According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, these concentrated plant extracts are made by steaming or pressing various parts of a plant to capture the compounds that give the plant its unique scent. Besides a pleasant smell, the plant compounds in essential oils may also offer possible health benefits. For example, inhaling a calming scent like lavender might help relieve stress and promote sleep, while rubbing peppermint oil on your temples could relieve tension headaches, per Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Do Work With a Certified Aromatherapist or Consult Your Doctor
One of the biggest misconceptions about essential oils is that because they’re natural, they’re safe to use, says Yufang Lin, MD, an integrative medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic in Lakewood, Ohio.
Essential oils are concentrated and potent, and it takes only a small amount to create a possible well-being effect. Moreover, essential oils can affect people differently — diffusing peppermint oil may relieve headaches in one person but may cause an adverse reaction in someone with a fast heartbeat, notes Johns Hopkins Medicine.
In addition, some essential oils shouldn’t be used during pregnancy because they can stimulate uterine contractions, Dr. Lin says.
Consult your doctor or a certified aromatherapist about which essential oils are safe to use, how to use them (either inhaled or applied topically), and the proper dosage. This is especially important for pregnant and first-time users and those considering essential oils for kids or pets.
To ensure that you’re working with a qualified aromatherapist, check that the practitioner has received training from an aromatherapy school approved by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), an educational nonprofit organization that has created industry guidelines for aromatherapy certification programs.
Don’t Assume That All Essential Oils Are Crafted Equally
According to Lin, some essential oils are made with synthetic ingredients instead of actual plant material. So they may smell like the plant, but they don’t have the plant compounds responsible for whichever health effect you’re after. “It might smell good, but it won’t work,” Lin says.
The Latin name of the plant
The name of the country where the plants were grown
A statement about the purity of the oil
No synthetic ingredients
Also, watch out for the word “fragrance” when shopping for essential oils. “The word ‘fragrance’ can mean many different things, including synthetic ingredients, so ‘fragrance’ isn’t a word you ever want to see on an essential oil bottle,” says certified clinical aromatherapy practitioner Shanti Dechen, the director of Aroma Apothecary Healing Arts Academy in Crestone, Colorado.
Do Store Them in a Cool, Dry Place
Citrus essential oils like bergamot, orange, and verbena generally have the shortest shelf life, while florals like chamomile and lavender have the longest, per the Institute for Integrative Healthcare.
Don’t Place Them in Reach of Children and Pets
While some essential oils may be beneficial for kids, it’s important to keep them out of children’s reach, just as you would with other household cleaning products. Many essential oils can cause adverse effects when swallowed, and children may be more susceptible to those effects than adults. Swallowing more than a very small amount of sage oil, for example, has caused seizures in children, warns the National Capital Poison Center.
Similarly, essential oils can be harmful to pets if ingested. Even inhaling oils or getting them on their coat can cause adverse effects, per the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Symptoms of essential oil poisoning in dogs and cats may include:
Unsteadiness on the feet
Low body temperatureVomiting
Keep your loved ones safe by storing essential oils in high, hard-to-reach places that are away from children and pets. Also, ensure that you use oils in a place where your children or pet won’t become exposed to them, such as a private bathroom.
Do a Patch Test Before You Apply Directly to Your Body
Essential oils are often applied directly to the skin through a massage, bath, or skin-care product. But while they’re generally safe when applied to the skin, there’s always a risk of irritation, and this risk varies according to each individual, says Elizabeth Ko, MD, an internal medicine physician and the medical director of the Integrative Medicine Collaborative at UCLA Health in Los Angeles.
Skin irritation may result from an allergic reaction and is often characterized by redness and pain shortly after applying the oil, per the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
It can be a smart idea to perform a skin patch test with a new essential oil before using it over larger areas of your body, especially if you are prone to allergic reactions, notes the American College of Healthcare Sciences (ACHS) and the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing.
To do it, mix a small amount of essential oil and carrier oil (more on this next) at twice the concentration you plan to use. So if you plan to use a 3 percent mixture of the essential oil, mix it at 6 percent (three drops in ½ teaspoon of carrier oil). Apply the mixture to a small area on the inside of your forearm and cover with sterile gauze for 24 hours (remove if you experience burning or irritation), per the ACHS. Then check for skin irritation, per the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing.
Don’t Forget to Use a Carrier Oil to Dilute Them
Topical essential oils are often mixed with a carrier oil to prevent skin allergic reactions. Common carrier oils can be found in natural foods stores and include jojoba oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil, apricot kernel oil, and sweet almond oil.
When using essential oils for massage, dilute them in a carrier oil at a concentration no greater than 1 percent, as the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing recommends. That’s 1 drop of pure essential oil for every 1 teaspoon of carrier oil.
Do Know Which Essential Oil You're Using
Essential oils can be found in many skin-care, aromatherapy, and household products. They’re also often used in massage therapy. Because essential oils can affect people differently, it’s important to check which oils are in the products you use regularly and ask your massage therapist which oils they use. For example, when certain essential oils are applied topically, some people may experience skin irritation, per Johns Hopkins Medicine.
You should research any essential oil you plan to use to ensure that no contraindications exist for your specific healthcare situation (for example, if you’re currently pregnant or are taking certain medications). If in doubt, always consult your certified aromatherapist or doctor.
Don’t Use Photosensitive Oils in the Sunlight
Certain essential oils are photosensitive, which means they create a reaction when exposed to ultraviolet light. If you apply these oils to your skin and go out into the sunlight, this reaction can make your skin more prone to redness, burns, itching, discoloration, or even blistering, according to the ACHS. Citrus oils such as bergamot, lemon, lime, orange, and angelica are especially photosensitive, notes the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing.
Protect yourself from sunburn and adverse reactions by waiting at least 12 hours after essential oil application before exposing your skin to direct sunlight. In the meantime, cover the area by wearing long pants and sleeves, suggests the ACHS.