Essential oils and eye safety

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. 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

34 comments to Essential oils and eye safety

  • Thank you. It would never have occurred to me that people were applying essential oils to their eyes. I find it shocking and I am so glad you have brought this subject up so I can share it with my clients. There are just so many irresponsible practitioners (& I use that term lightly here) that do so much harm.

  • Tawny

    I’ve used a mixture of lavender, tea tree and eucalyptus placed into hot water with a towel over head to treat eye infection such as pink eye with significant results. What are your thoughts on oils in vapor, and indirect usage for the eyes?

  • I would never imagine putting EO in my eye. Dr Bonners is bad enough if my washcloth is too wet and peppermint get in my eye. Why are people so quick to equate natural and no toxicity? Taxotere and Taxol are natural from a tree leaf and bark but that has tons of toxicity. While we are at it don’t forget digitalis!!!

  • Tanya LaMothe

    Thank you Robert for responding to this distressing published information.

  • Thank you Robert! I’ve been waiting on someone to explain all this misinformation. It was clearly INSANE to me that people were putting essential oils in their eyes. I’ll be sharing this one facebook.

  • thank you robert for this wonderful statement of facts.

  • It is so frightening to think of people putting undiluted essential oils in their eyes with insufficient research! Thank you so much for writing this article – this is why we rely on you as an expert :)

  • Hi Robert, I may be able to shed some light here as we have a commercial eyedrop and eyemist range. Certainly the idea of placing any essential oil even diluted as aromatherapists understand the term (1-3% in a vegetable oil) appears to me inappropriate.

    Essential oil certainly is used with success in commercial environmental eyedrops but in a dilution of 1/2500. This dilution, while certainly being too small to be of harm, is nonetheless capable of benefit. As these natural eyedrops sell in their hundreds of thousands in pharmacies something must be going on and that has intrigued researchers, The prescription of conventional eyedrops as a ‘front line’ environmental eyedrop has documented medical risks hence the need for a ‘natural’ environmental eyedrop.

  • Just saw someone on Linked In sharing about blending Lavender Oil in distilled water and spraying in her dog’s eyes to treat cataracts. I sent her this link, but doubt she wants to hear it.

  • Diluted or undiluted, this still seems dangerous to me. Robert, thank you for sharing your insights and expertise.

  • robert

    Tawny, steam inhalations for eyes are fine, and you can judge if the EO vapor is too strong and adjust. Thanks for your comment!

  • Elaine

    Hi Robert. I’ve used a mixture of 1-2 drops of tea tree oil in 1/2 cup warm water as a compress for the eyelashes to successfully treat and prevent chronic blepharitis. The eyes remain closed when the compress is applied. What are your thoughts? Thank you for this article!

  • Gayle

    Excellent advice. Thank you for sharing and spreading information on the safe use of essential oils for well being.

  • robert

    Elaine, when you make a compress, especially for the eyes, it is better to mix the oils in a little high fat milk before adding to the water. This allows the oils to break up into a think film, and voids the possibility of droplets of undiluted oil adhering to the eyes. Otherwise, this sounds fine.

  • I added 2 drops of tea tree oil to 1 tsp full fat milk, then mixed into 1/2 cup warm water. The oil was dispersed, no longer floating on top of the water. Many thanks!

  • Jane

    Robert, what does steam inhalation do to the eyes and is this something that you recommend.
    Thanks.

  • robert

    Jane, if you are referring to my earlier comment, I meant that steam inhalations for respiratory conditions, or steaming for the face, is OK for eyes, though you might want to keep them closed to avoid irritation. Depends on the oils being used.

    But also, you could use steam + essential oils to treat an eye infection, and it has even been used to heal long-standing ulcers. 2 or 3 drops of essential oil in steam is a low-risk way to go about this. Ideally, use a steamer with a steam stream that can be directed.

  • I’m really surprised that you even had to write a piece like this. I can’t imagine that someone would put oil in their eyes. I accidentally got peppermint oil in my eye once and it was so painful. Just wow.

