As a certified aromatherapist and natural product formulator, the most popular question I get from those interested in using essential oils is, "Are they safe to drink and use in food?" Ingestion has been a hot topic of debate in the aromatic plant medicine world, and it remains largely unsettled due to the perpetuation of misinformation from largely uneducated sources. If one makes a simple online search, it becomes increasingly clear that there are two camps of essential oil lovers—one that swears by using some oil drops in their water every morning, and the other that vehemently opposes those who think internal ingestion is safe.
With so much conflicting information available, how can one parse out what’s truly safe? As it turns out, the answer is not so black and white. Here’s a definitive guide introducing concepts of what some refer to as French aromatherapy—covering what’s safe to eat, drink, and when to possibly forgo oils entirely.
First, understand that no two oils are the same.
First thing’s first: Cultivating a deep relationship with oils will ensure safe and proper usage. A common misconception is that there is such a thing as therapeutic and food-grade essential oils. Some large, popular essential oil companies market that some of their oils can be ingested and note so on the bottle; however, some oils are not meant for ingestion and can be fatally toxic. For example, a teaspoon of pure eucalyptus or wintergreen essential oil can be fatal to a child. Additionally, pennyroyal essential oil is never suggested for internal use in therapeutic doses as it’s comprised (about 80 percent) of a chemical called pulegone, which is known for having hallucinogenic properties in addition to being toxic to the liver, kidney, and brain.
While reading these facts about potentially neurotoxic and damaging oils, do not be discouraged. The aforementioned oils are simply examples of how essential oils differ in therapeutic benefit and reflect the diversity of how essential oils work in the human body. As always, use caution and seek professional medical advice if you are considering internal usage. In fact, deeply learning about and connecting with complex oils, like thuja, which is high in ketones and therefore not suggested for internal usage, can help you discover the best method of application.
How to determine if an oil is safe:
Start by decoding the label.
Some essential oil companies recommend ingestion and label their oils as supplements. Therefore, if an essential oil bottle has a supplemental fact label, it can easily mislead some to believe that it is safe for ingestion. To be clear, the FDA has absolutely NO role in grading and rating essential oil purity, or overseeing the safety uses of essential oils. Regrettably, puzzlement arises as the FDA publishes a list of herbs, some that are in the form of essential oils, which are "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) in a very small percentage for food flavoring. While some laud that this food-grade standard makes many pure oils safe for internal consumption, that’s simply not the case.
As many people taking essential oils internally are seeking a health benefit, there is minimal clinical evidence supporting these desired effects. The Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association of the United States (FEMA) only evaluates substances for GRAS status that are used to formulate food-additive flavors.
The bottom line: This expert organization only evaluates flavor additives, nothing more. Most notably, there are no rules that limit a serving size or the dosage amount of a nutrient in any form of dietary supplements. This decision is made by each manufacturer and does not require FDA review or approval. Naturally, this leaves consumers wondering if one drop is enough, or if it's best to use 5, 15, or 50 drops.
Then think about the dilution.
Sometimes, people tell me that they use a few drops of lemon essential oil in their morning tea or water. So, I always ask them why not use an actual lemon instead? Essential oils are highly concentrated aromatic compounds, and it often takes hundreds of pounds of plant to get any oil in return. In fact, it often takes 2,000 pounds of plant material from a cypress tree to yield a single pound of the essential oil. For an even more mind-boggling fact, it takes about 2 acres of Damask roses to distill just a liter of essential oil. Using a single drop of these precious concentrated essential oils is comparative to drinking many bags of an herbal tea. You must always ask yourself, "Why this dosage? What am I trying to accomplish? What are the benefits and risks?"
Naturally, there are acute situations in which a certified medical professional, advanced herbalist, or trained aromatherapist with extensive oil pharmacology knowledge might suggest internal usage for a short period of time. Because essential oils do not dissolve in water, our body struggles to disperse them evenly. As the body works hard to assimilate these very concentrated plant materials into our systems, it can cause irritation of the throat and stomach. In fact, one study found that oral administration of d-limonene, a large chemical component of lemon essential oil, led to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, with no other observable health effects. Not all allergic reactions or sensitizations are immediately recognized but can develop over a period of repeated use. As each person’s biology differs, it’s imperative to recognize how people respond differently to oils internally and topically.
