Why Is There So Much Conflicting Opinions Regarding If Essential Oils Are Safe?

200468780-001I have been blogging to my essential oils readers regarding lots of fun topics. These include reporting on some new studies about cinnamon essential oil and how essential oils can help heal the gut. (If you want to receive these blogs, which aren’t all posted on my website, feel free to subscribe here.) Another focus of mine recently has been children’s health.

Last year, I began a series of articles that discussed if  essential oils are safe. I discussed the importance of quality, medication interactions, children’s dosages, and why there is so much controversy around ingesting essential oils.

I have also been working on a webinar on the use of essential oils with children and will be posting this link soon.

Here’s a preview of one topic that will be discussed in the webinar regarding the real facts behind the toxicity reports of children’s ingestion of essential oils. These articles are often cited by bloggers and are made to appear as quite terrifying- if you don’t read the full study! Below is my summary of the complete reports.

(Note: 10ml is almost a full bottle of an essential oil. We all know one to three drops is one application. So, that’s a lot of one oil!)

 

A Critical Look At “Toxicity”

  • After swallowing almost a full bottle (10ml) of a commercial product of tea tree oil, a boy was brought to the hospital. One article indicated the boy was in critical condition, but in reality, the boy had NO symptoms after 5 hours. (J Toxico Clin Toxicol. 1994;32(4):461-4.)
  • Another imbibing-happy incident centered around 41 little ones who swallowed 30 ml of eucalyptus, which is two full bottles of a typical 15ml essential oil (the equivalent of 350-750 servings). Thirty-three were asymptomatic and of the four children who ingested over 350 servings, two of the children exhibited NO symptoms and the other two had no lasting effects. (J Paediatr Child Health.1993 Oct;29(5):368-71.)
  • A study reported on possible contact dermatitis resulting from repeated use of a strange combination of essential oils, including benzoin and “spike” lavender (compare this to lavendula angustifolia) was used. This biases the study results due to the fact that “spike” lavender and benzoin are often adulterated oils. (Phytother Res. 2000 Sep;14(6):452-6.)
  • A recent review article collected 71 cases of patients of aromatherapy experiencing adverse effects. There was only one fatality, and adverse effects couldn’t be confirmed to be related to pure, standardized essential oils. (Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.2014.)

Keeping It in Perspective:

Deaths from drug overdose have been rising steadily over the past two decades and have become the leading cause of injury death in the United States.1 Every day in the United States, 114 people die as a result of drug overdose1, and another 6,748 are treated in emergency departments (ED) for the misuse or abuse of drugs.2 Nearly 9 out of 10 poisoning deaths are caused by drugs. (CDC. Prescription Drug Overdose in the United States: Fact Sheet. CDC website. October 17, 2014.

You can listen to more details in the webinar, but I also wanted to share about some additional articles I found recently.

A very old journal article, often cited as proof of essential oil toxicity, reports that 74 cases of accidental ingestion of volatile oils in children between 1931-1951 led to toxicity. When reading through the article, I discovered that the children were given doses of 1 tsp to 1 ounce of “camphorated oil”, and one death was due to 1/8th of an ounce in a small child (1 drachm), or .125 fl ounces = 3.7 ml. (That’s almost a full small bottle of essential oils, 5ml.) Interestingly, most of the cases recovered with no lasting effects. Other oils discussed were turpentine, sassafras, wintergreen, eucalyptus, chenopodium and citronella. Most of these cases involved using inordinate amounts of oils…definitely more than a few drops. Once again, the quality of the oil, including testing for synthetic fillers, which are known as toxic, was not accounted for. Why would a parent allow their children to swallow something marked as not safe for ingestion? Pure, therapeutic oils can be ingested, and are labeled as such. The oils in the study were not (more on that later).

Regarding the oil of wintergreen and toxicity, most toxic reports are based on its constituent, methyl salicylate. I have a chemist friend who explained to me the difference between synthetic methyl salicylate and that found in wintergreen oil. He said methyl salicylate manufactured in labs is from salicylic acid. Chemists will add sulfuric acid and methanol, both toxic compounds, to produce the methyl salicylate. This is a very different process than distilling wintergreen oil. The video below explains more:

 

The authors state their contention with the whole issue of poisoning in little ones,

“The first half of the problem almost defies solution. If a mother cannot recognize a poison bottle, a label ‘Not to be taken internally’, and the strong and characteristic smell of camphor, what will she recognize? A distinctive colouring? Such a suggestion might be worth a trial, but it is doubtful if it would be effective.

