Two types of skin reactions can occur when using essential oils topically. Irritation and Sensitization. They are quite different and are often initiated by different chemical components in an essential oil.
Skin irritations will sometimes occur in one individual and not in another and this is because the skin of one might be sensitive to a particular component in the essential oil. Skin irritation happens on the first exposure to the irritation, the reaction is rapid and the severity will depend on the concentration of the irritant present. The skin responds with an inflammatory reaction. So when you see an essential oil with the caution that it may be a skin irritant use it with caution on people with sensitive skins.
Skin sensitization is a type of allergic reaction. The oil may not produce any reaction on the first contact, however once the allergen has penetrated the skin, the body’s immune system reacts to fight off the invader causing a rash on the skin. Sensitization reactions can also take the form of inflammation, breathlessness, nausea or headache. It is actually possible to become sensitized to any essential oil.
Sensitization to an essential oil can happen through overuse of any oil and an interesting fact is that Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), the essential oil with the reputation of being one of the most versatile and safest essential oils around, is the one that most therapists have become sensitized to. This happens mainly through overuse of the oil, a good reminder that we should not just use the same oil or blend of oil day in and day out but we should change our blends around on a regular basis.
Whenever you feel there is a possibility of skin irritation or skin sensitization patch test first.
To patch test with a particular oil:
- Place one drop of carrier oil or lotion on your breastbone, or behind your ear.
- Leave for 12 hours.
- If there is no adverse reaction, dilute one drop of the essential oil in half a teaspoon of the carrier oil or lotion, and rub the mix on your breastbone or behind your ear.
- Allow 12 hours for any reaction to show.
- If there is an adverse skin reaction:
- Wash the skin gently with unperfumed soap to remove most of the oils that are on the surface of the skin.
- Expose the skin to air (but not strong sunlight) to encourage the evaporation of the essential oils.
- Essential oils of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) have been found to counter irritation and sensitisation reactions. They should always be properly diluted in a carrier before application.
Cross-sensitization: Keeping in mind that each essential oils is a complex mix of many different chemical components, it is generally not the ‘whole’ essential oil that one becomes sensitized to but rather one or more of its chemical components. When this happens it is possible that one can be susceptible to becoming sensitized to other essential oils containing the same chemical components. Thankfully this does not happen very often.
Some Factors Increasing the Absorption of Essential Oils:
- Warmth and massage both enhance absorption, as does hydrating the skin before oil application.
- Covering the skin following massage aids absorption.
- Damaged skin is more permeable than undamaged skin, and so essential oils should be applied to it with caution. Applying essential oils to damaged skin is one of the ways that could increase the likelihood of skin sensitization.