Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Essential Oil safety notes

Safety notes

General Safety Information: Do not take any oils internally without consultation from a qualified aromatherapy practitioner. Do not apply undiluted essential oils onto the skin. If you are pregnant, epileptic, have liver damage, have cancer, or have any other medical problem, use oils only under the proper guidance of a qualified aromatherapy practitioner. Use extreme caution when using oils with children and give children only the gentlest oils at extremely low doses. It is safest to consult a qualified aromatherapy practitioner before using oils with children. A skin patch test should be conducted prior to using an oil that you've never used before. It is prudent to use organic oils where as in citrus they are obtained by expression (crushing) of the epicarps. For example there is therefore no great merit in buying organically grown chamomile but we would recommend organic lemon, manadarin, orange or grapefruit oil.  Allergens are listed in accordance with EU Directive 2003-15. Aromatherapists have been using pure essential oils without synthetics added professionally (diluted with carrier oil) without contact dermatitis for several decades without ill effect.

Step by step to safe practice

Essential oils are highly concentrated, complex chemical
compounds and should always be treated with respect.
Just because they are ‘natural’ does not mean that they cannot do
any harm. The definition of Aromatherapy includes the phrase “the
controlled use of essential oils”. The word ‘controlled’ should
never be forgotten.

 An important safety issue, highlighting the importance of the
controlled use of essential oils, is that of quantity. Paracelsus is famous for coining the phrase 'all things are poisenous it depends on the dose".  Excessive consumption of water has killed.

As essential oils are so concentrated they are rarely used neat.
Under normal circumstances they are always diluted to 1-3% using
a carrier.
A total of 6 drops of oil per day, preferably of different types, is
considered safe.
For children and pregnant women (who should be treated only
by a qualified Aromatherapist) essential oils must be diluted even
further to 1-2%.

A Golden Rule to remember is that ‘Less Is Best’.
Another Golden Rule that helps to maintain the safety of
Aromatherapy is ‘Use Quality Oils’.
It is of great importance that the content of the oil is known. Oils
are sometimes adulterated (or stretched) in some way by adding
alcohol, another cheaper oil, or a synthetic product. These oils are
obviously more likely to produce skin irritations and are less likely
to successfully perform their expected action.
The first step to ensuring the quality of the oils is to purchase them
from a reputable supplier.

Oils purchased from a reputable supplier should be correctly
bottled in coloured glass with a dropper insert. The label should
be indelible and should give information such as the botanical
name, country of origin, supplier’s name and address and a batch
number. If the essential oil is diluted in a carrier the percentage of
the mix should be quoted, along with details of the carrier.

Another important safety benefit gained from buying oils from a
reputable supplier is that they will not supply hazardous oils, so
you gain even more peace of mind.

Once you have purchased the essential oils look after them! Due
to the chemistry of the oils, they should be stored in their coloured
glass bottles in a cool, dark place. This will help their shelf life. On
average a bottle of essential oil should be used within one year of
opening, or two years if stored in a refridgerator.

Essential oils must be treated with care. They are volatile and
flammable, so keep them away from naked flames and strong
sources of heat. They should also be kept away from homeopathic
remedies as some strong oils may negate them.

Essential oils will ‘rot’ plastics. For this reason care should be
taken when using them in the jacuzzi or in plastic baths. They
should not be allowed to come into contact with varnished wood,
plastic surfaces or any equipment with plastic workings such as
dishwashers and washing machines. Needless to say, contact with
any plastic-based contraceptive aids such as condoms and
diaphragms must be avoided.
Within the field of Aromatherapy essential oils should NOT be used
Tragically, children (typically between the ages of 1-3 years old)
have been killed as a result of drinking a whole bottle of essential
oil. As well as storing oils out of the reach of children, it is also
obviously preferable to use child resistant tops as a further safety

Should a child or an adult take more than 5ml of essential oil
internally, give them milk to drink (the fat dissolves the essential
oil) and seek medical assistance immediately. Take the
appropriate bottle to the medical practitioner, as the information on
the label may be useful in establishing a treatment.

Due to the potency of neat essential oils, harm can also be caused
if they are accidentally splashed into the eyes or onto the skin.
If essential oils make contact with the eyes wash the eyes out with
milk or with a vegetable oil.