  • jeffrey

    Hi Robert, Common sense would seem to dictate that essential oils, which are for the most part too strong for direct application to even the skin, don’t belong in the eyes. However, a person who left a comment on a different entry for your blog said “… by using Helichrysum, Lavender and Boswelia Carteri around my eyes daily, I completely got rid of my glasses that I used to wear since 1st grade.” Even taking that comment with a grain of salt, what would be your thoughts on using essential oils in a proper dilution around the area of, but not in the eyes, as a way of improving the flow of blood and oxygen to the eyes? Thanks very much!

  • robert

    Properly diluted essential oils around the eyes does not sound at all unsafe. However, your suggestion seems unlikely to improve ocular blood flow. The blood supply to the eyes does does come from or even near the facial skin, it comes from the ophthalmic artery. Some topically applied essential oils can increase local circulation by dilating blood vessels, but in this case the skull presents a significant barrier, and I am not aware of evidence for any of these three essential oils having that effect. There’s also the issue of whether, even if it was possible to achieve, a slight increase in blood supply would result in a positive health effect, such as improved eyesight.

  • jeffrey

    Thanks for the informative response. It makes sense, although we do know that massage in the areas around the eyes does relieve tension and stress, which is believed to help facilitate the flow of blood and oxygen to the eyes. However, I agree, it is hard to say how much of benefit the inclusion of essential oils into such a massage might have.

  • Mary

    I just read on a blog about a woman using Clove essential oil on her feet, 2 drops per day, and has had improvement for her macular degeneration. Any thoughts on that? Thank you.

  • robert

    Mary, it seems unlikely that putting essential oils on your feet would affect a condition in your head, so I’m skeptical. Clove oil is about 80% eugenol and eugenol inhibits angiogenesis (the growth of new blood vessels). Angiogenesis inhibitor drugs are used to treat macular degeneration, but they are injected directly into the eye. Getting enough essential oil into the eye to be both effective and safe would be a challenge, and applying to the most distant part of the body makes no sense to me.

  • Rachel

    The idea behind putting the oils on your feet has to do with reflexology, that certain areas of your feet are linked to certain organs.

  • robert

    Rachel, this may be one possible reason. But there is still no evidence to support the idea that applying essential oils to the feet (or reflex points on the feet) will impact specific distant organs. In my opinion, it’s a long-shot, though mostly harmless.

  • Annette Bouchard

    I suspect alot of this misinformation comes from the Young Living Organization. Their Raindrop Therapy would be a prime example of unsafe use of essential oils. Dripping undiluted oils directly on the skin of the back and saying the reddening skin is toxins being released from viruses hibernating along the spine is outrageous in my opinion. More like a mild burn from the undiluted oil. I took their Raindrop Therapy class because an employer wanted to do it on our clients. I was shocked by the reasoning of the entire process. Now this protocol is common in many reputable spas.

  • When I went to my eye doctor last year for an annual exam, my eye glass prescription was actually weaker – my vision was getting better. It had nothing to do with essential oils…it had to do with age. So while not technically the placebo effect, there may have been no relationship between using EOs around the eyes and this woman who posted being able to get rid of glasses. As a person fighting eye cancer, I treasure my sight and hope anyone who would ever consider putting essential oils in their eye thinks twice and stops listing to these unproven stories from strangers on the internet as examples of appropriate options for their health care choices!

  • Kelli

    Hello Mr. Tisserand, I have recently seen suggestions for putting a drop of lavender essential oil in mascara to keep the mascara from clumping and for other benefits that lavender eo would provide. I’ve also come across eye makeup remover recipes that suggest adding a few drops of lavender eo (4-5) to about 4oz of coconut oil. I have been using this recipe and love it. However, I started using organic, natural products to get away from harmful chemicals that could cause problems and so if using lavender eo like this could be harmful to my eyes I would like to know. Thank you in advance for any answer you can give me. There are many women out there using the aforementioned items as I am and they too would probably like to know.

  • robert

    Hi Kelli, this is very dilute and not at all likely to cause problems. If you’re already using it with no apparent ill-effects, then I think you’re absolutely fine.

