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

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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