Do not attempt to use water as the essential oil will not dissolve in

Seek medical advice, taking the appropriate labelled bottle with

It is also dangerous for undiluted essential oils to come into contact
with other mucous membranes such as the mouth, vagina or
rectum. In all cases seek medical advice immediately.
Should a severe dermal irritation occur as the result of neat
essential oil making contact with the skin, dilute it with vegetable

Wash the skin with unperfumed soap and water and then dry it.
Seek medical advice, taking along the appropriate bottle.

Some essential oils are so hazardous they should NEVER be
used in Aromatherapy massage. Here is a list of them:
Almond (Bitter) Prunus amygdalis, var. amara
Aniseed Pimpinella anisum
Arnica Arnica montana
Camphor Cinnamomum camphorus
Cassia Cinnamomum cassia
Cinnamon (Bark) Cinnamomum zeylanicum
Costus Saussurea lappa
Elecampane Inula helenium
Fennel (Bitter) Foeniculum vulgare
Origanum Origanum vulgare
Origanum (Spanish) Thymus capitatus
Pine (Dwarf) Pinus pumilio
Sage Salvia officinalis
Savory (Summer) Satureia hortensis
Savory (Winter) Satureia montana
Thuja (Cedarleaf) Thuja occidentalis
Wintergreen Gaultheria procumbens
Wormwood Artemisia absinthium

Essential oils that don’t feature on the list of hazardous oils can be
used in Aromatherapy but this does not mean that they are
completely safe. Skin irritations and allergic reactions may
occur, but the risk can be minimised by never exceeding the 1-3%
dilution guideline and patch testing to identify if there is going to
be a problem before using the oil on a wider scale.

You must be aware, however, that some so called ‘safe’ oils are
more likely to irritate the skin than others, and so it is sometimes
necessary to be even more cautious. For example peppermint oil
can cause chemical burns, particularly on skin that has already
been traumatised.

Skin irritations are largely determined by the chemistry of the oil,
and so a knowledge of Chemistry has important safety benefits

Oils high in aldehydes, oxides, ketones and phenols are more
likely to cause a reaction. These oils should therefore be diluted to
as little as 0.1% (1 drop of oil in 50ml of carrier).
The method of extraction used may introduce other chemicals
into the oil and these may cause skin irritations.

Some oils may cause sensitisation. This is when oils can be used
infrequently without signs of intolerance but, with continued use,
reactions occur such as skin inflammation or rashes. It is therefore
important to regularly change the oils used or alternate them to
avoid the effects of extended exposure.

Here’s a list of oils that commonly irritate the skin or cause
sensitisation. They should all be diluted to 0.1% before use. Please
note that this is by no means a definitive list. Each person is an
individual who will react as such to any treatment.
Angelica Angelica archangelica
Black Pepper Piper nigrum
Cinnamon (Leaf) Cinnamomum zeylanicum
Citronella Cymbopogon nardus
Clove (all parts) Eugenia caryophyllata
Ginger Zingiber officinalis
Lemon Citrus limon
Lemongrass Cymbopogon citratus/flexuosus
Lemon Verbena Lippia citriodora
Nutmeg Myristica fragrans
Orange (Sweet) Citrus sinensis
Peppermint Mentha piperita

There’s something else to worry about! Some essential oils can
increase the skin’s sensitivity to ultraviolet light. These oils are
called photosensitisers.

Photosensitisation occurs when skin, treated with a
photosensitising oil, is exposed to ultraviolet light (e.g. sunlight,
rays from a sunbed or radiation). The effects range from
pigmentation of the skin to severe burns.
It is the chemistry of the oil that produces this effect.

Furocoumarins (a type of lactone) are responsible for increasing
the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight. For example, oxypeucedanin and
bergapten are found in lemon oil. Bergapten is also found in
bergamot and was used in fake sun-tan preparations until cases of
skin reactions were reported.

This table lists some of the most common photosensitising oils
which should not be used before exposure to the sun or other
forms of ultraviolet light.

Angelica Angelica archangelica
Bergamot Citrus bergamia
Lemon Citrus limon
Lime Citrus medica var. amara
Orange (Sweet) Citrus sinensis

Another group of oils that you should be familiar with are those that
can cause toxicity or chronic toxicity if used, even in low
amounts, over a period of time.
These oils can cause tissue damage to the liver and kidneys, as
these organs are responsible for filtering out dangerous
substances. Continued use of these oils causes toxins to build up
in these organs and this can, in extreme cases, result in death.

