What do you do when you direly need to feel utter confusion and a pounding headache? Simple, you search the term “essential oils and pregnancy”.
I tell you, never has such vast amounts of garbage been spewed on a single topic by people who have neither the credentials nor the experience nor the authority to so much as write a single sentence on alternative medicine or aromatherapy.
It seems like anybody who knows two finger–typing has taken it upon himself/herself to enlighten the world on the use of essential oils during pregnancy. Most of the rants are a rehashing of stuff that has already been written a million times.
No, it’s not the repetition but the additions that are the jarring aspect of these posts. Oils are added and removed from the safe and dangerous list at whim. In fact, I like to call it the deluge of misinformation one that has created mass hysteria surrounding the use of Eos during pregnancy.
But, why should the blame for the mayhem be pinned only on the naysayers when the pro-essential oil lobby is just as bad, with their dangerous advice on the oral and undiluted use of essential oils?
Unfortunately, the hoopla has drowned out the voices of sanity, reason and experience. Such is the fear mongering created by the dubious claims that a lot of pregnant women are now too scared to use essential oils. And that is the true tragedy of this situation because…
When you are pregnant, you need all the help that you can get!
The thing about pregnancy is that it’s a crazy, roller coaster ride. Surely, you are expecting this. I mean the process starts with you peeing on a stick and ends with you screaming your head out in an attempt to push out a head with a circumference of over 14 inches from an orifice that is designed to accommodate an appendage with a girth of 4 inches.
And there is so much fun to be had between the peeing and the pushing! You will feel every emotion known to mankind and may even discover a few hybrids. Happiness and depression, anger and calmness, nervousness and confidence, they will all come to you and often in quick succession.
Your body will sail through the rapids along with your mind. Your face will glow, but your feet will be competing with your belly in the “who is the biggest of us all” contest. You will have crazy cravings, but you will puke out every last morsel. Fatigue will weigh you down, but sleep will elude you. Simply put, you will be the rope that gets pulled on both ends in a biological game of tug of war.
No wonder by the 9th month, most women are desperate to just pop that baby out. To add to the fun, no two pregnancies are alike, so you can never predict what awaits you. And the worst bit is that as you go through the tumultuous ride, you won’t get any help from the meds that you have come to trust.
I am talking about pills that grace the medicine cabinet of most homes and are swallowed without a second thought. Painkillers, antihistamines, antibiotics and antifungals will all be off the table along with scores of other drug classes.
You can even forget about your nasal congestion drops and the retin-A cream that you have come to rely on.
- So, what do you do when the pain in your back is unbearable?
- How do you deal with an allergy or an infection?
- What about the nausea and the puking?
- How do you handle the depression?
Simple, you either grin and bear it or you turn to alternative treatment modalities like aromatherapy.
But, they say essential oils should not be used when pregnant!
Three words are often thrown around to describe the alleged dangers of essential oils: emmenagogue, abortifacient and teratogenic, and I must admit they all sound “oh-so” scientific and impressive too. Psst, I actually believe they are used less to describe and more to create the impression of credibility when it’s lacking in reality. But enough said on that front!
Now, let me get to the stuff that matters and tell you what these words mean and how and if they apply to the use of essential oils.
A substance that promotes and regulates menstrual discharge. The essential oils clubbed in this category usually include angelica, chamomile, ginger, cinnamon, clary sage, jasmine, myrrh, peppermint, juniper, frankincense, rose, sweet marjoram, rosemary and sweet fennel. Yes, almost all of your favorite oils and above all those that get used most often are in this list on one or the other website.
A compound that induces or can induce abortion. The oils that are alleged to have this side effect include mugwort, pennyroyal, parsley seed, sage, rue, savin, thuja, wormwood, tansy and sassafras, hyssop.
An agent that can cause developmental disturbances in the fetus, leading to congenital abnormalities. The oils that are believed to cause this effect are Plectranthus fruticosus (forest spurflower), wintergreen, birch, sweet fennel, oregano, oak moss.
