6 Steps to Cook Safely with Essential Oils

Several plants & leaves lie next to a cup filled with oil. All are resting on a circular white marble stone on a blue table
Image by 1Day Review with attribution under CC BY 2.0

1. Choose your plant carefully

Let’s face it; not everything natural is actually good for you. Poison ivy and deadly nightshade are beautiful...from a distance. The FDA has a list of plants that are generally recognized as safe to ingest. That’s different from plants that are okay to apply to your body.

You know aloe vera? That great plant you can rub directly onto your skin to help heal minor cuts and sunburn? Not on the FDA ingestion list. Eating aloe vera plants can cause anything from diarrhea to kidney failure — even before you take the super-concentrated essential oil form.

Now, the FDA list isn’t a guarantee. It’s merely a starting point. If your plant isn’t on the list, do NOT eat it — no matter what those Instagram influencers are telling you.

2. Check the quality of your oils

Use some common sense when selecting your essential oils. If you found them at a dollar store, or if they came in a spa package intended for bathing, you probably shouldn’t be eating them. Never cook with essential oils that use cutesy names like “Relaxation” or “Happiness.” These blends are designed for smelling, not eating.

If you want to cook with essential oils, look for labels that follow this format:

100% + Latin Plant Name + Oil (or Essential Oil)

You want the oil to be 100% made from the plant (rather than synthesized in a lab). If it doesn’t say 100%, then it can have all sorts of fillers that make it more risky to ingest. If it says 100% pure, that’s also a danger sign. They could be mixing 100% pure oil with 100% pure filler and the end result is still 100% pure!

Ignore companies that make up their own certifications or purity labels. No essential oils are meant for eating, so there are none that are certified food-safe. High-quality essential oils that meet the recommended labeling format tend to be pretty expensive. You’re probably looking at $20 an ounce for pharmaceutical-grade essential oils — once you can find them through the maze of “100% Certified Pure Organic” fakes.

3. Use the right amount

The process of making essential oils typically involves taking a plant, heating it, then collecting the oil that condenses. An essential oil can be ten times more potent than the original plant — or more. That means a few drops of lemon essential oil can be the same as squeezing 30 lemons into your food. Using the wrong amounts can lead to disgusting (and expensive!) mistakes.

When in doubt, use only half of what the recipe calls for. Make sure you dilute your essential oil with another kind of cooking oil. Never use more than three drops of essential oil in food, and never put essential oils in drinking water.

Water doesn’t mix with oil, so you’re not drinking the equivalent of lemon water. You’re just drinking water with oil. Picture it kind of like a chocolate chip cookie: water with small blobs of oil in it.

4. Don’t give essential oil-laced food to kids. Ever.

Babies and kids process things differently from adults. An adult dose of aspirin can be fatal to a child; your favorite lotion could cause a serious skin rash on a baby. Same goes for essential oils.

“Less than half a teaspoonful” of an essential oil can cause a toxic medical emergency for a child, according to WebMD. Also, kids don’t know what they’re allergic to unless they’ve tried it. You don’t want your kid (or anyone else’s kid) to find out about a previously undiscovered allergy from ingesting a supercharged dose of it.

If you have kids in the house, you need to lock up your essential oils in a childproof cabinet. Essential oils smell really, really good, which makes them prime targets for grabby little hands. Essential oil ingestion in children can lead to anything from mouth irritation to coma and death. Those are some pretty big risks for a single dinner.

(PSA: Everyone should bookmark this web Poison Control tool. Don’t play around with it; it’s a serious emergency-use-only site for accidental ingestions.

If a baby under 6 months accidentally ingested essential oils, forget the tool and go straight to the ER. Like, stop reading and go NOW.)

5. Don’t give essential oil-enhanced food to unaware adults, either

For one, it’s just rude. But more importantly, accidental essential oil ingestion can cause serious health problems in adults. Improperly used essential oils can lead to mouth and throat irritation, or aggravate existing stomach problems. If you already struggle with heartburn or indigestion, you may want to rethink your essential oil cooking plans. Allergic reactions are also, always possible. No matter how harmless the substance appears, someone is always allergic to it.

Accidental essential oil ingestion is extremely dangerous during pregnancy and can cause miscarriages. In fact, pennyroyal essential oil has historically been used for herbal abortions. Nutmeg, anise, parsley, and oregano can also cause miscarriages. Remember, it’s not anyone’s responsibility to disclose their personal medical conditions to you. Instead, it’s up to you to announce whether the homemade muffins you brought for the meeting are flavored with lavender oil.

6. Ask yourself whether it’s really worth it

If you couldn’t tell by the previous bullet points, cooking with essential oils is a process. You can’t just drip a few drops into your food and call it a day. To be safe, you need to do your homework, check your oils, and keep your oil-enhanced food to consenting adults. For most people, it’s simply not worth the time, money, and risks.

Cooking with raw ingredients or dried plants is almost always better for both you and the earth. The process of making essential oils takes way more plants (and water) than simply growing the plants themselves. It takes 10,000 pounds of rose petals to make just 1 pound of rose essential oil.

Which means your carbon footprint for a pot of oily pasta can be hundreds of times bigger than the carbon footprint of someone who picked herbs from a simple kitchen herb garden. (Also, gardening is one hobby proven to improve mental and physical health. Two benefits in one!)

Most of the time, people who are trying to sell you on cooking with essential oils are also trying to sell you essential oils. Which can be a good thing! Ask a friend if you can borrow a bottle for a night just to try it out. If you don’t taste a difference (or you taste too much of a bad difference), at least you’ll learn it without dropping $50 for a tiny bottle you’ll never use (then have to throw out after 2 years because essential oils do go bad).

But hey, at least essential oils smell nice!

Follow Laine’s Guide to Life for more practical advice about surviving in the modern world, like how to write a professional summary and 6 things you need to take off your resume today.

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Laine Yuhas

Information sponge and efficiency expert. Let me help you do cool things. Writing on technology, self-improvement, and happiness.