The Dangers of Essential Oils
And How to Cope With Them
Plus Nifty Chemical Information
I am not a medical doctor, but I am at least as accident-prone as the next person.
Let me warn you at the outset--aromatherapy may seem happy and fru-fru, but the
essential oils that these products contain can be quite dangerous to the human body.
So I offer you this brief dissertation on oils I have
personally encountered (the hard way), and what eased the dire consequences of those encounters.
Your own experience may vary. As always, I recommend seeking
out professional help for serious illness, injury, burns, alien abduction, etc., etc..
There are reasons why experts tell you never to use pure essential oils on
the skin. They must be diluted in base oils, such as jojoba or almond,
to be safe. Some are diluted as far as 1% strength in order to make them
useable. The reason is this: some oils can have nasty effects on human
skin, including serious chemical burns. I know this through personal
Here are some oils which I personally consider DANGEROUS! I hope that
others may benefit from my blundering . . . so start benefitting!
Otherwise, I suffered for nothing.
This one burns like mace.
Never, never, never, NEVER put concentrated cinnamon oil (especially
cinnamon bark oil) on your skin! NEVER NEVER NEVER rub your eyes when
you have it on your hands!
If, like my roommate, you find this particular predicament amusing, I offer
this single caveat: cinnamon bark oil is 40-50% cinnamaldehyde, and 4-10%
eugenol. What does this mean? It BURNS! You may recognize
the -aldehyde chemical name from some of our favorites like
"formaldehyde," which is used to pickle animals for biology class. Another
aldehyde is "cuminaldehyde," which is reponsible for the bite in cumin--a
main spice in Mexican food and curry. (Cinnamon leaf oil, although
by no means a comfortable eyewash, is relatively less nasty with around 3%
cinnamaldehyde and 80-96% eugenol.)
I received second degree chemical burns from concentrated cinnamon essential
oil. I'm not sure what type it was, but I'm pretty sure it was bark
oil. I accidentally spilled a few drops on my hand, then wiped that
hand across my face. Needless to say, I recognized what I had done
within the next few seconds. The redness spread upward from the point
of contact until it had almost reached my eyes. As cinnamon oil is
both toxic to the skin and a powerful sensitizer (not de-sensitizer, which
would numb pain), this was not a great way to spend an evening.
This one made most of
my hand go numb for an hour. Why? I had pried open the bottle
with my fingernails, and one drop--ONE drop!--had gotten under my thumbnail.
Peppermint contains 29-48% menthol, that stuff they put in arthritis rubs
to numb pain. The interesting part I noticed, however, was how the
effect spread from the point of contact through the surrounding area. I
noticed that with cinnamon, too.
Please don't spill clove oil on your
skin. Your whole forearm will go numb. I dilute one drop in a
cup of water to dull the pain of a toothache.
I'll keep you posted as I encounter more nasty oils the hard way.
In addition, here are some common oils which my reference lists as "Hazardous,"
meaning they should NOT be used because of severe skin irritation: bitter
almond, arnica, bitter fennel, camphor (brown and yellow), common sage, dwarf
pine, mugwort, oregano, pennyroyal, red thyme, rue, sassafras, tansy, tonka,
wintergreen, wormwood. Those aren't all of them, but they are the most
commonly found ones.
In contrast, I have found a handful of oils which are usually
safe to apply directly, undiluted, to the skin (although you should
test for allergies first). These include lavender, ylang ylang, and sandalwood.
What to Do:
I have used the following methods to ease the symptoms of essential oil encounters.
* Wear rubber gloves
* Store essential oils in a bottle with dropper already attached.
This keeps you from prying the lid off and fiddling with another
dropper. (Dark glass protects the essential oils, by the way.)
* Never touch your face, or other sensitive areas, while using essential
I used all of the below, but you can use any combination. I recommend
the first one most.
* Rinse the affected area immediately with large amounts of water !
* Apply Vitamin E oil
* Drink copious amounts of water to rinse the oils out of your system
* Apply a mild soap, preferably an oil-based one. (I tried "Oil
of Olay" bodywash and it seemed to help.) Rinse well.
* Apply Calamine Lotion (that pink stuff you put on poison
I found that it seemed to suck the oil out, but
that could have been my imagination. The redness did decrease, however,
where I applied it.
* If symptoms are severe, CALL A DOCTOR!
* Keep the affected area protected from harsh sun and wind.
* Apply a Vitamin E oil to burned areas
* Watch for signs of spreading, and if necessary, contact a doctor.
* BE MORE CAREFUL NEXT TIME!
Some information was derived from "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential
Oils" by Julia Lawless. Copyyright 1995 Element Books (Shafesbury,
Dorset, UK). The rest was my own blundering.