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December 11, 2015 4 min read

Thanks to the internet, we have some great information at our fingertips. With the ease of finding information and so many individuals now using essential oils, safety has never been more important. 

Although one can find what an essential oil can do, how it can help them, and even recipes for using essential oils, it is rare to see safety information for them as well as what I am going to share with you today. Essential oil first aid.

I am not talking about what oils you can put in your medicine cabinet either. I am talking about what to do should you have a topical reaction from essential oils.

While there are claims that essential oils are safe and natural because they are pure, that is not always the case. You see, there is a lot that should be considered when using essential oils.

There are always risks regardless of what essential oil is used and risks will widely vary depending on the age of the individual, their health, and the type of exposure/use of essential oils. I will be the first to advocate for them, but I will also be the first to advocate against them in certain situations.

Essential oils are highly volatile aromatic liquids that can contain a very wide range of chemical constituents that are known to be natural skin irritants that can and do oxidize over time. In general, while essential oils can be very healing and wonderful immune stimulants, they do come with some risks if not used properly.

Topical Reaction to Essential Oils

What kind of reactions are there?

Most of the time, reactions can be prevented by using essential oils with proper dilution ratios and avoiding those that you know or think you may have a sensitivity to. If you are in doubt, always ask someone with a significant amount of experience/training and communicate that you are using essential oils with your doctor. 

Reactions that are visible on the skin can occur over short or long periods of time depending on how the oil is used, the type of oils used, the age of the oil (think oxidation), and the individual using the essential oil(s). Due to the nature of essential oils, it is common for individuals to have topical reactions to oils considered “hot” or those that have expired/oxidized. This type of reaction occurs more when individuals do not dilute their essential oils properly.

Reactions can also include a small rash like appearance on the skin. They can also include rashes or red, irritated looking spots on other areas on the body that are not associated with where you have been previously applying essential oils.

Essential oil reactions can also become quite aggressive to the point of needing immediate and emergency medical care. These type of reactions include an individual having an anaphylactic reaction to essential oils.

In the event of a minor topical irritation or reaction:

  • If you have a minor irritation, stop use of all essential oils immediately.
  • Using soap, wash the skin and rinse with cold to lukewarm water.
    • The soap acts as a binding agent for the oils and the water washes the essential oils that have bound to the soap off of the skin.
    • Never use hot water as it can increase the reaction if there are still oils on the skin.
  • Avoid the use of any essential oils for a few days to ensure your skin has healed adequately.
  • Inform your general practitioner or doctor of the incident!

In the event of a severe topical reaction:

  • If you have a severe irritation, stop use of ALL essential oils immediately.
    • Applying another essential oil will only worsen the condition and possibly potentiate the reaction.
  • Apply a liberal amount of carrier oil (coconut oil, avocado, olive, etc) directly on the area that is irritated from applying essential oils.
    • The carrier oil will bind any additional oils on the skin and help to soothe some discomfort.
  • Using soap, wash the skin with cold to lukewarm water.
  • If these steps do not help and you feel the condition is worsening, seek emergent medical attention immediately.
  • Make sure you bring/mention any and all essential oils you are using when seeking medical treatment. This information will allow the doctor to verify what specifically has caused the reaction.

It is often recommended that following any reaction, to avoid using essential oils for about three weeks. After that period, only use one oil per day over the course of a couple days before using another to make sure you do not have another reaction. 

After using one specific oil for a few days, if you want to use a different one, you may but try to avoid using multiple oils each day. The more you are exposed to an essential oil after the initial reaction, the more likely you are to have another reaction that can lead to a more serious reaction.

Reporting Topical Reactions to Essential Oils

Following any type of reaction, you should always let your general practitioner know. I recommend this so that if there is a prescription drug that should by chance contain constituents similar to those in the oils you were using during the time of your reaction, they can better find a suitable medicine for you.

Also, make sure you let the company know that you purchased the oil from. Most companies take this information seriously.

When you have a reaction and you can't remember what to do or are not sure, you can always call poison control at 1-800-222-1222. They deal with many cases of essential oil injuries each year.

You can also report any reactions from aromatherapy products online at the FDA/s Medwatch web address here as well as the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy here. Reporting your injuries/reactions, no matter how big or small, will help the industry make sure that safety is being discussed more frequently by retailers and representatives of aromatherapy companies.