by Katharine Koeppen, RA
Is it safe to use undiluted essential oils directly on the skin?
This is a question that comes up in every class I teach and during most presentations I've given. There is an enormous amount of misinformation available, on the internet and elsewhere, regarding neat (undiluted) use of essential oils. Most of the people who regularly advocate neat usage have minimal aromatherapy training or are representing multilevel marketing companies of dubious reputation. The justification most often cited is that it's "perfectly safe" because "the French do it all the time."
The French have been practicing medical aromatherapy for a long time, and they do sometimes make use of neat essential oils, much more often than those schooled in British or German aromatherapy. However, they don't do it "all the time", and are more likely to use higher than typical subclinical dilutions for topical application. These applications are done in extreme aromatherapy interventions, generally by aromatherapists who are medical doctors, naturopathic physicians or the like. In other words, people who have training in pharmacology, physiology and other aspects of medicine.
The average consumer does not possess this medical training, and few consumers know enough about aromatherapy to make informed decisions on correct use of essential oils, particularly when serious health problems occur.
Some years ago, a young woman in one of my classes told me that she decided to study aromatherapy because she'd had a dangerous encounter with essential oils and never wanted to repeat the experience again. Her massage therapist (who had no previous aromatherapy training) had informed her that cinnamon oil would be an excellent natural cure for the young woman's throat ailment. My new student went to a health food store, bought a bottle of cinnamon oil, and poured it directly on her neck. Shortly thereafter, she was taken to a hospital emergency room where she was treated for second degree burns which took 5 months to heal. She and her massage therapist were completely unaware that the phenolic and acidic compounds present in cinnamon oil will literally melt away the keratin mantle of the skin.
Most cases of neat use don't involve such painful or extreme consequences, but nevertheless cause problems. Sensitization reactions are common, and the length of time it takes to become sensitized to an essential oil varies, depending on the individual's skin chemistry and the particular essential oil being abused. Even seemingly benign essential oils such as lavender can and do cause problems... in fact, lavender sensitization has been heavily documented in Great Britain.
A recent case in point: A woman who'd just purchased helichrysum was reordering, and wanted to purchase a larger quantity. When I inquired why she was using such large amounts of a costly oil, she informed me that she'd been applying it undiluted to her knee several times daily since having knee surgery a few months ago. She was insistent that this was perfectly safe (since another supplier's website had stated so), and refused to believe that a 2-3% dilution of this extremely powerful oil would be adequate to minimize the scarring, pain and swelling from her surgery. Upon questioning her further, I found that she was beginning to experience burning and stinging upon application of the essential oil, indicating the start of a sensitization reaction.
Once an individual has become sensitized to an essential oil, the reaction is usually permanent. At the very least, it takes several years before the oil can be reintroduced without causing further irritation. In the case of this woman, helichrysum was the only remedy she had found that minimized her knee pain. Now this option is no longer available to her.
Please, please, please do not use undiluted essential oils topically unless under the advisement of a qualified aromatherapist or medical practitioner trained in aromatherapy. If you are using aromatherapy for a serious medical condition, consult with a professional, or obtain the necessary training for appropriate and safe self-treatment.