The Safe Use of Essential Oils and Massage in Pregnancy

Although massage and the use of essential oils are ideal in helping women through the discomforts of pregnancy some massage therapists and well-meaning friends are hesitant about using essential oils and giving a massage when a woman is pregnant and yet this is the time when she is most in need of the nurturing and the beneficial effects that essential oils and massage can give. Pregnancy is a natural state and not a sickness. Morning sickness, lower back pain and insomnia may make you feel less than100% but essential oils can help with these and other discomforts that can occur throughout the pregnancy.

I find it ironic that women are happy to drink and eat foods that contain flavourings but fear using essential oils in pregnancy for the perceived effects they may have on their unborn child. Most essential oils are permitted food flavourings with the food industry buying up 90% of the available essential oils. If you are drinking soft drinks, eating lollies or any processed foods with flavourings than you are probably ingesting essential oils admittedly in tiny amounts but it is the same with massage, the amount the body absorbs is small and extremely unlikely to cause a miscarriage.

Many of the reasons given for not using essential oils in pregnancy are based on myths and misinformation. There is also a lack of understanding of how the body works in pregnancy. There are some oils that should not be used but most of these are not readily available and I will discuss these shortly.

In the early days of modern aromatherapy many writers not having an understanding of the differences between essential oils and their herbal counterparts based their precautions and use of essential oils on the herbal use, which is for the most part internal. In most countries essential oils are used on the skin and by inhalation and so different dosages and rules apply. There are some therapists and individuals who advocate the use of taking oils internally but especially during pregnancy I think this use of essential oils should be avoided unless under the care of an aromatherapist or doctor specifically trained in the internal use of essential oils during pregnancy. This article and its contents apply only to the external and inhalational uses of essential oils.

There are many myths surrounding the use of essential oils in pregnancy but the most quoted is the supposed emmenagogue effects (induces or hastens menstrual flow) of oils like clary sage, which should not be used in pregnancy as they may cause a miscarriage. The body works differently when pregnant to when a woman is menstruating (having her period) and the use of emmenagogue oils used in a 1, 2.5 or even 5% blend will have no effect on the pregnancy. This myth stops therapists using many useful essential oils for fear of the harm they may do.

Some therapists also advocate not using essential oils in the first three months of pregnancy. This is often due to the possibility of the woman suffering a miscarriage. Women miscarry in the first three months for various reasons having nothing to do with essential oils or massage and being a traumatic time they look for a reason, which is understandable. Many women have massages and use essential oils in the first six weeks of their pregnancy unaware that they are pregnant with no ill effects. Many aromatherapists continue using essential oils on themselves and their clients throughout their pregnancy.

It is far more likely that a woman could suffer a miscarriage due to the constant traumatic muscular contractions of the uterus during prolonged, constant vomiting than to the spearmint, peppermint or ginger essential oil inhaled to help her with her morning sickness.

REASONS NOT TO MASSAGE DURING PREGNANCY

  • If there is a history of frequent miscarriage than do not have a massage until you have been given the all clear by your doctor.
  • When you have morning sickness, nausea or vomiting (essential oils such as spearmint, peppermint and ginger can help).
  • If you have any vaginal bleeding or discharge it should be checked by your GP first.
  • Fever and diarrhoea.
  • Pain in the abdomen that is not related to your pregnancy.
  • If you are under a doctor’s care for an illness then it is wise to get the doctor’s opinion re massage and using essential oils first.

OILS TO AVOID
The following oils should be avoided during pregnancy because of their toxicity and potential harmful effects.

  • Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora)
  • Savin (Juniperus sabina)
  • Spanish Sage (Salvia lavandulifolia)
  • Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
  • Blue artemesia (Artemesia aborescens)
  • Sage (Salvia officinalis)
  • Mugwort (Artemesia absinthum)
  • Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare)
  • Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium)
  • Parsley seed/leaf (Petroselinum satium/crispum)
  • Rue (Rue graveolens)
  • Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis)

SKIN IRRITATION
The main reason not to use essential oils in pregnancy is the possibility of skin irritation. The skin can become very itchy and sometimes inflamed in pregnancy and it is possible that essential oils in massage or the bath might make the condition worse.
The following oils may be more likely to cause a reaction if you have sensitive skin:

  • Black Pepper (Piper nigrum)
  • Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum)
  • Clove (Syzygium aromaticum)
  • Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)
  • May Chang (Litsea cubeba)
  • Melissa (Melissa officinalis)
  • Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)
  • Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata).

These oils are safe to use in pregnancy but it is wise to do a patch test first especially if you have sensitive skin. Simply apply some of the diluted oil or blend on the inside of your arm, and wait for 24 hours. If the area becomes red or itchy, rub some vegetable oil over the area and don’t use again.
It is also wise to avoid using old, oxidised citrus, pine, fir and spruce oils.
If the essential oil gets into your eyes, wash with vegetable oil not water.

