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How to Use Spicy Essential Oils Safely

This article was first published in the November issue of AromaCulture Magazine.

One of the trickiest groups of essential oils to use safely is the group derived from spices. Many of the essential oils in this family contain chemical constituents that come with contraindications and can be irritating to the skin, so it’s important to know how to use them properly to avoid adverse reactions. Before I started studying essential oils, I used an essential oil derived from Cinnamon in a hair rinse in the shower and came out of the shower looking like I had streaks of radiation burns all over my body. They eventually went away completely, but the irritation that oil caused could have easily been avoided had I known more about how to use it correctly. Let’s take a look at some of the spicy oils and talk about how to use them most effectively.

You will find that some of the essential oils in the spicy group are not altogether user-friendly. When that is the case, I have included a list of suggested substitutions for them at the end of this article. Best to leave those ones to the professionally trained aromatherapists (who also tend to rarely use them) and to choose safer options whenever possible. They are rarely necessary.

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Allspice – Pimenta dioica (also called Pimento berry oil)

Allspice essential oil is produced by steam distilling the berry of the Pimenta dioica plant (also called the Pimento berry). While this essential oil has been used in the past for its analgesic and carminative properties and for its effect as a rubefacient, it can be very irritating to the mucous membranes and the skin and should be used at a very low dilution to avoid adverse reactions (less than 1% per Tisserand & Young). It also comes with several safety contraindications due to its high eugenol and methyleugenol content. Since there are many other essential oils with similar therapeutic properties, but without the safety risks presented by this essential oil, it is recommended to look to safer options rather than reaching for this one. Suggested substitutions for other essential oils with analgesic and carminative properties can be found at the end of this article.

*This oil should not be taken internally.

Anise – Pimpinella anisum

The seeds of the Pimpinella anisum plant are steam distilled to produce this essential oil. It is sometimes called Aniseed essential oil but it is important to know that Anise (or Aniseed) essential oil is not the same as Star Anise, which comes from a different plant and has different safety considerations. Anise essential oil is primarily used to support the digestive and respiratory systems due to its antispasmodic, antitussive, expectorant, and carminative properties.

Anise essential oil contains a constituent called estragole which can be irritating to the skin, especially for people whose skin is quite sensitive. If you must use it, restrict its dilution to 1-3% and check your Essential Oil Safety manual by Tisserand & Young for specific contraindications prior to use. It’s best to test it (diluted) on a small area of the skin before a wider application if you plan to use it topically.

This essential oil comes with many contraindications (see resources list at the end of this article), including:

  • Avoid use when pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Avoid use if you’re dealing with estrogen-dominance, estrogen-related cancers, and/or endometriosis.
  • Avoid use if you are prone to allergies.
  • Do not use if you are dealing with inflammatory skin conditions.
  • Not suitable for use with children under 5.
  • It is possible that Anise essential oil may inhibit blood clotting (Tisserand & Young).
  • Anise comes with further cautions for different routes of application, so refer to your Essential Oil Safety manual prior to use.

In general, it’s probably best to reach for a more user-friendly oil if possible. See the end of this article for substitution recommendations.

Black Pepper – Piper nigrum

Black Pepper berries are steam distilled to produce this essential oil. A CO2 extract is also available, but we’re focusing on the essential oil for the purpose of this article. It can be skin-irritating for a small part of the population, but is generally considered safe for use at a low dilution (1% is typically recommended). Because it can cause skin sensitization when oxidized (Tisserand & Young), however, it should be stored in the fridge and used up within its proper shelf life.

Black Pepper essential oil is often utilized for its antibacterial, analgesic, immunostimulant properties and is also thought to support healthy circulation. It has an affinity for digestive system discomfort and respiratory support.

*This is one of the safer spicy essential oils to use.

Cardamom – Eletarria cardamomum

Cardamom essential oil is produced by steam distilling the seed pods of the plant. An oleoresin and CO2 extract are also available, but we are again focusing on the essential oil here. Cardamom essential oil has a strong affinity for the digestive system and is often used in blends for a wide variety of digestive complaints. Its therapeutic properties include such things as: analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, carminative, digestive, nervine, and stomachic. It is non-irritating and non-sensitizing and can be safely used on the skin at standard dilution rates. It does, however, contain a high amount of 1,8-cineole and should therefore be used with caution around young children. At Tisserand & Young’s recommendation, do not apply Cardamom essential oil on or near the face of a baby or a child.

*This is one of the safer spicy essential oils to use.

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Cinnamon Bark & Cinnamon Leaf – Cinnamomum zeylanicum

Cinnamon bark and leaf essential oils both contain significant amounts of cinnamaldehyde and eugenol, which can irritate mucous membranes and cause a burning sensation and/or irritation on the skin. The leaf-derived essential oil also contains safrole, which comes with its own list of safety concerns and contraindications. In general, the bark-derived essential oil should not be used on the skin and the leaf-derived essential oil can be used on the skin up to a dilution of 0.6% (per Tisserand & Young), but it is rarely the best choice for topical use.

Both essential oils may interact with drugs and have the potential to inhibit blood clotting, so refer to Tisserand & Young’s safety manual prior to using to see if either oil is appropriate for use in your situation.

