It seems straightforward, “It’s taking an essential oil internally—like drinking it with water or putting it in a capsule and swallowing it, correct?”
Yes, and there’s more.
Internal use of essential oils is by more than just oral application, or ingestion. Essential oils can also be “applied” via rectal suppositories or via vaginal douches and suppositories (also known as pessaries). These applications are best pursued under the care of a qualified aromatherapist or caregiver.
That aside, the big question being debated, that has passionate advocates on both sides, is this.
Is it safe to ingest essential oils? Is it safe to swallow essential oils in water or in capsules?
Yes and No.
Fact: Many people do ingest essential oils by various methods. A lot of them have done it for a long time and have had no adverse events occur. This is called anecdotal evidence. It is based upon observation rather than systematic scientific evaluation.
Fact: Adverse events from essential oil ingestion do occur (see below) especially as the rate of consumption continues to multiply rapidly. In addition, there have been past reported deaths from the ingestion of large amounts of essential oils—as opposed to a much smaller therapeutic dose. The large amounts were either as an accidental overdose—as in the case of young children, or purposeful overdose—as in the case of someone trying to commit suicide. All of the cases of death from essential oil poisoning by ingestion are quite old. None of them is recent.
For the sake of clarity and comparison: The “large amounts” were ⅛ - 1 oz. or more (1.25ml-10ml). An oral therapeutic dose is typically 1-6 drops in most cases. 1 drop is about 35 mg compared to an 1/8 oz. which is about 3,600 mg. That’s a huge difference, over 100 times more than a therapeutic dose!
WHAT does “Internal Use” of essential oils mean?
Systematic scientific evaluations are currently being done to establish the safety of essential oil ingestion.
Poisoning rarely leads to death but the effects of it are often serious, necessitating hospital procedures and care.
Many of the people in the past who have experienced essential oil poisoning, including children, completely recovered within 24 hours with no lasting effects, the rest recovered in about a week according to the many reports studied.
Many of the old cases of child poisoning were caused by the misuse or mistaken use of an OTC (over-the-counter) preparation administered to them.
Most of the volatile oils (essential oils) reported as causing poisoning are either no longer available or are not commonly distributed. They are the oils of camphor, pennyroyal, sassafras, turpentine, wormseed and wormwood.
Wintergreen can be bought, but should come with a childproof cap and the warning, “Not for internal Use”. This oil is commonly adulterated which could also be the cause of some adverse events.
In a compilation of studies, it was noted that if spontaneous vomiting occurred or was triggered manually, the symptoms of essential oil poisoning were greatly reduced. The sooner vomiting occurred after ingestion, the less risk of serious symptoms there were. Stomach pumping is preferred to triggering vomiting to avoid repeated contact with sensitive membranes.
Even though the above is true, some experts think there is a risk of aspiration if vomiting is induced in other than a medical setting.
Adverse events from essential oil ingestion can be burning of the lips, mouth, and throat, dizziness, and irritation of the GI tract manifesting as nausea, vomiting, excessive flatulence, and diarrhea. These reactions may be due to contact with sensitive mucous membranes or a pre-existing condition, such as candida overgrowth or acid reflux.
There is some concern about the long-term effects on the liver, which metabolizes essential oils, and on the kidneys. Most companies will mark essential oils, “Not for internal use”, if they are under suspicion of having the potential to cause harm.
The prevalent use of drop-dispensers in the mouth of bottles and greater awareness to the risks associated with some essential oils are generally accepted as the reason for the lack of recent fatalities from essential oil ingestion.
Notes of importance
Essential oils can be safely ingested when used appropriately at reasonable doses. Considerations for further safety would be age, physical condition, and medications being taken—including by what route they are administered.
Speaking of risks, it is important to note that in contrast to the low number of fatalities from essential oil poisoning over many years, there are at least 100,000 deaths yearly in the U.S. from adverse drug reactions (ADRs), according to the Institute of Medicine, National Academy Press, 2000 as reported at the FDA website (search ucm114848). In addition there are over 2 million serious ADRs yearly.
Most essential oils are quickly metabolized and eliminated by the human body. There are some though, that stick around longer. In aromatherapy texts it is suggested these oils not be used for longer than a week, 2 weeks or sometimes a month to give the body a chance to eliminate them before another round is begun. This is what is referred to as duration--the amount of time an essential oil can be used. It serves to avoid the residual build-up of an essential oil.
The risk of essential oil poisoning is not as much inherent in the essential oils, with some exceptions, as they are due to quantity, frequency, and method of dosing. It is important to know which essential oils are safe, which ones to avoid, and how to administer them.
A big factor in ingesting essential oils is the purity and potency of the oil. You would not want to ingest essential oils that have been adulterated or are impure in any way.
Sylla Sheppard-Hanger, Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy
“In the last few years, daily ingestion of essential oils has been marketed by certain companies. They claim that the “French” do it, so it must be safe, which is leaving out the fact that physicians prescribe these uses in France, Europe, and even in the USA, not sales representatives without proper training. Although this unsafe practice may sell more oils, which are hyped with subjective testimonials, it’s risky business at best. The “Injury Reporting” database was created at Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy, last Fall (2013). The results of this small sample so far clearly demonstrate taking oils internally, without the oversight of qualified clinically trained aromatherapy professionals is not a good idea. The Atlantic Institute created an anonymous reporting system to show what is really going on and the Summary report shows many problems. Of note, is that not one of these injuries occurred under the advice of a qualified Aromatherapy Professional with suitable training."
Dr. Paul Winterton, MD
“Most Americans are very comfortable with the idea of ingesting prescription or over-the-counter medications in the form of pills or capsules. However, many of us who have acquainted ourselves with the benefits and medicinal qualities of essential oils may not be as comfortable with the idea of oral ingestion. Topical application and inhalation are the modalities with which most essential oils users are acquainted.
"Much has been written and discussed, formally, informally, and legally regarding oral intake of essential oils that are "generally recognized as safe", also associated with the acronym GRAS. The FDA and Department of Health and Human Services in the United States has published a list of essential oils with the GRAS stamp of approval:
“Regarding my own professional opinion, when a particular EO has demonstrated well regarded and published applications for particular maladies, it is perfectly reasonable to proceed ahead with internal use unless otherwise indicated. Dosage of EOs are particularly minimal in drops and for all intents and purposes, is quite innocuous regarding concerns of side effects and toxicity. With a little bit of homework and research, I am very comfortable with the lay public engaging in self medication of EOs, particularly with regard to internal consumption, despite concerns that continue to be expressed by my aromatherapy colleagues in the United Kingdom and France.”
Notes from LEO:
Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS)
For further definition. Skip all the other subsections, which don't really relate, and just look at (f) and (s), unless you really enjoy this kind of reading.
And one more…for further clarification of food additives. The regulation referred to is the GRAS standard.
It is my personal opinion, upon reading the above definitions and descriptions, that GRAS does not (officially) apply to essential oils taken orally. It only applies, technically, to essential oils as food additives, meaning they are added to other things (mostly for flavoring) in items such as gum, toothpaste, candy, alcohol, tea, and other beverages—not taken by themselves.
I suppose that if they are diluted, as in a carrier oil or on a sugar cube or even in water, they could generously be considered a food additive.
In any case, the essential oils on the list, have at least been identified as generally being safe to consume when combined with something else. This is a choice you’re going to have to make yourself based on the evidence, both anecdotal and scientific.