As essential oils grow in popularity, so does the debate over how to use them—especially the question of whether it’s okay to ingest essential oils. I have friends who take them at the first sign of a cold. I even tried adding grapefruit essential oil to my glass of water in the ongoing quest to lose weight. But taking essential oils internally wasn’t even mentioned in my aromatherapist classes beyond a general “don’t do it.”
What gives? Is it okay to ingest essential oils?
I had quite a few questions and decided to hunt for more information.
How do you ingest essential oils?
Essential oils (EOs) usually enter the bloodstream aromatically (when you inhale the oil via a diffuser or even take a whiff) or topically (through the skin when combined with something like a body oil to slather it on). You can also ingest essential oils by adding them to water or other drinks, taking them in capsules, or cooking with them. Some people consider using EOs orally (like in a mouthwash) or via a suppository also as ingesting them.
Why would you want to take essential oils internally?
Just like when used aromatically or topically, internal use is a way to harness EOs’ therapeutic benefits. These concentrated oils travel down to the stomach, where their effects are often felt relatively quickly as the digestion process begins. (See here for an in-depth look at how essential oils are broken down internally.)
Claims that taking essential oils will help you lose weight or cure various ailments are everywhere. Definitive research, however, is hard to come by. One study indicates that peppermint essential oil can help alleviate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome [source], and the German Commission E has approved specific essential oils for internal use, primarily for gastrointestinal and digestive issues [source].
Another study showed that the oral form of lavender, marketed as Silexan, had similar efficacy to certain prescription anti-anxiety [source] and antidepressant medications [source] without the risk of dependency or side effects. The benefits outside of these issues are still unclear. But this is consistent with the idea that essential oils act as, and should be treated as, a form of medicine [source].
Is ingesting oils safe?
Essential oils are remarkably potent. A large number of flowers, peels, or roots goes into making one tiny bottle of essential oil. Even with a couple of drops, you’re consuming a massive amount of potent plant material. As one aromatherapist says, if you wouldn’t drink 30 cups of chamomile tea in a day, should you drink that much with the essential oil [source]?
In many cases, you are ingesting part of the plant’s defense system that was produced to repel other animals and insects and keep them from trying to eat it. So just because something is touted as natural doesn’t necessarily mean it is harmless.
The FDA classifies some essential oils in the category “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS) for human consumption [source]. This usually refers to their usage as a flavoring agent or preservative, and because they’re so concentrated, EOs are used in super, super small—like minuscule—amounts [source]. We’re talking 1/10th of 1 percent.
But some essential oils should never be consumed [source]. Therefore, it is recommended that you consult with a physician before ingesting any particular essential oil, even in small amounts.
Some multi-level marketing essential oil companies have scaled back their broad claims after the FDA sent warning letters telling them that “topical products and other products that are not intended for ingestion are not dietary supplements. In any case, the claims referenced … are drug claims, which are not suitable claims for dietary supplements [source].”
This was necessary because some essential oil companies were suggesting that people use oils in ways other than their approved use. And they were even making claims that EOs worked like a drug, claims that would be irresponsible even for a dietary supplement.
Are some types of oils okay to use? Like therapeutic grade oils?
Oil quality is definitely an important factor when buying. Not only do you want 100% essential oils with no added solvents, but the quality of the ingredients going into the oils is important. Take some time to read up on how companies farm and extract their essential oils. I buy all of my EOs from Mountain Rose Herbs and Edens Garden.
Oils are commonly labeled “therapeutic grade.” The definition of this varies widely because no accepted standard exists, and no independent group tests for quality [source]. You’ll have to do your own research to find high-quality essential oils.
Some are called ‘dietary’ oils. Is there a difference between ‘dietary’ lemon and regular lemon essential oil? No, there’s not. It’s the same oil with a different label [source]. There is nothing inherently special about dietary oils or oils with nutrition labels that makes them safer to ingest than other brands.
What about adding essential oils to water?
I see recommendations to add 2–3 drops of whatever oil to water all the time. One of the very first things I did was add a couple of drops of grapefruit essential oil to water because I was told it was great for weight loss.
The grapefruit oil drops just floated on top (it was impossible to get only one drop, so usually, I added too much). Plus, taking the first sip had an overwhelming scent and taste, and it burned.
The drops float on top because essential oils and water don’t mix. Essential oils are potent; that’s why you hear so much about carrier oils and dilution percentages.
But in water—just like in the bath—essential oils don’t get diluted at all. And when they’re not diluted, essential oils can be very irritating as they travel through the mouth, esophagus, and stomach, or on your skin when you slip into the tub.
What about taking them in capsule form?
Taking essential oils in a vegetable capsule or gelatin capsule keeps them from coming into direct contact with tissues in the mouth until the capsule is broken down during digestion in the stomach. Then the oils can attach to mucous membranes in your stomach [source], and you might feel pretty immediate effects (positive or negative) depending on the oil used.
Do you need to see an aromatherapist or doctor?
Short answer: yes.
Internal use may be beneficial when done under the care of a medical doctor and an appropriately trained aromatherapist who can give accurate, individual information on the dosage, how to use it, and the length of use.
However, some aromatherapists don’t recommend internal use at all [source]. Robert Tisserand, who literally wrote the book on essential oil safety, refers to himself as a massage therapist, saying “We don’t give medicines orally; we’re not into internal medicine, that’s not what we do [source].” I have Level 1 aromatherapist training, and I would not feel comfortable recommending internal usage.
I’m all for people taking control of their health. I would just caution anyone to seek out sound information about how essential oils will affect you and your individual situation (medical history, age, weight, etc.) before jumping in to something that might be harmful if used or taken improperly.
Have you taken essential oils internally? What was your experience?
This post was medically reviewed by Dr. Holly Smith, a board-certified physician in nephrology and internal medicine with a background in nutrition. Learn more about Hello Glow’s medical review board here. As always, this is not personal medical advice, and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.277