Topical use of essential oils is a very effective method of use, but it can also come with a certain amount of risk if not done properly. There are two types of adverse reactions that can happen, and they are both very different. “The number of incidents of an adverse reaction to an essential oil depends on:
- Its inherent toxicity
- The number of people exposed to it
- The degree of exposure (oil concentration and time of exposure)” (1).
What this tells us is as more and more people are beginning to use essential oils in the home, and the increase of improper use also increases, the amount of adverse reactions will unfortunately increase as well. We would like to do what we can to decrease those numbers by making sure that Plant Therapy customers know what do to in order to decrease their risk, as well as the risk for their family and friends.
Although becoming more common with improper use, an adverse skin reaction is not something that will happen to everyone. It is however more likely to happen in those with sensitive skin, or in anyone not properly diluting their oils. Skin irritation is direct result of contact with an essential oil/component in an oil, and is localized. Typically this will occur on the first exposure, and the severity of the irritation will depend on how strong the concentration is.
Healing occurs once the oil is removed. Healing will not occur immediately upon removal, but you should see improvement relatively quickly. Removal is best with carrier oil such as Almond, Jojoba, Fractionated Coconut Oil (FCO) or even full fat milk/crème. You may need to apply more than once. Follow up by washing thoroughly with fragrance free soap.
If the irritation remains localized, you can be sure that what you have experienced is an adverse skin reaction.
The second, more serious reaction is a systemic (affecting the entire body or organism) response involving the immune system called sensitization. The oil may not bring about a reaction on the first use, however when it does the allergen penetrates the skin, and the body’s immune system reacts to the invader.
According to Dorene Petersen, president of the American College of Healthcare Sciences, “Sensitization occurs once the offending substance has penetrated the skin, been picked up by proteins in the skin, and mediated by the IgE response that produces histamine and other irritants”(2). This allergic reaction begins at the site of application but quickly spreads to the whole body. If the immune system response is activated, you may not be able to use the oil again.
Understanding the Risk
As I mentioned before, the more often you use oils improperly increases the risk of adverse reaction. The good news is if you use proper dilution, and avoid topical use of the higher risk oils, these risks are greatly reduced.
There are a number of essential oils that are considered high risk for skin irritation, and some are even know sensitizers. These oils carry what is know as a maximum dilution ratio per the IFRA (International Fragrance Association) and Robert Tisserand. This data is taken directly from Tisserands book, Essential Oil Safety (3):
Cinnamon Cassia Cinnamomum cassia 0.05%
Cinnamon Leaf Cinnamomum verum 0.6%
Cinnamon Bark Cinnamomum verum 0.1%
Clove Bud Syzygium aromaticum 0.5%
Clove Leaf and Stem Syzygium aromaticum L. 0.6%
Holy Basil Ocimum tenuiflorum 1.0%
Honey Myrtle Melaleuca teretifolia 0.9%
Lemon Myrtle Backhousia citriodora 0.7%
Lemon Tea Tree Leptospermum petersonii 0.8%
Lemongrass Cymbopogon flexousus 0.7%
Melissa Melissa officinalis 1.0%
Nutmeg Myristica fragrans (East Indian) .8%
Opoponax Commiphora guidottii 0.6%
Oregano Oreganum vulgare 1.0%
Spearmint Mentha cardiaca 1.7%
Styrax Liquidambar orientalis 0.6%
Thyme Thymus vulgaris –(thymol, carvacrol, and thymol/carvacrol CT) 1.3%
Ylang Ylang Cananga odorata 0.8%
*When utilizing the particular oils in this list while blending/formulating, do not go above these percentages to greatly lower your risk of skin reaction.
Skin Reactions Are Not Detox Symptoms
When you have a skin reaction to essential oils, understand this is not a detox type reaction. A detox is a process or period of time in which one abstains from or rids the body of toxic or unhealthy substances; it is a response when the body has something taken away from it (4). In the case of using an essential oil topically on your skin, you are adding something new to your body that your body has no prior experience with, therefore any adverse reaction can’t scientifically be classified as a detox reaction (5).
You may have heard the argument that “Essential oils do not contain protein, therefore essential oils could not cause an allergic reaction.” While it is true that essential oils do not contain protein, it is the protein in the skin causing the reaction when it comes in contact with the essential oil (6).
Kristina Bauer, of The Untamed Alchemist, wrote a detailed article refuting the essential oil detox theory. She compared the reaction to essential oils to that of a nickel allergy (7). A nickel allergy (nickel contains no protein) develops when your immune system views nickel as a harmful, rather than harmless substance (8).
As you can see, although a rare reaction, skin sensitization is not detoxing, but rather an allergic response.
When you become educated on the proper use of essential oils, the risks of using them is greatly decreased. Essential oils should not be feared, but respected. We at Plant Therapy want to help arm you with trusted information to ensure your safety, so you can enjoy all the benefits that essential oils have to offer.
(1) Tisserand, R., Young, R. (2014) Essential oil safety (2nd Ed) Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone (p 25)
(2) Petersen, D. (2012) Aroma 101-sensitization. American College of Healthcare Sciences (p 50)
(3) Tisserand, R., Young, R. (2014) Essential oil safety (2nd Ed) Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone (p 81)
(4) Definition to detox. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/detox
(5) Pappas, R. (n.d.). Essential oil myth #6. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/notes/essential-oil-university/essential-oil-myth-6/10152670686183083
(6) Johnson, S. (2014, October 20). Skin reactions to essential oils. YouTube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-5qUyq7CZM
(7) Bauer, K. (2015) Essential oils and the “detox” theory. Retrieved from http://tisserandinstitute.org/essential-oils-and-the-detox-theory/
(8) Nickel Allergy Retrieved from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/nickel-allergy/symptoms-causes/dxc-20267456
Leslie Moldenauer, CHNC, HHP, Certified Aromatherapist, has been studying natural living and holistic wellness for over 10 years. Leslie is a trusted resource that covers essential oil safety and encompasses all that natural living has to offer. She is passionate about providing education and tools to help others make decisions regarding safety above all things when utilizing aromatherapy in the home.