bottles of cinnamon bark and cassia oil

Is Cassia Cinnamon Essential Oil Dangerous?

[toc]While there are some essential oils you can eat, drink, and cook with, for the vast majority you can’t.

One reason is because of chemical solvents and other nasty things that may have been used during production. However the biggest reason most are inedible is because they are the volatile aroma compounds of the plant.

Those are something completely different than what makes up culinary types like olive, avocado, and coconut oils. Those are fatty acids (fats) and not the volatile compounds of the plant. With the culinary type you can eat virtually unlimited amounts and with the volatile type, you may experience severe side effects with just a few drops.

Purified and refined fats like olive and coconut have limited use beyond nutrition. Their healthy monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFAs) and lauric acid content, respectively, are a poor source of antioxidants and show little to no benefit in research for things like antimicrobial and antiproliferative potential.

Many essential oils show the opposite.

You get no basic nutrition like energy (calories), protein, etc. However, certain compounds in EO’s have shown potential for various health benefits in research. Just look at oregano oil as one such example.

What is it?

Cassia oil vs. cinnamon oil

There are two main types of cinnamon; Cinnamomum cassia from China and Cinnamomum verum from Sri Lanka. When an essential oil is made using C. verum, it’s typically called cinnamon oil. If cassia is used, that word is added to the name to distinguish the difference between them.

In short…

Ceylon = cinnamon oil
Cassia = cassia oil/cassia cinnamon oil

Although they are both part of the Cinnamomum plant genus, these two species have very different chemical compositions.

Known as true cinnamon, Ceylon is considered to be the real deal. It wasn’t until the last century when cassia overtook Ceylon in popularity as a spice for cooking, baking and flavoring. At least in the US and Canada, but not everywhere in the world. This change didn’t happen because it’s considered better, but rather it’s a cheap and consistent-tasting spice from China.

Today if you’re an American, there’s a good chance you don’t even know what Ceylon cinnamon tastes like.

Compared to cassia, it has a sweeter and subtler taste and smell. You don’t get that pungent and hot kick on your tongue, because there’s less cinnamaldehyde. That’s the main chemical constituent in the essential oil of both species that is responsible for stimulating your senses.

Buy some on Amazon if you haven’t tried it before.

The scent and taste of cassia oil is very strong. It’s the same warm, woody, and slightly sweet aroma you associate with the spice of cinnamon. Think Christmas candles and donut bakeries.

Cinnamon oil smells similar to Cassia, with several differences in active ingredients. The trace amounts of alpha and beta-Pinene compounds in regular cinnamon oil give it the subtle scent of pine trees. It also contains limonene (lemon-like aroma), camphor (menthol-like) and 1,8-Cineole (minty, cooling). None of those three are found in Cassia.

What is the difference between cinnamon oil and cinnamon bark oil?

Ceylon and cassia essential oils can be made from the leaves or the bark. When made from the leaves, they’re called cinnamon oil (or cinnamon leaf oil). When the bark is used, they’re called cinnamon bark oil.

Since not all brands list cassia in the name, you should look on the label to find out which species is used.

Doterra cinnamon bark oilCassia will always be written as Cinnamomum cassia while Ceylon goes by two names; Cinnamomum verum and Cinnamomum zeylanicum. The latter is an outdated botanical name for the species, but many brands still use zeylanicum since people are accustomed to it.

For example, NOW Foods and Doterra cinnamon bark oil say Cinnamomum zeylanicum on their bottles. Plant Therapy uses the correct Cinnamomum verum name. All three are made from the same species.

There is also Indonesian Korintje cinnamon (Cinnamomum burmanni) but very few companies manufacture it. Piping Rock is the only brand we are aware of in the United States. This C. burmanni is very similar to C. cassia in both scent and composition.

When made from the leaves, cinnamon oil smells less like the spice of cinnamon. The leaves contain high amounts of eugenol (40-75%) which is the main chemical constituent in clove oil. That’s why it smells similar to cloves.

There are side effects of clove oil that are shared with cinnamon leaf oil because of the high eugenol content.

This eugenol and a-Phellandrene (found in allspice) gives the leaf oil a very spicy and strong aroma. The bark oil smells sweeter and more refined, as it’s almost entirely made of cinnamaldhyde. It’s more desirable and therefore, more expensive.

Another reason for the price difference is that it’s relatively easy to extract the essential oils from leaves. Basic steam distillation will accomplish that. That can work for the bark too, but the process is more intensive.

Chemical composition

For those made from C. zeylanicum and C. cassia, here is a full list of the active ingredients or chemical constituents of cinnamon bark and leaf essential oils.

The top 3 compound in each are bolded.

