The use of essential oils has dramatically increased over the last decade or so. This may be partly due to consumers’ desire to use more natural products. Part of it may also be that there are several large direct-sales companies making essential oils everyday topics of conversation in many circles. In fact, I’ll bet someone you know sells essential oils. But are essential oils safe for pregnancy? Let’s discuss!
What Exactly Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are very concentrated plant extracts. The fragrance-producing compounds are harvested from parts of a plant — flowers, seeds, leaves, bark, roots, and/or fruit — by steaming or pressing them (1). Inside the plant, essential oils not only contain scent, but provide other functions like protecting the plant, assisting with pollination, etc.
Essential oils are not necessarily safe and harmless simply because they come from plants. It’s not just like eating an orange, or even like drinking juice concentrate, which is a concentrated form of the juice. Essential oils are, on average, up to 75 times more powerful than dried herbs (2). That’s why you use no more than a few drops at a time. Those tiny bottles usually contain the essential oils from multiple pounds of plants. The extreme concentration of essential oils means that they can be irritating or harmful if used in the wrong way. During pregnancy or otherwise, you should consult someone who has been trained to be sure you know how to use them safely.
Are Essential Oils Safe For Pregnancy?
Unfortunately, there isn’t much research on the topic of essential oils’ safety for pregnancy. Firstly, their widespread use is fairly recent. And secondly, ethical concerns prevent much testing on pregnant women or unborn babies. What we can do is look at whether there have been reported problems with the use of oils during pregnancy and evaluate what we know about essential oil safety in humans in general.
Let’s look at the general safety, aside from pregnancy. Essential oils are considered generally safe when used properly, like small amounts being diffused into the air, or small amounts mixed into a carrier oil and applied to the skin. (We’ll discuss diffusing and applying to the skin below.) However, the National Capital Poison Center (commonly referred to Poison Control) says that we should be caution. Some oils can cause rashes if used on the skin, and some can be poisonous if absorbed through the skin or swallowed. They caution that, “Few have been tested like medicines have, even though people put them in their mouths, on their skin, and in their children’s vaporizers”(3).
This doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t be used safely. It is just a caution that they’re not studied or regulated the way that medications are and that you should take care when using them. This lack of regulation also means that not all oils are equal in quality and purity. If you use essential oils, always stick with a well-known, reputable brand. This will mean that your oils will not be inexpensive, but remember that a lot of plant product is needed to produce a tiny bit of oil. If your oils are pure, you should expect that they won’t be cheap.
Use During Pregnancy
The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy notes that the main concern during pregnancy is the risk of the parts of the oil crossing the placenta (4). It is believed to be likely that oils cross the placenta, because of the close contact between maternal and fetal blood. (They don’t mix, but nutrients and waste pass between them.) If essential oils do cross the placenta into the baby’s body, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they would harm him or her. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a record of abnormal fetuses or pregnancy loss due to the “normal” use of essential oils, in either aromatherapy or topical application (4).
But the knowledge that oils likely cross the placenta does mean that you should exercise extreme caution when deciding whether or not to use them. While we don’t know if essential oils cause harm to an unborn baby, we do know that children have immature livers and may be more susceptible to toxic effects than adults. Thus, any toxic effects that may exist are likely more troublesome for an infant or child than for an adult.
Essential Oil Use By Trimester
Avoid Oils in the First Trimester
Something else to consider when weighing the pros and cons of essential oil use during pregnancy is what trimester you’re in. Most experts agree that you should avoid using essential oils during the first trimester (7). It’s wise to exercise extreme caution in the most delicate time of pregnancy and when all of baby’s major systems are being formed. With that in mind, the advice and information in this post is for use in the second and third trimesters only.
Essential Oil Use
Just as essential oils serve different purposes inside the plants they come from, there is some evidence that they may be able to contribute to wellness in humans. There are a great many essential oils on the market, and each may be potentially helpful for a variety of uses. There are several ways to use essential oils.
The main way to use essential oils is in aromatherapy. Studies have clearly shown that scents have an effect of the body. Some scents make a person feel more relaxed and less anxious, for example. Other scents may increase energy, increase memory or the ability to focus, decrease anxiety, improve sleep, etc. Aromatherapy is considered the safest way to use essential oils, as you’re not putting any measurable amount into your body.