Depending on the source of the information, you will find more oils added to these categories. Some are used frequently by DIY blender and even in commercial preparation while others are rare to find and seldom used.
What I am going to do now is dissect the disturbing claims made about these oils and essential oils in general. Everything that you read from hereon, all the arguments that I have put forth, are based on:
- The works and the writings of authors such as Robert Tisserand, Julia lawless, Tony Balacs, Ann Berwick, Shirley Price, Sue Clarke, Jennifer.P. Rhind and others.
- The guidelines and recommendations of the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists and the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.
- Scientific studies conducted to understand and investigate the effects of essential oils.
- My own experience with blending and using these extracts.
Let us start by talking about the emmenagogic and abortifacient effects of essential oils. I am not disputing that many essential oils are effective emmenagogues that encourage menstrual flow and as such lend a helping hand in conception.
The logical conclusion is that since these oils encourage menstrual flow, they must cause uterine contractions. Yes, some herbs and essential oils do cause strong uterine contractions and I will talk about these in a bit.
But, I assure you that light weights such as peppermint, rose, ginger, neroli and lavender essential oils do no such thing. And, there is absolutely no scientific evidence to prove me wrong here.
At best, these extracts encourage the onset of a slow period, the kind in which you have all the symptoms of PMS but little or no bleeding. This result is possibly attributed to the hormone balancing, stress reducing and diuretic effects of these oils.
However, neither these herbs nor the essential oils distilled from them can cause intense uterine contraction that can lead to a miscarriage. That being said, I will admit there are certain emmenagogic and oxytocic herbs and essential oils that have long been used as natural abortives.
But when used as such, the herbs have to be ingested, typically in significant quantities. For instance, you’d have to take 10 drops of the tincture of tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) every two hours to get serious emmenagogic effects from it. Similarly, you would need to ingest 20 drops of the tincture of black cohosh root to feel its oxytocic effects.
Now, it can be argued that since essential oils are stronger than the herbs they are distilled from, hence inhalation and topical application can cause as much damage as ingesting the herb. I agree with this argument and I am all for caution.
However, given the toxic effect of some of these oils, they are rarely recommended and used in a general setting. In fact, most of these oils are not sold by manufacturers and retailers of therapeutic grade essential oils. Here is a list of such herbs and oils that are contraindicated in the NAHA guidelines as well as in the works of the authors listed above.
- Penny royal (Manthe pulegium): The herb is one of the most potent inducer of uterine contractions and also extremely poisonous. The essential oil is hepatotoxic but abortifacient only when ingested in very large quantities.
- Rue (Ruta graveolens): The herb decreases the blood supply to the endometrial lining but the essential oil has no direct impact on the uterine muscle.
- Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare): The herb can cause uterine shrinkage resulting in miscarriage but does not impact uterine muscles.
- Mug wort (Artemisia vulgaris): The herb and the essential oil are both emmenagogic.
- Angelica root (Angelica archangelica): Has oxytocic and emmenagogic effects
- Wild carrot seed (Daucus carota): Impacts the uterine lining.
- Parsley (Petroselinum crispum): Parsley apiole, which is a major component of the oil is an emmenagogic agent.
- Indian dill: Emmenagogic effect due to the presence of apiole.
- Plectranthus: Abortifacient due to the presence of sabinyl acetate, which inhibits implantation.
- Spanish sage oil (Salvia lavandulifolia): Abortifacient due to the presence of sabinyl acetate, which inhibits implantation.
- Savin (Juniperus sabina): Abortifacient due to the presence of sabinyl acetate, which inhibits implantation.
- Sage (Salvia officinalis): Abortifacient due to the presence of sabinyl acetate, which inhibits implantation.
Herbs and oils that are contraindicated due to possible toxicity include:
- Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora): Neurotoxic.
- Thuja (Thuja accidentalis): Neurotoxic due to thujone content.
