Signs you need to take a break from essential oils: sensitization

There are so many amazing ways to use essential oils in your health and beauty routine, but essential oil sensitization is a very real concern. Essential oils are highly concentrated, potent plant compounds. The same strength that makes them so valuable is also what makes them dangerous.

Fortunately, you can prevent essential oil sensitization with a few basic safety practices. Here's what you need to know and look out for.

How to Use Essential Oils Safely

  1. Always dilute essential oils when using them on your body. Even though using essential oils “neat” or undiluted is recommended all the time, it's rarely appropriate or necessary. You can learn more about diluting essential oils for different age groups here.
  2. Avoid plants and plant families you have a known allergy to. This seems obvious, but not everyone looks into plant families when using new products. For example, I've seen many people with an allergy to ragweed unable to tolerate stevia. That makes sense, since the plants are so closely related.
  3. Use age-appropriate oils. Certain compounds are just not safe for babies, the elderly, and pregnant women. Be sure you're using oils that are appropriate for you.
  4. Pretty much don't ingest essential oils. While there are certain situations where this is helpful, they are rare. It's wise to work with a trained aromatherapist (which is different than a direct sales rep for an essential oil company) if you're trying to follow a more complicated or aggressive essential oil regimen.
  5. Use an emulsifier when adding essential oils to your water-soluble DIY recipes.
  6. Start with gentler treatments. Herbs, infusions, hydrosols, tinctures and more are all wonderful delivery methods of medicinal plant compounds and are generally more gentle and synergistic in that they more often contain “whole plant” parts instead of just one part as is the case with essential oils. Reaching for these first can go a long way when it comes to preventing essential oil sensitization.

Signs of Essential Oil Sensitization

Maybe you've been using essential oils a lot or using them improperly and now they're not working as well or you're having a reaction. You could be sensitized to an essential oil. Sensitization is basically an allergic reaction to an oil. It's your immune system responding to overexposure to the oil. Here are a few ways essential oil sensitization can manifest:

  • Skin burns
  • Rash
  • Bumpy, itchy skin
  • Eczema

Sensitization indicates that there's an allergy to the oil. It might not appear obvious on first exposure so can appear to “come out of nowhere” as the oil is used more.

If you think you're dealing with essential oil sensitization but you're not sure which oil is causing it, my recommendation is to stop using all essential oils immediately. If you want to reintroduce them and pinpoint which oil is giving you problems, do it “elimination diet” style, introducing them one at a time with several days between new oils.

When you find out which oil you're sensitized to, it would be best to avoid using that plant altogether and learning more about the specific compounds in that oil so that you can avoid similar essential oils as well.

Have you ever experienced a reaction to essential oils? Share your experience in the comments!

Using essential oils neat on hand


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Kylie Wiser is an herbalist specializing in skincare and women's health. She shares recipes and resources on Everblossom to help others live a more holistic lifestyle. She lives in Fargo, ND with her huge family and lots of houseplants.

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