Our Position on Essential Oil Use in Homemade Toiletries

Our Position on Essential Oil Use in Homemade Toiletries

*** Please read this post in full if you have used our toothpaste or deodorant recipes prior to 26 March 2019 and added the “optional” essential oils to them. We have changed our approach to the use of essential oils in these two recipes. ***

Since 2017 we’ve been sharing our DIY zero waste toiletries recipes through our ‘Bare Essentials’ recipe booklet and workshops. These recipes use cheap, everyday ingredients that you probably already have at home: baking soda, coconut oil, cornstarch, sunflower oil and so on.

However, two of our recipes—toothpaste and deodorant—include the optional addition of a few drops of essential oil. In these two recipes, the essential oil performs a non-essential function of flavour and fragrance, respectively.

We say ‘non-essential’ because the functions of flavour and fragrance are really about addressing expectations about toiletries and cleaners generated by decades of suggestive corporate messaging. As a society, we’ve become so used to our bathroom and cleaning products tasting or smelling strong that we’ve developed unconscious presumptions about the effectiveness and appeal of products that don’t (a bit like scepticism of cleaning products that don’t produce oodles of bubbles).

Running a Bare Essentials workshop in Alexandra. Photo credit: Tonia Kraakman

So, we recognise that for some people, using essential oils to approximate these flavour/fragrance expectations helps their transition to homemade, low-waste alternatives.

However, it’s recently come to our attention that essential oils are potentially not as safe as we had assumed. So, going forward, we are changing the way that we approach essential oils on our website and in our workshops to reflect this new information.

We have written this post for anyone who has already been to our Bare Essentials workshop or used our online Bare Essentials recipes. Please take the time to read this post in full.

NB: the name “Bare Essentials” has nothing to do with essential oils and the use of the word “essentials” is just a coincidence.

Background

In March 2019, during one of our Bare Essentials workshops, we suggested, as per usual, that you can add several drops of essential oil (peppermint/spearmint) to our toothpaste recipe, or several drops of something like lemongrass essential oil to the deodorant recipe. An attendee raised a question about safe use of essential oils, in light of an interview she’d heard that day on Radio NZ about dangerous essential oil overuse/misuse. We replied that we hadn’t heard the interview and so could not comment, but that we would never recommend ingesting/eating essential oils. We said that we would listen to the interview and follow-up.

The next day, we did what we said we would, and listened to the interview between Wallace Chapman and qualified Clinical Aromascientist Practitioner, Gillian Parkinson. The information Gillian presented about dangerous use of essential oils was concerning. It seemed like it would have implications for our toothpaste and deodorant recipes and we wanted to know more. So, we reached out to Gillian, who very kindly called us and chatted to us for over an hour.

Gillian opened our eyes to a whole body of information and research about essential oils that we had been totally oblivious to. Afterwards, we felt it was our responsibility to share this information through our networks, not only because we’ve referred to the option of using essentials oils in toothpaste and deodorants, but also because we’ve seen MANY online cosmetics/cleaning recipes that use essential oils too, as well as a wide range of natural cosmetics and toiletries for sale that contain essential oils in the ingredients list. We’re probably not the only ones out there unaware about the potential risks around essential oil use.

What Gillian taught us about essential oils…

We will leave you to listen to the RNZ interview for greater detail, but the key points we gleaned from the interview and our communications with Gillian are as follows:

  • Essential oils are natural, but natural doesn’t necessarily mean safe.
  • Essential oils are extremely concentrated, potent substances (for example, it takes A LOT of lemons to create a few drops of lemon essential oil, or 1.5kg of peppermint leaves to create ten drops of peppermint essential oil).
  • Some essential oils are harsher/gentler than others. Some contain toxic elements and should be used with great caution.
  • Aromatics used in the food and beverage industry are typically deterpenated or rectified (to remove harsh chemicals) – methods that make them safe for human consumption. These oils are NOT the same as essential oils that everyday people would purchase over the counter, which are not safe to consume in food or drink or use internally without the guidance of a professional qualified essential oil practitioner. 
  • When applied topically, essential oils are absorbed through hair follicles and the skin, can enter the bloodstream within 2 minutes and be in the central nervous system within 15 minutes.
  • Essential oils are cumulative in the body. Different oils remain in the system for different lengths of time, but can persist anywhere from 24 hours to one week.
  • The safety of applying essential oils topically depends on their dilution (i.e. the ratio of essential oil to carrier oil). Oil dilutes essential oil, not water. You cannot dilute essential oil in water because oil and water don’t mix. A drop of essential oil in a litre of water is not diluted.
  • There is a range of essential oils that can be used on and around babies and children. However, it is highly recommended for this age range that it be under the guidance of a professional qualified essential oil practitioner.
  • There is a range of essential oils that can be used during pregnancy and breastfeeding. However, it is highly recommended that it be under the guidance of a professional qualified essential oil practitioner.
  • When used under the guidance of a professional qualified essential oil practitioner essential oils can have very positive effects, but they also interact with other medication. So those on any medication should seek professional advice before using essential oils.
  • In recent years, essential oil use has proliferated rapidly into multiple, everyday purposes, including diffusion through vaporisors/burners, topical application through lotions (or even undiluted), and consumption through food and water. For individuals who may be overexposing themselves to essential oils in these ways, even safe use of diluted essential oils in one application may be enough to tip their body into overload – potentially enabling adverse reactions that could lead to a life time of sensitisation.