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): Possible neurotoxin due to thujone content.
- Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium): Possible neurotoxin due to thujone content.
- Sassafras (Sassafras albidum): Narcotic and psychotropic effect due to the presence of safrole.
- Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum): Narcotic and psychotropic effect due to the presence of safrole, but only when ingested in large quantities.
- Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans): Intoxicative effect.
- Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis): Possible toxicity due to thujone, pinocamphone and isopino-camphone content.
- Blue artemesia (Artemesia aborescens): Neurotoxic.
- Wintergreen (Gaultheria fragmentissima wall): Possible toxicity due to methyl salicylate overdose.
- Birch (Betula lenta): Possible toxicity due to methyl salicylate overdose.
- Anise Star (Illicium verum): Carcinogenic due to estragole content and narcotic due to safrole content. Also potential for skin sensitivity if oxidized.
- Cedar (Chaemocyparis thyoides): Possible toxicity due to thujone pinocamphone and isopino-camphone content.
Should we just assume that a mere whiff of these oils is enough to endanger your pregnancy?
I won’t give you a straight explanation for this. Instead, I am just going to list the studies that have led to the inclusion of these oils in this list. Bear with me here folks because these studies and the way in which the essential oils were used in them will truly put things in perspective.
Let me start with the first bit of startling information – nearly 95% of the studies that I am going to list here involved rodent subjects and in the remaining 5%, the studies were carried out on human uterine cells. So, there cannot possibly be a direct correlation. Yet, what is worth noting is the mode of administration of the essential oils and their quantity.
Here it goes:
- The abortifacient effect of savin, sage and spanish sage essential oils is attributed to sabinyl acetate, a compound that inhibits implantation. However, the oils and the compound itself only exhibited this effect when injected subcutaneously in quantities of 135 mg/kg of body weight.
- Eucalyptus essential oil was not found to be toxic even when mice were injected with unnaturally high quantities of 135 mg/kg throughout 1/3rd of the gestational period.
- Camphor oil, which is generally considered toxic, caused infant fatality in just one case in which 57 ml of camphorated oil was ingested by the mother-to-be.
- Parsley oil is generally contraindicated during pregnancy. But, abortion can only be induced by ingesting about 6 ml of parsley seed oil.
- Indian dill oil, which is another extract that contains apiole, was only found to be abortifacient when consumed in doses of 5 ml or more.
- Pennyroyal is often considered to be the strongest abortifacient and emmenagogic substance in nature. Yet, the oil distilled from this plant failed to induce miscarriage even when it was ingested in doses greater than 7 ml.
Do you see a common trend emerging here?
These oils, even those that are generally deemed toxic, lead to fatalities only when ingested and that too in high quantities. There is nothing; I mean not even a word, written about commonly used essential oils like rosemary, lavender, eucalyptus, frankincense and lemon inducing miscarriage when used for inhalation or topically.
And, I know for a fact that nobody in their right mind would ask you to do shots with lavender, eucalyptus or any other essential oil, whether you are pregnant or not.
In fact, when it comes to essential oils, the cardinal rule is to go slow, very slow, on usage, regardless of how they are administered.
Why only ingestion or topical application, even when diffused, your exposure should not exceed 15 to 30 minutes. You are not supposed to keep the diffuser up and running all through the night, whether you are pregnant or not.
With that settled, let’s talk about essential oils that are contraindicated due to their possible teratogenic effects. These include:
- Dalmatian sage or common sage (Salvia officinalis): Negative influence of embryonic distribution in rodents
- Sweet fennel (Foeniculum vulgare): Inhibits differentiation of cells in rat embryos.
- Cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum zeylanicum): Alters embryo distribution.
- Oregano (Origanum vulgare): Increased rate of embryonic cell death.
- Cassia (Cinnamomum cassia): Alters embryonic distribution and cell death rate.
- Birch (Betula lenta): Contains methyl salicylate.
- Wintergreen (Gaultheria fragrantissima): Contain methyl salicylate.
