I used to think my son was allergic to essential oils.
Yeah, this one is a popular misunderstanding but as the mom of two allergy kids I can tell you this is one of the very first of the concerns I researched.
You see, my very first time using essential oils on my son ended in him getting a massive rash. Sounds like textbook allergic reaction, right? I mean, even as an allergy mom I thought it was an allergic reaction.
His skin was flaming red, itchy, and had blisters all over. It was horrifying and made me so sad. I was so bothered by it that I decided that essential oils were dangerous and that I shouldn’t ever use them.
Turns out I had fallen right into two pretty common misunderstandings.
My first misunderstanding: He was allergic to essential oils because he had other allergies
Here’s the thing about allergic reactions. They are typically caused by proteins that the body improperly identifies as invaders in the body. These proteins trigger the body to create antigens, and the antigens create histamines which provoke the allergic reaction.
A true essential oil is steam distilled from plant materials and proteins are too heavy of a molecule to be in a steam distilled oil. Proteins just cannot transfer out of the plant material into the steam distilled oil.
Many people believe that no protein content means there cannot be a true allergic reaction to genuine steam distilled essential oils. This is not necessarily the case. Some essential oil components (that are not proteins) can trigger an allergic response. Cinnamaldehyde is one example. But typically these sorts of true allergic reactions not very serious or common (“Essentials” p. 46 by Dr. Lindsey Elmore, PharmD). According to Dr. Elmore, there are only two recorded incidents of anaphylactic reaction to a fragrance molecule (both of which were associated with perfumes, not essential oils).
But just because he had a skin reaction didn’t mean that it was an actual allergic reaction to the essential oil.
But be aware:
However, there are some things classified as “essential oils” that are not steam distilled. That includes oleo-resins (like vanilla), absolutes (like rose, jasmine) or cold pressed citrus oils (like lemon, orange, and bergamot). Because these are mechanically or chemically extracted from the plant material it possible that some plant proteins may remain and can cause a true allergic reaction in people sensitive to those plants.
Also, some essential oil blends may be formulated with contain small amounts of fatty carrier oils like sesame seed oil, almond oil, or fractionated coconut oil. These are not essential oils, but people who have allergies to those plants may react.
My second misunderstanding: All skin reactions are allergic reactions
I had used a common health food store brand of eucalyptus on my son, and he had the really horrible skin reaction. (And yes, for those of you who wonder these things, it was properly diluted for his age to 1%, so dilution rate was not the issue.)
When I decided to test a small patch of his skin with a 1% dilution of an authentic eucalyptus oil he had no negative reaction at all.
Which led me to wonder, “If he reacted to the one and not the other….what is happening here?”
He did have a dramatic reaction to one brand and not the other, so was it an allergy in the traditional sense? My conclusion, no, probably not. Because if it were a true allergy, he should have reacted regardless of the brand.
So what happened?
The chances of a negative skin reaction like this increases when you are using adulterated or low quality oils, and also if you use commercial skincare or hair care products. Hair care and skincare products do leave residual amounts on your skin, and essential oils may react with these trace products to cause undesired effects.
Another good reason to “green” your personal care routine!
Many, many essential oil companies use ingredients that they do not disclose (they do not have to) to extend or stretch the oil. In some cases, this may be what your body is reacting to, and not the actual essential oil content of the product.
Many mass produced essential oils are less than pure, which was almost assuredly why my son’s skin reacted the way that it did.
Then why the rash?
However (and this is a BIG however) you can have a skin reaction to some essential oils.
Here’s a great example: Poison Ivy. When the urushiol from poison ivy get on some people’s skin it interacts with their unique skin chemistry to create a new substance (when it binds with some peptides in your body) that provokes the rash. This is why not everyone reacts to poison ivy. Not everyone has this response when introduced to poison ivy leaves.
Similarly, some people have a skin response to some essential oils some of the time, because when they come in contact with them, their skin (in combination with the oil) combine forces to creates a new substance and that substance causes the irritation. So when haptens (small molecules) that are found in essential oils bind with the peptides in your skin, for some people this can cause skin irritation.
Phew! Confusing much? But you’ve got it, right?
Other types of skin reactions:
Because there are many ways that your skin could react, let’s go over a few of them. These are not necessarily allergic reactions in the traditional sense.
Some oils can make your skin more sensitive to UV light. Applying them to exposed skin prior to direct sun exposure can cause a rash or burn. Reactions like this typically are associated with cold pressed citrus oils, but can also occur with oils like angelica or dill.
Some oils, like Tea Tree, are prone to oxidation. What that means is that as they are exposed to light, heat, or oxygen over time they start to break down. This increases the likelihood of skin reactions in general when used topically.
So what did we do?
Here’s the thing. As a mom of kiddos who had multiple food and environmental allergies, I learned to be very cautious. I never made any decision about my kiddos health and well being without a lot of research.
My research helped me become comfortable with using only quality essential oils.
In the now 7 years since that bad reaction to the health food store eucalyptus we are using only Young Living oils and have not had any difficulty with further skin responses.
But what about other essential oils?
Just like a person is not sensitive to every single type of food, it would be very unusual for a person to be sensitive to every single essential oil. Chances are that a sensitivity to one does not indicate a sensitivity to all. And always realize, low price/quality essential oils are not going to operate under these rules because of the possibility of non-disclosed ingredients in them.
You may want to proceed with caution with oils that are not steam distilled or are in the same plant family as ones that you choose to avoid.
As with all similar situations, close monitoring, label reading, and researching will be your best friends!
That’s my recommendation to you. Do lots of research. Lots and lots.
I’m not telling you to use an oil if you feel it is a concern for you. Always err on the side of caution and do your your due diligence.
I’m not a doctor, just a mom who researches the heck out of the situations that we’ve encountered. For you, you may want to avoid certain oils for your peace of mind. And you know what? That’s ok!
And if you haven’t experienced sensitivity to oil, realize that skin reactions are not the norm. They are not very common. Most people seem to tolerate properly used authentic essential oils without incident.
So can you be allergic to essential oils?
Yes, it is possible. However not every skin reaction is an allergy, and true allergies are thankfully, not the norm.
Disclaimer: This is not to be construed as medical advice, please consult with your own medical professional who is well trained in essential oils for a medical opinion of your unique situation.