To use an oil for the benefit of its scent, a person will typically use a diffuser. This is a small household appliance that you fill with clean water and a few drops of oil, and then it sends the water vapor into the air, filling the space with the scent from the oil. Another way to use essential oils for aromatherapy is to add a small amount to something you wear. Ror example, there are necklaces that contain a small bit of felt on which to put a drop or two of oil. This keeps the scent near you, but you can easily remove it from your environment, as needed.
Topical Application (Applied to the Skin)
The other main way that people use essential oils is to apply them to the skin. Let’s start by saying that you should always dilute essential oils before applying them to the skin, as some can cause irritation when used at full strength. If you intend to use the oil on your skin, you should dilute it in a safer oil, known as a carrier oil. Common ones include olive, jojoba, and coconut oil. Be sure to get professional guidance before using essential oils this way, though. You should understand how much essential oil to use in what amount of carrier oil, and how much total oil you can safely apply.
Ingestion (Consumed by Mouth)
Some advice you get from friends or family, or from laypeople who sell essential oils, might insist that it’s okay to ingest essential oils. Most experts do not recommend ingesting essential oils during pregnancy as there just isn’t enough information to say that it’s safe (5, 6). Even if you dilute the oil in another food or drink, you are still putting a higher concentration into your body than if you inhale or absorb it through your skin. There’s also the possibility that the oil doesn’t dilute fully (an oil cannot be fully absorbed into water,) and therefore you’re left with tiny droplets of the oil in your stomach (5). These are some reasons why many experts debate that no one should ingest essential oils, whether you’re pregnant or not. For our purposes, though, we can at least agree that pregnant women should not ingest them.
Safety of Specific Oils
It’s up to you and your healthcare provider to decide whether you’ll use essential oils for your pregnancy. If you decide to do so, there are some that are generally considered safe and others that are considered best to avoid during pregnancy. Be sure to discuss these with your healthcare provider before use.
- Roman chamomile
- Rose Otto
- Sweet orange
- Tea tree
- Ylang ylang (7)
- Arnica (homeopathic is fine)
- Birch (sweet)
- Bitter almond
- Boldo leaf
- Camphor (brown or yellow)
- Clary sage
- Clove (bud, leaf or stem)
- Jaborandi leaf
- Juniper berry
- Parsley (large doses)
- Pine (dwarf)
- Savory (summer)
- Thyme red (large doses)
- Wormwood (7)
Are Essential Oils Safe for Pregnancy: The Takeaway
The bottom line is that whether to use essential oils is a decision each woman must make for herself. Some will decide that they don’t feel comfortable with it. Others will use them to help with pregnancy discomforts and may make them a part of their Natural Childbirth Kit. We strongly urge you to talk with your doctor or midwife about it. If you do decide to use essential oils, stick with well-known, reputable brands so that you know you’re using pure oils. And stick to the list of oils that are considered safe for pregnancy.
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1. Gujral, H. (n.d.). Aromatherapy: Do Essential Oils Really Work? Retrieved August 10, 2020, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/aromatherapy-do-essential-oils-really-work
2. Hoff, V. (2020, July 21). The Ultimate Essential Oil Guide: Which Ones to Use and for What. Retrieved August 10, 2020, from https://thethirty.whowhatwear.com/essential-oils-guide/slide2
3. Soloway, R. (2019, July 31). Essential Oils: Poisonous when Misused. Retrieved August 10, 2020, from https://www.poison.org/articles/2014-jun/essential-oils
4. Exploring Aromatherapy. (n.d.). Retrieved August 10, 2020, from https://naha.org/index.php/explore-aromatherapy/safety/
5. Pahr, K. (2019, October 23). Here’s How To Use Essential Oils Safely When You’re Pregnant. Retrieved August 10, 2020, from https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/a20707319/how-to-use-essential-oils-safely-during-pregnancy/
6. Essential oils and pregnancy. (n.d.). Retrieved August 10, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/essential-oils-and-pregnancy
7. 30, U. (n.d.). Essential Oils During Pregnancy: What’s Safe and What to Avoid. Retrieved August 10, 2020, from https://www.parents.com/pregnancy/my-body/pregnancy-health/essential-oils-during-pregnancy-whats-safe-and-what-to-avoid/