Safe use of essential oils in pregnancy and birth

One of our most frequently asked questions is whether essential oils are safe to use during pregnancy and if so, which essential oils can be used and which essential oils should be avoided during pregnancy. There is a lot of conflicting advice and articles online when it comes to aromatherapy, essential oils and pregnancy. So it is important to base advice on researched sources that are rooted in scientific evidence as much as possible. However, conflicting results of clinical or academic studies are also not unusual and it is difficult to demonstrate a complete absence of risk of a given essential oil during pregnancy.

In this blog post, I have tried to summarise the information on pregnancy and essential oils from the most reputable sources. One of the most reputable sources is the “Essential oil safety Guide for Health Care Professionals” by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young which summarises the body of research on essential oil safety and as a clinical aromatherapist, I often consult its latest edition.

Reproductive toxicology is the study of any harmful effects from substances on the reproduction functions, pregnancy, birth and during lactation. It includes embryo toxicity, fetotoxicity, perinatal and postnatal toxicity. Unfortunately, overall, less is known about the effects of chemicals (from whichever source, not only essential oils) on the reproductive system than in any other area of toxicology.

Essential oils should not be administered orally, vaginally or rectally throughout pregnancy and lactation. At Clarity Blend, we do not recommend ingesting or consuming essential oils at any time. There are many essential oil constituents found in common foods, herbs and spices. According to Tisserand, the human body will be able to metabolise and eliminate essential oils more readily than synthetic drugs, since essential oils are found in many herbs and spices that we consumer every day. Some processed foods include essential oil natural flavourings, such as peppermint, orange or aniseed, which are considered safe for consumption.

Can essential oils cross the placenta? Are essential oils harmful in pregnancy?Essential oils are potent natural extracts from plants with complex chemic compounds and during pregnancy chemicals can cross the placenta. Essential oil constituents are generally likely to cross the placenta efficiently because of their low molecular weight. This does not indicate a hazard per se, however, some chemicals can expose the fetus to different kinds and levels of toxicity and may affect fetal growth and development, for example the developing central nervous system (CNS) in the fetus. The developing child is particularly sensitive in the first three months of pregnancy, so we recommend that the use of essential oils should be preferably avoided during the first trimester. Below is a list of essential oils that should be avoided by any route throughout pregnancy and lactation, as per the Tisserand’s Essential Oil Safety.

Which essential oils should be avoided during pregnancy?

Can essential oils cause miscarriage? Can essential oils harm pregnancy?One concern about essential oils is that some oils could induce menstruation (so-called “emmenagogic”) or have a stimulating effect on the uterus that can cause contractions and subsequently lead to abortion. There is a popular belief among aromatherapists that emmenagogic (i.e. promoting menstrual bleeding) essential oils are unsafe in pregnancy as they might lead to miscarriage. According to Tisserand, there is very little evidence that that these oils can lead to miscarriage in the small amounts used in aromatherapy. Oils alleged as emmenagogic or uterine stimulants either do not have such an effect (no scientific basis for these claims) or if they do, they are not powerful enough to have such an effect (i.e. only massive quantities of very toxic oils are able to induce a miscarriage). According to Battaglia, there is no clear evidence that essential oils are abortifacient. In fact, most essential oils labelled abortifacient are in principle oils that are toxic and rarely used or not recommended for use in aromatherapy. (see list of oils to avoid above)

Many essential oils, such as basil, clary sage, clove, cedarwood, cypress, juniper, sweet marjoram, peppermint, rosemary, rose and thyme are commonly classified as contra-indicated in pregnancy. However, according to Battaglia, it has been suggested that these oils present no danger in pregnancy as long as they are not used orally. Overall, we recommend erring on the side of caution and essential oils should be applied sparingly and in low dilution throughout pregnancy.

Infertility, trying to conceive, IVF and essential oils

In terms of trying to conceive, infertility and undergoing IVF and essential oils, one concern is that some oils may have estrogenic activity or interfere with conception/implantation but as shown by Tisserand this is unfounded and extremely weak as essential oils are volatile compounds. In fact, essential oils can be such a useful tool during these difficult times.

