To drink or not to drink. That is the question.
A number of aromatherapy multilevel marketing companies advocate the practice of putting drops of essential oils in a cup of water and then drinking them. I won’t name names here. If you’ve been involved with essential oils for any length of time, you probably know that there are at least two of these companies. Marketing reps advocate this practice to their customers without disclosing basic safety information.
The truth is, essential oils are highly concentrated extracts of plant material and can be toxic if sufficient quantities are ingested. For safety reasons, essential oils should be diluted in a carrier oil prior to application on the human body, or diffused into the air for inhalation.
There are three main routes through which essential oils can be incorporated into the human body: inhalation, topically and oral ingestion. This article will focus on why oral ingestion is the least effective and potentially the riskiest route. But before we go into why oral ingestion is not recommended, it helps to understand how essential oils get into the human body and how they work.
Inhalation is the fastest method of administration. This is because the molecules of the essential oil directly enter the bloodstream through the mucous membranes in the nasal cavity and the tissues of the lungs, and from there, are absorbed by the brain. You could say that inhalation is a sort of “quick fix”.
Essential oils are comprised of aromatic molecules, which travel through the nostrils and then come into contact with two nerve patches that extend from the olfactory bulbs in the brain. When an aromatic molecule makes contact with receptors in the nerve patches, signals are then sent to the olfactory bulbs, which directly affect the limbic system of the brain. The limbic system is the most ancient part of the brain; it is responsible for our emotions, feelings, memories, and learned responses to stimuli. This is why scent is so powerful; the effects of inhalation are nearly immediate. Our survival mechanisms are closely tied to our sense of smell. (1)
The second fastest method is topical application. When diluted in a carrier oil (coconut, almond, etc.), the essential oils are absorbed into the skin, and eventually into the bloodstream. This is a slower process, akin to timed-release medication.
Essential oils can enter the body via the skin in a process called percutaneous absorption. Because these molecules are so small, they freely and easily pass through the outer layer of the skin, the epidermis, and then into the bloodstream. It is also possible that the essential oil molecules travel via the interstitial fluid, which surrounds all cells of the body. Essential oils may also pass through the cells themselves. Science is not completely clear on the precise mechanism of action. When essential oils are pre-diluted in a carrier oil, the small molecules of the essential oil are spread over a larger area of skin. Further, since the molecules of the carrier oil are too large to pass through the epidermis, the essential oils themselves are carried into the skin, and then into the bloodstream. (2)
The aromatherapy community advocates pre-diluting essential oils in a carrier oil before topical application, with few exceptions. For further information, feel free to read my article “NEATness Doesn’t Always Count“.
With oral ingestion, however, the essential oil takes a circuitous path from the mouth, through the esophagus and into the stomach, where the molecules commingle with digestive juices and acids until finally entering the bloodstream through the stomach lining, and partially through the lining of the mouth and throat. As you can imagine, this is a highly inefficient method of administration and the essential oil molecules can be destroyed by stomach acids, decreasing their effectiveness. (3)
When you add drops of essential oils to a glass of water, the oils do not dissolve in the water; they simply float on top, because oil and water do not mix. They are insoluble in each other. When you drink the water, an oil slick will typically be the first thing to come in contact with the delicate tissues of your mouth and throat.
Essential oil molecules have been known to irritate the mucous membranes of the mouth, esophagus, and stomach. Continuing the practice of orally consuming essential oils in water can, over time, increase your risk of becoming sensitized to the chemical components in that particular essential oil. Sensitization can result in hives, triggering a migraine, or other allergic reactions. This practice can even interfere with medications or aggravate other medical conditions. (4)
A common rebuttal to the advice of refraining from oral consumption of essential oils is a statement along the lines of “our oils are pure therapeutic grade and are safe for internal use” or “certain oils are GRAS” (Generally Regarded As Safe). Keep in mind, however, that GRAS applies to consuming in food (food additives), not in water. (5)
Further, there is no organization that certifies essential oils as “therapeutic grade”. Companies are applying this label themselves.
On a personal note, in the past, I have drunk lemon and peppermint essential oils in water, and it wasn’t the most pleasant experience. They are highly concentrated and since oil does not dissolve in water, you are taking them at full strength. I’ve heard that one drop of peppermint essential oil is the equivalent of 27 cups of peppermint tea. I don’t know of anyone who would consume that quantity at one time. A drop of lemon essential oil could be equal to dozens of lemons. Since lemon essential oil is typically cold-pressed from the rind, you would be consuming that part of the fruit. I’ll just stick with lemon juice or peppermint tea, thank you very much. Essential oils do dissolve in alcohol, however. You can make a general-purpose spray by dissolving an essential oil in ethanol, for example.
As with anything you eat or drink, use common sense and listen to your body – it won’t steer you wrong. I’m interested in knowing whether you may have experienced adverse reactions from applying essential oils to your skin without diluting them, or if you have had an unpleasant experience from drinking essential oils in water. Please feel free to comment in the form below.
Thank you for your time,
(1) Essential Aromatherapy: A pocket guide to essential oils & aromatherapy. Susan Worwood, Valerie Ann Worwood. 2003. pp. 9-14.
(2) Worwood, pp. 14-15.
(4) (5) Attention Essential Oil Enthusiasts: No More Drinking Your Oils! Leslie Moldenauer. Nov. 25, 2016.