When researching essential oils for pregnancy you’ll find a huge array of opinions thrown at you, which has stirred up a lot of confusion and unreliable claims about essential oils for pregnancy. People can say whatever they want on their blog and this leads more people astray than you might think.
Hey, if it’s on the Internet, it must be true, right? Wrong!
There are several bloggers out there with absolutely no training or qualifications whatsoever to write on health care issues, and they’re literally misguiding millions of people. This is particularly true with heated issues like essential oils for pregnancy! Because of the confusing mixture of information out there, it’s very important to hold ourselves accountable by following one of my favorite Bible commands: “Test all things, and hold fast to what is good.” (I Thessalonians 5:21)
Although there are many false claims about essential oils for pregnancy out in the blogosphere, I have found that these 5 myths are the most misleading.
Table of Contents
Myth #1: Essential Oils are Dangerous for Babies in Utero
There is little to no research on whether or not the inhalation, internal or topical application of essential oils for pregnancy is at all harmful to fetuses. In the words of the book, Aromatherapy for Health Professionals, “There is no available evidence that any natural essential oil has ever provoked mutagenicity or teratogenicity in an embryo or developing fetus. No tests have ever been carried out because the possibility of fragrant materials causing either genetic mutation or malformation is regarded as unlikely.” (1)
In the words of Dr. Jane Buckle, author of Clinical Aromatherapy, “The use of essential oils in pregnancy is a contentious subject, especially during the vital first 3-month period. 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.”
The reality is that, contrary to popular opinion, dangers linked with the use of certain essential oils for pregnant and nursing mamas is not conclusively supported by the scientific literature. Women have and will continue to use essential oils for pregnancy with no adverse effects to their babies. Because they cross the placenta, most chemicals everything Mama gets, Baby will get. In the case of essential oils, whether taken orally, topically or inhaling them this can be a very good thing. With that said, not all essential oils are safe for Mama and Baby, and general safety guidelines should apply, and this is what the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) recommendations:
- “Due to the lack of clear information regarding the toxicity of essential oils during pregnancy, it would be best to adhere to general safety guidelines.”
- Then NAHA goes on to quote “Tisserand and Balacs, who claim that the following essential oils should not be used during pregnancy: wormwood, rue, oak moss, Lavandula stoechas, camphor, parsley seed, sage, and hyssop.”
- And, finally, NAHA’s gives their blessing on these oils as being safe for use during pregnancy: “cardamom, German and Roman chamomile, frankincense, geranium, ginger, neroli, patchouli, petitgrain, rosewood, rose, sandalwood, and other nontoxic essential oils.” (2)
Myth #2: Peppermint is a Uterine Stimulant & Depletes Milk
The myths around peppermint are two-fold – 1)that it will promote premature birth and 2) that it will decrease your milk supply.
Clinical research has actually shown that, like geranium and lavender, peppermint essential oil is a spasmolytic; it helps relieve smooth muscle spasm and can calm the uterus. (3) The theory that peppermint is a uterine stimulant is simply not founded on science. In fact, just the opposite is true. When discussing the claim about peppermint decreasing the milk supply, an article published in the Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research emphatically states that, “It has not been reported any data about toxic effects of using peppermint during pregnancy and breast feeding.” (4)
I’ve searched the topic of essential oils for pregnancy far and wide to find anything about it in the literature and it just doesn’t exist. My wife bagged over 1,000 ounces of milk in her first month of nursing, and she regularly used peppermint oil and drank peppermint tea – BUT this isn’t “proof.” I cannot make the blanket statement that women should use peppermint oil to boost their milk simply because of my wife’s experience. Likewise, I will not deny the possibility of a mother experiencing adverse effects to peppermint and producing less milk. It’s just “unproven” scientifically, and has not been our experience as a family of 6.
Pregnant women can enjoy a wide range of benefits with the regular use of peppermint tea and essential oils for pregnancy, yet many are so afraid of the supposed side-effects, they avoid it like the plague! A 2004 article published in the Complementary Therapies in Nursing Midwifery sums it up best. Comparing ginger, peppermint and cannabis the researchers discovered that, “Only ginger has been subjected to clinical trials among pregnant women, though all three herbs were clinically effective against nausea and vomiting in other contexts, such as chemotherapy-induced nausea and post-operative nausea.
While safety concerns exist in the literature for all three herbs with regards to their use by pregnant women, clinical evidence of harm is lacking.”(5) As Eastern Virginia Medical School researchers put it, “The use of peppermint oil for pregnancy and breast-feeding is considered likely safe by the National Institute of Health on their educational website Medline Plus. This is based on the classification of peppermint oil as a food additive, which is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) according to the the Food and Drug Administration.” (6) The bottom line, when it comes to peppermint side effects, essential oils for pregnancy are not clinically proven.
Myth #3: Frankincense Stimulates Uterine Blood Flow, Menstruation & Miscarriage
Like all of these essential oils for pregnancy myths, there is no research supporting that frankincense resin nor frankincense essential oils are abortifacients or emmenagogues (stimulates uterine blood flow and cause menstruation). The best explanation I could find to help sort this out comes from LIVESTRONG. (7) Definitely not one of the peer-reviewed sources that I try to quote in my essential oil profiles, this article has a lot of merit.
- “Conclusions about the safety of frankincense during pregnancy are inconsistent. Frankincense has sometimes been classified as an abortifacient or emmenagogue — a stimulator of absent menstrual flow and thus possibly at times an early abortifacient. Until further research is conducted, herbalist Denise Tiran recommends that potential emmenagogues, including frankincense, be generally avoided during pregnancy, at least during the first trimester. Aromatherapist Maria Lis-Balchin considers it safe for pregnant women to inhale frankincense, but advises caution in massage with the essential oil, which in the laboratory it is known to relax uterine muscle.
- According to Simon Mills and Kerry Bone’s herbal safety manual, frankincense has received an Australian government pregnancy category B1 classification. In other words, according to limited human and animal studies, there is no evidence to date that frankincense causes fetal harm. If you are pregnant, ask your doctor whether and which form of frankincense is safe for you and your baby.”
It seems that the claim that frankincense essential oil can cause a spontaneous abortion is not necessarily about the oil, but about frankincense as a whole. With that said, it is interesting to note that:
- Nearly 30% of Iranian women use frankincense during their pregnancies, which suggests that it is extremely safe; or else one-third of their population would be regularly exposed to mutagens and become diseased. (8)
- According to a 2013 article published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, learning and memory performance is enhanced in the offspring of the mothers who consumed frankincense extracts during their pregnancy. (9)
- A study published in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine this past May explained similar results. “Oral administration of Boswellia extract during pregnancy and lactation strengthens short-and long-term memory in infants in field models. Further, administration of the extract during pregnancy causes an increase in the size of the neurons in pyramidal cells of the hippocampus CA3 area as well as increase in the number of dendritic process in these cells. Extract administration during lactation promotes memory function in infants through increasing cell volume, neurotransmitters release and number of synaptic contacts.” (10)
The main point about essential oils for pregnancy is this: As we have seen above, the many forms of frankincense (essential oil, extract, and resin) are widely used across the world and there is a growing body of research supporting its use in pregnant women. To refrain from enjoying its benefits because of misguided myths that it can cause an abortion, is absolutely absurd.
Myth #4: Essential Oils for Pregnancy Can Harm Mom
Yes, some essential oils are harmful during pregnancy, but the same is true for all people in general, not just pregnant women. I’m passionate about this because clinical trials evaluating the safety of essential oils for pregnancy is limited. However, that doesn’t give people license to arbitrarily advise against certain oils and compounds like many are in the habit of doing.
Furthermore, to warn people to “err on the side of caution” for no reason but hearsay is misleading and instills fear that essential oils are dangerous or inherently harmful. At least have some scientific reasoning to back up your point! Today, the best resource we have is the classic aromatherapy textbook “Essential Oil Safety.” In spite of not having sufficient research on the actual oils, the authors combed through the archives for articles discussing the individual compounds in each oil to provide safety guidelines and best practices. Essentially, they created dos and don’ts based off of logic in the research of essential oils for pregnancy because humans trials don’t exist.
Although, we cannot accurately extrapolate that research about single, isolated chemicals will affect people in the same way that they will when they are naturally interacting with other chemicals in essential oils. Bottom line: just because isolated menthol may harm babies, for example, it doesn’t mean that the menthol in peppermint oil is harmful because of all of the other chemicals at play. The parts do not equal the whole in this case.
For the time being, this is the best that we have at our disposal until the funding becomes available to conduct longitudinal cohort studies, randomized control trials and can take the information learned to create sufficient Cochrane reviews; which would give us a much better baseline. Sadly, I have found that essential oils are a victim of misrepresentation because they are commonly referred to as “concentrated versions” of their original sources.
It is not that simple, and misappropriated concern is given to oils due to confusion. Let’s take frankincense, for example.
It is generally understood that: “Boswellia Species is reported to contain 60-85% resins (mixtures of terpenes), 6-30% gums (mixture of polysaccharides), and 5-9% essential oil.
- Resin portion is composed of pentacyclic triterpenes, in which boswellic acid is the active functional group.
- Gum portion consists of pentose and hexose sugars with some oxidizing and digestive enzymes.
- The essential oil is a mixture of monoterpenes, diterpenes, and sesquiterpenes.”
Like all individual plant constituents – in this case the resin, gum and essential oil from frankincense – all have different biochemical combinations than their original source. To help illustrate this point with a hypothetical case study, let’s say that next week scientists discover boswellic acids (BAs) are dangerous for pregnant women. This would mean that frankincense resin would be contraindicated, whereas frankincense essential oil would be completely safe because BAs are not found in essential oils.
This is why it is common for some people to be allergic to cinnamon powder or citrus fruits, but do very well with cinnamon and citrus essential oils. With that said, certain precautions regarding essential oils and pregnancy would be wise and here is a list of oils that you will want to avoid altogether or use caution when pregnant nursing.
|Essential Oil||Latin Name|
|Parsley seed or leaf||Petroselinum sativum|
Remember, there are dozens of alternatives for each of these oils and, as Dr. Penny Lane has said it best, “It is true that essential oils are powerful substances, but used knowledgeably and with due diligence, pose little to no threat to one’s health.” (11)
Myth #5: Contact Your OB/Midwife to Use Essential Oils for Pregnancy
I know this one is going to get me some extra email, but it’s got to be said… When you read the statement (“contact your OB/GYN or midwife before…”) on a blog, someone is trying to dodge the legal responsibility of giving medical advice. We all do it because we have to in this Internet health world, but it really means nothing. I am a trained primary care physician and public health researcher, and I can tell you this with confidence: DCs, DOs, and MDs do not learn about essential oils in school. Sadly, all three curricula focus on toxicology and how pharmaceuticals interact with the human body.
If, by chance, alternative therapies like essential oils are mentioned in chiropractic college or medical school, it’s a hasty approach at best and nothing in depth is discussed. Regarding midwives, they receive very little (if any) “formal” training of any kind that would qualify them as essential oil authorities.
One concern about taking the recommendation of many Aromatherapists is that their opinion is largely based off the geographic location where they studied. U.S. aromatherapy schools, for example, are traditionally reserved and most strongly advise against the internal use of oils. Whereas, European schools are much more liberal and enjoy a wider spectrum of essential oil usage. French and German aromatherapists, for example, regularly give essential oils orally. (12)
Truth is, relatively few people truly understand essential oil chemistry, which would qualify them as a valid resource. And I am not one of them, even though I am currently being trained by one of the most reputable aromatherapy schools in the nation! As a trained clinical researcher, I have spent a fair amount of time in the public health sector, which inspired me to earn my Master of Public Health at Emory University. Right next door to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the public health world is literally based between these two campuses! It has taken me several years of coursework, personal mentorship and a lot of trial & error to help me understand research in a way that makes sense. Yet, that still does NOT qualify me as an “essential oils” expert. This is one of the reasons why have been formally trained in aromatherapy by seasoned, certified aromatherapists via an Aromatherapy School, but that still would not qualify me as an “expert.”
There are few, true essential oil experts on the planet. These men and women are chemists or have a profound understanding of the chemistry of essential oils, and this takes years of study and practical application. So, to make the best decision for your family about essential oils for pregnancy, remember to:
- Do your own homework.
- Be a avid reader and researcher.
- Learn the basic essentials.
- And don’t indiscriminately trust someone just because you see it in writing!
God has given each of us a perceptive spirit and the intellectual ability to make wise decisions. Just like our family, my desire is that you discover that essential oils for pregnancy can be used in a wide variety of ways for the entire family. But, remember, don’t take my word for it. You need to make the best decision for your own family!
- Aromatherapy for Health Professionals