Applying essential oils to the skin

There are a lot of different opinions about whether or not it is safe to apply undiluted essential oils directly on to the skin without a carrier or base oil.

In this blog post, I have gathered together the wisdom of respected aromatherapists in North America to answer the question:

Is it safe to use undiluted essential oils on my skin?

Our first stop is to check out what some professional aromatherapy associations & organizations have to say.

The Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists (CFA) does not recommend or condone the application of undiluted essential oils – stating that essential oils can be irritating and sensitizing and some chemical constituents have the potential to cause systemic toxicity if used improperly (CFA, 2016).

The Alliance of International Aromatherapists does not support the use of neat (undiluted) essential oils to the skin because of the danger of skin irritation, allergic reactions or sensitization (AIA, 2016).

The National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy recommends generally avoiding the use of undiluted essential oils on your skin, stating that certain essential oils are unsuitable for application on the skin because they contain constituents that may irritate or sensitize the skin without first being properly diluted in a carrier (i.e. a vegetable oil or full fat milk).

What are the safety concerns?

Most aromatherapy oil based blends are between 1 and 5 percent dilutions, which typically does not represent a safety concern. See NAHA’s Methods of Application page for information on recommended dilutions.

As one increases dilution, potential dermal (skin) reactions may take place depending on the individual essential oil, the area where the oil is applied, and other factors related to the client’s own sensitivity levels (NAHA, 2016).

Dermal or skin reactions that may occur with essential oils include:

Dermal irritation
  • The essential oil produces an immediate irritation on the skin. The reaction on the skin could be blotchy or red, and perhaps even painful for some people. The severity of the reaction will depend on the concentration (dilution) that was applied to the skin.
  • Essential oils considered to be dermal irritants include, cinnamon bark, clove bud, lemongrass, and oregano.
Dermal sensitization
  • This is a type of allergic reaction that happens when first exposed to an essential oil; however, there is no (or only a slight) reaction on the skin. Subsequent exposure to the same material, or to a similar one with which there is cross-sensitization, produces a severe inflammatory reaction brought about by cells of the immune system (NAHA, 2016).
  • The reaction on the skin will be blotchy or red, and painful to some individuals.
  • Essential oils considered to be dermal sensitizers include cassia and cinnamon bark.
Photosensitization
  • Photosensitizing essential oils will cause burning or skin pigmentation changes on exposure to sun or ultraviolet rays. See my blog post on Citrus oils & the sun for more information.
  • Essential oils considered to be photosensitizers include bergamot and expressed lemon and lime essential oils.

I highly recommend checking out NAHA’s safety information page for a complete list of essential oils that are dermal irritants, dermal sensitizers, and photosensitizers. As well, AromaWeb’s Essential Oil Safety page contains valuable information.

What do leaders in the professional aromatherapy community have to say about this?

Some aromatherapists advocate for always diluting essential oils with a carrier before applying to the skin, while others state that there are some situations where you can apply essential oils undiluted to your skin.

Robert Tisserand (2014), recognized for his pioneering work in aromatherapy, states that besides the potential skin reactions, applying undiluted essential oils to the skin may lead to relatively high constituent concentrations in the bloodstream which increases the risk of systemic toxicity. He also states that the risk of drug interaction is increased with the application of undiluted essential oils to the skin (Tisserand & Young, 2014).

Tisserand states that there might be situations where undiluted essential oils can be applied safely to the skin, but “most practitioners should should avoid using essential oils this way, and encouraging untrained people to apply concentrated essential oils to themselves or others is unwise and unsafe.” (Tisserand & Young, 2014)

If you are interested in learning more, I suggest reading Tisserand’s book Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals, considered to be the aromatherapy industry reference.

Sylla Sheppard Hanger, founder of the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy has been advocating essential oil safety and education for many years.

We hear charismatic speakers at conferences touting wondrous healings with massive doses of irritant oils for clinical cases of severe infection or chronic diseases. But for the majority of us using essential oils for health, very few are appropriately qualified in appropriate disciplines or even need to use essential oils this way (Burfield & Sheppard-Hanger, 2005).

Since 2014, the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy has been collecting data on cases of injury and adverse effects of essential oils in the United States. You can check out the Injury Reports  which include lots of detailed information about the essential oils used, the essential oil company, and the method of application.

Most of the injuries reported came from the application of undiluted essential oils to the skin.

I think it is important to note that there were zero injuries, or adverse effects as a result of consultation by a Certified Aromatherapy Professional or a Clinically Trained Aromatherapy Professional.

Many other aromatherapists have written extensively on essential oil safety. It is worth reading 10 Epic Essential Oil Myths and Aromatic Medicine and the French Method of Aromatherapy written by Amy Kreydin, a clinically-trained aromatherapist who trained at a Harvard teaching hospital in Boston.

There are aromatherapists who are not opposed to using essential oils undiluted on the skin, but….

They recommend using undiluted essential oils:

  • on small specific areas
  • for acute situations (i.e. a bee sting, a burn, a cut)
  • for short-term use

This group of aromatherapists, however, do not support the widespread use of undiluted essential oils on the body.

Jade Shutes, founder of the School for Aromatic Studies  states that undiluted application is only applied in a specific localized area, most commonly for acute conditions (Shutes, 2013).

Undiluted application may be appropriate for treating acne (spot treatment), a cold sore, a minor burn, insect bites, bruises, minor skin traumas, migraines, bruises, and ear infections (Shutes, 2013).

Shutes stresses the importance of having a reason or purpose for applying the essential oils undiluted in the first place. She also stresses the importance of knowing the essential oils that you are using, understanding their therapeutic actions, and their chemistry (Shutes, 2013).

In Conclusion

I believe that less is truly more with essential oils and aromatherapy.

As a Certified Aromatherapy Health Professional, I highly recommend diluting essential oils before applying them topically.

I encourage you to take the time to identify and understand authentic and safe aromatherapy applications of essential oils in order to make informed decisions about your wellness.

References

Alliance of International Aromatherapists. (2016). Aromatherapy Safety. Retrieved from http://www.alliance-aromatherapists.org/aromatherapy/aromatherapy-safety/#undiluted

Burfield, T & Sheppard-Hanger, S. (2005). Aromatherapy Undiluted- Safety and Ethics. Retrieved from https://www.alliance-aromatherapists.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Undiluted-are-we-in-denial.pdf

Canadian Federation of Aromatherapists. (2016). Statement from CFA pertaining to safety when using essential oils. Retrieved from http://cfacanada.com/

Kreydin, A. (2014). Essential Oils and the Feet. [blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.thebarefootdragonfly.com/essential-oils-and-the-feet/

National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy. (2016). Safety Information. Retrieved from https://www.naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/safety/

Shutes, J. (2013). Undiluted Application of Essential Oils. [blog post]. Retrieved from http://theida.com/undiluted-application-of-essential-oils/

Tisserand, R. & Young, R. Essential Oil Safety. (2014). Second Edition. United Kingdom: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.

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