Takeaway points from this article:

  1. Stop using oils that aren’t safe for ingestion and are labeled to be used with caution and giving them to your children.
  2. Don’t use more than a few drops for little ones, and certainly don’t give them teaspoons or ounces full of very strong oils!

Another study compared antibiotics to essential oil components (isolated constituents), not the essential oil itself, for use in children. Not surprisingly, the isolated components had higher toxicity and lower efficacy than the antibiotics. However, this is a common mistake in research of essential oils. Scientists often isolate one component and test that verses the whole synergy of a quality and properly distilled oil. The authors state:

Most essential oils consist of many, in part over 100 individual compounds, which are responsible as individuals or in their natural composition for beneficial and adverse effects of the respective entire oil. In this paper some effort was done to select safe compounds from essential oils with simultaneously antimicrobial activity against children pathogens and to compare the selected compounds with medicinal antibiotics used for the therapy of children diseases.

So, why would you separate one component out of 100 and compare that to a drug, especially when it doesn’t reflect the whole oil? Furthermore, after this paper was written, the harms of antibiotics to our microbiome came to light, making toxicity of antibiotics more detrimental than once thought.

Another study on the use of essential oils for skin health with children also was flawed. The study found improvement in the children that were massaged with oils by their moms and both groups experienced a decrease in the condition.

The authors stated, “The preferred essential oils, chosen by the mothers for their child, from 36 commonly used aromatherapy oils, were: sweet marjoram, frankinsence, German chamomile, myrrh, thyme, benzoin, spike lavender and Litsea cubeba. A control group of children received the counselling and massage without essential oils.”

They also reported,  “Further studies on the essential oil massage group showed a deterioration in the eczematous condition after two further 8 week periods of therapy, following a period of rest after the initial period of contact. This may have been due to a decline in the novelty of the treatment, or, it strongly suggests possible allergic contact dermatitis provoked by the essential oils themselves.”

I don’t agree with this conclusion. I believe that this study chose oils that can be “hot” and shouldn’t be used daily for skin conditions. This is not proper usage of selecting the correct oils and does not consider quality once again. Why would a mom rub benzoin and spike lavender on her child for 8 weeks? I highly doubt that this was pure Syrax benzoin, but, rather, was a form of tincture or solvent extraction that is commonly used. I could not access the full paper to verify this, but I have my suspicions.

On a more positive note, the use of aromatherapy of ginger and lavender was shown to be beneficial to reduce distress in a paranesthesia setting. Another paper examined the benefits of massage and aromatherapy in hospitalized children with HIV.

Bottom line is there are several factors that relate to safety of essential oils, according to the NAHA:

  1. Quality
  2. Quantity
  3. Chemical composition of the oil
  4. Integrity of the skin
  5. Age of the individual

The link alos states which oils to watch out for regarding skin sensitivity and other conditions.

Bottom line is that if oils are used with common sense and are of good quality, they are extremely safe.

You can learn more about the science of essential oils in my first webinar here.

 

Learn about the role of personalized nutrition and the microbiome here.

References:

Craig J.O. Poisoning by the Volatile Oils in Childhood. Archives of Disease in Childhood. 1953;28:475–483.

Pauli A, Schilcher H. Specific Selection of Essential Oil Compounds for Treatment of Children’s Infection Diseases. Pharmaceuticals. 2004;1(1):1-30. doi:10.3390/ph1010001.

Anderson C, Lis-Balchin M, Kirk-Smith M. Evaluation of massage with essential oils on childhood atopic eczema. Phytother Res. 2000 Sep;14(6):452-6.

Styles JL. The use of aromatherapy in hospitalized children with HIV disease. Complement Ther Nurs Midwifery. 1997 Feb;3(1):16-20.

Nord D, Belew J. Effectiveness of the essential oils lavender and ginger in promoting children’s comfort in a perianesthesia setting. J Perianesth Nurs. 2009 Oct;24(5):307-12. doi: 10.1016/j.jopan.2009.07.001.

NAHA. https://www.naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/safety/