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Essential oils: Why 'natural' doesn't always mean safe

Some essential oils may cause harm if ingested, applied to the skin, or exposed to the eyes. Here's what to keep in mind.

A woman holds lavender essential oil before adding it to a bath at her home in Philadelphia.
A woman holds lavender essential oil before adding it to a bath at her home in Philadelphia.Read moreTracie Van Auken / File Photograph

Essential oils have become increasingly popular. Many of them smell good, but are they good for you? Many people use essential oils to treat ailments in an effort to avoid using over-the-counter or prescription medications for fear of their side effects. However, many are unaware that essential oils can also have toxic effects. It is important to note that essential oils are very concentrated so ingesting or inhaling a small amount of some types of essential oils may cause harm.

Essential oils claim to treat everything from insomnia to headaches through their use in aromatic diffusers, massage oils, or therapeutic baths. Essential oils are different than liquid plant extracts, which are made differently and use more in cooking and perfumes.

While some individuals may have favorable outcomes from using these oils, it is very important to research and make sure that you are using them properly. If you are thinking of using essential oils on infants or young children, even in a diffuser, consult your pediatrician or healthcare provider for guidance first. Breathing in the vapors of essential oils may worsen some respiratory conditions.

Some essential oils may cause harm if ingested, applied to the skin, or exposed to the eyes. Here's what to keep in mind:


  1. Do not ingest essential oils without advice from a healthcare provider.

  2. Accidental ingestions by small children or animals may be toxic.

  3. Essential oils such as citronella, fennel, and oil of wintergreen have been shown to cause breathing difficulties, stomach irritation, burning sensation in the mouth and even seizures from accidental ingestion.

Skin Exposure

  1. Redness and burning sensation may occur when using essential oils.

  2. Thyme, spearmint, clove, geranium, and cinnamon oils can irritate the skin even in small amounts.

  3. Lemon, lime, orange, lavender, and bergamot oils can cause severe sunburn if applied to the skin followed by exposure to sunlight or tanning beds.

Eye Exposure

  1. Irritation, redness, pain, and itching may result if these oils get into the eyes.

  2. Menthol and Olbas oil (a mixture of peppermint, eucalyptus, cajeput, wintergreen, juniper, and clove) may cause redness and irritation to the eyes.

The safety and efficacy of essential oils are not subject to review by the U.S Food & Drug Administration and therefore require users to be knowledgeable of what they are using and how they are using it.

Special precautions should be taken when essential oils are being used around young children. Accidental ingestion or exposure by children may be prevented by following these tips:

  1. Store essential oils out of reach in a cabinet that the child cannot reach

  2. Use bottles with single-drop dispensers to prevent large ingestions

  3. Store bottles with cap tightly closed and in original container

What do you do with an essential oil exposure or unintentional ingestion? If ingested, do not induce vomiting, and instead call Poison Control Center 1-800-222-1222 for free, step-by-step expert recommendations and guidance. It is unlikely that a trip to the emergency room will be necessary. Most exposures can be managed at home with the guidance of our Toxicology Specialists, who are expertly trained nurses and pharmacists.

Caitlin Berrier and Sharon Pierre are Doctor of Pharmacy graduates, Class of 2018 from Temple University School of Pharmacy. They worked on this article in conjunction with the Poison Control Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.