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)
- Intestinal bloating or gas
- Abdominal pain or inflammation (colitis)
- 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.
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.