Essential Oils Basic Safety Guidelines

Essential Oils Basic Safety Guidelines:

  • Factors that influence the safety of essential oils
  • Dilution /Fluid Conversion Guidelines
  • Safety Measures
  • Dermal Irritants & Photo-toxic oils
  • Mucous Membrane Irritants
  • Pregnancy/ Labor
  • Infants & Children

Factors that influence the safety of essential oils include:

  1. Quality of essential oil being utilized: Adulterated essential oils increase the likelihood of an adverse response and hence the need for pure, authentic, and genuine essential oils is of the utmost importance.
  2. Chemical composition of the oil: Some essential oils may cause skin reactions. “diluting such oils so that the resulting solution becomes non-irritant, may require diluting them to concentrations much lower than in normal circumstances.
  3. Method of application:
  • Essential oils may be applied on the skin (dermal application)- Safety Issues below.
  • Inhaled- inhalation, from a safety standpoint, presents a very low level of risk to most people. With regard to inhalation, Tisserand and Balacs further point out that “the only likely risk would be from prolonged exposure (perhaps 1 hour or more) to relatively high levels of essential oil vapor which could lead to headaches, vertigo, nausea and lethargy”
  • Diffused- Even in a relatively small closed room, and assuming 100% evaporation, the concentration of any essential oil (or component thereof) is unlikely to reach a dangerous level such as essential oil vaporization.4
  • Taken internally- Do not take essential oils internally without appropriate guidance from a licensed practitioner. Never take oils internally during pregnancy or give them to little ones. There are several safety issues involved in doing so.
  1. Dosage/dilution to be applied: Most aromatherapy oil based blends will be between 1 and 5 percent dilutions, which typically does not represent a safety concern. As one increases dilution, potential dermal (skin) reactions may take place depending on the individual essential oil, the area in which the oil is applied, and other factors related to the client’s own sensitivity levels. Any excessive usage of essential oils may cause irritation or other undesired effects.
  2. Integrity of skin: Damaged, diseased, or inflamed skin is often more permeable to essential oils and may be more sensitive to dermal reactions. It is potentially dangerous to put undiluted essential oils on to damaged, diseased or inflamed skin. Under these circumstances the skin condition may be worsened, and larger amounts of oil than normal will be absorbed. Sensitization reactions are also more likely to occur.6
  3. Age of client: Infants, toddlers, and young children are more sensitive to the potency of essential oils and safe dilutions include .5 – 2.5% depending on condition. Also, some essential oils should simply be avoided for this population, e.g. Birch or Wintergreen, which are both rich in methyl salicylate, Peppermint, and some Eucalyptus varieties that contain high levels of oxides. Elderly clients may have more skin sensitivities so a reduced concentration/dilution may be indicated.
  4. Eyes: Do not apply essential oils to the eye and always be cautious when applying around the eye area.

(Above guidelines can be found

Dilution guidelines:

Dilute essential oils down in a suitable carrier for skin application and to disperse in the bath with a soap . Do not apply a controversial and unsafe technique called: Raindrop Therapy (RDT) to anyone, especially not during pregnancy or on children. This and other ‘neat and excessive drops of essential oil type-applications’ can cause sensitization, severe allergic reactions, skin sensitivity, respiratory difficulties, dermal burns, toxic overload and other serious health concerns. Remember: Less is best with essential oil use, do not be tempted to think that if it’s good, then more is better.


How much essential oil should you add into your carriers for safe skin application? Generally, effective blends for adults are made using a dilution ratio of 1, 2, 3% of essential oil to the carrier.
Natural Perfume oils and Pain Relief, Sports massage oils, may have a dilution of 5-10%

Dilution guidelines for 1 oz / 30 ml of carrier oil or lotion:

(In general 30 drops =1 ml of essential oil | This will vary depending on the thickness of the essential oil or blend )

Adults: (2-3%) 18-27 drops EO

Infants & Children: (see chart below)

Pregnancy, Elderly, Inform: 9 drops (1%)

5-10% Dilution (45-90 drops) –
Very expensive essential oils like Rose, Helichrysum, and Neroli pure essential oils are often made available in a 10% dilution of carrier oil. Essential oil blends for natural perfumes, and specific applications may sometimes also be found in 10% dilutions.

Neat (undiluted)*: localized skin treatment: ie. Warts & mosquito bites.

*Neat application of essential oils is only meant to be used with certain essential oils, such as lavender or tea tree, for spot treating, not as a general practice for the whole body; nor for children under 2 years of age, during pregnancy or the infirm.

