The sassafras tree, a native of North America, has a long history of use both as flavoring and medicine. The oil extracted from its root was one of the original constituents of herbal root beer. As medicine, it was used to treat influenza and other fever-producing infections, as well as arthritis, urinary tract infections, and digestive disorders. It was also commonly used as a “spring tonic” or “blood purifier.”
However, in the 1960s, it was discovered that sassafras oil contains high levels of a liver toxin named safrole.1-5 When given to animals, safrole causes liver cancer, and even a single cup of sassafras tea contains dangerous levels of the substance.
Because of this, sassafras has been banned for human consumption. Only safrole-free products can be sold; however, there may be other carcinogens in sassafras besides safrole.6
Sassafras oil is also immediately toxic; a few drops can kill an infant, and a teaspoon can cause death in an adult.7
For all these reasons, we strongly recommend against the use of sassafras for any purpose.
1. Homburger F, Boger E. The carcinogenicity of essential oils, flavors, and spices: a review. Cancer Res. 1968;28:2372–2374.
2. Segelman AB, et al. Sassafras and herb tea: potential health hazards. JAMA. 1976;236:477.
3. Stich HF. Carcinogens and Mutagens in the Environment. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC; 1983:7–9.
4. Tan D, et al. Both physiological and pharmacological levels of melatonin reduce DNA adduct formation induced by the carcinogen safrole. Carcinogenesis. 1994;15:215–218.
5. Vesselinovitch KVN, et al. Transplacental and lactational carcinogenesis by safrole. Cancer Res. 1979;39:4378–4380.
6. Tyler VE, Foster S. Tyler's Honest Herbal: A Sensible Guide to the Use of Herbs and Related Remedies. 4th ed. New York: Haworth Herbal Press; 1999:337–9.
7. Newall CA, et al. Herbal Medicines: A Guide for Health-Care Professionals. London: Pharmaceutical Press; 1996:235–6.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board Last Updated: 12/15/2015