'It is really frightening': Midwife's warning over essential oils for pregnant women or those trying to conceive

Hayley pregnant with eldest daughter Camille, three and with Camille and Estelle, one.
Hayley pregnant with eldest daughter Camille, three and with Camille and Estelle, one. 

Hayley Barker used to be a devotee of essential oils, especially while struggling to conceive her first child.

The 34-year-old Melbourne mum tells Essential Baby, she started trying to fall pregnant when she was about 23. 

"It really wasn't taking shape. I tried a lot of natural stuff and was seeing a nutritionist and practicing stress relief and hormone balancing through diet, exercise and essential oils," Hayley, who works as a midwife, explained.

Hayley with baby Estelle
Hayley with baby Estelle 

"The nutritionist suggested some (oils) helped and told me to do some research. I mainly used lavender and frankincense to reduce stress and clarysage for hormone balancing." 

Eventually Hayley decided to seek the help of Dr Fleur Cattrall from Melbourne IVF who told her to be careful about what she was using.

"She said there were certain things in them that weren't good for fertility issues and to reduce my exposure to toxins in the environment and plastics," she tells Essential Baby.

"I thought they would be helpful because they were natural. I didn't realise the potency of them, and Fleur reiterated it and made me think again. As a midwife, I have more of a finger on the pulse and still wasn't aware that some were detrimental."

Six months after making the lifestyle changes Dr Cattrall suggested Hayley was pregnant.

"It is really frightening and makes it really hard for women who are trying to do all the right things to know what information they should be looking at."


Hayley said many of her clients at the antenatal clinic used essential oils and brought them into the birth rooms. And she was concerned after hearing about new research which found they contained dangerous chemicals.

"I will definitely be warning friends and clients as a midwife. It is something that needs to be included in our antenatal clinics," Hayley said.

Dr Cattrall, medical director of Melbourne IVF, said women trying to conceive or who are pregnant should avoid using any essential oils as new research has shown they contain harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCS).

Researchers at the University of Melbourne, for the first time, examined a range of essential oils and brands and found the emission of volatile organic compounds - with many dangerous chemicals released and not listed on the labels.

"It is very common to use essential oils and women have the best intentions but are unaware of the potential risks and they should know," Dr Cattrall stressed. "The study looked at commercially available oils described for their health benefits and found 90 per cent emitted the compounds. 

Some are carcinogenic and birth defect causing."

Dr Cattrall said it didn't matter what the source of the oil was, whether it was lavender or orange, they all emit chemicals which are not safe and are not labelled as hazardous.

Toluene, used often as a solvent in products such as nail polish and paint, was found in more than 70 per cent of essential oils.

Among the 1034 VOCs researchers found emitted from 14 essential oils tested, 251 VOCs were classified as potentially hazardous.  Each of the essential oils tested emitted nine or more potentially hazardous VOCs.

Fewer than one per cent of all volatile organic compounds identified and fewer than one per cent of all potentially hazardous VOCS were listed on any bottle, website or safety data sheet.

"Women have the best intentions but are unaware of the risks of things that are called natural, organic and pure.  It is best to avoid them altogether and keep things as natural as possible when trying to conceive."

She said some of the chemicals are endocrine disrupting, which could be affecting women's chances of conceiving.

Dr Cattrall also recommends women avoid:
- shampoos containing parabens and plastics in water bottles and containers
- heating food in plastic containers
- unnecessary chemicals in cleaning and personal hygiene products and
- if buying organic food is not possible to wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly.