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Is it safe to use essential oils?

Essential oil brands like Doterra are on the rise, but are they putting our health at risk?

essential oil falling from glass dropper into bottle
Last updated: 07 December 2018


Checked for accuracy by our qualified fact-checkers and verifiers. Find out more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Essential oils sold through multi-level marketing companies (MLMs) like Doterra are often touted as a cure to a range of ailments when used topically or internally. 

They may seem like a harmless product, and you might feel that you're helping out a friend or family member by buying from them. 

Unfortunately, essential oils may be a lot less innocuous than you think.

Is it safe to consume essential oils?

NSW Poisons Information Centre does not recommend consuming essential oils or even using them on your skin without a carrier oil (which dilutes essential oils before they're applied to the skin). 

"There's very little information around the safety and efficacy of most essential oils, although we do have good data around the toxicity of a few," says Genevieve Adamo, the centre's senior specialist in poisons information and toxicovigilance.

"Eucalyptus oil, clove oil and peppermint oil are particularly nasty – ingesting as little as 2–3ml can cause sedation or drowsiness and 5ml can cause coma.

"We've also seen instances where people have picked up the wrong bottle and inadvertently dosed their child or baby with 5ml of an essential oil instead of 5ml of a medicine. That has the potential to cause serious poisoning."

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are plant-derived volatile oils that have the aroma and other properties of the plant, and can be used in aromatherapy and to make perfumes.

Ingestion of some essential oils can cause:

  • seizures
  • mucosal irritation
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • burns
  • and chronic exposure can potentially cause organ damage.

"Even with very small exposures there's a risk that they can be aspirated into the airways which can cause a chemical pneumonitis, which is damaging to the lungs," says Adamo.

If poisoning occurs from ingesting essential oil, call 000 or the poisons information hotline on 13 11 26.

Can you trust the health claims made by Doterra?

Doterra's website states that "all [essential oil] application methods are safe when used appropriately including aromatic, topical, and internal methods" and that oils can be used in recipes to replace herbs or spices, added to water, tea, smoothies or other drinks, or taken internally (the company also provides recipes).

"People have a perception that anything natural is safe and that's not the case," says Adamo.

As little as 2–3ml can cause sedation or drowsiness and 5ml can cause coma

In 2017, NSW Poisons fielded 66 calls about exposure to Doterra oils. So far in 2018, there have been 90.

"We're certainly seeing a much larger number of calls about exposures to these MLM essential oils, which used to be unheard of," says Adamo.

"We have significant concerns around the fact that we do not know if the people selling essential oils in an MLM situation have any independent qualifications or training, and that the Poisons Centre has never, to its knowledge, been consulted to provide information regarding the safety or toxicity around essential oils for the purpose of using it to train people."

We reached out to Doterra's Australian office for comment and received no reply.

Jon Wardle, associate professor of Public Health at Sydney's University of Technology says it's important to remember just how concentrated essential oils are, and that companies selling them often promote use that isn't evidence-based.

"To be fair, even Doterra has put some money into research, but most of the research that does exist [into essential oils] is all relatively limited and inconclusive," says Wardle.

Case study: Kim's ongoing health issues

"They made drinks and finger food with essential oils, without our knowledge and consent – and it was actually ingesting the oils that caused my eventual adverse reaction," she remembers.

"The seller said the oils were 'organic', 'pure' and 'CPTG – Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade'. I was told there was an 'oil for everything'."

On the seller's advice and company book, Hungerford started regularly using the oils in a diffuser, via inhalation, topical use and ingestion – and applied certain oils neat to a wound on her knee. Her scar never healed properly and is now permanent.

During 2017 to 2018, prior to medical intervention, Hungerford developed sunburn-like redness and rashes to several areas of her body after using the essential oils, as well as ongoing respiratory issues such as an asthma cough.

"My doctors and I attribute these issues to sensitisation caused by essential oils. I no longer use essential oils, particularly lavender, and can't have them near me or I suffer reactions," she says.

"I questioned the Doterra team members about their qualifications but they had none. They're just sales reps."

Making claims to sell more products

Both Adamo and Wardle say they have growing concerns about the rise of unregulated, home-based 'wellness' distributors who dispense advice to consumers that they're not qualified to give.

"The main concern is that a lot of MLM sellers are just normal everyday people – no medical training, no health literacy, they're not qualified professionals able to make judgements," says Wardle.

"It's amplified by the MLM model, which encourages selling as much product as you can."

Be wary when buying from friends

The typical 'party-plan' set-up that invariably includes demos, finger food and friendly chit-chat will also come with a not-so-subtle pressure to buy – and it's hard to resist if you know the seller, says Wardle.

"Research shows that friends and family are by far the most influential in regards to our health, even more than practitioners or doctors – and MLMs are mostly built around networks," he says.

"So when you hear stories at one of these parties [about how an essential oil worked] it can be a powerful motivator. 

"But my advice would be don't buy anything you don't want to. And realise you're walking into a situation that's not necessarily a health push, but a sales push."

How to check health claims

Poisons centres and government health departments often have information about essential oils and the risks, such as Western Australia's Department of Health's Essential Oils – Health Warning fact sheet.

A second opinion from a pharmacist, doctor or health expert with a special interest in complementary medicine might also be useful, adds Wardle.

"We don't want to say that no one should use Doterra ever, but people should definitely be more critical," he says.

Adamo says consumers need to ask questions, look critically at the evidence and consider the qualifications of the person providing the information.

MLM sellers are just normal everyday people… they're not qualified [health] professionals

"Would you consider buying medications from people who aren't qualified health professionals?" she says.

"And the people who are selling these products need to consider their responsibility and liability in the information that they're providing to their customers."

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Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.