ESSENTIAL OILS COMMONLY USED IN PREGNANCY
Following are some essential oils that are commonly used during pregnancy and their uses

ESSENTIAL OIL COMMONLY USED TO HELP
Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) Insomnia, anxiety, exhaustion, uplifting. Don’t use in areas exposed to the sun – phototoxic
Black pepper (Piper nigrum) Muscular aches and pains, constipation.
Chamomile Roman (Chamaemelum nobile) Morning sickness, insomnia, stress, irritated skin, muscle cramps, muscular aches and pains, headaches, indigestion. This is also available in 3-10% blends in jojoba or other carrier oils.
Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) Varicose veins, haemorrhoids and swollen ankles.
Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus radiata) Muscular aches and pains, colds.
Frankincense (Boswelli carteri) Prevention of stretchmarks, anxiety, stress.
Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) Insomnia, prevention of stretchmarks, varicose veins, haemorrhoids, swollen ankles, anxiety, stress.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) Nausea, morning sickness, constipation.
Grapefruit (Citrus paradisi) Swollen ankles, muscle fatigue, fluid retention. Don’t use in areas exposed to the sun – phototoxic.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) Insomnia, prevention of stretchmarks, muscular aches and pains, skin irritation, headaches, anxiety.
Lemon (Citrus limon) Nausea, morning sickness, swollen ankles. Don’t use in areas exposed to the sun – phototoxic.
Mandarin / Tangerine (Citrus reticulata) Morning sickness, insomnia, prevention of stretchmarks.
Neroli (Citrus aurantium var.amara) Insomnia, anxiety, uplifting, frustration
Peppermint (Mentha piperita) Nausea, morning sickness
Petitgrain (Citrus aurantium var.amara) Insomnia, calming and soothing, stress.
Sandalwood (Santalum album) Insomnia, swollen ankles, muscular aches and pains, stress.
Spearmint (Mentha spicata) Nausea, morning sickness
Sweet Orange (Citrus aurantium sinensis) Nausea, morning sickness, constipation, anxiety, stress.
Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) Cuts, colds.

BLENDING
Because a woman is usually more sensitive to odours in pregnancy we usually blend at 1% that is 5 to 7 drops to 25ml rather than the usual 10 to 12 drops to 25mls. When making your blends, blend up to 7 drops in total to 25mls of vegetable oil, jojoba or aqueous cream. Don’t blend in baby oil or sorbolene cream, as the essential oils will not be absorbed into your skin.

Prevention of stretchmarks blend:
1 drop frankincense
4 drops mandarin
2 drops lavender to 25mls of cold pressed vegetable oil
Rub into stomach, upper legs, hips and breasts twice a day from the second trimester to help prevent stretch marks.

Anxiety blend
2 drops geranium
2 drops petitgrain
1 drop sweet orange
Add to 25mls of cold pressed vegetable oil and use as a massage blend to calm you. Wear the massage blend on your wrists and smell when feeling anxious. Add oils to a vaporiser or burner to scent the room and calm you.

Morning sickness
Use oils singly or in a blend and vaporize in the room overnight. (Do not use a candle burner if you are diffusing oils overnight for safety reasons.) You may put a drop or two on the edge of your pillowslip to breathe in while you are sleeping. It is best not to use ginger or peppermint overnight, as they may be too stimulating. During the day you can have a diffuser going with your chosen oils or if you are working and do not wish to disturb others you can have your own personal inhaler. Take a small bottle, 5 or 10 mls is large enough and place a few cotton balls in it. Add 2 or 3 drops of essential oils and close the lid. Whenever you are feeling nauseous remove the lid, have a couple of whiffs and replace the lid. The scent should last the length of your pregnancy. A word of advice, if you love lemons for example it may not be wise to use that as your oil as you may begin to associate it with feeling sick whenever you smell lemons in the future. You may also like to try drinking ginger or peppermint tea in the morning.

Pregnancy is a time of joy. Don’t be afraid to use essential oils to help those little upsets that happen along the way. If you use the oils in moderation, keep to a 1 or 2% blend in massage, or vaporise the recommended oils and don’t take essential oils internally you and your baby should be able to enjoy this time.

PLEASE NOTE: The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat or prescribe for any medical condition. It is not meant to replace the care or advice your doctor or midwife gives you. If you have any concerns please consult your doctor, midwife or professionally trained aromatherapist.
About the author: Carole Hodges is a professional aromatherapist and massage therapist who has trained in Australia and abroad. She has been using essential oils with her pregnant clients for over 12 years and continues to update her knowledge.
©Carole Hodges The Fragrant Bridge