Salicylate Sensitivities and Essential Oils: What you need to know!

A common question I am asked is whether people need to avoid all essential oils if they have a salicylate sensitivity (SS). A number of blogs and websites include essential oils as something to avoid with SS, and many of these advocate avoiding essential oils completely. Hopefully, this post will help clear up the confusion and misinformation that is so widely spread on the internet.

What are salicylates and where are they found?

Salicylates are naturally occurring compounds found in many plants, foods (nectarine, kiwi, blackberries, blueberries, asparagus, carrots, celery), spices (black cumin, paprika, thyme), herbs, medications (pain relievers, both topical and oral), fragrances, and other products. Plants produce salicylates to protect them against predators and diseases.

What is a salicylate sensitivity or salicylate intolerance?

Most people can handle the amounts of salicylates found in foods and other products without any adverse effects. It typically takes very large doses of salicylates to harm the average person. However, for those with a sensitivity or intolerance to salicylates, even a small amount can cause a severe reaction. These effects can be cumulative, meaning that a salicylate sensitive person may be able to tolerate small amounts of salicylates, but over time this build-up causes symptoms from excessive exposure. It is believed that only a small portion of the population is sensitive to salicylates, but some people with co-occurring conditions may be more likely to experience this unpleasant condition.

  • People with asthma (1)
  • Children with ADD/ADHD (2)
  • People who experience migraines, headaches, or itchy rashes from certain foods (3)
  • People with irritable bowel syndrome (3)

What are the symptoms of salicylate sensitivity?

  • Stuffy nose
  • Respiratory problems (asthma, sinus infections, nasal polyps)
  • Diarrhea
  • Intestinal bloating or gas
  • Abdominal pain or inflammation (colitis)
  • Hives
  • Tissue swelling

What essential oils have salicylates?

As reported in Evidence-Based Essential Oil Therapy, both birch and wintergreen contain significant amounts of methyl salicylate (a compound similar to aspirin), usually over 95%. These essential oils should obviously be avoided through any method of administration by those with SS. In addition, a few other essential oils have from 0.5% to 15% methyl salicylate: ylang ylang from Madagascar (I and II), clove bud, and clove stem essential oils. These essential oils should be used cautiously or not at all by people with SS. The same would go for any blends that contain high salicylate essential oils.

While the majority of essential oils contain no salicylates, minor salicylates, such as benzyl salicylate and ethyl salicylate, may be present in a limited number of essential oils. These salicylates are usually only present in trace amounts, perhaps not even enough to cause a reaction. If you have a severe intolerance or have been advised by your health care professional to avoid salicylates you would need to review a full GC-MS analysis of each essential oil’s composition before use. Once you have the GC-MS, you would need to review the report for any salicylate constituents.

The takeaway 

As you can see, only a handful of essential oils contain enough methyl salicylate (or other salicylates) to be of concern. It is irresponsible to forbid all essential oils and forbid people with SS the opportunity to benefit from EOs just because of a few outliers that contain appreciable levels of salicylates unless a severe intolerance to salicylates exists. However, people who experience symptoms after using an essential oil that contains salicylates should consider avoiding them. Those with SS should carefully read product labels (looking for the offending essential oils) to determine if they should use products that contain essential oils.

21 replies
  1. Tina Zimmer
    Tina Zimmer says:

    My husband reacts to any essential oil I give him whether used internally or externally. This is the first time I have seen something that might give us a clue to why. We are continually told there is not allergy to EOs. But time and time again, he reacts with blisters, redness, swelling, infections, chapping, etc.

    Reply
    • Diana
      Diana says:

      It could be the carrier oil they are using as well. If you are reactive it could mean you were sensitive to something in the ethanol. I’m msc with a mast cell disorder, and react to plant oils of many kinds as well as more of the carriers, sals and a list of other things. Google corn allergens list if you want to get an idea how hard it can be to associate triggers. A food journal that includes personal and cleaning products plus symptoms including moods is invaluable. Some reactions are delayed and it can be hard to find triggers without one.

      Reply
  2. Amanda
    Amanda says:

    Thank you so much for this post. I have IBS and (more than likely) salicylate sensitivity – although histamines are also an issue. I’ve just started using Tea Tree cleanser on my face which is helping my acne significantly. Just wondering, do you know what percentage of methyl salicylate Tea Tree oil has? I’ve been fine using it so far but then today I foolishly burnt some incense and reacted to it with a hot face and belly rash.

