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Using essential oils safely

Essential oil bottle with lavender sprigs
Essential oils come in a variety of beautiful fragrances, but can cause harm if used incorrectly.

Our sense of smell can be incredibly powerful. Even the slightest aroma can give us a physical or emotional response, like how our mouth waters with a whiff of freshly baked bread or how a particular scent can bring back fond memories.

Essential oils are a popular source of fragrance and are promoted for a wide range of uses. As a highly concentrated product, even the smallest amount can produce a strong aroma. But if used incorrectly, essential oils can pose a serious risk to our health.

Find out what essential oils are and how to use them safely.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are highly concentrated liquids based on plant extracts. Essential oils contain a range of chemical compounds, including the plant’s aromatic chemicals. This is what gives the oil a similar smell to the plant it was made from.

Essential oils include eucalyptus, tea tree, clove, lavender and peppermint oil, just to name a few.

In Australia, essential oils that make therapeutic claims are regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Essential oil products purchased from international websites are not regulated by the TGA.

Common uses for essential oils

Because essential oils can carry a variety of scents, they are often used in:

Some essential oils are also being used for cleaning purposes.

Essential oils have been used by different cultures for hundreds of years. However, they have not been properly evaluated for medical effectiveness. Essential oils are not a substitute for medication prescribed by your doctor or products recommended by your pharmacist.

How to use essential oils safely

Sometimes products are assumed to be harmless because they are seen as ‘natural’ or ‘pure’, but this is a misconception. Essential oils can be dangerous if used incorrectly.

In general, essential oils can be diffused into the air in a well-ventilated space and inhaled or diluted in a carrier oil for use on the skin. However, some people may find that these methods are irritating for the skin or airways.

Potential dangers of essential oils

It is very important to only use essential oils in accordance with product guidelines. As a general rule, don’t eat or drink essential oils or apply undiluted products directly onto the skin.

Ingesting essential oils can lead to poisoning. For example, in children as little as 2-3mL of eucalyptus, clove or peppermint oil can lead to sedation or drowsiness; with more than 5mL potentially resulting in in coma. For any suspected ingestion of an essential oil, particularly in a child, contact the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26, 24 hours a day.

Babies and young children are at increased risk because very small quantities can lead to toxicity in children. Some essential oils can also be harmful to pregnant women and their babies.

There’s also a risk of aspirating (breathing in) the product into the lungs, where it can cause a serious lung infection known as chemical pneumonitis.

Essential oil products can vary widely, and some may pose bigger risks than others. In general, the scientific evidence regarding most essential oils is limited. It is therefore safest to not ingest them. Remember that even the smallest of quantities can be harmful to children or other vulnerable people, so always follow the product guidelines.

Only buy medical products from qualified health professionals and if you have questions about the safety or efficacy of health-related products, speak with your doctor or pharmacist.

Aroma oil diffuser on a table near a bed

Safe storage and use

Essential oils should be stored like any other potentially poisonous substance. This means they should always:

  • Be kept out of reach and sight of children
  • Be put away immediately after purchase or use
  • Stay in the container they were purchased in (never transfer to other containers, especially food or drink containers).

Wherever possible, choose essential oil products with a child-resistant safety cap.

Avoid storing essential oils in the kitchen, as this can make them more accessible to children. The appealing aroma of some essential oils may increase the risk of ingestion and accidental poisoning among children.

Poisons helpline

Call the Queensland Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 for fast poisoning advice from pharmacists trained in toxicology. The poisons helpline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

What to do if you or your child has been poisoned

Last updated: 20 August 2019