Dilution of Essential Oils for Topical Application: What You Need to Know

Although essential oils are absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream somewhat more readily when applied undiluted than when used in diluted form, this is not a good practice because the risks of experiencing skin irritation and sensitization (a type of allergic reaction) increase greatly when undiluted essential oils are put on the skin and the risk of systemic toxicity and drug interactions also increases. I want to repeat that because it’s important – using undiluted essential oils on the skin substantially increases the risk of skin irritation and sensitization reactions and also increases the risk of systemic toxicity and drug interaction.

Risk of Systemic Toxicity

While the risk of systemic toxicity from a reasonable external application of the essential oils used by responsible aromatherapists is very low, the occurrence of skin sensitization reactions has been increasing in the United States as a few companies here have irresponsibly recommended the topical use of undiluted essential oils. Even lavender essential oil, which was once considered by most aromatherapists to be safe for undiluted use, is now being found to produce sensitization in some individuals, apparently as a consequence of over-use in undiluted applications.

Not everyone who uses undiluted essential oils will develop sensitization reactions, and those who do will generally only have problems after repeated use of the same undiluted oil. However, for those unfortunate people who do experience these often avoidable reactions, the experience can be very distressing as it can be accompanied by severe itching that lasts for days. This may leave the affected individual more likely to develop such reactions to other topically applied substances in the future. Why would anyone want to take such risks when diluted essential oils are much safer and work very well to achieve the desired therapeutic effects?

Reasonable Dilution Rates

Here are reasonable dilution rates for several methods of topical use of essential oils:

Procedure Recommended Range of Essential Oil Concentration
Full-body Massage 1.5 – 3%
Facial Care 0.2 – 1.5%
Bath & Body Products 1.5 – 4%
Wounds / Necrotic Skin Ulcers 5 – 15% (in a small area)
Localized Pain 5-15%
Other Localized Issues 3-10%

These are general guidelines and extra care must be utilized with essential oils that are known to be sensitizing, irritating and/or phototoxic, some of which have specific maximum dermal concentration levels.

Using Essential Oils

Two of the most popular ways to use essential oils is by inhaling them {smelling them} and by applying them to the skin {in a massage oil or facial oil}. To obtain the benefits of aromatherapy, essential oils can also be added to bathwater, skin creams, and lotions; used to scent bedding, clothing, and laundry; and incorporated into homemade air fresheners. A diffuser {a device specially designed to disperse essential oils into the air} can be used to fill an entire room with fragrance.

Inhaling Essential Oils:

Add a few drops of essential oil to a piece of cloth or a cotton ball. To make a steam inhalation, add three to five drops of essential oil to a pot of steaming water. Steam provides a vehicle not only for inhaling essential oils but also for carrying the essential oils to your skin. Position your face about 12 inches over the steaming water, drape a towel over your head, and breathe the steam for a moment or two. Remove the towel and take a few breaths of fresh air. Repeat the process for a maximum of 5 to 10 minutes.

Applying Essential Oils to Your Skin:

To protect your skin from irritation, always dilute essential oils in a carrier oil {a vegetable or nut oil} such as sweet almond, grapeseed, sunflower, olive, jojoba, apricot kernel, kukui nut, or hazelnut oil.

Aromatic waters are another easy and pleasant way to use essential oils on your skin. To make aromatic water, add 10 drops of essential oil to 1 ounce of water in a spray bottle. To use, thoroughly shake the mixture, then mist your body and face, being sure to close your eyes before you spray.

Essential Oils and Their Properties:

Essential oils are highly concentrated sources of plant compounds. Many of them have healing properties, but they should never be taken internally.

  • Herb: Carrot seed {Daucus carota} – Property: Stimulates and regenerates skin cells; good for dry and mature skin.
  • Herb: Chamomile, German {Matricaria recutita} – Property: Anti-inflammatory; soothes sensitive skin and sore muscles; relaxing, uplifting aroma; might help ease insomnia
  • Herb: Clary sage {Salvia sclarea} – Property: Eases muscle tension and menstrual cramps; helpful for oily skin; relaxing, euphoric aroma
  • Herb: Eucalyptus {Eucalyptus globulus} – Property: Antibacterial, decongestant; clears sinuses and bronchial tubes; stimulating aroma
  • Herb: Geranium {Pelargonium graveolens} – Property: Anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal; stimulates and regenerates skin cells; helpful for mature skin; relaxing aroma
  • Herb: Lavender {Lavandula angustifolia} – Property – Anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal; general first aid; stimulates and regenerates skin cells; helpful for sensitive and mature skin; calming and relaxing, might help ease insomnia
  • Herb: Lemon {Citrus limon} – Property: Antibacterial, antifungal; helpful for oily skin; uplifting aroma; might help ease stress and insomnia
  • Herb: Peppermint {Mentha x piperita} – Property: Antibacterial; uplifting, stimulating aroma
  • Herb: Rose {Rosa x centifolia or R. x damascena} – Property: Antiseptic, anti-inflammatory; stimulates and regenerates skin cells; helpful for mature skin
  • Herb: Rosemary {Rosmarinus officinalis} – Property: Soothes muscle aches; stimulates circulation; helpful for mature skin; stimulating aroma
  • Herb: Tea tree {Melaleuca alternifolia} – Property: Antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory

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