By: Retha Nesmith, Certified Aromatherapist
Can essential oils be ingested? Yes? No? Sometimes? Maybe?
Yep, that about sums it up. You are probably getting a different answer everywhere you look. You will find people who are adamant for ingesting essential oils and people who are equally as adamant that you should not ingest essential oils. Who is right? Who should you listen to? I am going to be discussing what an essential oil is and why there might be concern when ingesting essential oils. This will be basic “101” information on essential oils. There is so much more I could discuss but I want everyone to get a basic understanding first. I want to create a discussion where people can learn and hopefully get some answers. This is my own opinion, formed from my own research and education.
First, let’s be clear that there is a difference between the use of essential oils as food flavorings and their use for health purposes.
Essential oils naturally occur in many food items such as nuts, fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices. So we all consume tiny amounts of essential oil in our food. Some are also added as flavorings in candy, ice cream, pickles, etc., but the essential oil in food constitutes much less than 1% and is equivalent to about one drop of essential oil per day. The essential oil is completely mixed and blended into the food. Taking essential oils in or as a dietary supplement (or a medicine) involves very much larger quantities, and therefore brings in safety issues that do not apply to normal food use. More on that later.
-What is an essential oil?-
An essential oil is a concentrated hydrophobic liquid, from a single botanical source consisting of volatile aroma compounds. These botanical sources are made up of genus and species (e.g. Eucalyptus globulus). This name tells us exactly which plant the oil comes from. Essential oils are composed of dozens of naturally-occurring chemical constituents. Each oil has a unique mix of constituents, although some constituents occur in many essential oils. Linalool, for example, is one of the major constituents of lavender oil and coriander oil, but it is a minor constituent of about 200 other essential oils.
Essential oils have one, two or occasionally three major constituents (about 20-90% of the oil), a few minor constituents (1-19%,) and many, many trace constituents (less than 1%). Sometimes minor or trace constituents still can have a significant effect on the body but most of the effects of an essential oil are attributed to its major constituents. These effects are now being revealed by published scientific research. Some plants of the same species can have major differences in constituents. These are called ‘chemotypes’ and are named after the largest constituent in the plant. Rosemary oil, for example, may be a pinene chemotype, a cineole chemotype, or a camphor chemotype. The majority of commercially available essential oils don’t have these variations however, most of the effects of an essential oil are attributed to its major constituents.
To fully understand the therapeutic action and any safety issues associated with a particular oil, you need to know the botanical name and (if applicable) the chemotype. If you do not know the botanical name of the essential oil or the chemotype, how can you know what is the safest way to use that oil? This is one of the reasons it is very important for Plant Therapy to list all of this information on our website. It is the first step to helping our customers become educated in the essential oils they are using.
We have established that an essential oil is made up of many different constituents, so let’s go on to discuss why essential oils might not be safe to ingest. Robert Tisserand’s Essential Oil Safety book states”
Contact with potentially harmful substances is unavoidable. They are found in food, water, air, cleaning products, medications and toiletries, and are encountered both in the workplace and in the home. Among the ‘poisons’ found in commonly consumed foods are cyanogenetic glycosides (cyanide precursors) in apple seeds and almonds, teratogenic alkaloids in green potatoes, allyl isothiocanate in cabbage and broccoli, and acetaldehyde, a carcinogen found in most fruits and many vegetables. The quantities of such toxic substances to which we are exposed, do not normally represent a hazard because they are efficiently handled by the body’s detoxification and other defense mechanisms.”
However, if you were to get these ‘poisons’ at a larger dose, they could become very toxic. The same is true with essential oils.
There are some constituents in essential oils that can be toxic, irritating and sensitizing if the essential oil is ingested in large enough doses. Just because an essential oil is 100% pure and natural, does not mean that it cannot harm you. Harm from an essential oil is not always due to impurities or adulterations; more often it’s simply about the constituents it contains. This is not about purity; it’s about safety. For example, a teaspoon of Eucalyptus oil or Wintergreen oil, even if 100% pure, can be fatal to a child. An essential oil being harmful is not always due to impurities and adulterations but the constituents themselves. I realize that most people do not take essential oils in these large doses, but it is important to know what you are dealing with if you do decide to take essential oils internally.
Another concern is the possible interaction between certain essential oils and certain medications (drug interactions).
For example, there has been at least one case of interaction from the external use of Blue Chamomile oil and another from Peppermint oil. Essential Oil Safety  explains potential risks and why Blue Chamomile and Lemongrass oils might present the greatest risk of drug interaction. There are many known and studied interactions but there are also some that are less known and less studied. One of the known interactions is between essential oils containing methyl salicylate (Wintergreen & Sweet Birch) and blood-thinning medications. This combination can cause the blood to thin too much, leading to internal bleeding and bruising. This is one of the concerns I have when recommending the ingestion of essential oils. The reason for this post is not to go into all the possible likely drug interactions, but it is to make the consumer aware that these interactions do exist.