Dilution Suggestions for Infants and Children:
AGE Percentage Drops – Highest
Infant – 6 months 0.1% – 0.2% 1 – 2 drops/ounce
6 – 24 months 0.25% – 0.5% 2 – 5 drops/ounce

1% – 2.5% 9 – 24 drops/ounce
6 – 14 years 1.5% – 3+% 12 – 28 drops/ounce
Dermal Irritants like Clove bud, Cinnamon
Bark or Oregano oil (see list below)
0.07% 1 drop/2 ounces

Safety Measures

(Provided by

  1. If essential oil droplets accidentally get into the eye (or eyes) a cotton cloth or similar should be imbued with a fatty oil, such as olive or sesame, and carefully swiped over the closed lid.18 And / Or, Immediately flush the eyes with cool water.
  2. If an essential oil causes dermal irritation, apply a small amount of vegetable oil or cream to the affected area and discontinues use of the essential oil or product that has caused dermal irritation.
  3. If a child appears to have drunk several spoonful’s of essential oil, contact the nearest poison control unit (often listed in the front of a telephone directory). Keep the bottle for identification and encourage the child to drink whole or 2% milk. Do not try to induce vomiting.19

Dermal Irritants

Especially if oxidized- these oils always require very low dilutions for skin application (see chart above) and some oils may also carry further restrictions for infants and children. Please see Safety Concerns for infants and children.

Essential Oil Latin Name
Bay Pimento racemosa
Cinnamon bark or leaf Cinnamomum zeylanicum*
Clove bud Syzygium aromaticum | Eugenia caryophyllata
Citronella Cymbopogon nardus
Cumin Cuminum cyminum
Lemongrass Cymbopogon citratus
Lemon verbena Lippia citriodora
Oregano Origanum vulgare
Tagetes Tagetes minuta
Thyme ct. thymol Thymus vulgaris
  1. *bark is more irritating to the skin than leaf

Dermal sensitization

(Provided by

Dermal sensitization is a type of allergic reaction. It occurs on first exposure to a substance, but on this occasion, the noticeable effect on the skin will be slight or absent. However, subsequent exposure to the same material, or to a similar one with which there is cross-sensitization, produces a severe inflammatory reaction brought about by cells of the immune system (T-lymphocytes). 7 The reaction will be represented on the skin as blotchy or redness, which may be painful to some individuals.

The problem with dermal sensitization is that once it occurs with a specific essential oil the individual is most likely going to be sensitive to it for many years and perhaps for the remainder of his/her life. The best way to prevent sensitization is to avoid known dermal sensitizers and avoid applying the same essential oils every day for lengthy periods of time. Sensitization is, to an extent, unpredictable, as some individuals will be sensitive to a potential allergen and some will not. 8

Dermal Sensitizers:

Essential Oil Latin Name
Cassia Cinnamomum cassia
Cinnamon bark Cinnamomum zeylanicum
Peru balsam Myroxylon pereirae
Verbena absolute Lippia citriodora
Tea absolute Camellia sinensis
Turpentine oil Pinus spp.
Backhousia Backhousia citriodora
Inula Inula graveolens
Oxidized oils from Pinaceae family (e.g., Pinus and Cupressus species) and Rutaceae family (e.g., citrus oils) These include Pines, Firs, Spruce, Balsams, Cypress (& other) and Citrus oils.


(Provided by

An essential oil that exhibits this quality will cause burning or skin pigmentation changes, such as tanning, on exposure to sun or similar light (ultraviolet rays). Reactions can range from a mild color change through to deep weeping burns. Do not use or recommend the use of photosensitizing essential oils prior to going into a sun tanning booth or the sun. Recommend that the client stay out of the sun or sun tanning booth for at least twenty-four hours after treatment if photosensitizing essential oils were applied to the skin. Certain drugs, such as tetracycline, increase the photosensitivity of the skin, thus increasing the harmful effects of photosensitizing essential oils under the necessary conditions. Table 3 lists some common essential oils considered to be photosensitizers.


* Oils to avoid 24 hours before sun exposure.

Essential Oil Latin Name
Angelica root Angelica archangelica
Bergamot Citrus bergamia
Cumin Cuminum cyminum
Distilled or expressed grapefruit (low risk) Citrus paradisi
Expressed lemon Citrus limon
Expressed lime Citrus medica
Orange, bitter (expressed) Citrus aurantium
Rue Ruta graveolens

Non-phototoxic citrus oils:

Essential Oil Latin Name
Bergamot: Bergapteneless
(FCF: Furanocoumarin Free)
Citrus bergamia
Distilled lemon Citrus limon
Distilled lime Citrus medica
Mandarin – Tangerine Citrus reticulata
Sweet orange Citrus sinensis
Expressed tangerine Citrus reticulata
Yuzu oil (expressed or distilled) Citrus juno

Mucous Membrane Irritants

(Provided by

A mucous membrane irritant will produce a heating or drying effect on the mucous membranes of the mouth, eyes, nose, and reproductive organs. It is recommended that mucus membrane irritating essential oils not be used in a full body bath unless placed in a dispersant first (e.g., milk, vegetable oil). It would also be wise to put the dispersed essential oils into the water after you have gotten into the bath. Bay, clove, cinnamon bark, lemongrass, and thyme ct. thymol essential oils should be avoided in baths completely. Below are some common essential oils considered to be mucous membrane irritants.

