Essential Oils are NOT Essential

essential oils aromatherapy VOCs

Essential oils are used in many fragrances, cleaners, cosmetics, and aromatherapy. They are often sold as a natural alternative to industrial chemicals. Although they are “natural”, are they safe? How do they impact indoor air quality?

A recent study published in the Journal of Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health found significant volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emissions from essential oils. The research published in the paper, “Volatile chemical emissions from essential oils” reports on 24 essential oils including tea tree, eucalyptus, lavender, orange, peppermint, lime, and coconut.

Each essential oil emitted between 20 – 140 VOCs. The most prevalent VOCs were:

  • alpha-pinene
  • Limonene
  • Acetone
  • Linalool
  • alpha-phellandrene
  • beta-myrcene
  • Camphene
  • Ethanol
  • beta-pinene
  • 3-carene
  • Eucalyptol
  • Acetaldehyde
  • Beta-phellandrene
  • Gamma-terpinene
  • M-cymene
  • beta-trans-ocimene
  • Methanol
  • Terpinplene

Of these, perhaps the most concerning are acetaldehyde, acetone, and methanol. All three are chemicals that are regulated by OSHA for occupational exposures.

Does this mean you need to toss out all your essential oils? You will need to weigh the benefit you receive from them (nice fragrance, smooth skin, etc.) with the potential risks with VOC exposure. Your VOC exposure is typically worse doing a manicure, but that is a one-time event. Many people have essential oil diffusers constantly running and often right next to the bed. I remember breaking the heart of a client when our VOC testing showed that elevated levels in her home were mostly due to her beloved essential oil diffuser.

Just because something like essential oil is natural, doesn’t mean that it’s healthy.

Ian Cull

Ian Cull

Ian Cull is a nationally recognized expert in the field of indoor air quality. He is the President of Indoor Science, a company he started in 2004. He speaks around the world on air quality topics and is a training provider of the Indoor Air Quality Association. Mr. Cull is a Licensed Professional Engineer (PE) and Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH). His degree is in Environmental Engineering from the University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign. Mr. Cull has developed 50 air quality related courses for the IAQA University and is the author of the book, “Fundamentals of Mold Remediation”. In his words… “Besides being passionate about indoor air quality, I enjoy cycling, music, the Chicago Bulls, and having fun with my three kids.”

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10 thoughts on “Essential Oils are NOT Essential

    I’m not familiar with any such essential oils but it would be interesting to do a test on several products. If you like an aroma and it isn’t having a noticeable effect on anyone, then you probably don’t need to worry about this. But if you have sensitivities or you are trying to have the best indoor air quality possible, I would steer away.

    Pollutants like asbestos and radon also come from nature itself. Just because something is from nature doesn’t mean that it is risk-free.

    Like many things, there is a benefit and a risk. Let me not dissuade you too much from enjoying the benefits of essential oils… just be aware of some of the risks.

    Whoa! I am disfusing thieves essential oil, which contains eucalyptus, for 3 days non stop to get rid of mold in a bathroom vanity. On day 1 now. My Young Living distributor said she did this on mold in her mother’s home on a window, but no one lived there. I am in my apartment doing this. The diffuser is not beside my bed, but in my bathroom vanity. Should I stop as this is creating VOCs? Indoor Air did VOC testing for me with toxic paint fumes in another apartment. Christa

    If you live in an area with good outdoor air quality, I would recommend outdoor air ventilation over adding something into the indoor air.

    Essential oils are being marketed in ways that have increased their per capita usage to levels never seen before. Any consequences from long term exposure at these levels won’t show up till years later. By then it will be too late. We are in the guinea pig phase of a great human experiment. In the end, there is no substitute for clean air.