Then there are concerns with irritation when ingesting essential oils. Tea Tree and Lavender are both well known and greatly used essential oils. There are more cases of adverse skin reactions from Tea Tree than Lavender. This may be because Tea Tree does not have a long shelf life, and when it oxidizes (undergoes chemical changes), it becomes more skin reactive. Cinnamon Bark, Clove, Ylang-Ylang, and Lemongrass are examples of essential oils that present a moderate risk of adverse skin reaction, especially if used undiluted. Again, this is not about purity. It’s simply about safety and the natural constituents of the essential oils.
Most of the constituents that make up essential oils affect the body one way or another.
How they affect the body is what published scientific research is starting to make known to us. Some people believe that too much essential oil taken internally can have side effects on the liver. The liver has to process everything we put in our bodies, including essential oil constituents, so giving it extra work to do may cause problems. There is some debate about this, as we don’t know enough about how much of which essential oils may be safe or unsafe to ingest in terms of the liver but it is very important to keep in mind that essential oils do have an effect on the liver.
These risks generally increase when dealing with young children, elderly people, and pregnant women. In fact, certain essential oils should be avoided altogether in pregnancy. There are various reasons for this, but the main one is to ensure that the development of the fetus is not adversely affected. And as I mentioned already, some essential oils should not be taken with specific medications.
This is why Plant Therapy’s official stance is to not ingest essential oils unless under the supervision of a medical doctor or an aromatherapy practitioner. It is not that we don’t recommend ingesting essential oils, it is just that there is so much information that needs to be taken into consideration before ingesting essential oils. There can be a time and place for oral use of essential oils but you need to make sure you are educated on the whole parts of essential oils. That is where Plant Therapy wants to help. We want to help our customers become educated in everything they need to know about essential oils so that they can make the best-educated decision for themselves and their family.
-Essential oils and dietary supplement regulations-
Why is it that some companies recommend, and even encourage, the ingestion of essential oils? Recently it has come to my attention that some companies label the essential oils that can be taken internally as essential oil supplements. If you have a bottle with a supplemental fact label on it, see if that is how the essential oil is labeled. As I have studied more on supplements, and the role that the FDA has in this, the more I realize that essential oils and essential oil supplements are not always the same thing.
The FDA plays no part in the grading or safety uses of essential oils. “Therapeutic grade” is simply a made-up term in the essential oil industry. The FDA does have a list of herbs, including some essential oils, which are  “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) for use as food items as a very small percentage for flavor only and not nutrition; (i.e. food additives) but that is as far as it goes. This is a food grade standard for food flavoring and not a standard for taking essential oils internally for medicinal purposes. .  “The FEMA Expert Panel only evaluates substances for GRAS status that are used to formulate flavors to be added to foods. The Expert Panel does not evaluate food ingredients with functions other than flavoring nor does it evaluate flavorings for use in products other than food.” For example, note these FDA statements concerning GRAS listed substances :
-The quantity of a substance added to food does not exceed the amount reasonably required to accomplish its intended physical, nutritional, or other technical effect in food.
-The inclusion of substances in the list of nutrients does not constitute a finding on the part of the Department that the substance is useful as a supplement to the diet for humans.
So, the GRAS status is granted to substances that are intended for use as food flavorings and therefore is not intended to apply to essential oils used as medicines, or to essential oils taken alone. The FDA doesn’t give recommended doses or is even clear about which substances on the GRAS list are essential or herbs. Again, this is a food grade standard and not a standard for taking essential oils internally for medicinal purposes.
The FDA does play a role in dietary supplements, however. This includes essential oil supplements. Here is what is says on the FDA’s website:
Manufacturers and distributors do not need FDA approval to sell their dietary supplements. 
Any claims made for dietary supplements are subject to some comprehensive FDA guidelines, although those guidelines are somewhat minute.
By law (DSHEA), the manufacturer is responsible for ensuring that its dietary supplement products are safe before they are marketed. Unlike drug products that must be proven safe and effective for their intended use before marketing, there are no provisions in the law for FDA to “approve” dietary supplements for safety or effectiveness before they reach the consumer. Under DSHEA, once the product is marketed, FDA has the responsibility for showing that a dietary supplement is “unsafe,” before it can take action to restrict the product’s use or removal from the marketplace. However, manufacturers and distributors of dietary supplements must record, investigate and forward to FDA any reports they receive of serious adverse events associated with the use of their products that are reported to them directly. 
It is important to note that even though dietary supplements are allowed to be marked with dietary claims, they are not allowed to be marked with medical claims. They are not allowed to be marked for the treatment or prevention of medical issues because they have not been substantially proven.
