Essential oils are no longer the domain of hippies who like the smell of patchouli. Alternative and integrative medicine has never been more popular, according to the Mayo Clinic, and more and more consumers look for essential oils on organic body lotion labels as a safer alternative to hazardous synthetic fragrances. (See how easy it is to grow your own remedies for joint pain, heartburn, cold symptoms, and 30+ other ailments with Rodale's Grow It Heal It!)
So what, exactly, is an essential oil? Many people mistakenly think that an essential oil is a plant extract mixed with some other type of oil, but essential oils are actually 100 percent plant extract, which means they’re extremely concentrated. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, it takes 220 pounds of lavender flowers to make just one pound of lavender essential oil.
“People tend to think that because essential oils are natural items, they must be safe. Actually, essential oils are so enormously concentrated that they’re not the same, medically, as the herbs or citrus they’re extracted from. That’s why they can be dangerous—but it’s also why they’re useful,” says Rachel Carlton Abrams, MD, who is board certified in family medicine and integrative medicine, and author of the new book Bodywise: Discovering Your Body’s Intelligence for Lifelong Health and Healing.
Here are six situations where you should always avoid essential oils, along with advice for using them safely.