Once again, notice that all tests were carried out on rodent subjects and the oils were administered in large doses of 150 mg/kg/day to 375 mg/kg/day. The oils were fed to the animals, which I believe, explains the toxicity.
As far as sweet fennel oil is concerned, this is the only one that showed the potential to embryonic cells even in small quantities. But, even in this case, the oil was directly poured/administered on the cells.
So, here comes another common sense question – who said that it’s safe to ingest essential oils in such large quantities?
It isn’t safe to use essential oils in those quantities in any form or way. I have said this before, and I will say it again. These oils are the very essence of the botanicals they are derived from. Of course, this is potent stuff and not something that should or can be used recklessly.
That said, as you can see a lot of the “so-called” ill effects only come into the picture when essential oils are used in unnaturally large quantities and administered directly into the body, either via ingestion or injection. Now, this is something that is never going to happen in real life, unless somebody is suicidal or incredibly stupid.
However, I am all for playing it safe. So, let’s stay away from all the oils listed above. But, that would still leave us with plenty of other options. If there is no study to prove that the other essential oils are unsafe in any sense, why are they being implicated?
Blame the fear mongering on outlandish assumptions and wild speculations!
Camphor, thujone, pulegone and pinocamphone all belong to class of compounds known as ketone. And, just because 4 substances in this class, which consists of several dozen others, exhibit abortifacient and toxic effects, the whole class is shunned.
The problem is that ketones can be found in many commonly used essential oils and this is what has led to safe essential oils being labelled as contraindicated. Caraway, turmeric, rosemary, eucalyptus and davana are just a few such oils that have earned a bad rep just for their ketone content although the ketones in these oils are perfectly safe.
Another problem is the assumption that just because the plant as a whole has emmenagogic or abortifacient effect, the essential oil too must lead to such effects. I have told you before that essential oils make up just 1-2% of the total plant volume. This means that these extracts cannot possibly contain all the phytochemicals found in the herb.
Classic examples of this faulty assumption are the essential oils of tansy, savin, pennyroyal and juniper. Without a doubt, these plants are all abortifacients, but the oils distilled from them exhibited no direct action on the uterine muscle. So in reality, the herb and the oil can have totally different and sometimes even opposite effects?
You see where this is coming from? I believe, the author of Clinical Aromatherapy, Dr. Jane Buckle said it best when she asserted, “It is extremely unlikely that a nightly bath containing a few drops of essential oils will cause any problems for the unborn child…. there are no records of abnormal fetuses or aborted fetuses due to the ‘normal’ use of essential oils, either by inhalation or topical application.”
But then, what about the cautionary advice to not use essential oils in the first trimester?
This is another bit of unsubstantiated advice that instills fear about essential oils. Tragically, it can be found in numerous online and offline publications.
The only basis they have for this random statutory warning is the fact that nearly 15% of all clinically recognized pregnancies end by the 20th week and 80% of these miscarriages happen in the first trimester. Essential oils have nothing to do with these figures, and just because this is undoubtedly a fragile period in the pregnancy is no reason to refrain from their use.
Having said that, if an oil is contraindicated, I don’t see why and how this is likely to change after the first trimester or through the duration of the pregnancy. The opposite is also true.
If an essential oil is considered safe for use during the second and third trimester, there is no reason to assume that it will lead to ill-effects if used during the first trimester.
A vital point to understand here is that if an essential oil is toxic, it is toxic per se and for all; case in point, elecampane (Inula helenium) and mustard ((Brassica nigra); these oils cannot and should not be used by anybody. So, essential oils can be used throughout the pregnancy as long as a few common sense safety tips are followed, which you would be expected to do otherwise as well, pregnant or not.
A few things to keep in mind if you want to use essential oils when pregnant
- As your body gets ready to take on one of the most complex and fulfilling tasks it will ever handle, your senses often go into overdrive. So, limit your dermal exposure to oils to no more than 1-2%.
