Essential oils are a popular choice for people keen to remedy a wide variety of ailments, from minor infections to stress. But new data indicate that people are increasingly putting their health at risk when they turn to these fragrant, volatile plant extracts.

A new analysis from Australia, based on records from a poisons centre in the state of New South Wales, has revealed an increase in the number of essential oil poisonings in recent years, with more than half of calls to the centre regarding children.

University of Sydney researchers identified 4,412 cases of essential oil exposure dating between July 2014 and June 2018, and broke them down into times, type of oil, changes over time, and the characteristics of the affected individual.

They found that from 2014 to 2015, 1,011 calls were made to the centre by individuals or parents representing a potential poisoning. In 2017 to 2018, that number was up by more than 16 percent, to 1,177 cases.

Most of the poisonings – 80 percent – were purely accidental, mistaking the bottle for another pharmaceutical like a cough syrup. Only around 2 percent resulted from intentionally taking the essential oil based on misinformation.

Perhaps most concerning was that in 63 percent of cases, the person who was affected was under the age of 15.

"The onset of toxicity can be rapid, and small quantities (as little as 5 millilitres) can cause life-threatening toxicity in children," the researchers write in their report.

Being essential doesn't make the oils important, so don't let the description fool you. The 'essence' refers to the volatility of the oils, which are removed by heating particular botanicals, often in a steam distillation process.

That means a fragrant plant, such as lavender, peppermint, or eucalyptus, has its aromatic compounds concentrated into a form which is then sold for use in oil burners and vaporisers.

Not all oils are of equal concern, either. Most commonly essential oils produce skin irritations or contact dermatitis. Others contain naturally occurring compounds known as endocrine disruptors, which have the potential to interfere with our hormones in unwanted ways.