At the Smile Herb Shop in College Park, clinical aromatherapist Olivia MacMillan says she’s recently seen a major uptick in the sales of essential oils, likely because of their promised health benefits.
“They’re calming, anti-inflammation benefits, pain-relieving benefits, concentration benefits, sleep benefits,” she explained.
But essential oils can be dangerous if misused - if they’re ingested, for instance, or if you use too much.
“They can precipitate asthma attacks, they can causes rashes if they’re on your skin, they can cause nausea and vomiting,” said Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor, Medical Toxicologist at the National Capital Poison Control Center.
According to Johnson-Arbor, Poison Control centers around the nation are grappling with the issue. It used to be that Poison Control received about 10,000 calls a year that had to do with essential oils, but that number has more than doubled in the last five years.
Washington’s numbers reflect a similar trend.
“Last year we got 430 calls about essential oils,” she said. “Compare that to two years ago, we were getting about 200 calls."
Perhaps what’s most concerning is that close to half of those calls have to do with children.
“Children under five are a huge population of the calls that we get for essential oils at the Poison Center, because young children will open these oils, they’ll smell them, they’ll try to swallow them, and they will get very very sick. In some cases they’ve even died,” said Johnson-Arbor.
Experts are urging people not to leave oils lying around the house, and to learn about their proper use.
“I think people should treat them the way they treat any prescription medication, so keep them on a high shelf, out of reach of young children,” she said.
“Safety is big in essential oils,” said MacMillan. “Essential oils can heal, essential oils can harm.”