- Don’t use the same oil in multiple blends as this may lead to sensitivity and over dosage.
- For diffusion, limit your use of essential oils to 3-5 drops/100 ml of water and restrict your active exposure sessions to 15-20 minutes to avoid nausea and headaches.
- For a bath mix, use no more than 3-4 drops, mixed with a teaspoon of milk for dilution. Warm water works better than hot water and limit your soak time to 15 minutes.
- You can also use essential oils for cold and hot compresses. Once again, keep maximum usage in the range of 4-5 drops added to a foot soak tub full of water or 2-3 drops added to a large salad bowl filled with water. In both cases, remember to dilute the essential oils in a teaspoon of light carrier oil before adding the blend/single to the water.
- Oils that are known to cause dermal sensitivity should be used sparingly and only after a patch test. These include essential oils of black pepper, clove bud, lemon grass, ylang ylang, tea tree and melissa.
- Do not use essential oils internally in any way, when pregnant or breast feeding. Be mindful of the amount of clove essential oil you are ingesting if you are using it for tooth ache and/or dental hygiene.
The Best Essential Oils To Use When Pregnant
- For their warmth: Ginger, black pepper
- To handle queasiness and nausea: Cardamom, lemon, lime
- For calmness and their soothing: Lavender, chamomile, helichrysum
- To deal with sleepless night: Sandalwood, vetiver
- For energy and freshness: Grapefruit, bergamot, orange, neroli and mandarin
- To handle skin problems: Geranium, palmarosa, frankincense, tea tree and rosewood
- For pain and soreness: Peppermint, rose
Apart from these, we will also use the essential oils of patchouli, petitgrain, turmeric and cypress.
As for the carrier oils, a combination of jojoba and rosehip seed has just the right viscosity for all skin types and all areas of the body. If you want more moisturization/lubrication, opt for a mixture of virgin olive oil and sweet almond/sesame seed oil.
Top Essential Oil Recipes To Use When Pregnant
1. The morning sickness blend
- 5 drops ginger
- 3 drops lemon
- 2 drops cardamom
Mix the oils and store in a dark glass bottle. Personally, I favor using this blend in an inhaler, because this way, you can carry it along and it’s available whenever you need it. Of course, you can always keep it in a roll on bottle and put some on a handkerchief when you feel a wave of nausea coming on.
If using in an inhaler, double the quantity of the oils. Mix in a small glass bowl and soak the absorbent wick of the inhaler in the oils, before inserting it back into the holder/body of the inhaler. All it takes is a few whiffs of this zesty aroma to stop the stomach churning.
2. The emotional support blends
For anxiety and stress
- 5 drops lavender
- 3 drops neroli
For depression, fear and nervousness
- 5 drops sweet orange
- 7 drops palmarosa
Preparation and storage as above. To use, diffuse 3-4 drops for 15-20 minutes. Both these blends also work exceptionally well when used in a reed diffuser. With prenatal stress on the rise and its detrimental effects on fetal neurodevelopment proven, I’d suggest you carry these blends along to deal with bouts of nervousness and fear that hit out of nowhere.
3. Sleep come to me blend
- 5 drops sandalwood
- 2 drops ylang ylang
Mix the oils together and store in an amber glass bottle. Diffuse for 15 minutes before you call it a night. Do not leave the diffuser on all through the night and don’t use more than 2-3 drops of the blend. The aroma of this blend is both soothing and calming and the combination of floral and woody notes works exceptionally well.
Yet, when you diffuse aromatic extracts, a lot of pregnant women find the fragrance too strong. If you’d like the aroma to be light and take effect gradually, put a drop of the blend on a piece of cotton wool and place it next to your pillow instead of diffusing it. But, if you are struggling with insomnia, I’d still recommend that you go with the diffuser.
