Surprising Side Effects of Essential Oils

Surprising Side Effects of Essential Oils
Surprising Side Effects of Essential Oils
Emma Yasinski
Emma Yasinski Staff Writer
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October 25, 2021 update: The CDC found a deadly bacterium, Burkholderia pseudomallei, which causes the disease melioidosis in a lavender essential oil spray called “Better Homes & Gardens Lavender & Chamomile Essential Oil Infused Aromatherapy Room Spray with Gemstones.” Read more here.

The pandemic has only enhanced an already surging demand for essential oils, according to Fortune Business Insights. Those concentrated liquids, which are fragrant compounds extracted from plants, are thought to treat headaches and anxiety and to even heal wounds. In addition to selling them in their pure form, the oils have a home with cosmetic companies, which add them to washes and lotions. Some health influencers even suggest drinking the oils.

With dozens of popular essential oils on the market, there’s evidence that some of them may indeed help you manage stress and insomnia as well as improve sleep and digestion and enhance skin care. Note, though, that there are also many potential side effects of essential oils, depending on how you use them.

Ways to Use Essential Oils

Doctors suggest that if you try essential oils, it’s best to smell them, using either a diffuser or an accessory, like a necklace made with an absorbent material that contains essential oils. The second-safest option is to rub them on your skin. Even though some advertisers and influencers may suggest drinking or eating them, healthcare professionals warn that you should never ingest the oils because they may have contaminants. Not only can the oils themselves hurt your body, but they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which adds a level of protection for the consumer.

Side Effects of Essential Oils on Your Skin

Many oils have antimicrobial effects and may help clear and brighten skin or even heal wounds. However, the oils can also aggravate your skin. Plus, anything you rub on your skin can be absorbed into your body. Doctors in the New England Journal of Medicine reported several cases in which prepubescent boys who used products containing lavender and tea tree oils experienced hormone disruption leading to enlarged breasts.  The chemicals had mimicked estrogen, a hormone that increases during puberty in women. 

Certain oils, especially those isolated from citrus fruits such as grapefruit, lemon and orange, can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, causing serious burns.

Annie Gonzalez, MD, a dermatologist in Miami, told The New York Times that essential oils’ reactions are one of the leading causes of allergic contact dermatitis she sees. The situation has worsened during the pandemic, she said, because people stuck at home during the pandemic are experimenting with essential oils remedies in their spare time.

What you can do:

First, start by diluting an essential oil in coconut oil or another neutral carrier oil, so that what you rub on your skin is less potent than the original oil. Then, apply the mixture to a small patch of skin and leave it alone for two days. This is called a patch test and can alert you if your skin reacts poorly to certain oils. If the patch of skin turns red or develops a rash or hives, you will know not to apply the oil to any other parts of your body.

If you’re using an oil that’s known to react with the sun (such as those derived from citrus), apply it indoors and at night. Be sure to wash your skin before going outside. 

You can be allergic to any oil, but some are more likely to cause a skin reaction than others. These include:

  • Tea tree
  • Nutmeg
  • Peppermint
  • Lemon verbena
  • Cinnamon
  • Bergamot

Inhale the Scent 

Doctors agree that inhaling through a diffuser or a smelling accessory, is the safest way to use essential oils. Scents are known to evoke especially strong emotions and memories. The scents of some oils can be calming, and many people find certain scents soothing. 

Enjoying essential oils this way does still come with a few risks. First, the vaporized oils can irritate your eyes, nose and throat. While some advertise essential oils as a way to ease asthma symptoms, these chemicals can, in some patients, also trigger asthma attacks. “Essential oils are fine when used in aromatherapy for no longer than 30 minutes, as longer periods can cause the body to stress.” Says Mubashar Rehman, Ph.D., a medical writer at HealthCreeds.com. “Also, some people can find the smell of certain oils as an allergy trigger, causing eyesores, sneezes and a runny nose. In those cases, they [people] should avoid those oils entirely.”

What you can do:

Make sure the area in your home or office in which you diffuse oils is well-ventilated and that you don’t expose yourself to the oils for more than 30 minutes at a time.

Drinking or Adding Oils to Foods

“Mixing [essential oils] with food or drinks is not proven [to be safe or have benefits] and may even lead to health problems. Pure essential oils are very potent. Even just a small amount can irritate the throat and even the linings of the stomach.” Says Victoria Swift, MD, at DebilitatingDiseases.net. “It can even lead to second-degree burns.”

“The risk of poisoning is so high that the first symptoms can manifest quickly, [in] under 30 minutes.” Explains Rehman, some essential oils, such as eucalyptus and sage, can trigger seizures.

Additionally, because there’s no government regulation of essential oils, there’s no guarantee that what you’re drinking is pure. It may contain dangerous contaminants.

Doses and Dilution

In most cases, you should be diluting essential oils  in a carrier oil before using them. Knowing your dosage and following the guidelines on the bottle are important.

Some guidelines from Essential Oil Safety, a reference book for healthcare professionals, also points out that doses for children are different from those for adults. If you’re planning to use oils on your child’s skin, for example, it recommends the following concentrations based on his or her age.

  • 3 to 24 months: 0.25% to 0.5%
  • 2 to 6 years: 1 to 2%
  • 6 to 15 years: 1.5% to 3%
  • More than 15 years: 2.5% to 5%

Essential Oils May Help Treat These Conditions

There are very few high-powered randomized clinical trials testing the effects of essential oils on specific conditions, but some smaller studies suggest that oils may be able to help relieve stress and reduce inflammation associated with skin and respiratory issues, and ease pain. A few examples are below.

