How Essential Oils May Be More Harmful Than Helpful (2024)

by Editorial Staff | January 8, 2024


  • Indoor Air

Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts that are frequently used for relaxation, stress relief and mood enhancement. Obtained through pressing or distilling a plant, each essential oil retains the natural smell by using a unique composition of chemicals, such as alcohols, aldehydes, esters, ethers, ketones, phenols and terpenes. The composition of an essential oil may vary from plant to plant, and within the same species of plants. Essential oils are used in a variety of ways, such as rubbing peppermint oil on the temples for headaches, adding tea tree oil to shampoo or inhaling through a diffuser or directly from the bottle. The oils can be used individually or combined.

Essential oils are not regulated in the United States. This means there is no oversight of these products to ensure quality and we do not know exactly what is in each bottle, the concentration or contaminants.

These highly concentrated and potent essential oils can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The inhalation of VOCs commonly has negative effects on the respiratory system. Individuals can have different reactions to essential oils, just like they might to other medicines, products, allergens or irritant triggers.

According to the Public Health Law Center, “A relatively new fad in the commercial tobacco realm is vaping essential oils. Essential oil vaping devices (also called diffuser sticks, personal diffusers, or aromatherapy vape pens) heat a liquid mixture of essential oil, water, and vegetable glycerin into an inhalable vapor. If this sounds like electronic cigarettes, that’s because they are practically the same thing.”

Essential Oil Health Claims- Fact or Fiction?

Be cautious about broad health claims about essential oils. Scientific research on the efficacy and safety of essential oils for specific health conditions is limited and more evidence is needed. Some research even shows adverse health outcomes from essential oil use. For example, a 2022 study of 200 individuals demonstrated the negative association between the use of essential oils and cardiopulmonary health. Study participants who inhaled essential oils one hour or more each day had increased heart rate and blood pressure and a decreased lung function rate.

Aromatherapy is one of the oldest and most common uses of essential oils. Much of the research published on the benefits of aromatherapy focuses on the use of a single essential oil. However, in aromatherapy, essential oils are frequently used together. There is limited research on the combinations of essential oils, interactions between the chemicals, impacts on medications and impacts on health. It is well known that when some VOCs are combined, secondary pollutants such as formaldehyde (a known nose, throat, and lung irritant) may be produced.

Though some essential oils, such as tea tree oil, have antimicrobial properties, the benefits are minimal. Research suggests that the antimicrobial effect of essential oils could only be found during the first 30-60 min after the evaporation began. This was especially in the case of tea tree oil and means that continued use or diffusion for the purpose of disinfection is ineffective.

Essential Oils Can Negatively Affect Your Health

Essential oils are highly concentrated, so inhaling them directly can irritate the respiratory tract. This may lead to symptoms such as coughing, nose and throat irritation or shortness of breath. Individuals with respiratory conditions like asthmaand chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may be particularly susceptible to these symptoms. Additionally, essential oils may cause allergic reactions when the oils are used on the skin or inhaled. It is important to be aware of any allergies or sensitivities to specific oils before usage.

Safety Tips:

  1. Ask Your Healthcare Professional: If you are considering using essential oils for specific health concerns, it is crucial to prioritize safety. Consult with your healthcare professionals to provide personalized advice based on your health history and individual needs.
  2. Proper dilution: When using essential oils for inhalation it is important to dilute them properly. Avoid inhaling undiluted oils directly, as this can lead to irritation.
  3. Diffuser safely: If using a diffuser, follow the manufacturer's instructions and ensure that the space is well ventilated. Prolonged exposure to high concentrations of essential oils is associated with negative heart issues and lung symptoms.
  4. Individual response varies: People's responses to essential oils can vary and what works well for one person may cause irritation to another person. Pay attention to how your body reacts and adjust usage accordingly.
  5. Patch Testing: Before using essential oils on the skin, perform a small patch test to check for any allergic reactions or skin sensitivities.
  6. Observe and Adjust: Monitor how your body responds to essential oils. If you experience any adverse reactions, stop using it and seek guidance from your healthcare professional.

Asthma and COPD

The use of essential oils in individuals with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) requires careful consideration with a healthcare professional. There are claims that essential oils reduce inflammation thus reducing symptoms such as wheezing, congestion and difficulty breathing. However, these studies have focused on individuals without underlying respiratory chronic diseases, like asthma and COPD. Very little evidence exists to support the use of essential oils for anti-inflammatory effects in humans.


Possible benefits:

Some essential oils such as eucalyptus, peppermint, and lavender are believed to have properties that may help with respiratory issues. For example, eucalyptus oil is thought to have decongestant properties that might aid in easing nasal congestion.

Potential risks:

Inhalation of certain essential oils can trigger asthma symptoms in sensitive individuals. Strong odors, such as those from essential oils, may act as irritants and lead to bronchoconstriction (tightening of the smooth muscles around the airways), coughing, or shortness of breath. Essential oils with menthol may provide the false perception that airways are opening, which could lead to masking the signs of a respiratory emergency.


Possible benefits:

Some essential oils are believed to have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties that may benefit individuals with COPD. However scientific evidence supporting these claims is limited.

Potential risks:

Individuals with COPD often have sensitivity to irritants and risk of respiratory distress. Strong odors could trigger exacerbations of COPD symptoms. COPD comes from permanent damage to lung tissue from inhaling smoke and/or noxious gases. Inhaling essential oils directly or in high concentrations can trigger symptoms in the damaged lung tissues.

Individuals with asthma or COPD should consult their healthcare professional before using essential oils and together assess any potential risks and benefits. There is little published research on interactions between pharmaceutical drugs and essential oils. Given the complex chemistry of essential oils, however, it makes sense that adverse reactions are possible or even likely. Your healthcare professional can provide advice based on your health status and potential interactions with medications. Caution should be exercised to avoid respiratory irritation or adverse effects. Always prioritize safety, proper dilution and individual response, especially for respiratory purposes. If you experience any adverse reactions, discontinue use and seek advice from your healthcare professional.

The American Lung Association recommends that best method of managing your asthma or COPD is to follow the advice of your healthcare professional, including medicines and environmental trigger reduction. Ensuring clean indoor and outdoor air is always the best course of action. Adding anything – including essential oils – to the air you breathe is not recommended. Fresh, clean air is best.

If someone swallows an essential oil, or a product containing essential oils, call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 right away. Poison Control will help you determine the risk and will share actions needed.

Learn more about Clean Air and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC)s.

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Blog last updated: January 24, 2024

How Essential Oils May Be More Harmful Than Helpful (2024)


How Essential Oils May Be More Harmful Than Helpful? ›

Essential Oils Can Negatively Affect Your Health

What are the negative effects of essential oils? ›

The potential side effects of essential oils include:
  • Irritation and burning: Always dilute oils with a carrier oil before applying it to the skin. ...
  • Asthma attacks: While essential oils may be safe for most people to inhale, some people with asthma may react to breathing in the fumes.
Oct 18, 2019

Are essential oils actually beneficial? ›

Results of lab studies are promising — one at Johns Hopkins found that certain essential oils could kill a type of Lyme bacteria better than antibiotics — but results in human clinical trials are mixed. Some studies indicate that there's a benefit to using essential oils while others show no improvement in symptoms.

Is it possible to overuse essential oils? ›

DON'T Overdo It

More of a good thing is not always good. Even when diluted, an essential oil can cause a bad reaction if you use too much or use it too often. That's true even if you're not allergic or unusually sensitive to them.

Are essential oils hormone disruptors? ›

The essentials about essential oils

According to Korach, essential oil components have not been previously classified as endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Such compounds mimic or oppose the actions of hormones, including the female sex hormone estrogen, as well as androgens, or male sex hormones, such as testosterone.

What is the toxicity of essential oils? ›

Many essential oils can cause rashes if used on the skin. Many can be poisonous if absorbed through the skin or swallowed. Few have been tested like medicines have, even though people put them in their mouths, on their skin, and in their children's vaporizers.

What essential oils should you not use? ›

Avoid the following essential oils: aniseed, basil, camphor, cinnamon bark, clove bud, clove leaf, eucalyptus radiata fennel, hyssop, juniper, lemongrass, marjoram, nutmeg, oregano, parsley seed, peppermint (under 12), pennyroyal, sage, savory, tagetes and thyme.

Which essential oil is the most beneficial? ›

1. Lavender - best overall. Lavender oil is a versatile, “do-it-all” essential oil. It can fight skin infections, reduce inflammation, alleviate depression symptoms, relieve stress, and much more.

What essential oils do to your body? ›

"Essential oils can help relax the body, help you sleep, reduce headaches and enhance massage therapy," says Thurman.

Do essential oils get absorbed into the bloodstream? ›

While estimations vary, somewhere between 50-80% of essential oil applied topically will be absorbed into the bloodstream, but that includes the carrier oil, balm or lotion that you'll be using with skin application.

How long do essential oils stay in your bloodstream? ›

When applied topically, it takes 2 – 3 minutes for an oil to reach the bloodstream, 20 minutes to affect every cell in the body, then metabolized within 2 ½ hours. Did you read that? They metabolize out of the body within 2 1/2 hours, so they need to be applied more often. I usually apply my oils every 2 to 3 hours.

What is overexposure to essential oils? ›

Incorrect or over-use of essential oils can cause an allergic reaction, especially if you have asthma or are prone to environmental allergies. They can also pose health risks for pregnant women, children and pets.

What is the negative of essential oils? ›

Essential Oils Can Negatively Affect Your Health

Individuals with respiratory conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may be particularly susceptible to these symptoms. Additionally, essential oils may cause allergic reactions when the oils are used on the skin or inhaled.

What essential oils are neurotoxic? ›

The neurotoxic essential oils

Sage officinale (Salvia officinalis) : thujone. Rosemary camphor (Rosmarinus officinalis): camphor. Mint pouliot (Mentha pulegium) : pulegone.

What are the bad ingredients in essential oils? ›

Hazardous Essential Oils
List of Hazardous Essential oils
BasilShould not be used by pregnant women.
BergamotPhototoxic, If used on skin and then exposed to the sun, severe sunburn may result.
CamphorProlonged inhalation may cause a headache.
Cinnamon Leaf or barkSkin irritant, never use it on the skin.
18 more rows

How do essential oils affect the brain? ›

Furthermore, many studies have suggested that the inhalation of essential oils improves mood, increases memory, and decreases stress [13–15]. It has been found that some essential oils, containing 1,8-cineole, menthol [16], β-pinene [17], and limonene [18], can have a stimulating effect on brain wave activity.

What are the emotional effects of essential oils? ›

Aromatherapy oils such as Marjoram stimulate the raphe nucleus releasing serotonins which act as sedatives, giving feelings of calmness and relaxation. While oils, such as Rosemary, stimulate the locus ceruleus releasing noradrenalins which act as stimulants and give feelings of alertness.

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