The Dangers of Drinking Essential Oils
Most essential oils are made for their scent, so why would anyone want to ingest them?
This summer, a popular YouTuber who calls herself Fully Raw Kristina released a fruit-infused water recipe that included some odd ingredients: What she described as “pure, therapeutic-grade essential oils.” Into the pitcher went two drops each of eucalyptus, rosemary, lime, and cardamom essential oils, which, Kristina explained, she was doing “not only for the taste but also the nutritional benefits.” Kristina is a raw vegan influencer, with over 1 million subscribers on YouTube, and her interest in essential oils is just one indicator of their surge in popularity.
According to a report by Fortune Business Insights, the global essential oil market was worth $7.03 billion in 2018 and is anticipated to surge to $14.6 billion by 2026. Essential oils are highly concentrated compounds derived from plants, and today they’re typically used for their potent scent, in products like cosmetics, perfumes, and air fresheners.
Some studies have suggested that aromatherapy—inhaling essential oils and absorbing them through your skin—can lead to relaxation and relieves stress. It is therefore understandable why people have been led to believe that ingestion could provide even more benefits — especially when such advice is so commonly spread by “experts” who have not received formal medical training.
What’s more, some manufacturers have exaggerated the medicinal benefits of essential oils; for instance, in 2014, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter to doTERRA, a multilevel marketing company selling essential oils. In the letter, the FDA flagged sellers who marketed the oils as a potential cure for conditions like cancer, autism, even Ebola. Even so, simply smelling essential oils is unlikely to cause harm. Drinking them—that’s another story.
In 2016, U.S. poison control centers received more than 20,000 calls involving essential oils and more than 13,000 of those calls involved children younger than six.
Online health influencers like Fully Raw Kristina often recommend adding a few drops of essential oils to water, though the exact measurements are often a bit fuzzy. For example, Josh Axe, a doctor of chiropractic and natural medicine, suggests that “1–3 drops is plenty when mixed with water” — but how much water? A glass? A pitcher? He doesn’t specify, though it probably doesn’t matter, anyway: Essential oils are hydrophobic, which means they don’t mix with water. When you add a drop to your glass, it doesn’t dissolve—it just sits there in a big concentrated blob, and when you take a gulp of water you ingest it all at once. This can wreak havoc on your body, leading to mild irritation at the least and irreversible damage at worst.
Swallowing oil of wintergreen, for instance, “is like swallowing a large number of adult aspirin,” according to the Maryland Poison Center, a division of the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy; a swig of oil of nutmeg can lead to hallucinations or coma; and drinking “even a small amount” camphor can cause seizures “within minutes.” What’s more, since essential oils are unregulated, it’s impossible to tell exactly what’s in each bottle, including the concentration of the oil itself and hidden ingredients.
To show how damaging essential oils can be, the Atlantic Institute for Aromatherapy — a certified organization designed for active “aromatherapy practitioners” to learn more about the use of essential oils — has been collecting injury reports from users to keep track of some of the adverse effects of essential oils.
Their latest report, from 2018, reveals that many injuries were caused by orally ingesting both diluted and undiluted essential oils. In the report, people detail the dramatic degree of their injuries: One person describes their “heart racing, sweating, nervousness, shaking, throat started closing in;” another says, “I developed a chemical burn on my lip in the evening, black scab overnight, and small white blisters the next day.” Injuries like these aren’t uncommon. In 2016, U.S. poison control centers received more than 20,000 calls involving essential oils and more than 13,000 of those calls involved children younger than six, according to a 2018 press release by the Maryland Poison Center. And the Tennessee Poison Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center reports that the number of essential oil exposures doubled between 2011 and 2015, with 80% of cases involving children.
Smelling essential oils is likely to be fine. If you’re feeling stressed, it might even help you to relax. But before ingesting essential oils in any capacity, it is important that you consult a fully trained medical professional in order to understand the risks.