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Essential Oils: Natural Does Not Always Equal Safe

picture of essential oils


  • Calls about essential oils have steadily increased over the last few years.
  • Essential oils are “natural products” but that does not always mean they are safe.
  • Educate yourself about the essential oil before using it.

Poison centers across the country have noted a significant increase in calls about essential oils.  From 2008 through 2015, the Missouri Poison Center received about 50 calls per year, but last year that number climbed to 107.  So far in 2017, 50 calls have been managed by our specialists and we are not even halfway through the year.

Social media has been awash with essential oil information claiming the benefits of using the oils as remedies for health concerns. This information is then shared on blogs and websites where it spreads like wildfire.

Because essential oils are derived from natural plant-based sources, it leads users to think they are safe – but natural does not always equal safe. There are numerous types of essential oils from single ingredient formulations to combinations with many different ingredients. Some examples include peppermint, lavender, tea tree, eucalyptus, clove, and sandalwood.

Essential oils are often used the same way as medications: applied to the skin, inhaled into the lungs (aromatherapy), and sometimes used into the mouth (internally). However, unlike medications, essential oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so you cannot be certain the product actually contains what it says on the label. It might list the wrong species of the plant or concentration of the ingredients, and does not usually mention any contaminants present in the blend.


Essential oils can cause allergic reactions, make skin more sensitive to sunlight (increased photosensitivity), and interact with your prescription medications. If swallowed and choked on by mistake, especially by a child, a little bit of oil can get into the lungs and cause a chemical pneumonia. Other side effects vary based on the type of essential oil.

These concerns do not mean that essential oils are unsafe, or that you should never use them; but remember to educate yourself about the essential oil BEFORE you use it, and follow the Missouri Poison Center’s tips for safe use.


  • Dilute the essential oil as recommended – stronger does not mean better or more effective. Using a concentrated oil increases the chance for an allergic reaction or side effect such as redness or blistering of the skin. Stop using the essential oil right away if it causes any symptoms.
  • When using an oil on the skin for the first time, perform a “skin patch test” by applying it only to a small area first. That way, if it does irritate your skin, it is easier to treat than widespread irritation.
  • Do not use any oil that is a photosensitizer (increases your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight) prior to going into the sun or tanning booth. Avoid the sun for 24 hours after use of a photosensitizing oil.
  • Avoid prolonged use of any one essential oil. Using the same oil over and over again may increase your risk for side effects.
  • Keep all essential oil bottles and diffusers out of reach and sight of children and pets. Be sure bottles are tightly closed, and stored in a cool area, away from direct sunlight.
  • Always use an essential oil in an area with good ventilation.
  • Do not use essential oils directly in the ears or nose, and be very careful to avoid getting oil onto the eyes.
  • Essential oils are flammable – keep away from direct contact with flames, matches and cigarettes.
  • Oils should not be used by people with chronic health problems such as asthma or heart disease, and should be avoided by pregnant women unless they talk to their doctor first.

If you have any questions about your child being exposed to essential oils, call the Missouri Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222.  The poison center is open all day, every day for poisoning emergencies and questions.

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