If you deal with any frustrating and lingering health issue, from migraines to irritable bowel syndrome, there's a good chance that you've experimented with essential oils and "natural" remedies before. How could you not? Essential oils, concentrated plant extracts, smell delightful, and some people on the internet swear that certain uses or holistic treatments can be life-changing. But, as with anything that claims to be "natural," using essential oils has its risks.
The biggest no-no when it comes to essential oils? Ingesting them. Most professional aromatherapists have serious qualms about consuming essential oils, yet some less qualified sources insist that consuming them can be beneficial for digestion, or help cure canker sores. Given the potent concentrations of plant extracts in the essential oils (for example, 220 pounds of lavender flowers go into approximately one pound of lavender oil, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences), there's no telling how they would react inside your body. But, we can guess that it wouldn't be good.
Alexis Halpern, MD, emergency medicine physician at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, says she's all for essential oils — that is, putting them on your skin or in candles, creams, lotions, and room sprays. Even inhaling eucalyptus for clearing your congestion and cough could be safe, she says. "But eating them... I don't believe it's actually been proven safe anywhere," she says.
Although essential oils are generally recognized as safe for aromatherapy, the National Capital Poison Control Center actually warns that essential oils could be poisonous if swallowed or absorbed through the skin. Since essential oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, you can't be certain what's actually in the oils. The oils could be mixed with contaminants that cause rashes on the skin or toxic effects if ingested, according to Poison Control. Or, if you're taking other medications, certain essential oils (lavender and tea tree) could interact with their ability to work. So, if you're dabbling with essential oils, you should let your doctor know about it; they may have suggestions or warnings based on the other drugs you're on.
This all might sound scary or dramatic, but it's important to remember that, although essential oils are derived from plants, that doesn't mean they're healthy to consume, Dr. Halpern says. Interestingly, many medications are derived from flowers, but the flowers themselves can be deadly to eat, she says.
The bottom line: If you like using essential oils for aromatherapy, and have consulted a healthcare professional or aromatherapist before using them topically, go for it. But even though essential oils smell sweet, you really shouldn't be eating them. Should you accidentally consume essential oils, you'll want to contact Poison Control right away so they can get you the help you need.