Essential oils

(Date: February 2019. Version: 3)

This factsheet has been written for members of the public by the UK Teratology Information Service (UKTIS). UKTIS is a not-for-profit organisation funded by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) on behalf of UK Health Departments. UKTIS has been providing scientific information to health care providers since 1983 on the effects that medicines, recreational drugs and chemicals may have on the developing baby during pregnancy.

Quick read

The small amount of essential oil in shop-bought toiletries and some food items will not harm the unborn baby. Essential oils are commonly used in a diluted form in pregnancy massage with no problems, but a few types of oil should be avoided due to a hypothetical risk that they might affect the baby.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are perfumed oils that contain plant extracts. When used in an aromatherapy massage or in oil burners, a small amount of the concentrated essential oil is usually diluted with another ‘carrier’ oil. Some everyday toiletries, cosmetics, foods and drinks also contain very small amounts of essential oils. Essential oils can be poisonous or cause skin irritation if used in their pure form (undiluted).

Is it safe to use products containing essential oils during pregnancy?


The levels of essential oils found in shop-bought foods and drinks are generally low and would not usually be expected to pose a risk to the unborn baby.


The level of essential oils found in most everyday perfumes, cosmetics, skin care products and toiletries is usually low and therefore very unlikely to harm the baby.

Aromatherapy massage

Although no scientific studies have been carried out to assess whether the use of essential oils for pregnancy massage is safe, many pregnant women undergo aromatherapy massage without problems.

Essential oils are absorbed through the skin and can enter the bloodstream, with amounts increased if a large area is being massaged or the skin is broken. It is recommended that certain specific essential oils are not used for massage at any stage of pregnancy as there is a hypothetical risk they can cause womb contractions and other problems. Women who are unsure about which oils can be used in pregnancy can seek advice from a trained professional.


Some essential oils (e.g. eucalyptus, camphor, menthol and others) have decongestant properties and are commonly used to treat a blocked nose. Combinations of these oils are present in commercially available inhaled decongestants (e.g. Olbas Oil, Vicks VapoRub). Although there are no specific pregnancy safety studies of these products, it is thought that they are unlikely to cause harm when used as directed.

Citronella oil

Citronella oil is often applied directly to the skin as an insect repellent. Generally, only a small amount is applied, and citronella oil is not known to be harmful in pregnancy when used in this way. However, citronella oil is not considered effective enough to protect against mosquito bites in areas where malaria may be transmitted. Please see the bump leaflet on use of insect repellents in pregnancy if you require information on this subject.

Clove oil

Clove oil is a traditional remedy for toothache. There are no pregnancy safety studies on clove oil. There are, however, a small number of isolated reports of women using clove oil for toothache during pregnancy, with no suggestion that it harmed their babies.

Wintergreen oil

Wintergreen oil is an ingredient in some muscle rubs such as Deep Heat. Wintergreen oil contains a chemical called methyl salicylate, which is related to aspirin. The amount of wintergreen oil (and therefore methyl salicylate) in commercially available muscle rubs is generally small and use according to the manufacturer’s instructions in pregnancy is unlikely to cause problems. However, use of aspirin (and other medicines from the NSAID family) is not recommended after 20 weeks of pregnancy so, as a precaution, women may wish to avoid using products containing wintergreen oil after this point.

Use of essential oils in labour

Essential oils (either inhaled or applied to the skin) are sometimes used by women during labour. This is thought unlikely to be harmful.

Essential oil poisoning

Undiluted essential oils are highly toxic and should not be swallowed during pregnancy or at any other time. Undiluted essential oils should also not be applied to the skin as they can cause severe irritation and/or allergy. If a woman swallows an essential oil, she should seek immediate medical advice.

Who can I talk to if I have questions?

Women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy and are in any doubt about using a product or medicine should speak to a trained professional or healthcare advisor such as their midwife.

How can I help to improve drug safety information for pregnant women in the future?

Our online reporting system allows women with a current or previous pregnancy to create a digitally secure ‘my bumps record’. You will be asked to enter information about your health, whether or not you take any medicines, and your pregnancy outcome. You can update your details at any time during pregnancy or afterwards. This information will help us better understand how medicines affect the health of pregnant women and their babies. Please visit to register.

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General information 

Up to 1 out of every 5 pregnancies ends in a miscarriage, and 1 in 40 babies are born with a birth defect. These are referred to as the background population risks.  They describe the chance of these events happening for any pregnancy before taking factors such as the mother’s health during pregnancy, her lifestyle, medicines she takes and the genetic make up of her and the baby’s father into account.

Medicines use in pregnancy

Most medicines used by the mother will cross the placenta and reach the baby. Sometimes this may have beneficial effects for the baby.  There are, however, some medicines that can harm a baby’s normal development.  How a medicine affects a baby may depend on the stage of pregnancy when the medicine is taken. If you are on regular medication you should discuss these effects with your doctor/health care team before becoming pregnant.

If a new medicine is suggested for you during pregnancy, please ensure the doctor or health care professional treating you is aware of your pregnancy.

When deciding whether or not to use a medicine in pregnancy you need to weigh up how the medicine might improve your and/or your unborn baby’s health against any possible problems that the drug may cause. Our bumps leaflets are written to provide you with a summary of what is known about use of a specific medicine in pregnancy so that you can decide together with your health care provider what is best for you and your baby.   

Every pregnancy is unique. The decision to start, stop, continue or change a prescribed medicine before or during pregnancy should be made in consultation with your health care provider. It is very helpful if you can record all your medication taken in pregnancy in your hand held maternity records.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to replace the individual care and advice of your health care provider. New information is continually becoming available. Whilst every effort will be made to ensure that this information is accurate and up to date at the time of publication, we cannot cover every eventuality and the information providers cannot be held responsible for any adverse outcomes following decisions made on the basis of this information. We strongly advise that printouts should NOT be kept for any length of time, or for “future reference” as they can rapidly become out of date.

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