Last Christmas I got myself a rather large book called "Essential Oil Safety" by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young (I know I'm such a nerd) and the information in this classic textbook has been eye opening to be sure.
Essential oil use has grown in popularity but there is a lot of misinformation out there and a potential for some people to get hurt. Yes, essential oils are natural (because they come from plants) but that does not mean they cannot hurt you. They are concentrated chemical substances created by passing steam through huge amounts of plant material to collect the volatile oils. These chemicals enter the body the same ways other chemicals do: through inhalation, through the skin and mucosa, or by ingesting them. Once in the body the individual molecules are metabolized just like any other chemical and are excreted just like any other chemical.
In the body, all organic compounds are metabolized, meaning they are made into different substances (that have their own biological actions) and then are removed in a form the body can handle. Different chemicals are metabolized by different routes and at different rates. The liver is the most important organ for this by dividing substances into so-called Phase I and Phase II reactions. How much essential oil you use, the type of oil, the mode of absorption, and the rate at which it is metabolized all determine whether or not it is safe.
Here's an example of the chemical profile of one sample of tea tree oil from the book:
Ledene (viridiflorene) 1.8%
This chemical profile would be different depending on the country of origin and maybe even the particular farm where it is harvested. The standard for Terpinen-4-ol in tea tree oil is 30-48%. But a recent batch I purchased has between 46-52%. Terpinen-4-ol is what makes tea tree oil... tea tree oil. But it is also found in sweet marjoram, juniperberry, rosemary and other essential oils in lower percentages.
The safety data on Terpinen-4-ol states:
"Terpinen-4-ol appears to be non-irritant and non-allergenic, and possesses "slight" toxicity. It is not mutagenic, and has demonstrated in-vitro anti-tumoral activity.
That's just one chemical constituent in tea tree oil that has it's own metabolic pathway to follow before it is gone from the body.
I've got some awesome news!
I'm excited to announce that I will be changing the bottling for my essential oils. I'm switching to the industry standard of the European 5mL and 15mL amber bottles. Remember that the color of the bottle doesn't necessarily matter, I just like the look of the brown. The bottles will have a dropper top to lessen the risk of accidental spillage or poisoning (children are less likely to be able to drink the oil with a dropper top). Up until this point my stance has been that I don't like plastic touching the oils and that is why we have always used the solid tops and given out a dropper top with each purchase. I'm changing my stance based on this safety information. The type of plastic used in these dropper tops are also less likely to degrade than other types of plastic so we just have to do the best we can.
I will also have new labels for the bottles. I like the essential oil supplier we have because of their transparency. I know the genus species name of my oils, whether it is cold pressed or steam distilled, the part of the plant it comes from, and the country of origin. I also know the main chemical class and I can easily get the chemical profile if I wanted. I want to pass all of this information on to you by including it on the label so you can know your oils too!
I'm also including safety data on the labels. These are the possible safety warnings you will see:
Keep Out of Reach of Children - You will see this warning on almost all of the essential oil bottles. The only time I will not be using this warning is if the oil has GRAS (generally regarded as safe) status and no other warnings at all. This means even if a child manages to get the dropper top out of the bottle and drinks the entire contents or spills it all over their body, it won't hurt them. There are only six single oils with this level of safety!
Keep Away from Open Flame - Essential oils are volatile oils. They are flammable. Every one of them. So every bottle will contain this warning.
Not for use in children under the age of 6 - Oils with this warning are dangerous for children even if they are only applied topically. Many are neurotoxic if applied to the face or nostrils of children. Some will cause respiratory dysfunction. This includes many oils commonly believed to be safe for children such as Eucalyptus and Peppermint.
Do not apply undiluted to any part of the body - This warning is for oils that can cause skin sensitization. Some oils, such as those containing limonene, only cause skin irritation if the oil has oxidized or if it is old. But since I can't control how long that essential oil will be sitting on your bathroom shelf, I don't know how old it will be when you go to use it. So these oils still get the warning.
May cause photosensitivity - If these oils are applied to the skin in large amounts, the skin should not be exposed to sunlight or sunbed rays for 12 hours. Old or oxidized oils with this warning in particular become more phototoxic.
Do not use if pregnant or nursing - This is pretty self explanatory.
For external use only - This warning is just to be extra cautious. While many of these oils can be taken internally in small amounts by adults, they can be poisonous or cause major organ damage if taken in large amounts. Don't let some other essential oil companies fool you into thinking that all of their oils (and only their oils) are safe for consumption. Some are safe and some are not. It all depends on the oil and the chemical makeup, not the company selling it.
If ingested contact poison control - This warning is particularly for children. The oils that get this label are absolutely toxic to kids and if they manage to drink the bottle's contents it may cause nausea, coma or even death. Don't mess around with this friends. Be safe and if you have kids you may not even want to keep these oils in the house.
GRAS - Finally I will label all of those oils that have GRAS status. That does not mean however that they will not have some other potential warning though.
This is something I've been wanting to do for a long time now so I'm really excited to be able to put this into effect. I just got the new bottles in yesterday and I'm waiting to get my new labels for printing early next week.
I know many of you were disappointed to see the shop close down because you liked having easy access to some high quality essential oils at a decent price. The good news is, you can still get these oils but it will have to be through special order for now. So feel free to contact me if you would like to place an order. Check out the products page for a listing of the oils I carry.
To Your Health!
Kathryn Doran-Fisher is a Traditional Naturopath, Certified GAPS Practitioner and owner of Elder & Sage.