There’s a certain four-letter word in aromatherapy: NEAT. It’s not an acronym. It simply means applying essential oils to the skin undiluted. When I first got started with essential oils, I didn’t know that they should be diluted in a carrier oil before application. So typical of me to read the instructions after the fact.
In this article, we’re going to talk about the risks involved with applying essential oils NEAT to the skin.
First, I’ll start with a story. I was in the shower one morning, and decided to place a few drops of lemongrass essential oil on the shower floor while the water was running. I made a big mistake. I learned the hard way this is not something you should do while you’re in the shower. I put a few drops of the oil on the floor of the shower, and some of it accidentally got on my chest.
Almost immediately I felt a burning sensation. I washed the oil off with soap and water, which as I’ve stated in another post, is ineffective at removing essential oils. Carrier oil is by far the best way to remove the oil from the skin. Water alone will not dissolve essential oil; it will only move the oil around.
After I had got out of the shower, I noticed significant reddening in the area on my chest where the lemongrass accidentally went. I think I was shaking some of it out of the bottle, which caused a few drops to land on my body instead of the floor of the shower.
So, the moral of the story is, try not to let an essential oil like lemongrass get on your skin. In case of accidental contact, remove with a carrier oil.
With that being said, certain essential oils can cause reactions such as dermal irritation and sensitization. Irritation simply means the oil can cause redness and irritation. Below is a list of the essential oils that are most likely to cause dermal irritation.
- Bay (Pimento racemosa)
- Cinnamon bark* (Cinnamonium zeylanicum)
- Clove bud (Syzygium aromaticum)
- Citronella (Cymbopogon nardus)
- Cumin (Cuminum cyminum)
- Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)
- Lemon verbena (Lippia citriodora)
- Oregano (Oreganum vulgare)
- Thyme ct. thymol (Thymus vulgaris)
* Cinnamon bark is a popular ingredient in anti-germ blends.
Sensitization is arguably a lot worse; the oil will set you up for reactivity upon exposure to the oil or a related substance in the future. This is also called allergic contact dermatitis.
I’ll tell you a story about sensitization. One of my aromatherapy instructors told us about a woman who placed a few drops of clove essential oil in the bathtub one evening. The clove oil irritated her skin and caused her to become highly sensitive to the presence of not only clove essential oil, but the clove plant in general. She would break out in hives if she ever got near clove herbs, clove oil or anything with clove in it. Sounds like a pretty high price to pay. Ask yourself if it’s worth it.
Anaphylactic shock can result from an allergic reaction to an undiluted essential oil. It’s rare, but possible. This is a serious matter. This can happen to you if you apply certain essential oils to the skin carelessly. This is not intended to be a scare tactic, but rather a request that you please be aware of your own sensitivities and known allergies.
I’ll add that certain MLM companies claim that the skin irritation and/or sensitization their customers have been experiencing is a “detox reaction.” In other words, they claim that toxins from the user’s body are being released through the skin. This is entirely false.
Even if an essential oil is completely pure and unadulterated (contains no impurities), the simple fact is, you’re dealing with a plant, and plant species, under some circumstances, can be poisonous. If you experience skin irritation or an allergic reaction in the presence of an essential oil, discontinue use immediately, use a carrier oil to remove the essential oil, and if necessary, seek medical attention. You can call Poison Control if the reaction is fairly serious. Call 911 if the problem is life threatening. Use common sense. If you already know you’re allergic to a certain plant, for example, eucalyptus, then don’t use eucalyptus essential oil for any reason.
Below is a list of essential oils that are known to cause dermal sensitization.
- Cassia (Cinnamomum cassia)
- Cinnamon Bark (Cinnamomum zeylanicum)
- Verbena Absolute (Lippia citriodora)
- Peru Balsam (Myroxylon pereirae)
- Tea Absolute (Camellia sinensis)
- Oxidized oils from the Pinaceae family (e.g. Pinus and Cupressus species) and the Rutaceae family (e.g. citrus oils)
It is vitally important that essential oils that are known dermal irritants and/or sensitizers be heavily diluted in a carrier oil before application. It is a good practice to do what is called a “patch test”. That is, applying a very small amount of the (diluted) oil on a small area of skin and waiting to see if a reaction occurs. If no reaction occurs, then you should be safe, however, this is not guaranteed, since a reaction does not necessarily happen upon the first exposure to an oil. If a reaction does occur, then you know not to use that type of oil again.
Another fact to keep in mind:
People with sensitive skin, dermatitis, or eczema, are especially prone to sensitization. (per www.usingeossafely.com)
Yet another safety concern is phototoxicity. Certain essential oils (mainly citrus) contain substances that can increase a user’s susceptibility to sunburn for approximately 24 to 48 hours after application to the skin (diffusion in air will not cause this problem). Below is a list of essential oils that are most likely to cause photosensitivity.
- Bergamot (the most likely to cause photosensitive reactions)
- Wild Orange
The importance of diluting essential oils in a carrier oil, in addition to awareness of one’s own allergies and sensitivities to substances, cannot be understated. Carelessness can result in problems ranging from mild skin irritation to phototoxicity to severe allergic reactions and even shock.
In my professional opinion, the only essential oils I would ever considering applying NEAT (on my own body, not yours) would be lavender or frankincense, and even with these oils, use caution. Everyone is different. Please keep the guidelines above in mind. An oil that does not affect one person could very well cause an allergic reaction in someone else.
Have you ever experienced skin irritation or an allergic reaction to an essential oil? I’m curious about your experiences. Please feel free to comment in the form below.
Thank you for your time,