I see it frequently in social media images: just add X drops of X essential oil to a tall glass of water. I see it on advice columns with lines such as "boost your health" or "prevent cancer!" and other diseases or illnesses. Unfortunately taking this kind of advice could make you quite ill. Why?
Let's get diluted here
Essentials oils are highly concentrated volatile compounds extracted from whole or parts of plants - tree resins, flowering shrubs, peels of citrus fruits, seeds, grasses and so forth. A distiller may use hundreds of pounds of plant material and get only a pound of essential oil in return. In the case of rose essential oil it takes approximately 50 roses to make a single drop of essential oil. It can take 2,000 pounds of plant material from the cypress tree to get a single pound of the essential oil.
At these levels of concentrations a single drop in a glass of water could be the equivalent of drinking boxes of tea made from the same herb. Eeeps! Would you drink 30 tea bags of chamomile in a day? Of course you wouldn't! So, why would you drink a drop of the essential oil?
Money, money, money
Who is giving this advice to take essential oils internally? Is it your local clinical aromatherapist or is it a layperson selling an essential oil line? Okay, so we may have hit a raw nerve there. If essential oils can be safely used to support wellness goals by inhaling a few drops in a pan of steaming water, or diluting in a vegetable oil (jojoba, coconut, sunflower) to be applied to the skin, what's the deal with taking them internally?
Let's say you have an unopened half ounce bottle of lavender essential oil in your home right now. There's about 300 drops of essential oil in that bottle. If you store it in a cool, dark space you can anticipate that this bottle will have a shelf life of around five years. Which gives you 60 drops a year for a total of five years. Of those 60 drops you could have a monthly aromatic bath all year long, or make four 1oz massage oil blends.
If you're putting a drop in a glass of water you're a cash cow client! You might be told to amp up your routine and do 2 drops, or 3. You could go through two bottles of lavender essential oil before a year is up at that rate. And that spells big money!
Let's go back to the safety
Essential oils don't mix in water, they need a dispersant. When I'm using them in the bath I will mix them in a surfactant first so that they aren't floating on the top of the water and irritate that oh-so-sensitive skin when I sit down!
When you add a drop to a glass of water that droplet doesn't mingle with the water like a drop of an herbal tincture. It sits there, and you sling that glass back and take a big gulp. The first signs of distress from this method are mouth and throat irritations. They've been damaged by this concentrated plant oil and repeated offenses exacerbate the situation. After awhile other foods that don't normally bother you start to sting or burn in the mouth or throat. If you keep up long enough you risk becoming sensitized to the chemical components in this essential oil - when you come into contact with ingredients that share one of those components you might break out in hives, or trigger a migraine. Wanna' see what that looks like? Ouch!
Is there any safe way to take essential oils by mouth?
Yes, there are! The trick is to have a digestible transport to get it from the mouth and into the digestive system so it can be taken up into the blood stream. There are clinical aromatherapists with advanced training as well as a few nurses and doctors who have received this training. Factors that come into play include things like metabolism, contraindications, known allergens, medications, and the nature of the illness. See, essential oils aren't used internally like a daily multi-vitamin, instead these powerful plant oils are used internally to rid the body of parasites or worms and in cases of bacterial and viral infections. They are also called upon when antibiotic-resistant infections cannot be controlled.
What's a good alternative?
If drinking essential oils is sounding less and less like a good idea to you perhaps you're wondering what alternatives you could turn to. Some of my favorite water additives are sitting in the produce bins in your refrigerator at home! Fresh herbal plants like peppermint and lavender, fresh fruits and vegetables like cucumber and peach and lime can be placed into a pitcher of water and let sit for a few minutes, an hour or overnight for flavoring and to support a wellness goal. The hydrosol that remains after distillation would be a possible alternative provided it is stored in the refrigerator from the time of distillation. Herbal teas can be prepared both hot or cold and are much gentler on the body.
Don't just take my word on this, do some research of your own!
Are Essential Oils Safe? University of Minnesota
Internal Use Statement from the Alliance of International Aromatherapists
Essential Oil Safety Information Aromaweb
Aromatherapy Undiluted - Safety and Ethics Burfield, Sheppard-Hanger
Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Healthcare Professionals, Tisserand & Young
Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Practice (3rd edition), Buckle
Handbook of Essential Oils: Science, Technology, and Applications, Baser & Buchbauer
Aromatherapy for Health Professionals (4th edition), Price
Why essential oils are not water flavoring agents
Essential 0ils and GRAS: What it really means
What Every Mom Needs to Know About Essential Oils
10 Epic Essential Oil Myths and Dangerous Uses of 2014
What does risk versus benefit look like in aromatherapy?
Aromatic Medicine: Internal dosing of essential oils