Enjoying a friend’s company at my local café, I noticed a man talking as I overheard two words that awoke my interest: essential oils. As it happened, he then talked to my friend and I couldn’t help but ask what the reference to the essential oils was. His partner had sustained serious burns on her arms after applying essential oils whilst they were on holidays in Vietnam during summer. He could not provide me with further information.
Hearing this sad incident made me, again, realize that essential oils are much more than nice smelling drops we add to a burner, a bath, etc. They are generally safe to use and enjoy but I will point out a few areas that we need to keep in mind.
Skin is our largest organ and adverse skin reactions may be determined by health, medication, diet, age, psychological stress, gender, skin color or genetics1. Skin reactions are difficult to predict due to these different factors. A skin patch test allows to see how the skin reacts to an oil or a blend of oils. This is done by applying a small amount to the skin and wait, usually 12 to 24 hours, to see if there is a reaction. A young woman’s blog I found tells her story of using an essential oil neat on her face and how her skin reacted, what a painful lesson2!
Some causes of an adverse reaction to essential oils
Adverse skin reactions vary due to the amount of essential oil absorbed by the skin, the degree of reaction and skin sensitivity as described earlier.
Some essential oils contain components that are skin irritants. These should never be applied neat as they can cause a skin reaction, sometimes serious, and may make the skin more sensitive and reactive to some substances in the future.
This is a reaction to a substance applied to the skin that occurs only in the presence of UV light. Therefore, applying incorrect blended levels of mostly citrus oils on sun exposed skin causes severe reactions. Citrus oils therefore should never be applied neat on the skin as this can cause serious burns when exposed to the sun. There is no risk when these same oils are used in preparations that are washed off such as in shampoos and soap or when the skin is covered with (UV protecting) clothing.
Citrus oils, more than other essential oils, oxidize when exposed to air. This is a similar process that spoils wine when exposed to air during storage. This process not only affects the smell and therapeutic qualities of the oils but can cause unwelcome skin reactions such as rashes and allergies1. Add UV light to that in the case of incorrectly blended citrus oils and there is trouble.
Use by date
As essential oils age, the quality changes and, when used, may become an irritant. This is again particularly true for citrus oils. Usually essential oils have a shelf life of around two years (with a very few exceptions).
Oils that have had one or more foreign components added may, even though rarely, cause allergic reactions. Each essential oil is made up by a multitude of compounds and adding a foreign one generally interferes with the therapeutic balance nature gave
How to use essential oils
Buy good quality essential oils and these do not cost $2. The safest way to use most essential oils, and certainly citrus oils, is to dilute them very well, i.e. a small percentage in a carrier oil, and to apply them at least 12 hours before sun exposure, before bedtime for example. There are maximum safe percentages for phototoxic essential oils that make them safe to use.
Safe removal of essential oils when the skin is irritated
Essential oils do not dissolve in water but love a fatty substance such as a vegetable oil. This means when the skin is irritated, get the vegetable oil out of your kitchen cupboard and rub gently onto the area that is affected. The skin may still look a bit red but the vegetable oil will have stopped a further reaction. As mentioned earlier, applying water does not stop the process.
Essential oils offer great benefits for many reasons, they smell nice, make us feel good and help with many health issues. Safety however is always warranted in their use. Consult a qualified aromatherapist if in doubt.
- Tisserand, R. & Young, R. (2014). Essential oil safety, a guide for health care professionals. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2nd
- Mae, J. (2013). Malaleuca oil skin burn. Retrieved from http://www.jessmaeblog.com/2013/07/melaleuca-oil-skin-burn.html