Sensitization to Essential Oils – what it is, how it happens, what to do, and how to prevent

Sensitization to essential oils is becoming more common due to the widespread use of essential oils. Users are often not being told to dilute before applying to the skin, and this is causing adverse reactions such as redness, irritation, and in some cases blistering.

What is sensitization?

Sensitization is an inflammatory reaction of the immune system reacting to sensitivity on the skin.

It is also described as a contact allergic reaction.

How does sensitization happen?

Sensitization to essential oils happens with repeated undiluted (or not properly diluted) application of essential oils to the skin. This typically presents itself after long-term unsafe topical application, but can happen in the short-term, and in some cases on the first application.

What are the signs of sensitization to essential oils?

If you are seeing redness, irritation, blistering, or anything unusual on the skin, it could be a sign of sensitization. Especially if you have used an essential oil for a number of uses without proper dilution.

What do I do if I become sensitized?

If you have become sensitized to an essential oil, you must discontinue use of that essential oil – and likely other essential oils sharing the same major constituents – likely indefinitely. It may be likely that after a decade or two, you can re-introduce the essential oil (properly diluted this time!), but as a general rule, sensitization is for life.

You also should avoid the inhalation of the essential oil(s), as simply smelling the aroma of the essential oil you are sensitized to can trigger an allergic reaction.

What can I do to prevent sensitization?

  • Only use essential oils topically when you have to. If it's not a skin issue, don't apply to your skin – inhale! Need to sleep? Make a linen spray! Need to focus? Inhale! Have a headache? Inhale!
  • Be sure to dilute essential oils every time you apply them to your skin. Some essential oils have a topical max dilution that must be respected, or sensitization can happen.
  • Don't use the same essential oils daily long term. If you need to use essential oils daily, avoid using the same ones every day for more than a few weeks. If you need to use them that long (like for anti-aging), create two blends (properly diluted!) with different essential oils and use one for a month-ish, then use the other for a month-ish.
  • If your skin reacts, stop applying essential oils! This is not detox! Continuing to use the same essential oils (or essential oils high in the same constituents) after a reaction can further acerbate the inflammation.
  • If you have sensitive skin, dermatitis, or eczema, or broken skin use with care. Already damaged skin is more prone to sensitization.

It is important to keep in mind that anyone could become sensitized to any essential oil at any time, and not just on the first use.

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Lea Harris Jacobson is a Certified Clinical Aromatherapist Scholar's Program graduate from Aromahead Institute. This website is home to educational advice and empowering information about using essential oils safely. The Using Essential Oils Safely facebook group founded and run by Lea and her team has over 140,000 members and hundreds of new members joining each week. Lea is the author of her bestseller Essential Oil Profiles (available as a full color print book as well as an ebook). Based off the information in the popular Top 60 Essential Oils APP, the print version has sold out in days each time it's been offered. Other books by Lea: The TRUTH About Essential Oil Safety, and the Hydrosols Quick Start Guide.

Lea is the creator of Safe Essential Oil Labels, designed to wrap around any size or brand bottle, as well as apps for essential oils and carriers, and hydrosols.

You can find FREE classes here: Free Essential Oil Classes, and sign up for the Using Essential Oils Safely BASICS course Lea teaches where you can earn your "Essential Oil Safety Advocate" title.

Lea is Professional level member of the Alliance of International Aromatherapists and received her herbalist certification through The Herbal Academy of New England.

Businesses, groups, and individuals can hire Lea to consult on safety, product formulation, and more on her website Lea Jacobson CCA.



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