Can essential oils be used on newborn babies and during breastfeeding? Particular caution is needed for using essential oils during breastfeeding and around the newborn since essential oils can be overpowering for young babies. The newborn infant has a delicate developing system, both physically and energetically. Most aromatherapists recommend avoiding infants’ exposure to essential oils until at least 6 months of age. Professional opinions widely vary but I personally do not recommend using essential oils on young children until 6 years old, as whatever is used by the mother will generally affect the infant, even in a non-breastfeeding woman. If using essential oil during lactation or with the newborn, even with the lowest dilution, be aware of any changes in the baby, such as skin reactions.

Benefits of essential oils in pregnancy

Aromatherapy can be beneficial in maintaining the general health of the expectant mother and in minimising the various discomforts during pregnancy. Discomforts commonly experienced in pregnancy include morning sickness, backache, swollen legs and ankles, constipation, varicose veins, digestive problems, leg cramps and fatigues. Certain oils can be used with good effect at low dilution (1%) in carrier oils for massage, ointments, creams, lotions, inhalations, room sprays and other purposes.

Some oils can have beneficial effects during pregnancy, like peppermint, lemon or ginger, are used against nausea. Never apply essential oils undiluted and use patch testing before using any diluted oil directly on skin. Below is a list of essential oils that are generally accepted as safe during pregnancy.

If you are working with a doula, s/he may be able to offer you advice on the use of essential oils. A doula is a professional labour assistant who provides physical and emotional support to you and your partner during pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period. For instance, a doula might offer attention to physical comfort through techniques such as touch and massage and assistance with breathing.

Which essential oils are safe in pregnancy?

Source: Carole Guyett (2022), The Herbalist's Guide to Pregnancy, Childbirth and Beyond: Herbal Medicine for Pregnancy and Birth, a Herbalist's Approach

How to use essential oils in pregnancy? What are some ways to use essential oils in pregnancy?Aromatic bathing is a great way to relax and alleviate any back aches, especially towards the end of pregnancy. Blend 3-4 drops of essential oils from the ones in the list above, such as lavender, chamomile and frankincense, with Epsom, dead sea or pink Himalayan salts. Sprinkle the salts into a warm bath and relax and unwind, inhaling the aromatic scents. Our Sweet Dreams bath salts is a great option for these purposes. Gentle massage with mild essential oils - such as rose, neroli, petitgrain and lavender blended into a carrier oil – can help with a wide variety of issues, such as back pain, anxiety, nervousness or fatigue. Keep the dilution low to 1 % of essential oils mixed into (for example, 1 ml essential oils mixed into 100 ml carrier oils, such as sweet almond oil, grapeseed oil, coconut oil). You can check our Sweet Dreams body and bath oil for a ready-made massage blend.

A blend to prevent stretch marks (or to get rid of existing stretch marks) prepare the following blend: 15 ml wheat germ or rose hip oil, mixed with 25 ml of jojoba or sweet almond oils. A few drops (not more than 4-5 drops) of essential oils may also be added. Use this twice daily for a light massage to belly and breasts, especially after the fourth month. The blend can also be rubbed into the perineum in the last six weeks before the birth.

Cooling compress with floral water, such as lavender, chamomile or rose water can be refreshing during the later stages of pregnancy. Alternatively, add the flower water to a mist spray for regular application throughout the day. Our rose water and lavender water are 100% organic from steam distillation and are the perfect non-toxic companion for pregnant women. Use our lavender eye pillow natural dried lavender and natural flaxseed to relax and unwind whilst inhaling the gentle soothing lavender aroma. Our eye pillows are oft and lightweight, comfortably hugs your eyes and forehead, releasing facial tension and blocking out light.

Post-natal depression and emotional difficulties can be common after the birth until hormones return to normal. Fatigue, anxiety, despondency and emotional imbalances are common. This can be alleviated by the use of rose, bergamot, lavender, neroli, chamomile, mandarin, vetiver, or ylang ylang in a diffuser or worn as a perfume. Our Flower Power blend is a great option with uplifting floral essential oils.