Mucous Membrane Irritants:

Essential Oil Latin Name
Bay Pimento racemosa
Caraway Carum carvi
Cinnamon bark or leaf Cinnamomum zeylanicum
Clove bud or leaf Syzygium aromaticum
Lemongrass Cymbopogon citratus
Peppermint Mentha x piperita
Thyme ct. thymol Thymus vulgaris


Below are some key guidelines for practitioners provided from the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists, which NAHA will be adopting. (my additional notes in this color.) Here is a link to the full guidelines as it pertains to practitioners:IFPA Pregnancy Guidelines courtesy of NAHA More info on IFPA here:

The use of essential oils during pregnancy is a controversial topic and one that is yet to be fully understood. The main concern during pregnancy appears to be the risk of essential oil constituents crossing over into the placenta. According to Tisserand and Balacs, crossing the placenta does not necessarily mean that there is a risk of toxicity to the fetus; this will depend on the toxicity and the plasma concentration of the compound. It is probable that essential oil metabolites cross the placenta due to the intimate (but not direct) contact between maternal and embryonic or fetal blood. Tony Burfield goes on to say, “to my thinking the responsible attitude is to discourage the use of essential oils completely during the first few months of pregnancy”.10

Jane Buckle comments “the use of essential oils in pregnancy is a contentious subject, especially during the vital first 3-month period. It is extremely unlikely that a nightly bath containing a few drops of essential oils will cause any problems for the unborn child” and later states “there are no records of abnormal fetuses or aborted fetuses due to the ‘normal’ use of essential oils, either by inhalation or topical application.” 11

According to Wildwood, “A common myth in aromatherapy is that massage oils containing essential oils such as Clary sage, rose or even rosemary can cause a miscarriage and hence should be avoided throughout pregnancy. Authors such as Ron Guba, Kurt Schnaubelt, and Chrissie Wildwood have all pointed out that there have been ‘no recorded cases of miscarriage or birth defect resulting from aromatherapy using therapeutic applications of any essential oil.” 12

As a precautionary however, there are a few female regulatory essential oils known to stimulate contractions or menses and as a precautionary measure if you are unexperienced with the chemical constituents of an essential oil it would be prudent to avoid.

Ron Guba points out that toxicity during pregnancy is almost exclusively due to pregnant women taking large, toxic doses of essential oils, notably pennyroyal (rich in the ketone, pulegone, which is metabolized to the highly toxic furan epoxide, menthofuron) and parsley seed (rich in the dimethyl ether, apiol) in an attempt to abort the fetus. 13 And Battaglia shares this insight: “the judicious use of essential oils together with appropriate forms of massage by a skilled therapist can help ease the discomforts of pregnancy and provide a sense of nurturing that will comfort the mother at times she is likely to be feeling rather fragile.”14

Due to the lack of clear information regarding the toxicity of essential oils during pregnancy, it would be best to adhere to general safety guidelines. According to Tisserand and Balacs, the following essential oils should not be used during pregnancy: wormwood, rue, oak moss, Lavandula stoechas, camphor, parsley seed, sage, and hyssop.15

Essential oils that appear to be safe include cardamon, German and Roman chamomile, frankincense, geranium, ginger, neroli, patchouli, petitgrain, rosewood, rose, sandalwood, and other nontoxic essential oils.16 It would also be prudent to avoid the internal or undiluted application of essential oils throughout pregnancy.

Essential oils to Avoid throughout Pregnancy, Labor, and while Breastfeeding:

( this is not a complete list)

I will also be adding some additional essential oils to this list as it may be prudent just to avoid during the pregnancy and save for later use. There are certainly many other safer alternative oils to choose from.