It is recommended to avoid using Cinnamon-derived essential oils with young children or when pregnant or breastfeeding.

Cinnamon-derived essential oils are mainly indicated for tropical infections and are best used by a trained, practicing clinical aromatherapist. In most other cases, a more user-friendly essential oil can be just as effective. I’ll leave suggested substitutions at the end of the article.

Clove bud – Syzygium aromaticum

Sun-dried Clove buds are steam-distilled to produce this eugenol-rich essential oil. It boasts analgesic, antifungal, and carminative therapeutic properties and is usually used to help relieve pain, address fungal imbalances, and support the body when dealing with certain types of infection or parasites.

Clove bud essential oil is best suited to short-term use (it comes with a risk of skin sensitization) and should be limited to 0.5% dilution (per Tisserand & Young) for topical applications. It can irritate skin and mucous membranes, so take care to avoid applying blends containing it to areas where there is broken skin. It should be avoided when pregnant or breastfeeding, and with small children. You may have heard that this is a good oil to use for teething children, but the essential oil is not a good choice for this purpose (herbal preparations may be appropriate when prepared properly, but not the essential oil). It also comes with some potential drug interactions and may inhibit blood clotting, so refer to Tisserand & Young’s safety manual for further information about their research on those issues prior to use. See the end of the article for suggested substitutions.

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Ginger – Zingiber officinale

Ginger essential oil can be produced by steam distilling the leaves (more rarely) or the dried rhizomes (though I do know of two distillers that offer a steam-distilled Ginger from the fresh rhizome, which is my favorite). Ginger yields a warming, carminative, anti-inflammatory, circulatory stimulating essential oil that has an affinity for coldness in the extremities, menstrual ailments, aches and pains, and a variety of inflammatory issues. It’s often utilized for digestive complaints as well. There are no known safety contraindications for Ginger essential oil and it can be used at standard dilution recommendations. It may be best to use it for short-term use. Peter Holmes recommends avoiding internal use of Ginger essential oil if pregnant.

*This is one of the safer spicy essential oils to use.

Nutmeg – Myristica fragrans

Steam-distilled Nutmeg essential oil boasts therapeutic properties with analgesic, antirheumatic, antispasmodic and carminative qualities. It’s often employed in digestive support formulas and applications for relief of aches and pains. In large doses, it can be problematic and it should not be used when pregnant or breastfeeding. It should generally be limited to topical applications at a 0.8% maximum dilution because of the presence of methyleugenol and safrole (per Tisserand & Young). Several user-friendly essential oils can be substituted for this one. See the list of recommendations at the end of the article.

Plai – Zingiber cassumunar, Z. montanum

Plai is a relative of Ginger and its essential oil is also produced by steam distilling the rhizome of the plant. The essential oil is analgesic, anti-inflammatory, antineuralgic, antispasmodic, and carminative. It is most often utilized in pain-relieving blends for aches, pains, and cramps, but can also be utilized in digestive support blends. There are no known safety issues for this essential oil and it can be used at standard dilution rates. However, I have had a client who experiences an allergic reaction to Plai essential oil, so that may be something to watch for when working with it.

*This is one of the safer spicy essential oils to use.

Substitution Recommendations Based on the Desired Therapeutic Effect

Antispasmodic:

Basil ct. linalool, Bergamot,* Black Spruce, Cardamom, Chamomiles, Geranium, Ginger, Helichrysum, Lavender,  Mandarin, Sweet Marjoram, Sweet Orange, Palo Santo, Peppermint, Ponderosa Pine (or Scotch Pine), Rose, Spike Lavender, Tangerine, White Spruce, Xanthoxylum, Yarrow

Carminative / Digestive:

Basil ct. linalool, Bergamot,* Bergamot Mint, Black Pepper, Cardamom, Chamomiles, Sweet Fennel, Ginger, Laurel leaf, Lemon, Mandarin, Sweet Orange, Peppermint, Plai, Spearmint, Yarrow

Analgesic:

Balsam Copaiba, Bergamot Mint, Black Spruce, Chamomiles, Elemi, Eucalyptuses, Firs, Geranium, Ginger, Helichrysum, Laurel leaf, Lavenders, Mandarin, Palo Santo, Peppermint, Pines, Plai, Rosalina, Rosemary ct. verbenone, Spruces

Expectorant:

Balsam Copaiba, Basil ct. linalool, Black Pepper, Cardamom, Cedarwood, Firs, Elemi, Eucalyptuses, Ginger, Helichrysum, Myrtles, Niaouli, Palo Santo, Peppermint, Pines, Ravensara, Ravintsara, Rosemary, Spearmint, Spruces

Circulatory:

Firs, Ginger, Mugwort, Peppermint, Turmeric, Vetiver

Antitussive:

Cistus, Eucalyptuses, Ginger, Niaouli, Ravintsara, Rosemary ct. cineole, Spike Lavender, Thyme ct. linalol

*phototoxic

Resources and references

The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy – Valerie Ann Worwood
Aromatherapy – A Complete Guide to the Healing Art – Kathi Keville and Mindy Green
Aromatica, V. 1 – Peter Holmes
Essential Oil Safety, 2nd Ed. - Tisserand and Young

I hope this was a helpful resource for you!

Much love,
Erin

 


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