Acute, reproductive, and developmental toxicity of essential oils assessed with alternative in vitro and in vivo systems

Peter Lanzerstorfer, Georg Philipp Sandner, Johannes Pitsch, Bianca Mascher, Tobias Aumiller, Julian Weghuber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Citations (Scopus)


Essential oils (EOs) have attracted increased interest for different applications such as food preservatives, feed additives and ingredients in cosmetics. Due to their reported variable composition of components, they might be acutely toxic to humans and animals in small amounts. Despite the necessity, rigorous toxicity testing in terms of safety evaluation has not been reported so far, especially using alternatives to animal models. Here, we provide a strategy by use of alternative in vitro (cell cultures) and in vivo (Caenorhabditis elegans, hen’s egg test) approaches for detailed investigation of the impact of commonly used rosemary, citrus and eucalyptus essential oil on acute, developmental and reproductive toxicity as well as on mucous membrane irritation. In general, all EOs under study exhibited a comparable impact on measured parameters, with a slightly increased toxic potential of rosemary oil. In vitro cell culture results indicated a concentration-dependent decrease of cell viability for all EOs, with mean IC50 values ranging from 0.08 to 0.17% [v/v]. Similar results were obtained for the C. elegans model when using a sensitized bus-5 mutant strain, with a mean LC50 value of 0.42% [v/v]. In wild-type nematodes, approximately tenfold higher LC50 values were detected. C. elegans development and reproduction was already significantly inhibited at concentrations of 0.5% (wild-type) and 0.1% (bus-5) [v/v] of EO, respectively. Gene expression analysis revealed a significant upregulation of xenobiotic and oxidative stress genes such as cyp-14a3, gst-4, gpx-6 and sod-3. Furthermore, all three EOs under study showed an increased short-time mucous membrane irritation potential, already at 0.5% [v/v] of EO. Finally, GC–MS analysis was performed to quantitate the relative concentration of the most prominent EO compounds. In conclusion, our results demonstrate that EOs can exhibit severe toxic properties, already at low concentrations. Therefore, a detailed toxicological assessment is highly recommended for each EO and single intended application.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)673-691
Number of pages19
JournalArchives of Toxicology
Issue number2
Early online date7 Nov 2020
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2020


  • C. elegans
  • Essential oil
  • In vivo
  • Toxicological assessment
  • Caco-2 Cells
  • Cell Line
  • Up-Regulation
  • Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry
  • Caenorhabditis elegans/drug effects
  • Humans
  • Toxicity Tests/methods
  • Cell Survival/drug effects
  • Lethal Dose 50
  • Chick Embryo/drug effects
  • Animals
  • Embryonic Development/drug effects
  • Reproduction/drug effects
  • HeLa Cells
  • Gene Expression Regulation/drug effects
  • Oils, Volatile/toxicity


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