Safe use of essential oils during pregnancy and beyond

I’ll never forget the day a well-intentioned prenatal yoga instructor advised a studio full of expecting mothers to give their soon-to-be exclusively breastfed babies an essential oil concoction to ease digestion. (May I remind you, breastmilk is the single most easily digested food.)

There seems to have been a rise in the casual, everyday use of essential oils, often without knowledge of proper use. Popular oil companies have made unqualified, potentially harmful statements about their products, all while direct sales parties have become popular among many essential oil users.

Donna-WHealthy Children Project faculty, Master Herbalist and Certified Aromatherapist Donna Walls, RN, BSN, ANLC, ICCE, IBCLC has been working with new families for 38 years. Concerned by unsafe use of essential oils during pregnancy, breastfeeding, early childhood and beyond, Walls created a guide, The Safe Use of Aromatherapy Essential Oils.  In it, she expresses specific concern about the growing trend of applying essential oils directly to the nipple.

Walls published her first book, Natural Families- Healthy Homes, in 2007 and has presented Journey to Green: Protecting Breastfeeding, Babies and the Environment at the International Breastfeeding Conference. In 2013, she won the Speaking of Women’s Health® lifetime achievement award. Walls has given permission to share her newest guide here on Our Milky Way:

The Safe Use of Aromatherapy Essential Oils

Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils to affect mind and body. The essential oils are, literally, the plant oils distilled from aromatic plants. This concentrated oil can be used in many ways, but like the plants, must be used respectfully. Essential oils produce an aroma and are often thought of as medicinally benign. Just the opposite is true as these oils are 75-100 times more potent than the plant they are extracted from.

These oils are distilled or expressed from the plant glands. Oils change in character depending on the part of the plant used. The oils from the orange peel (orange essential oil) are distinctly different from the oils from the leaves (petitgrain essential oil) or blossoms (neroli essential oil).

Choosing Essential Oils

The therapeutic effects of essential oils are well documented, but these effects are derived only from actual plant oils. Synthetic oils may have a pleasant aroma, but do not demonstrate the same positive effect on mind and body. Synthetics are often labeled “perfume” or “fragrance” oils. When selecting and using essential oils, choose only a “pure essential oil” which is stored in dark amber bottles. Pure essential oils most often are more expensive, have a fuller, deeper aroma and evaporate within minutes when placed on paper.

Some safety guidelines for general use and  use during  pregnancy are:

1) Do not use oils undiluted on the skin- do a patch test if prone to sensitivities

2) DO NOT take oils internally- especially in capsules. There may be some exceptions;  ie under the direct supervision of a credentialed, knowledgeable, practitioner. Avoid directions for oral use from company sponsored marketing.

3)  Use only in small amounts- formulas for essential oils are given in drops only, do not exceed recommended number of drops

4) Do not use in or near eyes

5)  Use only pure essential oils

6)  Use very dilute formulas for children and during pregnancy- see dilution tables below

7) Use extra care on broken or damaged skin

8) Use only approved oils for pregnancy, infants and children and adults in compromised health.

9) Be aware of conditions which are contraindicated for use of essential oils

Essential oils to Avoid throughout Pregnancy, Labor, and while Breastfeeding

Essential Oil Latin Name
Aniseed Pimpinella anisum
Basil ct. estragole Ocimum basilicum
Birch Betula lenta
Camphor Cinnamomum camphora
Hyssop Hyssopus officinalis
Mugwort Artemisia vulgaris
Parsley seed or leaf Petroselinum sativum
Pennyroyal Mentha pulegium
Sage Salvia officinalis
Tansy Tanacetum vulgare
Tarragon Artemisia dracunculus
Thuja Thuja occidentalis
Wintergreen Gaultheria procumbens
Wormwood Artemisia absinthium

Table reprinted from National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy

How to Use Essential Oils-

Inhalation- with electric, battery or candle diffusers, or placing a small amount on a piece of fabric or cotton ball. This is good for relaxation and calming essential oils.

Topical- diluted with a base oil (olive, sweet almond, jojoba, apricot kernel, or any cold pressed oil) or distilled water for direct application or misting of the skin (see dilution table below)

Hydrotherapy- 10-15 drops added to baths, foot or sitz baths

[“Dilutions for Topical Use” section omitted from original article. Walls emphasizes that oils need to be diluted before topical use!]

Remember, the use of essential oils should be individualized, each person has unique responses to the oils..Aromatherapy can be an important part of holistic care, but must be used as part of an evidenced-based  program.

References and Resources

Alliance of International Aromatherapists

Aroma Web

American Holistic Nurses Association

Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists

International Federation of Aromatherapists

National Cancer Institute

2 Replies to “Safe use of essential oils during pregnancy and beyond”

  1. Great article. I have heard a few times to be cautious about where you purchase essential oils, as it is not regulated. I was wondering about where to find reputable retailers?

  2. Hi Cristin! Thank you for your comment. Donna says: “I usually recommend purchasing from local health food or natural foods stores. Also a good suggestion to call the company and ask questions like: are your oils pure? What guidelines for use do you give with your oils? What is the source your plants/oils? What do you recommend for storage?”

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