Essential Oils Blog

What is Sensitization?

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We throw around this big word a lot: Sensitization. We get asked a lot what this means, so here’s a quick lesson that sheds some light on sensitization.

What does this mean to you?

Sensitization is an allergic immune response. It can also be referred to as Allergic Contact Dermatitis (ACD). This means that the reaction may or may not show up at the area of application. If you apply an oil or blend to your arm, the reaction my show up on your chest, neck or just about anyplace else. Sometimes it will take time to figure out which oil you are reacting to. Almost every time the reaction will happen faster and last longer than the time before. Just like when you get bit by a mosquito or stumble upon poison ivy a raised, itchy, red rash can appear. It’s that histamine reaction that can worsen over time. It may not happen the first, second or even tenth time, but the fact remains it may happen. Now, here’s the really sad part: once sensitized to an oil you may not be able to use it without symptoms recurring. You may also have reactions to oils with a similar chemical make-up. An example of this is a compound called geranyl, widely used in modern cosmetics,  there are many people who have sensitization to Lavender since it contains geranyl.

Some signs of sensitization are:

  • itchy skin
  • raised, bumpy rash
  • eczema
  • shortness of breath
  • tightness in chest

How can I reduce my risk?

This is why it is so important to follow proper safety dilutions. If you dilute your oils, you decrease your risk for sensitization. Why risk not being able to use your favorite oil? It is possible that if you use your oils undiluted for a long enough period of time, this can happen. Of course, this is not true in every case but why risk it? Always use the least effective amount of oil needed. I prefer to keep my dilutions to 1-2% for daily or frequent  use. For acute situations, like an injury, I go as high as 4-5 %.  Please refer to the dilution chart for guidelines on proper usage.

dilution guide chart final

 

Situations and oils that carry a higher risk:

If you are prone to allergies, eczema, dermatitis or have sensitive skin you may have an increased risk of sensitization. In this case, always use a lower dilution. Oils to avoid because they are known sensitizers are, Aniseed pimpinella anisum , Cassia cinnamomum cassia, Lemon Verbena Lippia citriodora or Aloysia triphylla, Peru Balsam myroxylon pereirae and Spearmint mentha spicata. There may be other oils that are prone to sensitization. Always do your own research to ensure that the oils you are choosing are right for you!

Does this mean I can’t use my oils neat, ever?

No, not necessarily. There are cases where I use oils neat, like when I touch a hot pan and burn my finger. However, erring on the side of caution here is useful so that when you have a need to use an oil neat you can do so without fear of creating more of a problem for yourself. It is always wise to work with a certified aromatherapist who can guide your safe usage of essential oils. We want to empower your use of essential oils, not create an atmosphere of fear. Please note that we always urge safe, conservative use of essential oils so that you can continue to reap the benefits of these wonderful tools!

Here at Plant Therapy, we have 2 on-staff aromatherapists who are happy to help you answer questions! Contact us at aromatherapist@planttherapy.com .

References:

  1. Tisserand, R. (2014) Essential Oil Safety
  2. Fulcher, L. (2012) “Would you know if you had an essential oil “sensitization” reaction?”
  3. Clark, M. (2013) Essential Oils and Aromatics: A step by step guide for use in massage and aromatherapy

34 thoughts on “What is Sensitization?”

  1. I’m posting this link on Facebook with the message “Wow! An essential oil company that actually EDUCATES their customers on the potential for OVERUSING an essential oil, ALLERGIC reactions, and basically saying that LESS is more. I’m falling more in love with Plant Therapy.”

    Seriously. I’ve been highly impressed with the safety concerns Plant Therapy shows.

    1. Thank you for those kind words. We strive, with all we do, to ensure that our customers feel empowered to use essential oils in a safe, responsible manner. We want you to be your own best health advocate. At Plant Therapy, if you ask a question and we don’t feel essential oils are the answer – we’ll try to point you to a source that may help or advise that you speak to your physician. Essential oils are amazing – but we know they aren’t right for every situation or for everyone! Thanks for being a loyal customer! Referrals to our business are the best form of flattery!

  2. I usually drop some FCO in my palm and mix with a drop of whatever oil I’m using, but this infers a need to dilute much more. The practicality of this for me is what stops me…do you have additional bottles for every oil you use with the carrier oil added? I’m not sure how to make this work for me.

    1. Connie, what a great question! I do keep smaller bottles on hand for creating diluted blends I know I will use often. 10 mL roller bottles are also useful for application – and you can keep them handy in your purse, etc. I hope that helps solve your dilemma

  3. Thank you for this post! Is a phototoxic reaction the same thing as an allergic immune response? A friend used a 4% dilution of bergamot oil and went out in the sun the next day. She had red rash/sun burn on her arms for a week! Should she avoid this oil in the future?

  4. Glad I saw this. We have been making our own hand soap this way for years, but I was only using about 10 drops of eo in it. I am guessing the higher amount will really help when germs are going around. I have found this to be drying for our hands, but to work around that I add in a few drops of glycerin, and that seems to help a lot. Thanks for sharing, love all the new scent ideas.

  5. Does sensitization only happen with topical application or can it happen with inhalation as well?
    I’ve seen comments posted that people will use an EO or blend for a few weeks and then change it for a few weeks to avoid sensitization, what is the maximum time to use an oil before taking a break. How long should you break before going back?

      1. Thank you for the clarification.
        What is the maximum time to use an oil before taking a break. How long should you break before going back?

      2. So to clarify using a cleaning blend weekly or daily would be ok right? What about dryer balls..if I put a few drops of oil on wool dryer balls doesn’t it end up on your skin a little or not enough to cause a sensitization?

        1. It’s so far evaporated that I haven’t had any issues with sensitization, I just get a slight aroma. If you have very sensitive skin it may be better to take a break after a couple of weeks.

  6. I was wondering…I did follow a company that promoted using oils neat. I didn’t pay much attention for I was new to it and went ahead with peppermint oil neat on the back of my neck. I broke out in a bad itchy rash in that area. BUT…if I dilute the peppermint oil or diffuse it…i don’t have the problem…unless I dilute improperly. Is this a sensitation issue and I should not use peppermint…or is this just a skin irritation issue from the improper use? It is so hard to tell…I have had that happen to a few oils (vetitver and theives).

  7. I think this maybe the cause of the itchy bumpy rash all other my 4 year olds belly and back. How do you figure out which oil is the cause? Stop using all of them and then start testing one by one? How long does it take before rash will go away once you stop using oils?

    1. Yes – it may take a one-at-a-time approach!! If it is sensitization (and not just a rash) this probably means you won’t be able to use the offending essential oil with your child.

  8. Quick question I think I have become sensitized to Frankincense oil. I was applying it without realizing I wasn’t putting the right ratio of carrier oil to essential oil on my face. If I have become sensitized to the oil, will I ever be able to use it again? Thanks in advance!

    1. Unfortunately, this may be a life long problem now. At the very least, you need to take a significant break from using (any) essential oils. I would recommend several weeks.

  9. My 5 year old seems to rub her eyes when I put juniper berry and cedarwood on her for sleep. It’s 2 drops of each in 5 ml fractionated coconut oil. Does this sound like allergy or sensitisation? It hardly affects her if it’s just on her feet. TIA

  10. Your aromatherapist recommended I read this post as I was not aware that I may have been using my blend improperly by using it all over my face instead of as a spot treatment. She recommended using a weaker dilution rate to avoid this. Maybe this should repost on the blog. LOVE this ompany and thankful for all of the advise, great products and affordability.

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