There has been much social media discussion recently (February 2012) about the wisdom or otherwise of putting essential oils into your eyes to treat eye problems. This arose from two webpages, here and here. One of these, on the Livestrong website, states: “More and more people are choosing to use alternative medicines to treat minor illnesses rather than taking a prescription. Putting essential oils in or near the eyes isn’t something that is widely known about, but there are several that can aid in the treatment of eye problems. Before using essential oils for your eyes, always contact your doctor.

Clary sage is the essential oil that is most widely used to treat vision problems. It is placed in the eye, so advice from an optometrist is important before use. Clary sage is used as a cleanser for the eyes. It can also be used to clear eye sight due to foggy vision or an injury to the eyes. Clary sage can also be used to brighten the eyes and improve vision. Finally, it can have beneficial results for people with eye issues related to aging” (Eliza Martinez).

Damage to the cornea after inadvertent adminstration of Olbas Oil. Courtesy of Nature Publishing Group

This actually dates from May 2010, but judging from the related comments, has only recently been noticed. The statement that “Clary sage is the essential oil that is most widely used to treat vision problems” is not true, since there are no essential oils commonly used to treat vision problems. The only evidence for any essential oil treating any eye problem relates to tea tree oil and eyelash mites (see below). The reference to clary sage probably derives from 17th century European herbalists, but this refers to using clary sage seeds, or mucilage made from them, and not to clary sage essential oil: “The seed put into the eyes clears them from motes and such like things gotten within the lids to offend them, and it also clears them from any white and red spots which may be on them” (Culpeper 1652). Another common name for clary sage (Salvia sclarea) was “clear eye” because of this common use of the seeds, which probably pre-dated Culpeper by many years. “Clary” may derive from “clear-eye.”

Not only is there no evidence that any essential oil can help with vision problems, age-related or otherwise, but placing any essential oil “in the eye” is extremely dangerous advice. Almost any undiluted essential oil coming into contact with the ocular membranes will be corrosive, possibly causing scarring of the cornea, and certainly causing significant pain.

Eye damage
I could find no reports in the literature of ocular accidents involving single essential oils, but there are several for Olbas oil.3759070379-1 This is a mixture of essential oils and menthol:

35.45% Eucalyptus oil
35.45% Dementholized mint oil
18.5% Cajuput oil
4.1% Menthol
3.7% Wintergreen oil
2.7% Juniper berry oil
0.1% Clove oil

A 2009 report from an ophthalmologist in Bristol UK, describes partial loss of corneal tissue (ie erosion) when a 73-year-old man dripped Olbas Oil into his left eye (he had no right eye) because he thought he was using eye drops (see picture above). He was “considerably incapacitated”, but recovered after a week of treatment with “topical antibiotics and lubricants”. On checking, the author found that just his hospital, in the previous 18 months, had seen 12 patients who had mistakenly dripped Olbas Oil into one eye. He describes the result as a chemical burn, though he found that Olbas Oil in tears was pH neutral (most chemical burns are caused by substances that are strongly acid or alkaline). All “Olbas Oil patients” recovered fully within one week following intensive treatment (Adams et al 2009).

Olbas Oil may cause problems even when not applied directly to the eyes. The mother of a 4-month-old boy placed several drops of Olbas Oil in his right nostril in an attempt to help his respiratory infection, not realizing that the product warns against use in infants. The child immediately showed signs of respiratory distress, and was taken to the emergency room. Two hours after admission his eyes became inflamed, and examination revealed bilateral superficial corneal scarring. He also had conjunctivitis, and could not open his eyes. They were flushed with saline over four days, and he recovered with no residual scarring (Wyllie and Alexander 1994).

Emergency treatment
More than 65,000 work-related eye injuries and illnesses are reported annually in the USA, a “significant percentage” of these being ocular chemical burns. They require rapid treatment, and severe burns have a poor prognosis. The standard treatment is copious irrigation with saline solution for 1-2 hours. Contact lenses should not be removed initially (Peate 2007). With essential oils, fatty oil has been suggested as an appropriate first aid treatment though the advantage of saline is that the eyes can be continually flushed, and this is less easy with fatty oil.

What about diluted essential oils?
The second article describes using essential oils diluted to (by my estimation) about 3%. It includes the following advice:

“Here is a truly natural solution, which has been shown to benefit your eye health and the only one I will use. Gary Young has used this recipe for his patients at the Ecuador Clinic for macular degeneration, health issues, cataracts, and improving sight. I’ve been using it for a couple of years and love it! I started using this recipe before I had to have a vision exam in order to purchase new contacts. And I knew my vision had deteriorated from my last exam. So I put the drops in my eyes every night for about 6 months prior to the exam and my prescription had not changed according to their records, but I know what I was not seeing and I know what I was seeing as a result of using these drops – clearly my vision had improved! The recipe is as follows:

 7-10 drops of Frankincense
7-10 drops of Rosemary
7-10 drops of Cypress
2 Tbsp of V-6

Put oils in a glass dropper bottle with a lid on it. My experience has been that I can see much more clearly just after putting the drops in my eye so I am also going to experiment with putting a drop in my eyes in the morning” (Diana Ewald).

“V-6” is a proprietary blend of vegetable oils. The above implies that using these oils on a daily basis is likely to have a healing effect in cases of cataract, macular degeneration or failing eyesight. Although the article continues to describe various effects of the essential oils, none of them have any relationship with any of these conditions. So the question arises – how to weigh potential benefits against potential risks?

The word “experiment” in the above seems appropriate. Eyesight problems are difficult to treat, and once damage has occurred, recovery is not always simple. A 3% dilution may not be sufficient to cause corneal erosion, but on the other hand there is no evidence of any benefit. One concern is that the wrong dilution may be used, and the risk of this is substantial. For example, it would be easy to confuse “tbsp” with tsp”, resulting in a dilution of about 10% instead of 3%.

In a Chinese study, an ointment containing 5% tea tree oil was used by patients whose eyelash follicles were infested with “eyelash mites” (Demodex folliculorum). The ointment was applied to the lid margins with eyes closed, daily for 4 weeks after washing the face, and resulted in considerably less itching and fewer mites. Two of the 24 patients experienced slight irritation from the ointment. The 5% concentration was arrived at after preliminary testing using various dilutions on rabbit eyes (Gao et al 2012).

Conclusions
* Undiluted essential oils should not be applied to the eyes.

* It is rash to suggest that essential oils are commonly used to treat eye problems

* Eye injuries and diseases are medical conditions, and any product claiming to treat them is a medicine, subject to drug legislation.

* There is currently no evidence that applying dilutions of essential oil to the eyes will be beneficial in any condition.

* Diluted (5%) tea tree oil may help eradicate eyelash mites, but it should not be placed into the eyes.

References
Adams MK, Sparrow JM, Jim S et al 2009 Inadvertent administration of Olbas oil into the eye: a surprisingly frequent presentation. Eye (London) 23:244

Culpeper N 1652 The English Physitian, or an Astro-physical discourse of the vulgar herbs of this nation. Being a compleat method of physick, whereby a man may preserve his body in health; or cure himself, being sick. Thomas Kelly, London

Gao YY, Xu DL, Huang IJ et al 2012 Treatment of ocular itching associated with ocular demodicosis by 5% tea tree oil ointment. Cornea 31:14-17

Peate WF 2007 Work-related eye injuries and illnesses. American Family Physician 75:1017-1022

Wyllie JP, Alexander FW 1994 Nasal instillation of ‘Olbas Oil’ in an infant. Archives of Disease in Childhood 70:357-358

This article also appears in the International Journal of Professional Holistic Aromatherapy, Vol. 1 Issue 4