How are essential oils used in labour and birth?Midwives in maternity wards and birthing centres in many NHS hospitals in the UK make use of essential oils before or during labour. Some midwives are trained in using aromatherapy during labour. Essential oils can be a useful tool during labour, to ease pain and to facilitate delivery. According to Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the benefits of using essential oils and/or massage during labour include promoting relaxation and reducing fear and tension during labour; providing a natural form of pain relief during labour; in some cases speeding up labour or helping ease physical discomfort during labour, such as nausea and headaches. Another example is Lucina Birth Centre, University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire, which applies aromatherapy n labour to ease pain and aid contractions as well as for relaxation and to help prevent nausea and vomiting. The most popular method of receiving aromatherapy during labour is via a massage (massage of hands and feet, neck and shoulders) which could be performed by the midwife in labour or by a birthing partner. The Lucina Birth Centre, for example, also provides diffusers at the birth to stimulate the mood centre in the brain which affects emotions.

Which essential oils can be used during birth and labour?

The following oils are mentioned by NHS hospital trusts and birthing centres for their use during birth. Only a trained midwife in aromatherapy can use essential oils during labour. Grapefruit, bergamot and orange are gentle oils which can boost mood and help you to relax. Citrus oils can help reduce pain during labour. It also has a calming effect.  Check our range of essential oils hereFrankincense essential oil is derived from the resin on the boswellia tree and is used for calming nervous tension and hyperventilation. Frankincense is effective for calming if feeling particularly anxious, especially in the transition stage of labour which is at the end of the first stage of labour. This oil can also help to balance emotions. Check our range of essential oils here

Chamomile Roman essential oil is derived from the Roman Chamomile plant and has a warm, sweet fruity oil. It helps reduce pain and relieves anxiety and teLavender essential oil is distilled from the lavender plan and is a good all round essential oil that helps calm, relax and reduce pain as well as help with headaches. Check our range of essential oils here

Black pepper is a pain-relieving oil and can be used as an analgesic during labour.

Peppermint essential oil is derived from the peppermint plant and is a cooling and refreshing oil, useful for sickness and nausea during labour and can also help clear headaches. Check our range of essential oils here

Clary sage essential oil is derived from the salvia sclarea herb. It has a sweet, nutty smell and can help reduce pain, fear and tension and may also help speed up your labour. Clary sage is a popular oil as it is thought to help with your contractions and labour progress. Caution: Please note this essential oil has very strong properties that can affect your baby. Do not use without professional guidance.

Jasmine essential oil is derived from the jasmine flower and is used for reducing anxiety and reducing pain. It may also help to speed up labour. Caution: This oil can have a strong effect and should not be used at home without professional guidance

Summary: Are essential oils safe when pregnant?Essential oils should not be taken orally, vaginally or rectally throughout pregnancy and lactation. Anecdotal cases of toxicity are reported when large quantities of toxic essential oils have been ingested. Reproductive toxicology is still a developing area and less is known about the effects of chemicals (from whichever source, not only essential oils) on the reproductive system. There are certain oils that can be toxic to the developing child and should be avoided due to chemical compounds they contain (as listed above). These are mostly rare oils that are generally toxic and not widely used in aromatherapy. There is very little evidence that that essential oils can lead to miscarriage by inducing menstruation or causing uterine contractions in the small amounts used in aromatherapy. Avoid using essential oils altogether in the first trimester.

Aromatherapy can be beneficial in maintaining the general health of the expectant mother and in minimising the various discomforts during pregnancy, such as morning sickness, backache, swollen legs and ankles, constipation, etc. Always use oils in a lower dilution of 1%. We recommend erring on the side of caution and using essential oils sparingly but in a targeted way throughout pregnancy.

Key sources:

Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals2e by Robert Tisserand And Rodney Young 

Carole Guyett (2022), The Herbalist's Guide to Pregnancy, Childbirth and Beyond: Herbal Medicine for Pregnancy and Birth, a Herbalist's Approach

Salvatore Battaglia, 3rd edition, The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, vol. 1


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