Safety with Essential Oils

There is no doubt that essential oils are very powerful compounds, and some safety measures must be kept in mind when having them around the house.

Certain oils have been banned and others restricted by IFRA, because of their particular properties, toxicity, sensitizing effect etc.

The list below shows some of the oils, with their common name, botanic name as well as other common names it might be known under. If you know of any other oil that was omitted, kindly mail us at [email protected] with the details.

IFRA banned oils

Name known as Botanical name Action
Cade oil crude prickly juniper and juniper tar Juniperus oxycedrus Carcinogenic
Costus root kuth Saussurea costus Sensitizer
Elecampane oil scabwort Inula helenium Sensitizer
Fig leaf absolute Ficus carica Sensitizer
Horseradish oil Armoracia rusticana Toxic and irritant
Mustard oil black mustard Brassica nigra Toxic and irritant
Peru balsam balsam of Peru, Balsamo Myroxylon var. pereirae Sensitizer (distilled oil is allowed)
Savin oil Juniperus sabina Toxic and sensitizer although Juniper phoenicea oil is allowed
Verbena oil Lippia citriodora / Aloysia triphylla Sensitizer
Tea absolute Thea sinensis / Camellia sinensis Sensitizer
Sassafras oil Sassafras albidum Carcinogenic
Stryax gum oriental sweet gum and storax Liquidambar orientalis Sensitizer
Wormseed (also called Epazote or Mexican Tea) Chenopodium ambroisoides Toxic
Wormwood oil Artemisia absinthium Neurotoxin

IFRA restricted oils

The following oils are not banned but care must be taken with the amount of active ingredients (compounds) contained in the oil, and the possible side effects of sensitizing and phototoxicity must be kept in mind when treating a client.

Name known as Botanical name Action
Angelica root oil Angelica archangelica Phototoxic
Bergamot oil bergamot orange Citrus aurantium ssp. Bergamia Phototoxic
Bitter orange oil Seville orange Citrus aurantium Phototoxic
Cassia oil cassia bark, Chinese cinnamon Cinnamomum cassia Sensitizer
Cinnamon bark cinnamon, Ceylon cinnamon Cinnamomum zeylanicum Sensitizer
Cumin oil comino, jeera Cuminum cyminum Phototoxic
Grapefruit oil Citrus paradisi Phototoxic
Lemon oil Citrus limon Phototoxic
Lime oil Citrus aurantifolia Phototoxic
Tagetes oil and absolute muster-John-Henry, khaki weed, stinking Rodger Tagetes minuta Phototoxic
Oak moss absolute and resinoid Evernia prunastri Sensitizer
Pinaceae oils to have less than 10 millimoles peroxide per litre Pinaceae mugo, P. nigra, P. pinaster, P. sylvatica Sensitizer
Rue oil herb of grace, herbygrass Ruta graveolens Sensitizer
Verbena absolute Lippia citriodora / Aloysia triphylla Sensitizer
Tree moss absolute (Pseudeo) Evernia furfuracea Sensitizer

There has been an upsurge in the incidence of various forms of cancer, and the carcinogenesis (the stimulation of growth of cancerous cells) effect of various substances are continuously looked at to try and identify any carcinogenic substances and so help people from steering away from them.

Carcinogenic oils

There are some essential oils that are carcinogenic and have already been banned from use in aromatherapy as well as for internal usage. All oils that contain high amounts of safrole like sassafras oil which is also found in yellow and brown camphor.

Other compounds found in essential oils that may be carcinogenic is methyl chavicol, which is found in basil oil. This statement does not make basil a dangerous oil, but care should be taken to select the basil oil with the highest linalool content and lowest methyl chavicol content.
It must however be pointed out that studies showed these oils as carcinogenic when applied daily in high concentration over a period of months.

Using essential oils when you have cancer

If you have cancer there are some points to keep in mind when using essential oils and aromatherapy:

  • Keep massage light, and avoid deep massage over muscles as well as near the lymph glands.
  • Do not massage areas that have been irradiated.
  • Do not massage areas that have skin cancers.

Various writers on health, cancer and medical conditions have compiled lists of oils which should not be used when you have cancer.

Essential oils to avoid when you have cancer

Aniseed, Bay, Clove, Cinnamon, Fennel, Ho leaf, Laurel, Nutmeg and Star anise.

Essential oils to avoid when you have estrogen (oestrogen) dependent cancers

Aniseed, Citronella, Eucalyptus, Fennel, Lemongrass, Star anise and Verbena.

