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Massage Today
November, 2006, Vol. 06, Issue 11

Essential Safety When Using Essential Oils

By Shellie Enteen, RA, BA, LMBT

Continuing on the theme of aromatherapy myths and misconceptions, I would like to help clarify some misinformation that is the basis of one of the most popular current myths. This particular myth has been accepted by a large number of practitioners and might provide some welcome income.

Nevertheless, the following information is true and the facts can be checked. Understanding and exploring this information, along with seeking more education on the use of essential oils, can provide you with the awareness that will help to avoid the complications which have been reported over the years concerning the use of undiluted essential oils on the skin.

One of the guiding principles for safe use of essential oils is this: Always dilute essential oils before use on the skin. There are a few notable exceptions, such as in the case of cell-regenerating oils like lavender. However, when applying an oil such as lavender "neat" (undiluted), we use a drop or two for application to a burn, cut (due to proven cell-regenerating and antiseptic properties), insect bite (due to proven anti-inflammatory, itch-reducing properties) or to the temples for headache relief (due to proven sedative, pain-relieving properties). Even the use of a "safe" oil such as lavender neat for a specific period of time can create sensitization that will affect the user whenever they apply that particular essential oil in the future.

In the considerable amount of literature available on the subject of the physical effects of essential oils, research and testing have shown that some essential oils are potential allergens and others have very harsh effects on the skin if applied undiluted. "Harsh effects on the skin" from using undiluted essential oils does not refer only to an allergic response such as a rash, which also is possible, but to damage to the tissue itself, indicated by redness, an itching or burning sensation, soreness and occasional peeling. If left alone, the irritation might clear up on its own, but a strong reaction for a very sensitive skin type could require application of an anti-inflammatory, such as cortisone cream, or for the more holistic-minded, calendula or aloe vera gel.

Understanding this basic principle helps unravel the myth which suggests that after dropping undiluted essential oils onto the skin for an intended therapeutic effect, heat and redness of the skin indicates "toxins are being released" and shows that the underlying muscles and tendons are being healed of some abnormality.

Commonly used essential oils known to cause, or have the potential to cause, skin irritation are: basil (Ocimum basilicum), bergamot (Citrus bergamia), birch (Betula lenta), black pepper (Piper nigrum), cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), clove (Eugenia aromatica), expressed (cold pressed from peel) oils of lime, lemon, orange and grapefruit (Citrus limetta, limonum, sinensis and paradisi), lemongrass (Cymbopogon citrates), oregano (Origanum compactum), Scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris), Siberian, balsam or silver fir (Abies siberica, alba, balsamea), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) and in some cases, tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), ylang ylang (Cananga odorata) and peppermint (Mentha piperita).

Again, if any of these essential oils are placed undiluted onto the skin and a hot, red irritation manifests, this is the result of damage to the skin cells, and that damage might require help for repair. These same oils, if used in dilution (in some cases, very high dilution), are perfectly safe unless there is a specific sensitivity or allergic reaction to a specific essential oil.

More information on this topic can be found at the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy Web site: Also available is a full research paper about a specific technique that promotes the use of undiluted essential oils on the skin. If you wish to expand your knowledge and experience of essential oils further, there are several opportunities to hear world-class speakers at conferences here in the U.S. Some offer continuing education credit for massage therapists and nurses. Search for "aromatherapy conferences" online or get information at and There also are many schools of aromatherapy that provide quality education and also are listed on the NAHA Web site. Further reading on the subject of safe use of essential oils also might include The Aromatherapy Practitioner Manual, Vols. I and II, by Sylla Sheppard Hanger.

Click here for previous articles by Shellie Enteen, RA, BA, LMBT.


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