This chart shows some oils with a risk of toxicity or chronic
toxicity. These oils should therefore be used with caution and
certainly not used for more than a few days at any one time.
Basil Occimum basilicum
Cedarwood Cedrus atlantica
Cinnamon (Leaf) Cinnamomum zeylanicum
Eucalyptus (Blue Gum) Eucalyptus globulus
Fennel (Sweet) Foeniculum vulgare
Hyssop Hyssopus officinalis
Lemon Citrus limon
Orange (Sweet) Citrus sinensis
Nutmeg Myristica fragrans
Thyme Thymus vulgaris

So far we have just considered the safety of the various oils.
Knowing which oils are:
 hazardous (never used)
 irritants (used in weaker dilutions)
 sensitisers (used in weaker dilutions and not used over
extended periods)photosensitisers (not used if exposure to ultraviolet light is
toxic (used with care only over short periods)
- is vital, but let’s not forget that the client comes into the equation
Before a client is treated a full case history must be taken (see
the ‘Professionalism’ section for details). Taking a case history has
enormous safety benefits as it highlights aspects of the client’s
condition that may impact on many of your decisions, such as
Should I treat this client?
If so, how?
What oils are appropriate?
The ‘aspects’ of the client’s condition that negatively affect your
decision (in other words prevent the treatment of a client, restrict
the appropriate methods of use or reduce the range of suitable
oils) are called contra-indications.
Let’s look at contra-indications that prevent the Aromatherapy
treatments first.

Contra-indications that PREVENT Aromatherapy Treatments
1. Currently Treated by Doctor
A client with any condition that is being treated by a doctor should
not receive an Aromatherapy treatment without first getting a letter
of consent from the doctor concerned. This obviously includes
cancer patients, sufferers of angina or other heart problems and
blood disorders.
2. Taking Medication
Clients taking medication, whether prescribed or not, should not be
treated without the doctor’s permission. The reactions of
essential oils with conventional medicines are not yet fully
understood. Theoretically, essential oils could compete with the
drug, inhibit its effect or produce a different effect.
3. Severe, Untreated Medical Problem
A client with any severe condition, who is not being treated by a
doctor, should be referred to their doctor for a letter of consent
before any treatment is started.
4. Unexplained Seats of Pain
Should a client have any unexplained pain, lumps or bumps, they
should be referred to their doctor before commencing any
treatment. It is not the function of an Aromatherapist to diagnose,
so before a diagnosis has been made there is nothing that can
safely be done.

Contra-indications that RESTRICT the Methods of Use
1. Hypersensitive Skin
It may be inappropriate to choose a method of use that involves
the essential oil coming into contact with the skin in cases of acute
skin disorders such as dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema and severe
This isn’t to say that no form of treatment can be given. For
example it may be appropriate to give the client some oil to use in
a burner or inhaler. These would not necessarily treat the skin
disorder, but may be of other benefit to the client.
2. Contagious Diseases
For obvious personal safety reasons, it is not advisable to use
massage (a contact treatment) on clients with contagious
diseases, e.g. mumps, herpes, measles, chicken pox and
ringworm. Contagious diseases therefore limit the treatment to the
non-contact methods of use such as burners, bath oils etc..
3. Steroid Users
Long term users of steroids tend to have very thin skin. If, with the
consent of their doctor, treatment is considered appropriate the
non-contact methods of use would be favourable.

The last group of contra-indications are those that reduce the
range of suitable oils. There are 3 main contra-indications in this
category: abnormal blood pressure, pregnancy and epilepsy.

Abnormal Blood Pressure
This is a difficult contra-indication to assess. Unless the client has
been tested by their doctor and advised of a blood pressure
problem it may go undetected.
If the client is receiving treatment for abnormal blood pressure then
the doctor’s consent must be obtained before any treatment

High or low blood pressure reduces the range of suitable oils as
some act to further increase the blood pressure and some act to
further decrease it.

Essential oils that raise blood pressure are termed
hypertensive. Clearly these shouldn’t be used if the client is
already suffering from high blood pressure (hypertension).
Hypertensive oils include rosemary, clary-sage, black pepper,
juniperberry, thyme and clove (bud).