Essential oils to avoid when you have skin cancers and melanomas

Bergamot and all sun sensitizing oils.

We must first remember that essential oils are powerful compounds and that although they are natural extracts from various botanical material, they are highly concentrated, and should never be left where children can get hold of them.

Although we believe that essential oils can be beneficial to the general health of adults as well as children, it must be kept in mind that essential oils should never be taken orally, unless so advised by your licensed medical practitioner, and that even small amounts of essential oils that are ingested can cause severe medical problems.

  • When buying essential oils make sure that the bottles are screwed securely closed and that a dropper dispenser is fitted into the neck of the bottle.
  • Keep your essential oils in a safe place – not only will it keep them out of the reach of small hands, but a cool dark place will also help to retard oxidation of the oils.
  • Never use essential oils undiluted on the skin, and when preparing a blend for a child, remember that you would halve the strength – where you would normally include a 2 % dilution of essential oil to the carrier oil, you would prepare a 1 % dilution for use on a child.
  • You use a weaker dilution on children because their bodies are smaller and their skins are also more sensitive – in adults you would use 6 drops of essential oil to 20 ml carrier oil, while on children you would only use 2 – 3 drops to 20 ml of carrier oil.
  • Should you use essential oils in steam inhalation, never leave the child alone or unsupervised, and keep the inhalation to 1 minute.

Essential oils that are suitable for children

(To make it easy remember – T L C)

The above oils are suitable for children and can be used for

Essential oils not to use (or with extreme care) on children

Basil, Bay, Benzoin, Bergamot, Birch, Black pepper, Cassia, Cedarwood, Cinnamon, Citronella, Clove, Costus, Cumin, Elecampane, Eucalyptus globulus (Smithii can in some cases be used on children), Fennel, Fir, Ginger, Helichrysum, Juniper, Lemon, Lemon verbena, Lemongrass, Melissa, Nutmeg, Oak moss, Orange, Oregano, Parsley seed, Peppermint, Pimento berry, Pine, Tagetes, Thyme (red)

We compiled the above list from oils that we think are too strong for children, or which may cause irritation to a sensitive skin, but any oil not included in the above list does not guarantee that the oil is suitable for use on children.

Please also look at our list of toxic essential oils that may never be used by adults or children at any time.

Millions of people suffer from the debilitation of diabetes, and have to plan their lives around this health condition. Although essential oils cannot do anything to help stabilize blood sugar levels, it can help with one of the side effects of diabetes.

Aromatherapy massage can be of great benefit to assist with improving circulation, which is often a major problem to diabetics.

Essential oil to avoid in diabetes

Anybody with diabetes would be well advised not to use angelica oil in any form.

Essential oil to help improve circulation in diabetic patients

Oils that are beneficial to help with improving circulation would include:

Since essential oils are very concentrated and potent, they should never be applied in its pure undiluted form to the skin, but should be suitably diluted.
There are different dilution levels that should be used, depending on how they are being used.

o make it easier to read the charts, we have split the information over several pages, each dealing with a specific use.

To view the details, please click the relevant hyperlink Diluting essential oils dilution rates

Should you prefer not to buy separate essential oils plus a suitable base carrier oil, we also have a selection of already specialized ready-mixed blends available, which you can view by clicking here.

Using essential oils in aromatherapy can be a great way of assisting the general health of elderly people, yet some points have to be kept in mind when mixing essential oil blends for older people.

Since older people may be frail, it is best to use a lower dilution rate for essential oils in the carrier oils and due notice must be taken of any medical conditions, medications taken or illnesses.

  • To view the suggestions on dilutions please visit our page on dilutions and also have a look at oils that may be irritants or cause skin sensitivity.

With older people there may be a higher incidence of health problems, so it is imperative to check the profiles of each essential oil, to ascertain that it is not contra-indicated for a particular health problem, and that there are no contra-indications with certain medications.

Incapacitated patients

Bed-ridden people or wheelchair-bound can benefit from a gentle aromatherapy massage, and a selection of oils can be chosen to help alleviate discomfort and to aid in circulation.
Aromatherapy is a complementary therapy as such, and does not replace any medical treatment and essential oils should never be taken orally unless so prescribed by a licensed medical practitioner.

People that suffer from high blood pressure (hypertension) need to monitor their blood pressure regularly, since various health problems, like angina, strokes and thrombosis as well as arteriosclerosis, may be caused by this condition.