Oils that may reduce stress and anxiety




Oils that may address skin conditions



Oils that may alleviate headaches and pain



Oils that may lessen congestion or improve respiratory issues



Oils that may increase energy or brighten mood



What to Keep in Mind When You Buy Them

In the absence of government regulation, here are signs that can help you determine if you’re getting a high-quality product. Buy products in dark-colored glass containers,  as this protects them from light degradation. The labels should state if the oil is 100% pure and the name of the plant’s part from which the oil was isolated. Unfortunately, there’s no grading or purity standards, when it comes to essential oils.

Some studies have shown that certain oils have antibiotic, antiviral and antifungal effects. If you are diagnosed with an infection, or believe you may have one,  remember to discuss the use of oils with your doctor, as some can interfere with the treatments you are prescribed. Never replace medicines with essential oils without consulting your healthcare provider.

“My family has essential oils at home and my health practitioners do know about them. [The healthcare practitioners] aren’t negative about them,” says Ian Sells.

Rehman adds, “under appropriate usage, essential oils can be safe.” But, because they “do not have 100% proven medical effects, they shouldn’t be used to replace prescription medicine, nor should they be consumed. Even using them topically without medical supervision can cause skin damage or even poisoning.”


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Sandra Smith

I appreciate the explanation on the possible side effects of essential oils, but this is just a way to steer people away from preventive medicine. Because going to the doctor or dentist is getting more expensive than ever, even with health insurance.


Responsible essential oil companies know how to use the oils and teach their users how to use them. Better Homes and Gardens doesn’t make Therapeutic grade essential oils. Chemicals that make an oil smell like lavender are not essential oils. Too bad they are allowed to advertise as such.


You have a lot of false information on here. The stories. Are research and claime is very poorly done .. also most tested essential oils are the ones from stores already made, NONE test the actual source which is different than most essential oils you buy in stores. Many have additives and emulsifiers added to make it. Many contain little of the actual essential oil. Many synthetically make essential oils which is where a lot of your reactions come from and then they think they are allergic to it. Or it doesn’t work. Many do both how to search and buy essential oils as well.
The story of the 2 boys is a very poor research they tried to link Perpubertal Gynecomastia and lavender amd even tea tree. They said it came from the shampoos they were using… they didn’t look at any other possibilities like diets, environmental triggers and prescription meds. Lavender does not mimic nor enhance the body’s own Estrogen. It’s not a hormone disruptor. And cannot cause breast growth in boys. This comes from Robert Tisserand. It’s safe to use for anyone at risk for Estrogen depends cancer. Which proves lavender isn’t estrogenic. And won’t cause or complicate breast cancer.

Roots Essential

Thanks so much for the article. Lots of useful info 🙂

I use Cinnamon Essential Oil almost everyday.It smells amazing. I have turned to them as part of their daily skincare routine.


Quality certainly matters when it comes to essential oils. When buying and EO that is truly 100% plant based and organic, your going to pay more. BUT, your paying for EOs that can truly help you. I have used true EOs for over a year. They have helped me manage me emotions and keep my cold sores at a minimum. They’ve helped me get rid of tension headaches. I use EOs to make my perfumes and body lotions.

There are thousands of toxic chemicals in typical every day products that industries do not have to tell us about because they are actual protected by the Toxic Substance Act, which grandfathered in many chemicals when it was created. And the government says companies don’t have to tell us those toxic chemicals, they’re ‘trade secret’. And the word ‘fragrance’ on products is code for other toxic chemicals well never know about.

If you want to know more, watch the documentary Stink on YouTube.

Something to think on … If you find an essential oil that is truly 100% plant based, how can there be any side effects?

I’ve discovered such an oil!


Stupid article!!!! All that can happen when you eat or breathe too!!!! Totally inaccurate info on top of it!!!

Lillian Spencer

I don’t trust the FDA. They approve things that other countries will not even use because of the side effects. I do not want side effects.


This is the most irresponsible article I have read in ages, here you find the reasons why not to trust the very same people that supposed to help and guide you!
Poor , poor , poor….

Eugenia Sicairos

Why refer to a medical dr, instead of a naturopathic dr if we are using or need to use essential oil, why always refer to a medical provider. A herbalist or an essential oil specialist, or a naturopathic dr , is the best choice. Or any expert in that field , essential oils is the gift of god for human kind, its been used since jesus time, or even thousand years before, but yes, be cautious from where you get your oils, young living is one and soterra are great brands but a little pricey. But safe, another place is from india, if you can find a good quality from them are very good and inexpensive. Do your reaserch and stick to one or 2 sellers. But it would be foolish for anybody to administer or apply this oils without having no knowledge about them. Talk to a qualified physician that has knowledge about this oils.


Young Living Oils are the best, there is no contamation or side effects


Young Living and DoTerra Essential Oils ARE NOT organic. Many are confused because they say PURE on them. If they were organic they would say organic. It’s quite expensive to actually make an organic product. When you find one, you can smell and feel the difference. Many “reactions” come because companies are in it for money and not education and we as the public unfortunately do not do our research and we fall for it. Counsel with an actual specialist in essential oils called a certified aromatherapist (they actually go to a school and have training). Do not purchase from a “distributor” of a big company. When purchased organic and with an aromatherapist you can and may still have some allergens, but it is rare. Organic is best and do your research. The article is also correct in that you should always disclose to medical professionals that you are using oils. They can have interactions with things and we need more honesty in the medical field.

Artur HEK

Not bothered

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