Essential oils are powerful. You can use them for therapeutic reasons such as treating wounds and relieving headaches, to help you relax, or simply because you want to smell nice. However, essential oils do not come without risks and you should be aware of the dangers of incorrect use. Elise, a woman who got severe third-degree burns from using essential oils on her skin, learned this lesson the hard way.
Elise’s painful story
Elise dabbed some wild orange doTERRA essential oil on her neck and wrists to help her relax before going to a yoga class. Elise was planning to travel to Jamaica and wanted to avoid getting sunburned, so an hour after her class she decided to go tanning without putting much thought into it.
The next day, she noticed that her skin was irritated where she had applied the oil. Initially, she thought that a new laundry detergent she had bought was causing an allergic reaction, but over the next two days, painful blisters appeared on her skin. The oil caused second and third-degree chemical burns to her skin from the UV light of the tanning bed.
Though the bottle of essential oil does have a warning about avoiding exposure to the sun and UV light for at least 12 hours after application, Elise had not noticed or read the label.
What causes this reaction?
Four factors can change the composition of essential oils: air, heat, moisture, and light. Each of these factors can change the quality of an essential oil and cause it to degrade. When you leave a bottle of essential oil in direct sunlight or UV light, it spoils. Moreover, citrus essential oils pose a unique risk to your skin:
Essential Oil Side Effects
When you apply undiluted essential oils on your skin, it becomes more sensitive and is highly likely to cause irritation and severe skin conditions such as rashes and even burns. Unfortunately for Elise, citrus-based essential oils are among those that are particularly sensitive to light. (2)
Furocoumarins are a photosensitive constituent found in some essential oils, including bergamot, grapefruit, lime, lemon, orange, and cumin. When exposed to sunlight or UV rays, this compound reacts and can cause damage and even change the pigmentation of your skin. For this reason, you should always avoid sunlight for 12 hours after using these essential oils topically.
How to use essential oils
Read the label
When picking up a bottle of essential oil, the first thing you should do is read the label. Look for safety warnings and instructions before you use the product so that you use it safely and properly.
Always patch test
Before using any oil or even new brand of essential oil, apply a tiny drop somewhere on your skin to test whether you have an allergic reaction.
Essential oils are highly concentrated and can be toxic if undiluted. This toxicity is not always harmful because it gives antibacterial properties to some oils, however, when they’re not used to fight bacteria, essential oils should generally be diluted in a base oil before using. Base oils include sweet almond, grapeseed, and sunflower oil, or thicker oils such as olive, jojoba, and avocado oil. Avoid mixing essential oils with mineral oil, since mineral oil and petroleum products “sit” on your skin rather than being absorbed. (1, 2)
Don’t eat or drink essential oils
Never drink or add essential oils to your food without special instructions. Essential oils are meant to be used only externally. (1) If you have small children keep essential oils away from them as children are usually the victims of poisoning incidents regarding essential oils. (2)
Keep essential oils in a cool place, away from sunlight or UV light, and seal them properly. Essential oils lose their quality in days or weeks if they come in regular contact with heat, oxygen, and light. When they lose their quality, essential oils may cause more skin irritation. In the fridge, they can maintain their quality up to months or even years, so your fridge is an ideal place to store them. (2)
Elise has been suffering from her burns for more than a month, and the recovery process will be long and slow. Her story highlights that just because something is natural, doesn’t mean you should ignore instructions and warnings. Always fully read the labels of any natural health product, and consult a Naturopathic doctor if you are unsure if an essential oil or other product is right for you.
This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and is for information only. Essential oils are very highly concentrated and potent and it is important to always check the specific safety data provided. Keep out of reach of children, the elderly, and pets. For external use only. Avoid contact with mucus membranes and eyes. If any essential oils have contacted your eye, wash out with a vegetable oil such as olive oil, not water.
Some oils may cause skin irritation in people with sensitive skin. It is recommended to perform a patch test before use. To patch test, place one drop on the back of your wrist and leave for an hour or more. If irritation or redness occurs wash the area with olive oil then cold water and do not use the oil.
We do not recommend the ingestion of essential oils except while under the care and direction of a qualified health practitioner.
(1) Lawless, J. (2013). The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils: The Complete Guide to the Use of Aromatic Oils in Aromatherapy, Herbalism, Health & Well-Being. Newburyport, Massachusetts: Conari Press.
(2) Tisserand, R. & Young, R. (2014). Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals. CA, USA: Churchill Livingstone.