You can easily get yourself into trouble assuming "natural" is the same as "safe," and particularly when using essential oils. Although many essential oils can serve as mild alternatives to the chemical-laden products at your standard drugstore, some of them have powerful effects that can take you by surprise if you're not sufficiently aware of their potential.
Safety Guidelines for All Essential Oils
The following guidelines will help you to stay healthy while using a variety of essential oils.
Don't Take Essential Oils Internally
Generally, essential oils should not be taken internally (i.e. swallowed, added to food, etc.). If you are advised to take an oil internally by a medical practitioner, we defer to their expertise. But it's really very foolhardy to decide to gulp them down on your own.
Don't Apply Essential Oils Directly to Your Skin
Almost all essential oils must be diluted before applying to the skin. Full strength essential oils applied directly to the skin will usually cause irritation, burning, or worse (oregano oil can burn the top layer of your skin right off!).
The exceptions are lavender and tea tree oil which are considered safe to apply full-strength to skin. However, if your skin is sensitive, it would be wise to dilute these as well, and do a patch test as detailed below.
Do a Patch Test
Prior to using a new essential oil on your skin (in proper dilution, of course), it is wise to do a patch test: apply a small amount of the new formulation to the inside of your elbow and wait 24 hours to observe any reaction. If none emerges, then you are OK to apply the oil to a larger area of skin.
Avoid Eyes and Mucous Membranes
Essential oils should be kept away from eyes and generally, out of the mouth, nose, and other mucous membranes. At the very least they will sting, and they have the potential to cause much more damage to these delicate tissues.
Be Careful with Pets and Kids
Essential oils that are fine for adults to use are not always OK for pets and/or children. Our pets have a different physiology and may react to oils that are perfectly safe to us, so it is wise to check a resource dedicated to the use of essential oils in animals prior to doing any pet aromatherapy.
Children, likewise, are much more sensitive to essential oils than are adults. In general, only the safest and most mild oils should be used with children, and in much smaller dilutions. Before using essential oils with your kids, get a good book on aromatherapy for children, or consult a qualified aromatherapist.
Safety Warnings for Specific Essential Oils
Many essential oils have specific warnings against use with children, pregnant women, and people with particular medical conditions. It's always wise to look up the particular oil you are using to be aware of any safety precautions, especially if you have a medical condition.
Some essential oils, such as wormwood, mugwort, and pennyroyal, are considered toxic and are rarely used by aromatherapists, despite being sold to the public by various retailers. It is always a good idea to consult an unbiased source (and not just the supplier's website) for safety information about essential oils to ensure you are not getting more than you bargained for.
Phototoxic Essential Oils
Some essential oils, including the citrus oils, make skin more sensitive to sunlight. Applying these oils to skin, and then going out into bright sunlight (or, worse, a tanning bed) can cause sunburn and skin damage. Be cautious with any citrus oil, and check for phototoxicity with any new essential oil you plan to apply to your skin.