turn out to be non-hazardous as they are used in aromatherapy.” Many aromatherapists have placed undue emphasis on Tisserand’s safety statistics without fully understand the context. He notes, for example, that the text is largely drawn from the toxicology reports from the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials. In other words, the safety issues apply primarily to oils of fragrance grade. The testing was also mainly done using the LD50 levels for laboratory mice or rats. This means that the test rodents are given increasingly large doses until half of the ones tested die – that dose is considered to be LD50. These doses, incidentally, are generally much larger even than a human would use (consider a human weighing maybe 150x as much as a large laboratory rat) let alone a dose that might be appropriate for something as small as a rat or a mouse. Tisserand states, “Toxicologists increasingly acknowledge that giving excessive doses of a substance to a genetically in-bred mouse living in a laboratory may not have great relevance to the human situation.”
Yet, numerous postings from the aromatherapy community continually refer to cases of poisoning and fatality from self-dosing of essential oil, yet none of them ever cite the source where the records of all these so-called poisonings and fatalities from essential oils may be found. If one searches for these, it is very difficult to find anything. One however is a study published in the Feb 2001 Paediatrics & Child Health Journal . This simply reviewed charts of calls to the Ontario Regional Poison Information Center, Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto between Dec 1995 – March 1997. Reading through the article, it is evident that virtually all of these cases referred to very young children accidentally ingesting various cold remedy products such as cough syrup or vapor-rub, composed of synthetic or lab-created ingredients or isolated chemical components of essential oils. It really does not refer to even fragrance grade aromatherapy oils, much less pure unadulterated natural oils of therapeutic quality. Most of these involved “camphorated” products or cold remedies with menthol and eucalyptus – note that all of these are synthetic, laboratory engineered products which, even if they contain any real essential oil it is combined with many other synthetic chemicals. Even so, of 244 calls made by parents and caregivers, only 29 callers reported the child actually showing any symptoms while at home, nevertheless a total of 76 children were referred to an acute care facility. None of these 76 children died and all cases resolved spontaneously. Only two children briefly experienced seizures, one a 14 month old boy from ingesting an unknown quantity of 20% camphorated oil and a 19 month old girl from ingesting 50 ml of Vick’s VaporRub (an amount comparable to more than 3 large 15 ml bottles of essential oil), but these also fully recovered without any lasting effects.
Tisserand notes that virtually all cases of serious poisoning from essential oils result from ingesting undiluted oils in quantity much higher than therapeutic doses. Of the few cases he is able to cite, most refer to over the counter preparations such as cold remedy products, yet the essential oil is invariably blamed as the culprit even though it is invariably synthetic or lab created and combined with many other synthetic chemicals. For example, Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) which contains 98% Methyl salicylate and thus is often pointed to as one of the most toxic of oils, began to be widely adulterated and created synthetically more than a hundred years ago.
Dr David Stewart, PhD, author of more than 200 publications including the excellent book, The Chemistry of Essential Oils Made Simple, is also a Registered Aromatherapist (RA) with the nationally recognized Aromatherapy Registration Council (ARC), which is endorsed by the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapists (NAHA), of which he is a member. He has also served on advisory committees to the American Public Health Association (APHA) and the American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM). He has testified as an expert on health matters before state legislative committees, U.S. congressional committees, medical licensing boards and courts of law throughout the U.S. as well as in Canada. Dr. Stewart earned his PhD in Geophysics, which employs techniques and knowledge of chemistry, mathematics, and physics in studying nature of the earth and its environment and understanding the complexity of dynamic behaviors. He has won many awards and presented lectures around the world and has appeared on television in 44 countries. Dr. Stewart provides an excellent understanding of the chemical differences between natural and synthetically created oils, as well as explaining the important relationship of numerous minor trace components in the whole pure oil which laboratory chemists cannot duplicate. While it is true that all synthetic or laboratory manipulated forms of Wintergreen oil or Methyl Salicylate are highly toxic, the whole pure oil properly distilled for therapeutic effect, and used correctly is not. Also, as Dr. Stewart explains, the true pure oils are easily metabolized by the body and do not cause harmful cumulative effects in the way synthetic substances do.