Essential Oil Latin Name
Aniseed Pimpinella anisum
Basil ct. estragole Ocimum basilicum
Birch Betula lenta
Camphor Cinnamomum camphora
Hyssop Hyssopus officinalis
Mugwort Artemisia vulgaris
Parsley seed or leaf Petroselinum sativum
Pennyroyal Mentha pulegium
Sage Salvia officinalis
Tansy Tanacetum vulgare (not including Blue TansyTanacetum annuum)
Tarragon Artemisia dracunculus
Thuja Thuja occidentalis
Wintergreen Gaultheria procumbens
Wormwood Artemisia absinthium

Key points to remember:

  1. Pregnant women are still able to metabolize and excrete the essential oils.
  2. Pregnant women develop a thicker layer of fat underneath the skin, which acts as a safety area between the baby and the essential oil.
  3. Essential oils dissolve in fat and will be more likely to rest in the fatty layers giving a slow-release treatment rather than an immediate one, as they will release more slowly into the tissues.

Safety issues:

  1. Quality is of the most importance. Therapeutic essential oils can present very little hazard in comparison to synthetic oils.
  2. Chemical components: Certain essential oils are contraindicated due to the nature of their chemical components, which may be too strong (and unnecessary) for a pregnant client, bearing in mind that the skin is more delicate.

* Phenols are an example of a component group that is not usually suitable for use during pregnancy unless there is infection present.

The Placental Barrier:

Essential oils by their very nature, being organic substances, will cross the placental barrier and have the potential to affect the fetus. However, the amount of essential oil that actually accesses the mother’s skin is very tiny and therefore the amount that reaches the placenta is miniscule if proper dilutions are being used. Small amounts of essential oils can be beneficial to the baby and there are no recorded instances of harm being caused to the child.

Dilution of the Blend:

The recommended dilution is 1% or less, for all skin applications (via massage or compress). In the bath the pregnant client should add no more than 4 drops of essential oil with a dispersant. (Good dispersants: Milk, Honey and Vegetable oils)

Hyperosmia: (Hypersensitive smell)

Pregnant clients have a heightened sense of smell throughout the pregnancy, so a 1% blend will be less offensive to the olfactory system of smell.


Pregnant women have raised melanin stimulating hormone levels, therefore are more likely to burn in strong sunlight. Therefore the use of undiluted expressed oils (mainly citrus) is not permitted.

Sensitive Skin:

The sensitivity of the skin may vary at different stages of the pregnancy, even on clients who do not have a history of sensitive skin. Chamomile and Tea Tree essential oils in particular have been known to create skin irritation or sensitization. Adjust the concentration accordingly or avoid these oils altogether.

Oils to use with Safety during Pregnancy:

(not a definitive or complete list & I will be adding to this list.)

As is evident, most oils are suitable for use during pregnancy; the real danger comes when the dosages are incorrect or irresponsible. Essential oils work with the body, not against it. The body always remains in control with low doses of oils. (1% dilution or less) The oils below are used commonly in practice and present no hazard. While most pregnant women will prefer the citrus-smelling oils, there are others that can be introduced.

*Again for all of these oils Quality and Non-oxidized oils are key. Look for Steam Distilled or Cold Pressed. Avoid solvent extraction methods as some use hexane and traces will be present in the extracted oil. I always prefer organic or wild-crafted essential oils whenever possible.

*I personally advise to avoid using any new essential oils during the first trimester; unless as needed to treat certain conditions, such as nausea, headaches etc.

Essential oil:

Benzoin (Styrax tonkinensis)

Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)

Black pepper (Piper nigrum)

Chamomile German (Chamomilla recutita) [Steam Distilled]

Chamomile Roman (Chamaemelum nobile)

Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea)

Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)

Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulous, smithii)

Frankincense (Boswellia carteri)

Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Grapefruit (Citrus paradisi)

Juniper (Juniperus communis)

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

Lemon (Citrus limon)

Mandarin (Citrus reticulata)

Marjoram Sweet (Origanum majorana)

Neroli (Citrus aurantium amaraflos)

Petitgrain (Citrus aurantium var amaraol)

Rose Otto (Rosa damascena) –[Steam distilled- very expensive and adulteration may an issue. Avoid if you are unsure of the quality]

Sandalwood (Santalum album, Santalum spicatum) [ Steam Distilled – not solvent extracted]

Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis)

Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)

Ylang Ylang (Cananga odora) Steam Distilled



Home Birth: Allows more freedom, to use essential oils unless your midwife is pregnant.

Hospital: Check with the hospitals policies. Some may not let you diffuse any oils for the safety of other patients and or staff.

Free Standing Birth Center: May allow for more freedoms as well. Talk about your options when you take a tour of the facility.

Birth Plan:

Talk to your midwife/doctor about what oils you would like to use and add those to your birth plan.


Essential oils are not to be used in a birth pool – after delivery, a baby surfaces with his eyes open and therefore the essential oils could be an irritant.

Epidurals: Avoid essential oils during an epidural.

Pregnancy Safety Guidelines from the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists

Infants & Children:

Coming soon!