When I was in massage therapy school there was so much controversy over the safety of essential oils during pregnancy, that it was recommended to us to avoid any and all essential oils for those clients who were pregnant or breastfeeding.
No one could agree on which essential oils were safe and which should be avoided. We were told stories of essential oils causing preterm labour, miscarriage, and birth defects. We were basically scared out of using anything at all.
While this article has nothing to do with nutrition, I felt the need to write it anyway in an effort to clear the confusion around this subject. Aromatherapy can be extremely useful for many situations and conditions, even during pregnancy, labour and breastfeeding.
You may not think that something as innocent as the natural scent of lavender or lemon could possibly be harmful to you or your baby while you are pregnant.. after all, you’re not ingesting it. However, the act of breathing in essential oils or applying them onto your skin does in fact transport them directly into your body.
And essential oils are extremely powerful. Because they are organic substances, they have no problem crossing the placenta and affecting the growing fetus.
The thing to remember here, is that the amount that you actually absorb is very tiny, and the amount that crosses the placenta is even tinier.
So while I’m not saying you’ve got free reign to go nuts and use piles of essential oils.. there may not be need for so much concern.
According to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA), and the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists (IFPA), most essential oils are perfectly safe when used appropriately for pregnancy, and there are actually no documented cases of essential oils causing any harm to a developing baby.
However, there are a few specific guidelines to follow to ensure you are using essential oils correctly and safely.
- Quality. This cannot be emphasized enough. Quality can make all the difference in essential oil safety. If you are using cheap, low quality essential oils, there is always a risk of harm (whether you are pregnant or not). Be sure to find the highest therapeutic grade essential oils possible. Most often this will mean paying more for organic and cold-processed oils. It is worth it.
- Dilution. This is also an important point to remember for everyone using essential oils, but especially important during pregnancy. If you don’t dilute essential oils properly, they can be much too potent for use safely. During pregnancy, use as little of an oil as possible. This will often mean just one drop mixed in a carrier oil such as jojoba or almond oil before being applied to the body. If you are taking a bath, use no more than four drops in the bath water.
- The presence of certain chemicals in some aromatherapy oils make them unsuitable for pregnancy, such as phenols, aromatic aldehydes and aromatic ketones. These oils are very uncommon in aromatherapy however, so do not pose a huge concern. For a complete list of the oils that contain these chemicals, click on this link.
- Personal sensitivity. Some women experience a heightened sense of smell, and more sensitive skin during pregnancy. Keep this in mind and alter your dilution of oils if this occurs.
- Photosensitivity. Some essential oils increase our skins photosensitivity, and therefor are to be used with caution in anyone who is exposed to the sun for any length of time. During pregnancy, the skin can become even more sensitive to sunlight, and so it is especially important to be aware of these oils when pregnant and avoid them when you are outside. Photosensitizing essential oils are mainly from the citrus family (bergamot, lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange and tangerine). Of these, bergamot is the biggest culprit, but to minimize this effect, look for bergaptene-free bergamot oil (bergaptene is the substance that causes photosensitivity and sometimes allergic reactions).
- Stage of pregnancy. Some essential oils are not safe during the first trimester of pregnancy, but this information is very conflicting, depending on the source.
Having spent quite some time looking into this topic now, I have determined some basic guidelines that seem to fit with nearly every source I consulted.
- Avoid using essential oils in the first trimester. This is erring on the side of caution, but a lot of people discourage aromatherapy in the first trimester. Some say just to avoid certain essential oils for the first three months, but I would say, unless you are going to consult with a midwife and professional aromatherapist – avoid them all for the first three months.
- Avoid the photosensitizing oils directly on skin (such as in a massage or used in lotions or skin oils).
- Always dilute essential oils and use the least amount possible.
- Always always always use the highest quality oils you can find.
Here is a list of oils generally considered safe for use during pregnancy, and some of their benefits:
Lavender – a very relaxing oil, helps reduce stress and anxiety, and also helps reduce fluid retention. **Don’t use in the first trimester!
Eucalyptus – a great oil for decongesting the sinuses and respiratory system, it is also an anti-inflammatory
Ylang ylang – this oil can decrease blood pressure and help you feel more relaxed
Sandalwood – helps balance moods, calms and relaxes and helps promote sleep
Cypress – can help with varicose veins, swelling in the legs and feet, and hemorrhoids. **Only safe after 5 months!
Geranium – an uplifting oil, geranium is a great anti-depressant. It also encourages circulation and so can help with swelling in the legs and feet.
Orange – great for a mood and energy boost
Frankincense – the benefits of frankincense are many, including being an anti-depressant, anti-inflammatory and immune stimulant. It also helps promote healing and can help reduce headaches and high blood pressure.
If you are concerned about the use of essential oils, if you have any past or present medical conditions, or if you have had difficult pregnancies in the past – please consult a qualified aromatherapist prior to using any essential oils during pregnancy or breastfeeding.