How does this affect Bare Essentials?

So, what does this all mean for our toothpaste and deodorant recipes that you may have been using after attending one of our workshops or seeing our online resources?

Before giving you a breakdown of our position, we want to emphasise that we are not professional qualified aromatherapists or aromascientists (professional essential oil practitioners). This means two things for us:

Photo credit: Tonia Kraakman
  1. Experts first: We will rely on the information we have received from Gillian Parkinson, a fully qualified clinical aromascience practitioner, over our own knowledge.
  2. The Precautionary Principle: We acknowledge that Gillian is only one person and inevitably there’ll be others who will contest her stance (these people may or may not be professional qualified essential oil practitioners). However, we’re not in a position to evaluate competing arguments here because we aren’t experts. Instead, we are adopting the precautionary principle, which guides us to presume the worst and proceed accordingly, especially when the cost of acting on this presumption is non-existent. This is the safest approach for anyone to take when they don’t have expertise in an area carrying potential risk. Any starting point other than the precautionary approach would amount to us risking our health/safety and the health/safety of others, for no good reason. In short, by being precautionary in this case, even if our position turns out to be wrong, nobody gets harmed as a result.

Our Position on essential oils in Bare Essentials

  • The lowest-risk option is not to add essential oils to toothpaste and deodorant. The cost of this action is non-existent because the use of essential oils in toothpaste and deodorant is NOT essential to the function of the recipes and omitting them will save you $$. In fact, most of the time we don’t use essential oils at all because finding places in New Zealand to refill those 10ml bottles is not easy (zero waste is also a foremost priority for us!)
  • Essential oils should not be added to toothpaste and deodorant for use by those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, children under 7, and those taking medication. If you are in the latter category, seek advice from a medical practitioner and/or professional qualified essential oil practitioner first about whether any particular essential oils carry a contraindication with the medication you are taking.
  • If you don’t fall into the above ‘people categories’, adding essential oils to our toothpaste and deodorant recipes can still be safe if you adhere to the following recommendations that Gillian passed on to us:
  1. Use no more than 4 drops of essential oil per 2 tablespoons of coconut oil. This dilution is low-risk for teenagers and adults who are not pregnant or breastfeeding.
  2. Choose your essential oils carefully – some are gentler and safer for use in these recipes than others:
    1. For toothpaste, use spearmint NOT peppermint. For some time we used peppermint essential oil for toothpaste but we discourage this now because it’s not safe for children under 6 and it’s super strong. Spearmint fulfils the flavour function but in a gentler way. Do NOT use clove or cinnamon essential oil for toothpaste (as some online recipes recommend). These are way too harsh.
    2. For deodorant, opt for citrus essential oils (lemon or orange) or lavender. Avoid the lemongrass that we were using as this is also harsh.

      There are so many alternatives to essential oils for fragrance and flavour. For example, for our sugar scrubs we pick + dry flowers and grind them with spices to create natural fragrance. Photo credit: Tonia Kraakman
  • There’s one last caveat: while our toothpaste and deodorant recipes encourage either no essential oils or gentle essential oils in a safe dilution, you also must take this advice in the context of your wider essential oil usage. We don’t know where else in your life you are using essential oils; essential oil use is becoming increasingly prevalent in homes, workplaces, cars and even diets. While we personally haven’t used essential oils for anything other than our toothpaste and deodorant, some people may be exposing themselves to essential oils repeatedly in multiple ways—from diffusion, topical application, cleaners, even ingestion. For these people, adding essential oils to their toothpaste and deodorant—even gentle oils in a safe dilution—may be overload or the straw that breaks the camel’s back. If this is you, we would discourage you from adding essential oils to our toothpaste and deodorant recipes.

What do I do with any toothpaste or deodorant I have already containing essential oils?

  • Personally, we don’t want to waste the stuff we’ve already made (for obvious reasons)! If you aren’t using essential oils in other areas of your life and you haven’t had an adverse reaction, the dilution is low enough that you should be fine to finish your current batch.
  • However, for greater peace of mind or if you’ve made your own batches with a greater quantity of essential oils than recommended here, you can further dilute the essential oils by simply making another batch of toothpaste and deodorant without any essential oils and then mixing this in with your existing toothpaste and deodorant. 
  • Please stop using if you are pregnant or breastfeeding or on medication, and cease letting your children use these recipes if they are under 7. Allow others in your household who don’t fit these categories to use the stuff instead. Again, for these others in your household it should be safe and they can still dilute the mixture further as per bullet point above.
  • If you are entirely put off using essential oils in these recipes from here on in and would rather dispose of your existing batch of toothpaste and deodorant than use it up, then please dilute it by adding 3-4 more tablespoons of oil, then put in your compost (we suggest dilution for the sake of the microorganisms and worms in your compost).

More information…

If you’d like more info about safe and risky use of essential oils, listen to Gillian Parkinson’s RNZ interview or read some of her posts on her website.

If you have any concerns about the above information, and want a safe environment to ask more questions, check out the Facebook page Aroma Safety or consider joining the closed group Le’Esscience – Essential Oil Safety.



2 thoughts on “Our Position on Essential Oil Use in Homemade Toiletries”

  • hi, I would like you to study the plastic recycling process called
    Pyrolysis , being a farmer in the kaipara we are currently working on the recycling of farmplastic and turning it into diesel fuel.
    in my opinion, every village/town with a rubbish tip should have a plastic processor and once established we will run out of plastic within a CPL of years , imagine….

    • Kia ora Jacky,

      Thanks for your comment. We value your shared desire to reduce the impact of our plastic waste problem, including the specific problem of farm plastics.

      We have indeed spent time studying and following the various developments in waste-to-energy technology. Based on our research, we just cannot get behind waste to energy at this point in time.

      We are advocates of zero waste. The zero waste approach follows the waste hierarchy, which prioritises waste prevention over treatment, disposal and recycling. Zero waste is focused on using the planet’s finite resources efficiently and reducing waste in the first place.

      As such, we believe that waste-to-energy delays or worse, disincentivises, the urgently needed shift away from the energy-intensive extraction of a non-renewable resource to produce toxic plastic products, and delays the shift towards unpackaged or reuse systems, preferably in non-toxic materials. We also want to note that pyrolysis is technically not recycling, but rather energy recovery/treatment – this is important because these approaches to waste sit even lower down the waste hierarchy than recycling.

      From a health perspective, and what we know about the leakage into the natural environment, we believe that the prevalence of plastics in the agricultural and horticultural industries in the first place is deeply concerning. We support the Government’s current consideration of product stewardship schemes to cover farm plastics and agrichemicals and their containers, in the hope that we can get action higher up the waste hierarchy to trigger product redesign and a shift away from one-way plastics. Basically, if we can’t recycle it or reuse it, then we shouldn’t be making it.

      We’re also unconvinced that waste to energy is as clean and green as proposed by many advocates. Pyrolysis and gasification are touted as cleaner than incineration plants, but they’re still new technologies and research is underdeveloped. Recent studies suggest they still produce harmful substances like dioxins. We also don’t feel excited about the idea of there being small-scale pyrolysis plants all around the country, as we fear that best practice would be difficult to monitor and could lead to some pretty negative externalities.

      Ultimately we need to shift away from our linear, resource-intensive economic model. “Getting rid of” plastic waste is often the rhetoric that surrounds waste to energy. We don’t think we should be using materials that we need to “get rid of” – this is no path to resourcefulness. We understand that there are legacy issues here with plastic already created (you describe the goal of running out of plastic in a couple of years). If this were to work, apart from better research on potential pollutants produced in the process, whatever technologies developed would have to, at the very least, have obsolescence built into them, to ensure no inadvertent creation of path dependencies to continued plastic production. There haven’t been any proper feasibility studies in NZ yet that consider how we could balance investment in incineration/pyrolysis of legacy plastic only, with the need for embedded obsolescence.

      It seems we’re all on the same page that this farm plastic is a problem and that the goal is to phase away from it. Possibly where we differ is on how best to get that outcome, quickly. We value the opportunity you’ve given us to engage in this conversation – it’s really important!

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