There is no provision under any law or regulation that FDA enforces that requires a firm to disclose to FDA or consumers the information they have about the safety or purported benefits of their dietary supplement products. Likewise, there is no prohibition against them making this information available either to FDA or to their customers. It is up to each firm to set its own policy on disclosure of such information. 
Other than the manufacturer’s responsibility to ensure safety, there are no rules that limit a serving size or the amount of a nutrient in any form of dietary supplements. This decision is made by the manufacturer and does not require FDA review or approval. 
As you can see, the FDA’s part in supplements is very limited, especially if no claims are made for the product. In terms of safety, they will only take action if the manufacturers or distributors report on “serious adverse events associated with the use of their product that are reported to them directly.” This is why I think educating yourselves is important. This is why I think your own research is important. And this is why I think the help of a clinical aromatherapist or medical doctor is important before taking essential oils internally.
For something to be labeled as an essential oil supplement, it has to have a supplemental fact label on the bottle or product. There is no regulation of what it has to say unless the FDA has to step in because of reports. The oils that the companies recommend for ingesting, do or at least should, have these supplemental fact labels. Let’s take, for example, one company’s label for Cinnamon Bark. On the label it states to take “1 drop with 4 drops of V6 or olive oil. Put in a capsule and take one daily or as directed by a health professional.” According to the recently published Essential Oil Safety , there are several risks associated with Cinnamon Bark oil, including drug interactions, blood-thinning, embryotoxicity, skin sensitization and mucous membrane irritation. Again, educating yourself is very important. For recommendations on internal use of essential oils, see [Box].
The FDA does require that any claim made by a manufacturer for altering body function, such as “anti-inflammatory” is backed up by clinical (i.e. human) evidence showing that the supplement, as taken, has the claimed effect. This information would need to be on the product label for it to be regulated by the FDA. For example, if a company lists that a product is anti-inflammatory on their website but not on the dietary fact label, then those two claims are not regulated by the same FDA requirements or regulations. The FDA will regulate the supplement label. It is required that if a dietary supplement claim is made on a supplement label, that the company has  substantiating evidence to back the claim up.
There are a lot of things to consider when thinking about whether or not you should ingest essential oils. Remember, that adverse effects are not always immediate or obvious. Unlike an allergic or irritant reaction, liver toxicity, fetal damage or cancer formation will not be noticed at the time they are happening. Please don’t assume that just because you have not seen any side effects that it doesn’t mean someone else might not. In setting general safety guidelines, the risk to the general population has to be minimized.
Continue to do your own research and educate yourself. Essential oils are wonderful natural tools if used correctly. But just like anything else, too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. Learn as much as you can about the essential oil you are using. A good start is knowing the botanical name that, in and of itself, will tell you exactly what plant that essential oil came from. Then you can learn more about the safety concerns about that plant and more specifically, that exact essential oil.
This is just the beginning of information. I do not expect you to agree with everything I have said. Some of this is factual and some is my own opinion based on my own research and education. I would love feedback but ask that you please be respectful. Any comment that is derogatory in any way will be erased. I do not mind if you disagree, but please give a simple reason why. I truly want to educate people on essential oils and I am simply doing that the best way I know how. Please share your thoughts with me. If you have any questions that you do not wish to share on this post, you can email me directly at [email protected]. Thank you!
-If you choose to take essential oils internally, please do so when needed and not on a daily basis. Also remember that dilution is very important. You only need 1-2 drops in a capsule full of an edible carrier oil. Please do not take essential oils multiple times a day by dropping the oil directly into a glass of water. The oils do not mix with the water and can cause burning and irritation to the very sensitive mucous membranes. Over time, this has been known to cause rashes and extreme irritation. The best and most effective way to take essential oils internally is under the supervision of a medical doctor or an aromatherapy practitioner who is qualified in internal use of essential oils.
-Alliance of International Aromatherapists – “…does not endorse internal therapeutic use (oral, vaginal or rectal) of essential oils unless recommended by a health care practitioner trained at an appropriate clinical level. An appropriate level of training must include chemistry, anatomy, diagnostics, physiology, formulation guidelines and safety issues regarding each specific internal route (oral, vaginal or rectal).” http://www.alliance-aromatherapists.org/
-National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy – “Do not take essential oils internally without appropriate clinical education and understanding of the safety issues involved in doing so.” – http://www.naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/safety/naha-safety-statements
-Aromatherapy Trade Council (ATC) – “Never take essential oils internally, unless under the guidance of a qualified aromatherapist who has received the necessary training in this very specialized mode of administration. Most aromatherapists have not had this training, so be sure to check this out first.”
You may read articles in magazines and books extolling the virtues of taking essential oils internally, but you should absolutely never attempt this without expert guidance.”
*This post was written by Retha Nesmith. Retha is the marketing manager for Plant Therapy essential oils. She is also a certified aromatherapist. Do you have questions? Please email our Certified Aromatherapists at [email protected], or you can email Retha directly at [email protected]
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