Gentle massage using essential oils in aromatherapy can have a most beneficial effect on high blood pressure, yet there are certain oils not to use during massage when suffering from hypertension.

Essential oils to be avoided by people suffering from high blood pressure

  • Thyme (hypertensive – increase blood pressure)

Essential oils that can be beneficial in massage for people suffering from hypertension

There are some divided ideas on the dangers of certain essential oils used in aromatherapy during pregnancy, but since this time should be a time to enjoy and to prepare for the upcoming birth of your child, it would be wise to rather give some essential oils a miss.

Aromatherapy can be a great benefit during pregnancy and assists in minimizing some of the discomfort and aches.

There are however some compounds in certain essential oils that have hormone-like behavior because of their molecular structure and although there is no conclusive evidence on the effect of estrogenic oils it would be prudent to avoid anethole rich oils, like fennel and aniseed during pregnancy.

PLEASE NOTE:  WE ARE NOT MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS.  PLEASE CONSULT A REGISTERED MEDICAL PRACTITIONER OR MIDWIFE BEFORE USING ESSENTIAL OILS WHEN PREGNANT, BREASTFEEDING OR TAKING CARE OF AN INFANT.

Although some oils are listed as abortifacient oils, it is mainly due to their toxic nature, and should in any case not be used in aromatherapy massage at any time.

Some essential oils are however not toxic, but have emmenagogue action, which is to help to promote and regulate the menstrual flow (periods), and should be avoided during pregnancy.

We have compiled a list below, in which we endeavored to list all the oils which we think should not be used for massage while you are pregnant.

We have compiled the list from all known oils that may in some way or other interfere with this very special time, but give nor infer any guarantee or warranty of safety for any oil not included on this list.

If you are unsure if an oil can be used, kindly refer it to your licensed medical practitioner for his or her advice and directions.

Essential oils to be avoided in pregnancy

Almond – bitter Toxic
Aniseed Anethole rich
Angelica Emmenagogue
Basil Possible irritant
Birch Possible irritant
Black pepper Skin sensitization
Boldo leaf Toxic
Buchu Liver hazardous
Calamus Toxic
Camphor Toxic
Cassia Skin sensitization
Cedarwood Emmenagogue
Chamomile Emmenagogue
Cinnamon Skin sensitization and emmenagogue
Clary sage Emmenagogue
Clove Skin sensitization
Elecampane Skin sensitization
Fennel Anethole rich
Fir Possible irritant
Ginger Emmenagogue
Horseradish Toxic
Hyssop Could cause toxicity
Jaborandi leaf Toxic
Jasmine Emmenagogue
Juniper Emmenagogue
Lemon Possible irritant
Lemongrass Possible irritant
Marjoram Emmenagogue
Melissa Possible irritant
Mugwort Toxic
Mustard Toxic
Myrrh Emmenagogue
Nightshade Toxic
Nutmeg Skin sensitization
Oregano Skin sensitization
Parsley seed Apiol rich
Pennyroyal Toxic
Peppermint Emmenagogue
Pine Skin sensitization
Rose Emmenagogue
Rosemary Emmenagogue
Rue Toxic
Sage High thujone content
Sassafras Toxic
Savin Toxic
Savory Could cause toxicity
Southernwood Toxic
Stinging nettle Toxic
Tansy Toxic
Thuja Toxic
Thyme both Red and Linalol) Possible irritant
Wintergreen Toxic
Wormseed Toxic
Wormwood Toxic

The liver is involved in a wide variety of actions and helps with carbohydrate and lipid metabolism, secretion of bile as well as the synthesis of proteins, yet most people perceive the liver as only a detoxification organ for the blood.

Certain essential oils may cause liver toxicity, but this is unlikely to be due to skin absorption, as in massage.

There is however a problem if the essential oil is taken orally (swallowed) – taking of essential oils internally must be done with great care – and only done when so instructed by a medical practitioner that has specialized in this branch of medicine.

No essential oil should be taken internally unless so prescribed by a licensed medical practitioner – for more on this see our page on the medicinal use of essential oils.

Essential oils that may be toxic to the liver, when swallowed:

Aniseed, Basil, Bay, Buchu, Cassia, Cinnamon (bark and leaves), Clove, Fennel, Tarragon

The oils listed underneath are banned and can cause toxicity if taken internally as well as dermally (in a massage blend):

Almond (Bitter), Boldo leaf, Calamus, Camphor, Horseradish, Jaborandi leaf, Mugwort, Mustard, Nightshade, Pennyroyal (both European and North American), Rue, Sassafras, Savin, Southernwood, Stinging nettles, Tansy, Thuja, Wintergreen, Wormseed & Wormwood.

Certain essential oils have the ability to assist in promoting menstruation (menses) and regulating the monthly discharge, but although these oils are very helpful in treating problems of this nature, some of them should be avoided in pregnancy.

Areas where these emmenagogue essential oils can be helpful, when used in aromatherapy would include disorders such as:

  • Dysmenorrhoea – painful menstruation
  • Leucorrhoea – mucus discharge
  • Amenorrhoea – absence of menstruation

Please note that essential oils and aromatherapy should not be used instead of medical treatment, and any medical problems must be referred to your licensed medical practitioner.

The following oils are classified as emmenagogue essential oils:

Angelica, Camomile (German and Roman), Cinnamon, Clary sage, Ginger, Jasmine, Juniper, Myrrh, Peppermint, Rose, Rosemary, Sweet fennel & Sweet marjoram.

Certain essential oils are more inclined to cause skin irritation and/or sensitization in normal individuals than other oils. For those with a sensitive skin some oils should be used with care.

If you have never used a specific essential oil and think that your skin may be irritated by it, do a skin patch test before using it.

Skin irritation

Since people differ, it is difficult to predict if a specific oil will irritate your skin or cause dermal sensitization, even when the individual has never shown allergies before.

Skin irritation is an inflammation caused by a reaction to a certain oil and the severity is normally dependant upon the exposure to the oil. It has been thought by some that it is the terpene content in oils that cause skin irritation, but tests have shown that it is more likely to be caused by a high phenol content in certain oils.

Should skin irritation occur, immediately cease using the particular essential oil or oil blend that you suspect is causing it.

Certain oils do have the tendency to irritate the skin, and we have listed some of the common irritants:

Basil, Benzoin, Birch, Black Pepper, Cassia, Clove, Cinnamon, Ginger, Lemon, Lemongrass, Lemon Verbena, Oregano, Peppermint, Pimento Berry, Pine, Tagetes, Red Thyme & Wintergreen

Essential oils that may cause skin sensitizing

Dermal or skin sensitization can happen when certain essential oils are applied to the skin, even when diluted, and the skin normally reacts in the form of a rash, blotches and itching, and in some cases blistering can occur.

Normal allergic reaction involves the interaction of the immune system causing formation of antibodies to render the antigen (the offending oil) harmless, yet research has shown that skin sensitization is an immune system response and not an antigen antibody reaction.

Although not all skin sensitizing agents are known, it is the cinnamic aldehyde in cinnamon bark and cassia oil that causes this reaction.

Costus, Elecampane, Cinnamon bark, Fennel (Bitter) & Cassia.

Following the guidelines below will help keep the use of essential oils safe for you and those around you.

  • Never take essential oils internally unless so advised by your medical practitioner.
  • Keep essential oils out of the reach of children.
  • Always dilute essential oils with a suitable carrier oil before applying it to the skin.
  • If you are pregnant, lactating or suffer from epilepsy, hypertension (high blood pressure), have cancer or liver damage, or any other medical condition, only use essential oils under guidance of a qualified aroma practitioner/aroma therapist.
  • Use essential oils with great care on children.
  • If you are using a new un-tried essential oil, first do a skin patch test before using extensively.
  • If irritation occurs with a specific oil or formula, discontinue the use of such oil or formula.
  • Take care not to get any essential oils into your eyes or on to any mucus membranes.
  • A wise practice is to always wash your hands after handling pure undiluted essential oils.
  • Some oils are not indicated for use while you are pregnant, due to the stimulating effect it has on the urinary system and uterus. Using such oils during the early months of pregnancy can cause contractions and premature delivery.
  • When nursing babies care must be taken with your selection of essential oils to prevent skin transference to the baby.
  • When using essential oils is would be better to abstain from using alcohol, or if inevitable, a small glass of white wine at mealtime can be consumed.
  • Check for any interaction between medication and essential oils, since some essential oils can interfere with certain prescription medication.
  • When using essential oils that cause sun sensitivity people should take care to avoid expose to the sun.
  • People with a sensitive skin should always perform a skin patch test before using untried essential oils.
  • Certain oils have been banned for use in aromatherapy, and although it may be used in other applications, it may not be used in aromatherapy massage etc.

Additional Reading:

Here is a comprehensive text on the safety of essential oils – Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals by Robert Tisserand & Rodney Young