Northeast Wisconsin
  • Northeast Wisconsin
  • May 2016
Written by 

To ingest or not to ingest, that is the question!

It seems that every day we have people coming in to our store who are ingesting essential oils (EO) for everything from weight loss to toe nail fungus to cancer; most often without any scientific support for these claims. Rationale for ingestion, rather than inhalation or topical application, is often “they do it a lot in Europe” or “they’re from plants, they’re perfectly harmless” or “the EO I use is so pure it cannot harm anyone.”

The use of EOs internally — by drinking them or taking them in capsule form — means that the EOs are being used therapeutically. It is best to work with someone who has training in health sciences, understands physiology and medications you might be taking, and who has significant education on the properties of the EOs themselves. Essential oils can be contraindicated in certain medical conditions and with certain medications, so it is important that you know all of this before using an EO. Just as you probably wouldn’t ever consider taking a medication in unmeasured amounts just because a friend or coworker suggested it, I don’t recommend casual use of EOs therapeutically — especially in young children (<2 years), the elderly, those with chronic disease, or people taking medications. “Common” EOs can cause reactions in these individuals. That said, there is good research supporting the use of EOs in capsules for such things as irritable bowel syndrome and the treatment of parasites.

Let’s cover some key points.

Essential oils are ingested in Europe for medicinal purposes only, in gelatin capsules, diluted in a carrier oil or gel, to treat infection or chronic conditions, and are prescribed by licensed health care providers (nurses, physicians, pharmacists, herbalists) with significant training in EOs. “There is more chance of toxicity by this [the oral] route… The majority of French physicians who use essential oils in this way are working alongside bacteriologists and pharmacists, and are well aware of toxicity issues. A potential toxicity hazard could occur when untrained people use essential oils orally and ingest too much.” Although cases of toxicity or poisoning by EOs are rare, why take the risk? Inhalation and skin absorption (in a carrier oil) are both effective. Rather than ingesting grapefruit or lemon EO in your water, why not simply get the fresh fruit and squeeze in some of its juices? It will taste great but, as with drinking the EO, I’m afraid there is no evidence to show it will really help you lose weight. That’s a whole different conversation!

Essential oils are plant based, so they do come from nature; however, so does poison ivy and I don’t imagine anyone would willingly roll in a patch of that! Nature isn’t always nice, and to assume that “because it is natural, it is safe” is a bit of a stretch. In fact, studies have shown toxicity with oral ingestion of some EOs up to and including skin conditions; vomiting; diarrhea and even coma and death in young children.

There is no scientific proof that any essential oil which is 100 percent pure is better than any other. There is no required testing of essential oils in this country, so look for those with gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) certification, which identifies all substances found in the EO. To be compliant with FDA labeling, the bottle should have the complete Latin name of the plant from which the oil is taken (there are numerous cultivars of many plants, such as lavender, and studies indicate differences in effect depending on the cultivar), with no additives. The only exception to this is that some companies will blend more expensive essential oils with a carrier oil, such as jojoba oil: so long as these are clearly marked, the essential oil within the blend can still be a pure EO; you are simply purchasing a pre-blended oil. Trademarked terms may seem to provide proof that one brand is better, but these are marketing terms, and as such, they don’t mean anything that is scientifically provable.

Sustainability is an issue. We are already seeing an issue with over harvesting of plants and trees. Sandalwood, for example, has been so overharvested that the price of this EO has skyrocketed, and the species is in jeopardy. I’d like to suggest that we think about sustainability of plants/trees when we think about EO use. It can take hundreds of lemons to make one bottle of lemon essential oil. That has to have an environmental impact.

I encourage you to learn about EOs — but be wary of websites and “educational materials” provided from companies that sell or market EOs, or their representatives. Look to known experts who do not represent companies that manufacture or sell EOs — due to the obvious conflict of interest — and research that is independent of those companies. The National Association of Holistic Aromatherapists (NAHA) is an excellent educational resource.

References: “Clinical aromatherapy: essential oils in practice.” J. Buckle. Churchill Livingstone, Elsevier Science. 2003.

“Unintentional exposure of young children to camphor and eucalyptus oils.” Z. Flaman et al. Paediatrics & Child Health.

“Sclerodermiform syndrome after ingestion of essential oils.” A. Gonzalez-DeArriba et al. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2008.

“A review of the toxicity of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil.” K.A. Hammer et al. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 2006.

T. Heather Herdman, RN, PhD

T. Heather Herdman, RN, PhD is co-owner of Sweet Willow Naturals in Green Bay, where we have over 140 organic herbs and 70 organic spices available for you to craft your own products, or to simply enjoy as tea. Our store focuses on education and we have many classes to help you learn about herbs, aromatherapy, nutrition, and self-care – focusing on safe information backed up by research and experience. We also offer wellness coaching and massage – stop in today! For more information, visit or email [email protected]

Subscribe Today
Community Partners Directory
Find a Complimentary Copy
Community Calendar