That said, it is important to understand that blanket generalizations are almost always misleading. The British model generally states that ALL oils should ALWAYS be diluted and NO oils should EVER be ingested or applied neat. This belief is so firmly adhered to among those who follow this model that it is widely reported that MLM companies advocate blanket advice to ingest or apply neat any oil you want whenever you please just because they may have encountered a representative of an MLM has provided information on a particular instance where a particular oil might be used neat or ingested. This simply is not a fair nor accurate statement.
The Essential Oils Desk Reference (EODR) published by Life Science Publishing for instance is a massive work detailing specific information on the therapeutic oils offered by Young Living. This includes safety precautions, recommendations for dilution, and the FDA GRAS list and guidelines for when and how certain oils might be used as a dietary supplement. It is an excellent and valuable resource for anyone genuinely interested in learning about essential oils, however, followers of the British model will generally not even consider it, believing oral ingestion or neat applications should not be advocated under any circumstance. NAHA members and followers also state that Raindrop Therapy, developed by Gary Young in the 1980s and which calls for the neat application of specific oils dropped on the spine undiluted in keeping with the French model, is highly dangerous. The Raindrop practice does call for neat use of certain oils for which dilution is normally recommended in other applications, but it is necessary to view this in the context of its particular usage rather than automatically dismissing it as “wrong” or “dangerous” because it deviates from the British model.
In order to perform the Raindrop Technique on others, one must become a Certified Raindrop Technique Specialist which involves a minimum of 72 hours of intensive training including formal classes. Board Certified Raindrop Specialists must undergo 164 hours of training. Additionally, for those not already having some type of certification as a healthcare professional which would license them to legally practice massage, additional training and licensing to become a Licensed Spiritual Healer is required. Those who practice Raindrop must agree to use only Young Living essential oils for this purpose to ensure that oils adulterated with potentially harmful chemicals are not used. Young Living does more quality testing of their essential oils than any other company, conducted at both their own laboratories and confirmed by third-party labs, and they maintain a strict “Seed to Seal” quality commitment, monitoring the entire planting, growth, harvest, distillation, and bottling phases regardless whether the oils are grown at their own farms or by some of their worldwide partners.
It interesting that so much passion is stirred up by this topic among aromatherapists of the British model who insist such practices are completely unsafe, when toxicity of many commonly used cosmetics and skincare products is far more widespread. An article in The Huffington Post for example, reports over 10,000 toxic ingredients typically found in favorite beauty products, many of which are described in this Guide to Less Toxic Products. In a new study, Environmental Defense found several favorite makeup brands contain toxic heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic and lead which are not listed on the labeling.
It is also interesting that if consumer safety is the true and genuine concern, that such effort is being made to frighten and discourage people away from exploring therapeutic uses of essential oils. In the paper Death by Medicine by Gary Null, PhD; Carolyn Dean MD, ND; Martin Feldman, MD; Debora Rasio, MD; and Dorothy Smith, PhD, shows the number of in hospital patients having adverse reactions to prescribed drugs is 2.2 million per year, and further, the total number of deaths caused by conventional medicine is 783,936 per year – which makes the American medical system the leading cause of death and injury in the U.S.
Essential oils can be used very safely with a little care and common sense. Since different people have different levels of sensitivity, caution is always advised to learn how your body may respond to different oils. It is important to seek relevant safety and usage information specific to a particular oil and the company you are purchasing it. Even if an oil is pure, there may be different species and sometimes different chemotypes of the same species resulting in major differences of the chemical constituents. Adulterated, Extended, Synthetically derived, or “nature-identical” oils do NOT behave the same or have the same safety considerations as a genuine pure oil properly grown and distilled for maximum therapeutic benefit. And, just because an online store provides a link to download the GC/MS or other quality test for a particular oil is not necessarily any assurance that it is an actual test of the particular oil you are buying. Most quality oils are distilled in small batches and tests can differ widely according to batch, source, growing conditions, distillation parameters and a variety of other factors so these would have to be updated far more frequently than would be practical to be an authentic representation of the results for a particular oil you receive in most cases. For those who have a health condition, and/or questions about safely using an oil for a particular circumstance, consulting one’s healthcare professional is certainly recommended. Essential oils are not drugs although they are very powerful and can have many beneficial therapeutic applications when carefully produced for this purpose.
For more information on the leading essential oil companies, their history, testing, and quality standards, check out the 45 page Young Living/DoTerra report
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These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, and this information is for educational purposes only and not intended to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.