Essential Oils and Your Health

Tips on Using Aro­mather­a­py Safely

Essen­tial oils have become a pop­u­lar way to relax and sup­port your emo­tion­al well-being. While many are drawn to essen­tial oils because they’re con­sid­ered to be nat­ur­al prod­ucts, they’re not always risk-free. In fact, essen­tial oils aren’t reg­u­lat­ed by the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion (FDA) and many of the asso­ci­at­ed health ben­e­fits have not been proven. Incor­rect or over-use of essen­tial oils can cause an aller­gic reac­tion, espe­cial­ly if you have asth­ma or are prone to envi­ron­men­tal aller­gies. They can also pose health risks for preg­nant women, chil­dren and pets. Here, aller­gist, Amee Maj­mundar, MD, shares tips on how to enjoy essen­tial oils safely. 

Essen­tial oils can be admin­is­tered by dif­fus­ing them into the air and inhaled or by apply­ing them direct­ly to the skin. Although some claim it is safe, they should not be ingest­ed. Essen­tial oils con­tain a vari­ety of ingre­di­ents, and if you are sen­si­tive to a par­tic­u­lar ingre­di­ent, an aller­gic reac­tion can occur. Each aller­gic reac­tion can present dif­fer­ent­ly, some may be mild while oth­ers may be more severe and even life-threat­en­ing. The sever­i­ty of your reac­tion often depends on the poten­cy of the oil and how it is used.

Reac­tions to essen­tial oils

A reac­tion to an essen­tial oil may man­i­fest in a vari­ety of ways, including: 

Con­tact dermatitis

The most com­mon aller­gic reac­tion to an essen­tial oil is con­tact der­mati­tis — an itchy, red rash on your skin typ­i­cal­ly where the oil has been applied. In some cas­es, the rash may also blis­ter or peel. The reac­tion may not always be imme­di­ate, you may not devel­op symp­toms for sev­er­al hours, or even days. Some­times, con­tact der­mati­tis occurs if you are using oil that is too potent. Be sure to fol­low the direc­tions to avoid overuse and try dilut­ing in a car­ri­er oil (oils extract­ed from plant nuts, seeds and ker­nels) if need­ed. If you dilute an essen­tial oil and still expe­ri­ence aller­gy symp­toms, dis­con­tin­ue use. Be sure to allow your skin time to heal before try­ing oth­er essen­tial oils.

If you’re sen­si­tive to fra­grances or envi­ron­men­tal aller­gens, espe­cial­ly those that are plant-based like weeds and pollen, you’re at an increased risk of an aller­gic reac­tion to essen­tial oils. If you plan to use your essen­tial oils top­i­cal­ly, we rec­om­mend per­form­ing a patch test first. The test can be done by apply­ing a small amount of oil to your skin for a few days while mon­i­tor­ing for signs of an aller­gic reac­tion. This way you slow­ly intro­duce the oil to your body and lim­it the area of a poten­tial reaction.

Nasal aller­gies and/​or asth­ma symptoms

Essen­tial oils are pri­mar­i­ly made with plant-based ingre­di­ents and, just like oth­er plant-based envi­ron­ment aller­gens, can cause nasal aller­gy or asth­ma symp­toms. Nasal and asth­ma-relat­ed symp­toms are more com­mon when the oils are dif­fused and inhaled, causing: 

  • Asth­ma flare-ups
  • Con­ges­tion and/​or a run­ny nose
  • Eye irri­ta­tion
  • Sneez­ing

Even if you don’t nor­mal­ly have aller­gies, you may devel­op nasal symp­toms after using essen­tial oils, espe­cial­ly those with a strong odor.

