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Are Essential Oils Safe During Pregnancy? An Expert Weighs In

Crushed up leaves adjacent to essential oil bottles




Written by:

Barbara Mighdoll

Pregnancy is a beautiful journey, filled with anticipation and joyful surprises. But let's face it, it also comes with its fair share of “can’t dos” and “don’t dos” and dozens of opinions from everyone. Personally, during my pregnancy I was all about indulging in some of the common “avoids” on occasion, but I wanted to limit the amount of medications I was using when I got sick. Instead I relied heavily on essential oil rollers and aromatherapy.

We know that essential oils have a myriad of uses, from that lavender roller you use to calm your anxieties before bed, to the eucalyptus in your diffuser that helps clear up a stuffy nose. But are they safe to use when you're growing a tiny human inside you? To help you navigate this, I interviewed Dr. Nicole Tod, a well-respected obstetrician at North Texas Women's Healthcare, to weigh in on this topic.

Are Essential Oils Safe to Use During Pregnancy?

While essential oils can have many benefits, it's important to exercise caution during pregnancy. Some essential oils are safe to use during pregnancy, but others can be harmful to the developing fetus. It's best to consult with a healthcare professional before use during pregnancy.

What Are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are aromatic compounds extracted from plants. The process of steam distillation or cold pressing creates potent oils, which capture the plant's scent and flavor, or its “essence”. They are used in many cultures as natural medicines or homeopathy for the mind and body. Aromatherapy is a complementary health technique that utilizes these oils, which should be of high quality and free from any additives or fillers. They are often diluted with a carrier oil for massage, added to a warm bath, or diffused in a vaporizer to release their aroma.

The Role of Essential Oils in Pregnancy

The Perks for Expectant Moms

If there's one thing I remember clearly about my pregnancy, it's the whirlwind of body changes that came with it. From morning sickness to swollen ankles, it felt like my body was on a roller coaster ride. And wow, when you get a common cold, it seems to be rougher on your body and lasts longer. Your immune system just isn’t what you’re used to it being. But here's a little secret – essential oils provided me with great alternatives to traditional medication.

These aren't just for making your home smell like a spa, though I am obsessed with blends that do. They can also help manage soaring stress levels and some pregnancy-related discomforts.

For example, lavender can be your go-to for promoting sleep when all the discomforts of your growing belly start kicking in (a pregnancy pillow also helps). Peppermint oil? An aid when dealing with morning sickness. And when I got the flu and COVID (yes, both back-to-back in my third trimester 😣) I relied heavily on diffusing and aromatherapy that helped clear my sinuses and ease my cough. Ginger is another extract that can be a great way to relieve nausea during pregnancy, particularly for relieving nausea.

I've shared some my favorite essential oils in this article.

The Science Behind Essential Oils

You might be wondering how they actually work during pregnancy. When inhaled, the aromatic molecules of essential oils interact with your olfactory system. This impacts the limbic part of your brain, which controls emotions and memories, leading to a calming effect.

And when applied topically (always diluted!), they provide localized relief from aches and itches – common nuisances of pregnancy.

While there are benefits, it's important to realize there are some warnings. Dr. Tod stresses its crucial to understand that not all are created equal. Some are perfectly safe to use during pregnancy—like lavender and chamomile, which can help alleviate anxiety and promote sleep. Others, however, such as clary sage or rosemary, could potentially trigger uterine contractions and should be avoided, especially in the first trimester. So, moderation and an understanding of what's safe is key.

A woman adding essential oils to a diffuser
Photo by cottonbro studio

Essential Oil Use in Labor

Like most things in pregnancy, there is very little research done on pregnant women and their use of essential oils. However Dr. Tod found an interesting study titled “The Effect of Aromatherapy by Essential Oil of Orange on Anxiety During Labor.” This was a randomized clinical trial that involved 100 women randomly assigned to two groups – one group had orange essential oil diffused into their room, while the other group had distilled water diffused.

The results? Both groups reported a decrease in anxiety, but the reduction was significantly more in the orange group. “I think that it's definitely beneficial,” says Dr. Tod. “I love when laboring patients are diffusing essential oils, it creates a calmer environment in a completely safe way during labor.”

By coincidence, without knowing this interesting fact, I used the Yoga blend by Saje Essential Oils during both my labors which happens to contain orange oil! I can in fact say I think it helped in developing a calm and comfortable environment in the hospital room.

Essential Oils to Embrace During Pregnancy

Dr. Tod mentions that while there are no definitive studies indicating harm, certain oils are generally considered safe during pregnancy. These include:

  • Lavender
  • Tea Tree
  • Eucalyptus
  • Orange

Essential Oils to Avoid During Pregnancy

These are a few that Dr. Tod suggests you avoid during your pregnancy because they are known for potentially triggering contractions:

  • Clary Sage
  • Rosemary
  • Basil

Safety Measures While Using Essential Oils in Pregnancy

Here are some guidelines to follow during pregnancy to avoid any potential risks:

  • Always Dilute: First and foremost, always dilute your oils before applying them to your skin, as undiluted application can cause skin irritation. And if you’re like me, my skin was especially sensitive during pregnancy.
  • Avoid Sunlight: Some can cause photosensitivity, so avoid exposure to direct sunlight after applying.
  • Less is More: these are potent, so less is definitely more. If you're diffusing, limit it to 10-15 minutes per hour.
  • Avoid Certain Ones: As Dr. Tod advised, avoid ones that can potentially trigger contractions listed above.
  • Use clean dispensers: Whether you are using your own home-made blend on a rollerbalm, or an air diffuser, its important you ensure there is no mold growth. That’s why I prefer this incredibly smart designed waterless diffuser by Canopy. And if you’re sick, try Canopy’s humidifier which allows essential oils to be used, and is completely dishwasher safe.

Dr. Tod emphasizes the need for caution and consultation: “I always encourage women to talk to their own physicians who know them well…if they think they want to use essential oils to bring that up to their physicians at the initial OB visit and talk to them about their particular situation,” she advises.

“You should never ingest essential oils. Diffusing is best, and certain topical ones might be ok in small doses,” Dr. Tod adds.

A small vial of essential oil is sitting adjacent to a plant
Photo by Mareefe

Can Essential Oils and Aromatherapy Replace Medications During Pregnancy?

As amazing as they are, they aren't miracle cure-alls. They can offer comfort, aid relaxation, and contribute to your overall sense of wellbeing. They might even become your preferred remedy for minor complaints like headaches, nausea or a stuffy nose. But when it comes to major health issues, they can't compete with prescribed medications. However, for more specific information on the preparation, we recommend consulting a qualified aromatherapist.

Are Essential Oils Safe During Pregnancy? The Verdict from Our Expert

Dr. Tod stresses the importance of having open conversations with your healthcare provider about your interest in essential oils.

While there's a lot of information available on the internet, not all of it is reliable. “There's a lot of good information. There's a lot of not so great information,” she says. Your healthcare provider can help you filter through the misleading information and guide you towards the best choices for your unique pregnancy journey.

Her best advice? “Every pregnancy is different, every woman is different…your provider is your resource to get through this pregnancy,” says Dr. Tod.

So IMO after my own experience and consulting with Dr. Tod, give them a shot to see if essential oils can offer a comforting presence during pregnancy, just do so responsibly. Always consult with your healthcare provider or midwife before integrating them into your routine.

Photo by Tara Winstead


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