  • Teresa

    I have had Demodicosis for 4 years now. I have a compromised immune systym and had a terrible time trying to get rid of them. I have seen numerous specialist, who used variations of tea tree oil remedies. Two months ago my Opthalologist tried a new Demodex treatment on my eyes. I thought was going to die. It burned so bad. He put the oil on with a paint brush that came with the kit. He gave me the remaining product and told me to come back in 6 weeks. My eye continues to get worse and when I returned He sent me to Springfield Mo. to the eye surgery center. The treatment had caused a chemical burn, which developed a fungus and inection. I have never been in so much pain. They put me on numerous eye drops and oral medications, it was awful. My eye looked awful and still does and I was told today that I have lost my vision in that eye. I eel somebody should be held responsible for my loss of sight but I don’t know where to start. Help me please!

  • Elizabeth

    I have a dear friend who has been suffering from cataracts for a few years now. We have been trying to find something/anything to help clear it up and ultimately diminish it completely. I was considering EOs and putting a lot of hope into them being effective. While continuing my research on EOs, I came across your post. Now I feel much more cautious on the act of EOs and I extend a thank you for alering the awareness.
    I noticed that steaming the face can present a positive effect on the eyes. Can it be concluded that this method be successful in treating eye issues such as a cataract? Can steaming the eyes with either a compress or vapor benefit the eyes?
    Thank you

  • robert

    Hi Elizabeth, essential oil vapors from steam may benefit the eyes if there is infection. For cataracts, I am not aware of any evidence or reason to believe that any essential oils would be helpful.

  • robert

    Hi Teresa. I’m very sorry to hear about your condition. I cannot advise you on what legal action to take, though you may have a reasonable basis for a case. There is a product (only available from eye doctors) used to treat demodicosis that contains terpinen-4-ol, the main constituent in tea tree oil. Perhaps this is what you were given? From what you have told me, no essential oil-based preparation would be appropriate now to use on your eyes. Have you considered visiting an alternative health clinic to address your immune system issues?

  • Lulu

    I came down with blepharitis about 5 yrs ago when an eye dr said my insurance would not pay for dry eye drops unless he first inserted temp plugs in the tear ducts and they would just dissolve. They did dissolve but within hours my lower lids swelled and I had never had a swollen eye in my entire life. The dr lied to me as I found out my insurance carrier required no such tx for the dry eye prescription. I have searched high and low for a remedy to this and have steered clear of eye dr’s as much as possible.

    The only thing I have found helpful is to use a cleanser completely free of irritants, chemicals, perfumes etc. (sometimes I make my own) Approx. 12 oz and I add 5 drops of Melaleuca alternifolia or other times Melaleuca E. to the bottle and shake. I then put a small amount on the palm of my hand with a tsp of sweet almond oil, rub this together good then wash my eyes gently keeping them closed! =) I then take a warm wash cloth and wipe them carefully, and then I use a fresh clean wash cloth and compress them with warm water. I have to do this daily at times and other times it seems to have simmered down well enough for a few weeks.

    When they have been really bad I have done the above with the addition of taking a bowl of water with one drop of spike lavender and put the cloth in the bowl and agitate then I lay it over my face and inhale good and deep. It actually helps loosen a lot of mucous in the sinus/throat that could be creating more problems with the blepharitis as they are connected and it never fails. I was using Lavandula angustifolia but decided to switch to Lavandula spica and was pleasantly surprised how well it worked. I suspect there is a fungal component in my sinus involved with this as well as the eye mite, in my case that is.

    I have too seen the ridiculous essential oil recipes for this and knew how dangerous that advice was.

    I actually had mine cleared up for a good nine months but my husband has this really bad and I suspect mine is re-infection. I’m so good at getting things cleared from my system with diligent long term persistence but I can’t get him to do likewise.

    I’m so sorry to hear of the disaster with your eyes Theresa. I have primary immune deficiency and I empathize with you as there are so many components that tie into the whole body when the immune system is not working properly it gets confusing at times exactly where and what the infection is stemming from or why it seems rather resistant. The positive news is that perfectly healthy people battle this so we aren’t necessarily experiencing it due to immune status, however, it sure doesn’t help! =) Good massages are so beneficial as well as diffusing essential oils, best to consult someone knowledgeable on the use of proper eo’s for supporting your immune system. Good Luck to you.

    Thank you Mr. Tisserand for this article.

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