The 6 Essential Oil Mistakes You’re Probably Making

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As essential oils have become increasingly mainstream, you may have experimented by adding a signature scent to your space to transform your home or bedroom into a relaxing haven. Or maybe you’ve taken to wearing a diffusing pendant as a necklace to deliver all-day, on-the-go good vibes. Used in these ways, essential oils can be relaxing, invigorating, and simply lovely. 

But they’re not without risks. “Yes, essential oils are ‘natural,’ but they’re still manufactured in the sense that you don’t walk into a field of lavender and find a pool of lavender essential oil,” says chiropractor and aromatherapist Eric Zielinski, author of the forthcoming book The Healing Power of Essential Oils ($13; amazon.com). “Our bodies weren’t meant to interact with them directly, so you need to respect and honor the fact that they’re super-concentrated, as potent as medicine, and should be treated as such.”

Part of cultivating that respect for these ingredients means knowing how to handle them safely. Here’s what you need to know—if you don’t already—before the next time you turn on your diffuser.

Mistake #1: Thinking essential oils are harmless

People can—and do—get hurt using essential oils, like this woman who was badly burned from her diffuser after she got too close to her fireplace. You don’t have to be fearful of essential oils; you just need to be smart about how you use them to avoid making dangerous mistakes, experts say. “I’m not afraid of a kitchen knife, but I need to be careful when I use it,” Zielinski points out. “You could have the most useful tool but hurt yourself if you’re ignorant of the reality of what to do.”

Not only can essential oils cause burns, they can also trigger asthma or allergic reactions, says holistic nurse Jeanne Kenney, RN, with Montefiore Health System’s University Hospital for Albert Einstein College of Medicine. They may also exacerbate underlying health conditions or interfere with some medications. “If you have any kind of health condition, run it by your doc,” before you start using essential oiils, Kenney says. “Just say, ‘By the way, I love this scent.’ It doesn’t hurt to start there.”

That’s especially true if you’re pregnant, she adds. Experts aren’t entirely clear on how much essential oil might make its way to a developing fetus if the mother uses the natural remedies, Kenney explains. “If a woman is pregnant or thinks she’s pregnant, she should not use any essential oils until she checks with her doctor.”

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Mistake #2: Using undiluted essential oils

Once you understand there are potential risks of essential oils, you can start using them—with some caution. “You don’t know how an individual is going to respond until they either inhale it, put it on their skin, or are treated with diffusion,” Kenney says.

Typically, essential oils are diluted to a strength where they’re safest to use. “What you want to do is lessen the potency of the oil,” she explains. There’s been some debate—and a surprising amount of online interest in ingesting them “straight” or “neat,” she says—but in clinical use, healthcare practitioners are trained to dilute. Essential oils are often diluted with other oils, such as coconut, jojoba, almond, or even vegetable oils, which are called carrier oils.

The standard dilution is 2%, Zielinski says. That’s about 12 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier oil if you’re mixing up a concoction of your own. “When you’re dealing with sensitive areas like the underarms or face, [choose] 1% or lower,” he says.

Don’t confuse dilution with diffusion, Zielinski adds. While diffusers disperse essential oils into the air as tiny vaporized particles, oil and water don’t actually mix. That means the tiny particles of essential oil in the air when your diffuser’s running are undiluted and can still cause burns or other skin effects if they land on you (although, he says, injuries from diffusers are rare if you’re using them properly).

Mistake #3: Setting yourself up for spills–without a clean-up plan

Accidents happen. But take safety seriously and place your diffuser somewhere out of harm’s way. A bedside table is too close to flailing limbs; a staircase landing is prone to tripping. Spills can mean undiluted oil lands on your skin, setting you up for adverse reactions or injury.

Of course, accidents can happen even when you’re being careful. So have a plan for what to do if you get undiluted oil on your skin. Believe it or not, your first step shouldn’t be water. “Water will make it worse,” Zielinski says. Instead, reach for more of your carrier oil, whether it’s coconut, jojoba, or even some olive oil from the kitchen in a pinch. “It essentially dilutes it more,” he explains, which limits burning or irritation. Once you’ve cleansed with carrier oil, you can wash with soap and water.

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Mistake #4: Blasting your diffuser all day

The “icon” of essential oil research and safety is Robert Tisserand, who believes it’s possible to overdo it when it comes to essential oil exposure. Rather than leaving a diffuser on for hours at a time, he instructs users to turn the diffuser off after 30 to 60 minutes for at least that long before diffusing again. Zielinski finds that conservative, however. “I’ll tell you we have diffusers running all day long in my home,” he says.

Kenney takes a middle-ground approach, pointing out that diffusers often have different settings that can treat the air slowly or quickly depending on how you use them. “A diffuser can emit different strengths,” she says. “Some people find that the air can become pretty heavily treated in a short time.”

Experiment during an hour or so, then turn it off. “Maybe wait to turn it back on after an hour,” she says. “So much depends on the space, and some oils have different kinds of potency as far as scent.” What you really don’t want is for the scent to become totally overpowering. “Really potent scents can be overwhelming and [make you feel like] you need to get out, you can’t breathe anymore,” she says.

Mistake #5: Picking sub-par products

Wondering what to look for in an essential oil? Start by finding the appropriate aisle in a health food or grocery store like Whole Foods, Kenney says. First, look for the organic oils; that way, she explains, “you know they’re not mixing other types of oil in there that may not supposed to be used therapeutically or might have an off scent.” Next, open a few of the tester bottles to see which scents you really like. “Some people love florals, some people prefer spices,” she says. The scent itself is mostly a matter of personal preference, as long as you’re picking from a reputable, organic brand. (Kenney recommends Wyndmere.)

If you’re going to use essential oils in a diffuser, look for one that casts a fine mist “so you’re not drenching the area,” she says. You also want one made of a high-quality material that won’t erode, since essential oils can degrade some plastics, Zielinski adds. A few brands experts trust include Aroma2go (check out the Gabriel diffuser; $57, amazon.com), doTERRA (like the Petal Diffuser; $52, amazon.com), and Young Living (try the Rainstone Diffuser; $170, amazon.com).

If you’re going to be doing your own dilution instead, pick a carrier oil. Usually, plenty of choices will be stocked right next to the essential oils on store shelves, Kenney says. “I recommend people test carrier oils on their skin because they can differ in feel,” she says. Pick one with a texture and scent you like.

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Mistake #6: Forgetting that essential oils can be fun

Safety is paramount, yes. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the experience of dabbling with essential oils. As long as you know you’re not going to irritate any underlying health conditions or allergies, Kenney recommends experimenting until you find just the scent that creates the ambience you were going for. “It’s almost like creating your own perfume,” she notes, “and then people begin to associate the scent with you. It’s a lot of fun and can be really gratifying.”

Bottles of different oils should only cost around $12 or $13, so it’s not a huge financial investment to sample a few. Kenney recommends making your own mister: Fill a 2-oz. spray bottle with filtered water and add 10 drops of any essential oil you find appealing. It’s small enough to carry with you throughout your day for a little pick-me-up spritz when needed, she says.

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