4. Energizer blend
- 5 drops grapefruit
- 4 drops mandarin
- 3 drops tumeric (optional)
Blend the oils and store in a dark glass bottle. Use turmeric only if you are also suffering from intermittent bouts of brain fog and need mental focus and clarity to get through the day. If you’ve added turmeric essential oil to the blend, diffusion will work best. Alternatively, you can add one drop to a cup of hot water and place it on your desk or on a side table. Be careful not to drink it!
If turmeric essential oil has not been used, put 3-4 drops of the citrus blend in a spritzer bottle and top it with warm water. Spray lightly around the room and the house. If fatigue has turned into a constant companion, wear this blend using an essential oil pendant.
5. No more swollen feet blend
- 3 drops black pepper
- 4 drops peppermint
- 7 drops roman chamomile
- 40 ml carrier oil of your choice
Blend the oils and store in a dark glass bottle. If you can get your partner to give you a soothing foot massage with this blend, all the better, because you will need to use upward strokes to regulate circulation and lymphatic drainage. Alternatively, you can use ½ tsp of the blend in a warm foot bath.
6. Back soother blend
- 2 drops rose otto (don’t use absolute)
- 5 drops roman chamomile
- 30 ml olive/sweet almond oil
Preparation and storage as given above. Use as you would any lotion/massage oil, working in circular strokes to gently soothe and relax the muscles in the lower back area.
7. Bath blend
- 5 drops each of petitgrain and tangerine/lime essential oils
- 1 tsp milk/ dairy/plant
- 1 cup Epsom salts
Mix the oils and store the blend in an amber glass bottle. To use, add 3-4 drops of the blend to a teaspoon of milk and set the mixture aside. Run yourself a warm bath and once the tub is halfway full, add Epsom salts to the water. Wait till the tub is almost full to add the milk- essential oil blend.
Disperse the oils in the water by agitating it. Enjoy the unique combination of the relaxing and energizing effects of the oils. Don’t spend more than 15 minutes in the bath and be careful when stepping out of the tub.
8. No episiotomy blend
- 1 cup olive oil/ sweet almond oil
- 1 drop each of lavender and geranium essential oils
Mix and store the oils as instructed above. Apply on the perineum every day, massaging the area gently in circular strokes. Use twice a day for best results. You can start using this blend towards the end of the second trimester or even in the third.
9. Stretch marks don’t come my way blend
- 3 drops rosewood
- 4 drops geranium
- 2 drops sweet orange
- 30 ml blend of rosehip and sesame seed oil
Mixing and storage as above. Use twice a day on the belly and the upper thighs. Start using in the first trimester.
10. Skincare through pregnancy blend
- 3 drops each of frankincense and geranium
- 2 drops of tea tree
- 40 ml jojoba oil
Preparation and storage as for the other recipes. The same thing that gives you the much talked about pregnancy glow may also cause acne to make a sudden appearance. Yes, I am talking about excess sebum.
Fortunately, you can keep the skin oils in check by using this blend and while you are doing that the aromatic extracts will also work their magic on any dark spots that may be getting ready to reveal themselves. Apply as you would any skin cream or oil, once or twice a day. But limit usage to just 2-3 drops at a time.
There you have it ladies – everything that you need to know about using essential oils to pamper yourself as you get ready to bring a new life into the world. The healing and soothing touch of these aromatic extracts will help you to deal with the small naggings that you are bound to encounter along the way.
Above all, these oils offer help in an area that is oft ignored and where all else fails. Yes, I am talking about the emotional storm that you will have to inevitably weather as you wait to hold your bundle of joy in your arms.
Everybody agrees that a happy mommy is a healthy mommy, and happy and healthy mommies have happy and healthy babies (mostly). However, the surge of hormones and the physical impact of carrying a child can be quite taxing on the body and the mind. Unfortunately, you will have no help coming your way from modern medicine.
But, since Mother Nature is a woman too, she has you covered on this front. So, use her gifts for a safe and happy pregnancy. And on that note, here is wishing all mommies-to-be healthy and happy days as you go through the magical journey that is motherhood!