Even when essential oils do contain labels or instructions, the information is often insufficient, according to Tisserand. For example, essential oils with “dilute before use” on their labels fail to offer dilution guidelines; for example, dilution for non-medicinal use might be greater than dilution for medicinal use. Pure essential oils applied to the skin can cause irritation.
“Our bodies aren’t designed to interact with these oils in pure, concentrated form,” Zielinski says.Gregory recommends starting with a weak dilution of 15 drops essential oil to 6 to 8 teaspoons of a carrier oil such as almond, grapeseed, coconut or avocado oil, and placing a small amount of the mixture on the inside of your wrist. Cover the area with a bandage for 24 hours.
If you have any kind of skin reaction like redness, itchiness, hives, peeling or pain, do not use the oil. Even if there is no reaction, proceed with caution. If the use of essential oils causes any side effects, discontinue use and see a healthcare professional.
Diluting essential oils is essential for safe use but the practice also offers other benefits, according to Zielinski. Carrier oils help open up the pores, allowing the plant essences to more easily penetrate the skin and deliver healing effects. Adding carrier oils also helps stretch the essential oils, making them last longer, which offers cost savings and provides an environmental benefit: It takes up to 35 pounds of lavender flowers to make one bottle of lavender essential oil, which takes its toll on floral resources.
Essential oils used in a diffuser, which Zielinski calls the “easiest and safest” use of the plant-based medicines, don’t need to be diluted, but it is still possible to experience adverse effects from overuse. Read the directions on the diffuser, stick to diffusing oils in well-ventilated rooms and use small quantities. If the vapors are too strong, it can cause symptoms such as nausea, vertigo, dizziness and headaches.
Ingesting essential oils must be done with caution. Putting a few drops of essential oils in water might seem safe but, as Gregory notes, a few drops of chamomile oil is the equivalent of up to 180 cups of tea. “If three cups of tea a day will do the trick, then three drops of oil once or twice a day is overdosing and may have a negative effect. Minimal intervention is a key component to holistic healthcare.”
Zielinski advocates incorporating “culinary doses” of essential oils into food for flavor and health benefits, suggesting a single drop of lime in a batch of guacamole or a drop of peppermint in morning coffee or a drop of citrus oil in bottled water. Adding a few undiluted drops on the tongue, he notes, is too risky. “Just because something is ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it isn’t highly potent,” he says.
Despite the risks, Gregory is adamant that essential oils can be an essential—and safe—part of health and healing.
“Essential oils are a good medical therapy for many things and, when used safely, are a great home therapy for the whole family,” she says. “You should just do your research, be cautious and start slowly with the minimal dose.”