Compound Cassia Cinnamon Leaf Oil Ceylon Cinnamon Leaf Oil Cassia Cinnamon Bark Oil Ceylon Cinnamon Bark Oil
Compound Percentage Percentage Percentage Percentage
a-Thujene 0.1
a-Pinene 0.5 tr
b-Pinene tr tr
Myrcene tr
a-Phellandrene 0.3 1.9
p-Mentha-1(7),8-diene tr
p-Cymene tr 0.7
Limonene tr
1,8-Cineole 0.7 tr
Camphor tr
Camphene tr
Z-cinnamaldhyde 1.5 tr
E-cinnamaldhyde 50.0 97.7
a-Copaene 4.6 0.8
a-Amorphene 0.5
d-Cadinene 7.8 0.9
Terpinen-4-ol tr 0.1
Terpinolene tr
a-Terpineol tr
a-Cubebene tr
Eugenol 87.2 87.3
b-Caryophyllene 1.4 1.9 1.0
Coumarin 16.6
a-Muurolene 4.4
b-Bisabolene 1.4
Cadina-1(2), 4-diene 1.8
Ortho-methoxy cinnamadehyde 1.5
Cubenol 0.5
1-Heptadecene 0.2
1-Nonadecene 0.4
Tetracosane 0.1
Octacosane 0.1
Nonacosane 0.2
Aromadendrene 0.8 1.1
a-Amorphene 0.4 tr
Germacrene-D 0.2 0.6
Bicyclogermacrene 1.7 3.6
d-Cadinene 0.6 0.4
Spathulenol 1.7 0.5
Sabinene tr tr
c-Terpinene tr
d-Elemene 1.0
Viridiflorol 0.3
Methoxy-eugenol 0.1
Isospathulenol 0.3
Neophytadiene 0.3
Docosane 0.1
Nonacosane 0.1
Vitamin E 0.2
Total 97.1% 99.4% 92.3% 100%
Other 2.9% 0.6% 7.7% 0%
tr = trace amount
Sources: Cinnamon and Cassia: Medicinal and Aromatic Plants, Cinnamon Vogue

The dangerous difference

The health benefits of cinnamon are believed to be due to the essential oil content. While not conclusively proven, they include the lowering of blood sugar, LDL cholesterol, and blood pressure. Antioxidants and anti-cancer effects have been seen in lab research. Certain bacteria, fungi, and viruses have been also been inhibited in experiments.

If these benefits are happening in humans, then certain compounds in the oil might play a role in sanitary and medical uses of the future. Of course, that depends on a lot more research being done.

p coumaric acid moleculeYet with the seemingly good traits comes something very bad… coumarin.

Coumarin is a compound with a sweet flavor and aroma, which is why it was previously used as a food and tobacco additive. That was until 1954, when the FDA banned it after finding it was highly toxic to the liver and to a lesser degree, the kidneys. (1)

Even though it’s banned, there is still one common food that contains it and remains unregulated, at least in the US. That food is cassia cinnamon.

Ceylon or true cinnamon does contain some coumarin but it’s a tiny fraction in comparison.

As a spice, cassia cinnamon contains up to 1% coumarin, while Ceylon is up to 250 times lower at just 0.004%. (2)

Vietnamese cinnamon is even worse than cassia. It has up to 1,500 times more coumarin than Ceylon!

Side effects of cinnamon oil

When applied topically, skin irritation including redness, rash, itchiness, and burning may occur. Because the skin absorbs some oil, there is potential for liver damage and dangers during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

Side effects from the internal use of cinnamon bark or leaf essential oils can include irritation of the mouth, nose, and esophagus, stomach ache, low blood sugar, and increased risk for bleeding since it acts as a blood thinner. Frequent and/or long term use may result in permanent liver damage.

Since the toxin coumarin is primarily present in cassia, the risk for liver damage is much greater with cassia oil versus cinnamon oil made from Ceylon.

Drug interactions may occur with both topical and culinary uses of cinnamon oil. Anticoagulant medications to prevent blood clots (e.g. Warfarin, Eliquis, Xarelto, Pradeaxa) as well as those to promote it (e.g. platelet-stimulating agents) may be adversely affected. Since research on skin absorption rates has not been done, it is unknown as to how much will be absorbed from topical uses like massage oils and skin care products. (3) (4) (5)

How to use

What is cinnamon oil good for?

instructions for how to use cassia oil
These are the instructions listed on the bottle of cassia oil made by NOW Foods.

Due to its potency, only a couple drops are used at a given time. It is good for aromatherapy and some brands can also be used topically and internally when diluted. It mixes well with hyssop, frankincense, and myrrh. Skin and hair care products use it for scent. Cinnamon oil for cooking is available from LorAnn at Walmart and similar stores. The ingredients only say “natural & artificial flavor” without specifying details.

Cassia oil in the Bible is listed in Exodus 30:24 as part of an anointing oil formula. Psalm 45:8 references it as a perfume and Ezekiel 27:19 eludes to it being a precious commodity. These are believed to be in reference to cassia but it’s not certain.

Section 182.20 of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s Title 21 lists which essential oils are “generally recognized as safe for their intended use.” There are not many on the list though you will find cinnamon bark and leaf for both the Chinese (cassia) and Ceylon varieties. (6)

The “intended use, within the meaning of section 409 of the Act” is important to pay attention to. Cinnamon oil is dangerous to eat in large amounts and so-called therapeutic grade essential oils may not be manufactured to food grade quality standards.

How much you can safely consume will be very little. The manufacturer Doterra says in their instructions:

“Dilute one drop in 4 fl. oz. of liquid.”

This could be hot water or tea. Alternately, they say you can put 2 drops inside of an empty veggie capsule to allegedly “maintain a healthy immune system”

When ingestion is permitted by a product, the potential for side effects still exists, even though it may just be a dosage of a couple drops. While neither type is risk-free, you want to avoid ingesting cassia oil. It will be exposing you to high concentrations of coumarin while normal cinnamon oil doesn’t.

Because it’s often cheaper, cassia remains a good choice for room diffusers and other scented applications that you ae not wearing on the skin. For all other uses, the better choice will be Cinnamomum verum/zeylanicum.

For external use, you can buy Plant Therapy on Amazon made from Ceylon bark.

For internal use, you can buy Cinnamon Vogue that is steam distilled with zero additives. Under indications it says “use for baking, aromatherapy and massage.” The directions say to mix at a 1% concentration with water or a carrier oil.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.