A primer on safe culinary usage of essential oils:
While the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy suggests not taking essential oils internally without appropriate clinical education and understanding of the safety issues involved in doing so, there are ways to reap the many benefits of essential oils and hydrosols, when ingested safely under the guise of an expert you trust.
While I personally do not internally consume essential oils often, it’s necessary to touch on acceptable culinary uses. I cannot endorse a perspective that internal usage is never acceptable because that’s simply not the case. But one or two drops is really all you need.
I do not advise using much more for food-flavoring purposes! For instance, adding a drop of lime or black pepper into a guacamole recipe is both savory and safe. I prefer using actual black pepper and a lime squeeze for both the taste and price, but I welcome you to experiment and remind you to not ingest the same oils in high quantities repeatedly.
Hydrosols are the aromatic water that remains after distilling botanical material. Once completely disregarded as waste with minimal therapeutic benefit, hydrosols have recently been making a splash on the herbal medicine scene. These magical waters are more diluted than essential oils, making them safer and easier to use and consume. Therefore, hydrosols can be used in many recipes! They contain a higher concentration of volatile substances than herbal teas and can be used to soothe digestive issues, battle insomnia, calm nerves, and so much more. Just know the shelf life of your hydrosol to ensure you are using one that hasn’t gone bad.
How-To: Add hydrosols to your recipes that call for adding water—juices, sauces, soups, salad dressings, ice cream, ice pops, and ice cubes.
Tinctures or extracts.
Tinctures are concentrated herbal extracts. They use alcohol as the solvent, so if you are using water, glycerin, or any solvent other than alcohol, the preparation is called an extract. Incorporating essential oils into a tincture can help create the necessary dispersant required for proper bodily absorption. One of my favorite tinctures is an anxiety-busting and sleep-supporting one made with lemon balm. Feel free to experiment with anti-anxiety herbs like skullcap, chamomile, and passionflower. While not always common or necessary to use essential oils in a tincture, a drop of an anxiolytic oil, like lavender or bergamot, might aid with the taste and promote deeper healing.
How-To: Place 2 cups of your herb(s) of choice in a glass jar, like a Mason jar. Fill the jar only to the top of the plant line with boiling distilled water. Top off the jar with vegetable glycerin or your spirit of choice (I use Everclear for its high proof), and add in your desired oil drop. Stir well, and then put on the lid. Shake the jar daily for at least a month and up to six months. You can also use warm heat to speed up the tincture-making process. Then, strain the liquid and store tincture in a cool, dark place. Depending on your herb choice, a standard adult dose will be about 1 to 2 dropperfuls (20 to 40 drops) per day.
DIY cough drops.
Many over-the-counter cough drops are made with artificial, synthetic flavorings and dyes. If you want to make your own all-natural cough drops, try the recipe below. Feel free to experiment with other ingredients like sage, hyssop, horehound, slippery elm bark, and respiratory-supporting hydrosols, like green myrtle and catnip.
How-To: Combine ½ cup coconut oil whipped at room temperature for 4 minutes, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, ½ cup honey, and 1 drop rosemary or inula essential oil together and freeze for half an hour. Store in a cool, dry place.
The majority of common mouthwashes use harsh alcohol-based ingredients that are far from all-natural. While you may not be swallowing or directly ingesting these essential oils, they are enormously beneficial to rinse with and spit out due to their antibacterial properties.
How-To: Add a few drops of tea tree and myrrh essential oils to distilled water and swish around. These gentle yet antibacterial oils will help relieve tooth pain and gum inflammation.
Looking to use essential oils outside the kitchen too? mbg's class, How to Get Glowing Skin Naturally with holistic beauty expert Shiva Rose will show you easy ways to work them into your skin care regimen.