    Reply
      • Jay
        Jay says:

        This is such risky advice as you do not know the source of the tea tree oil, the carrier oil, or the concentration level of the oil… as tea tree oil can contain dangerous amounts of salicylate if the base was dried, thus concentrating the sals.

        Reply
  3. Jan
    Jan says:

    Tea tree oil was the first oil I reacted to years ago(skin rash). Prior to that I had an allergic reaction to Aspirin. And all my life I’ve reacted to gluten. Suddenly in my 40’s I’ve become sensitive to almost everything. Thankfully, discovering what salicylate sensitivity is, has helped me figure out a lot and I can maintain an acceptable balance in my life. Each food, plant or chemical gives a different reaction so it becomes very confusing and hard to track. I agree with Diana, my journal helps me to narrow down suspects so that I have fewer bouts. Then it just becomes a way of life. The mental aspect is challenging as reactions affect your mood and one can feel isolated and frustrated. With practice, it’s possible to rise above, let go and still feel in harmony with the world. A reaction will blow over, so I now try to accept it rather than continuing down that path of hopelessness.

    Reply
    • Lisa
      Lisa says:

      Hi Jan I totally understand how you feel I feel like I react to a many things often it’s the healthy things that trigger me with histamine, salicylates, oxylates etc I have found out I have mthfr a genetic methylation issue and I think pregnancy may have triggered my downward spiral. Try nettle tea, to toxaprevent and a clean diet with some chocolate and try not to be anxious about it

      Reply
  4. Julie McKee
    Julie McKee says:

    Hello, I am a Clilnical Aromatherapist, trying oh so hard to make a Natural Moisturiser for my Salicylate Free friends and customers, I have made one, however it lacks any essential oil. I was very interested to read your item. I cant see any table or list within your article with percentages of methyl salicylate in Essential Oils. Are you aware of one?

    My customers would be very very wary of trying a bar with any essential oils in them. I am also limited to carrier oils to use. Any other information you could provide would help me greatly.

    I would love to put your post out on my Anderson Aromatics Website Blog, if that would be acceptable to you?

    Julie McKee
    Clinical Aromatherapist
    Anderson Aromatics Ltd of Scotland

    Reply
      • Haley
        Haley says:

        I’ve read all through appendix G of your book, and there is nothing specifically outlining essential oils containing 0.5% salicylates in there. I have to avoid all salicylates due to drug interaction with Guaifenesin for my fibromyalgia. In your research, have you found instances of essential oils with extremely low levels of salicylates? I have an extensive EO collection (well over 200 different oils), so I’m pretty devastated to read that I cannot use any of them. Like the original poster, I am very interested in seeing a chart outlining actual percentages for others that cannot tolerate even moderate levels of salicylates. Can you point us in the right direction, since it is not specifically listed in your book?

        Reply
        • Scott A. Johnson
          Scott A. Johnson says:

          It is Appendix G of “Medicinal Essential Oils” that has this information. However, it does not include EOs with less than 0.5% salicylates. Very few oils have salicylates but the only way to avoid them completely would be to have a complete GC-MS of each oil you intend to use.

          Reply
  5. Tina Rutkowski
    Tina Rutkowski says:

    Herbs have high amounts of salicylates. So how can we use the herb oils? How can they not have salicylates in them? Many have related components. I am having an issue with lavender and I cannot find a way to be tested nor can I find the amount of salicylates in it. Everything I research about lavender says it is unknown if it contains salicylates.

    Reply
    • Scott A. Johnson
      Scott A. Johnson says:

      You need to have a full GC-MS in order to identify if essential oils have salicylates. Very few essential oils contain salicylates but I do have a list of them in Appendix G of my book Medicinal Essential Oils: https://amzn.to/2tzgYe4.

      Reply
    • Trudy M Cary
      Trudy M Cary says:

      I am having the same problem finding information on Lavender. I’m in the rare group that has anaphylaxis from salicylate. Have to read everything and sometimes it’s not listed. I’ve been given EO’s to use only to start wheezing and swelling immediately. Epi Pen to the rescue and ambulance to the hospital. Now I don’t touch EO’s until someone comes out with an extensive list. I hope you find the answer your looking for and then share it. Until then don’t use anything you don’t know the ingredients to!

      Reply

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