The essential oils that lower blood pressure are called
hypotensive and obviously shouldn’t be used in cases where the
blood pressure is known to be low (hypotension). Hypotensive oils
include lavender, marjoram, melissa, ylang ylang and lemon.
Blood pressure can also be affected by hyssop. Hyssop is an
adaptogen (natural balancer) and is able to react in opposite
ways depending on the need of the body. So, when the blood
pressure is high, hyssop will act to reduce it. On the other hand,
when the blood pressure is low, hyssop will act to increase it.

Hyssop is contra-indicated to epilepsy and pregnancy and is also

Many Aromatherapists will not treat pregnant women. Others
argue that, as long as the oils contra-indicated to pregnancy are
avoided, Aromatherapy can be of great benefit to the expectant
mother as it can help to minimise the various discomforts of

Whenever essential oils are used on a pregnant woman, the
dilution must be reduced from the usual 1-3% to 1-2%, except for
the irritating/sensitising oils which must be diluted to 0.1%.
Remember that essential oils are absorbed into the blood and
transported around the body. In pregnant women, although the
maternal and foetal blood are never in direct contact, it is believed
that the essential oils can cross the placenta.

There are two groups of oils to be aware of, those contraindicated
to the first three months of pregnancy and those
contra-indicated to the whole of the pregnancy and any breast
feeding period that follows.

The oils to be avoided in the first three months are those with an
abortifacient tendency (induce abortion) and those which have an
emmenagogic action (induce menstrual flow). Theoretically these
oils could induce a miscarriage.

Here is a list of oils to be avoided during the first three months of
pregnancy. They can be used carefully in the remaining months
unless there is any history of miscarriage.
Chamomile (German) Matricaria chamomilla
Chamomile (Roman) Anthemis nobilis
Lavender Lavandula angustifolia
Rose Rosa centifolia/damascena

These oils must be avoided for the entire pregnancy and for any
breast feeding period that may follow:

Basil Ocimum basilicum
Black Pepper Piper nigrum
Cedarwood Cedrus atlantica
Clary-Sage Salvia sclarea
Cypress Cupressus sempervirens
Fennel (Sweet) Foeniculum vulgare
Geranium Pelargonium graveoleus
Hyssop Hyssopus officinalis
Jasmine Jasminium officinalis
Juniperberry Juniperis communis
Marjoram Origanum majorana
Myrrh Commiphora myrrha
Nutmeg Myristica fragrans
Peppermint Mentha piperita
Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis
Tarragon Artemisia dranunculus
Thyme Thymus vulgaris

Some essential oils can instigate an epileptic type fit in those
that are susceptible. It is therefore important that a full case
history is taken to establish if the client suffers from epilepsy
before starting any treatment. (Note: although some oils are anticonvulsive,
it is not common for Aromatherapy to be used to
actually treat the epilepsy.)
Oils to be avoided in cases of epilepsy:
Fennel (Sweet) Foeniculum vulgare
Hyssop Hyssopus officinalis
Peppermint Mentha piperita
Rosemary Rosmarinus officinalis
Thyme Thymus vulgaris

We’ve now covered all the contra-indications. As a summary, they
are all listed together here.
Contra-indications that Prevent Aromatherapy Treatments:
Currently treated by doctor (including cancer, angina, heart
problems, blood disorders)
Taking medication
Severe, untreated medical problemUnexplained seats of pain

Contra-indications that Restrict the Methods of Use
Hypersensitive skin, Contagious diseases Steroid use (if consent from doctor obtained)

Contra-indications to Reduce the Range of Suitable Oils:
Abnormal blood pressure (if consent from doctor obtained) Pregnancy Epilepsy

We began this section by looking at the essential oils themselves,
listing those that were hazardous, irritants, sensitising,
photosensitising and toxic. We then looked at how certain
conditions of the client will affect (and sometimes prevent) the

When deciding on the best treatment, look at the picture as a
whole. Consider both the properties of the oils and the condition
of the client. Once the inappropriate oils and methods of use have
been eliminated, select the oils and methods of use based on all
the information you have. Remember that it is not the role of an
Aromatherapist to diagnose so, if in doubt, refer the client to a

Lastly, the importance of safety cannot be overstated.


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