Pho­to­sen­si­tive reactions

Some essen­tial oils, includ­ing those con­tain­ing cit­rus extracts (lemon, lime, orange or berg­amot), are pho­to­sen­si­tive. This means they can dam­age your skin when applied top­i­cal­ly and the area is exposed to UV rays. If using a pho­to­sen­si­tive essen­tial oil, avoid sun or arti­fi­cial UV ray expo­sure for at least 12 hours to pre­vent uncom­fort­able (and in some cas­es severe) symp­toms including: 

  • Red­den­ing of the skin
  • Burn­ing or itching
  • Blis­ter­ing

Com­mon essen­tial oils

There are many dif­fer­ent vari­eties of essen­tial oils avail­able and your body may respond dif­fer­ent­ly to each of them. It’s impor­tant to mon­i­tor your body’s response each time you try new oils. A few oils that are more like­ly to cause an aller­gic reac­tion include: 

  • Cit­rus-based oils (lemon, lime, orange or bergamot)
  • Clove
  • Jas­mine
  • Laven­der
  • Lemon­grass
  • Pep­per­mint
  • Tea Tree
  • San­dal­wood
  • Ylang-ylang

Reduc­ing the risk of an essen­tial oil aller­gic reaction

You can reduce your risk of an aller­gic reac­tion by tak­ing some pre­cau­tions when using essen­tial oils. 

  • If you have a nut aller­gy, read the ingre­di­ent labels thor­ough­ly. Some car­ri­er and essen­tial oils, espe­cial­ly blends, may con­tain extracts such as argon, coconut, grape­seed or tree nut oils.
  • Overuse can cre­ate an aller­gy. It’s impor­tant to fol­low the direc­tions care­ful­ly and dilute oils before use, as needed. 
  • Keep essen­tial oils in a cool place away from direct light. This pre­vents oxi­da­tion which breaks down the oil’s nat­ur­al com­po­si­tion over time. If you notice the oil has changed col­or, or the smell is dif­fer­ent, it’s time to toss the bottle!
  • Avoid essen­tial oil use in chil­dren, preg­nant women and pets. Children’s skin is thin­ner and more sen­si­tive to poten­tial irri­tants than adults. Keep oils out of reach of chil­dren as they may be harm­ful if ingest­ed or come in con­tact with eyes. It is rec­om­mend­ed to avoid essen­tial oils when preg­nant as they pen­e­trate your skin and can enter your blood stream. The effect of essen­tial oils on a devel­op­ing fetus is unknown, so to be safe, it is best to avoid them dur­ing this time.

If you sus­pect you’re aller­gic to an essen­tial oil or begin expe­ri­enc­ing an aller­gic reac­tion, stop use imme­di­ate­ly. If dif­fused into the air, open win­dows and doors to allow fresh air in. If applied to your skin, wash the area well with a mild soap and water. You can also apply a cool com­press or hydro­cor­ti­sone cream for addi­tion­al relief. 

If symp­toms per­sist or wors­en, con­sult with your pri­ma­ry care physi­cian. If you’re expe­ri­enc­ing a more severe reac­tion, while rare, it requires imme­di­ate med­ical atten­tion. Symp­toms of ana­phy­lax­is or a severe reac­tion often include dif­fi­cul­ty breath­ing or swal­low­ing as well as swelling in the throat or oth­er areas of the body. Call 911 and/​or go to your near­est emer­gency room right away if expe­ri­enc­ing any of these symptoms. 

When used prop­er­ly, essen­tial oils are con­sid­ered to be safe and can enhance your every­day life. As with any sub­stance that is inhaled or applied to your skin, it is impor­tant to use them as direct­ed. If you expe­ri­ence any symp­toms that may indi­cate an aller­gic reac­tion, dis­con­tin­ue use, and if need­ed, fol­low up with your physician.

If you expe­ri­ence sen­si­tiv­i­ty to envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors includ­ing fra­grances or essen­tial oils, an aller­gist can help you iden­ti­fy which aller­gens affect you and devel­op a cus­tom treat­ment plan to min­i­mize your expo­sure and man­age symp­toms. Learn more about our team of Aller­gy, Asth­ma & Immunol­o­gy spe­cial­ists or sched­ule an appoint­ment online.

Health Topics: