Can You Ingest Essential Oils?
As a Certified Clinical Aromatherapist, one of the most frequent questions I'm asked about using essential oils is “Is it safe to ingest essential oils?” and “Is ingesting effective?” To answer both of these important questions we have to turn to the field of toxicology.
What is Toxicology?
Toxicology, as the name implies, is the study of chemicals that can cause harm. These chemicals are known as toxicants or toxins- a chemical that causes systemic damage.
But don’t be thrown by the word chemical because we aren’t differentiating between manmade synthetic chemicals and naturally occurring chemicals. Essential oils are full of chemicals and many of these chemicals are really good for our body. And so when we’re looking at identifying toxicants and the ultimate safety for anything we’re exposed to, what we’re really trying to find out is if there is anything that will cause systemic damage.
If we say something is toxic, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is poisonous and this is probably one of the biggest misconceptions. Something can be toxic to us without being poisonous and it doesn’t mean it’s going to kill you immediately or in the long term. Toxic means it is going to harm something in your body. Also, something that is an allergen is not necessarily considered a toxicant.
We know that applying certain essential oils to the skin can cause irritation or burning when applied neat and this may make us think that this oil is corrosive or irritating. However, this is again a separate reaction because toxicity is a SYSTEMIC reaction that causes harm throughout the body.
When talking about essential oils and their reactions, we need to remember that we’re talking about a completely separate response in the body.
Factors that complicate things when determining essential oil toxicity include:
Route of Administration
• Orally (including ingestion or sublingually)
• Topically on the skin
The old adage “Dose makes the poison” rings true for any chemical substance including natural ones like essential oils. It is extremely important to know the correct dose in order to safely ingest essential oils.
Are you taking essential oils for a week to treat a cold and then not taking them again, or are you taking a flu bomb everyday throughout the entire winter? Both are very different approaches and need to be carefully considered with regard to toxicity. For instance, taking a flu bomb daily has a much higher risk than taking essential oils for one week.
Age and Gender
Males and females respond differently to essential oil exposure. We also know that age plays an important role because we know that a three year old isn’t going to respond the same as a 10 year old or a 40 year old or a 70 year old.
Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics
Is our body metabolizing and eliminating efficiently? How efficiently do drugs move throughout the body? How are essential oils absorbed and excreted? This is incredibly important to consider in regard to chronic exposure toxicology.
Are the liver and kidneys healthy? Are the elimination pathways clear?
All of these questions must be evaluated and considered carefully when determining if ingesting an essential oil is safe.
How Do We Define Risk?
When looking at the potential risk factors for ingesting essential oils you have to step away from yourself as a student, a worried mom, or just a person interested in essential oils and look into risks by evaluating trustworthy scientific information.
You need to learn about:
• Epidemiology and Statistics- what is the unique idiosyncratic reaction and what is a common normal reaction?
• Identification of Key Levels- what is the therapeutic dose? What is the LD50?
• Clinical Trials and Other Research Settings- compare and determine whether or not it is safe
• Perception is Not Reality!
How is Risk Perception Determined?
There are 5 ways we make choices:
1. Perceived Control- where we think we can control a risk
2. Trust- do you trust the source of your information?
3. Risks VS Benefits- which is scarier: the ingestion of an essential oil or experiencing the illness?
4. Out of Sight Out of Mind- when will you SEE the risk? Does the consequence build up over time? Is it serious? Can it be reversed? This needs to be SPECIFIC to the oil and not a generality
5. Familiarity- the more familiar you are with a risk the more comfortable you are with a risk
All of these factors really influence how we feel about ingesting essential oils and need to be very careful and proceed with unbiased consideration before doing so.
Are the arguments for or against ingestion based on science or risk perception?
1. My brand is the BEST
This is where there are different “grades” of essential oils like “therapeutic grade” or brands that claim their oil is better than organic. They may also say “only our brand is safe for consumption”.
Here’s the bottom line; there is no certification in the realm of aromatherapy other than organic certification. Claims that an oil is therapeutic grade is simply a trade mark of that company and should not be the sole determining factor when ingesting essential oils.
When we’re talking about toxicology we’re looking at the chemicals in essential oils. Every high quality essential oils should have chemicals because they are the core compone