Can a Person Have an Allergic Reaction to an Essential Oil?
Our bodies do have "reactions" to essential oils. That is why we find them so desirable and benefit from using them. But in some cases, a person can have a reaction that is too intense. The oil may need more dilution, or they may be having a detox reaction, which is also known as a "healing crisis." Someone who is toxic, may find that any little thing causes the body to dump through their skin, nasal passages and so on. These "reactions" are actually a good sign that the body is attempting to get rid of toxins. Attempts to "stop" the symptoms, stop the body's detoxification process.
Pure, high-grade essential oils can cause cells to dump toxins faster than a person's body can eliminate them so they end up circulating in the blood and eventually lodge themselves again in cells. They may feel dreadful because their body is having to deal with the toxins anew. In a case of this nature, you'd need to proceed slowly and work on speeding up the body's eliminating processes by cleansing. It's imperative to drink at least ½ your body's weight (in pounds) in ounces of pure water daily, and it may prove beneficial to add a few drops of citrus oils to every quart of water to help facilitate moving the toxins out of the lymph system.
According to David Stewart Ph.D., D.N.M., occasionally someone may react in an unpleasant manner to an essential oil, but such a reaction is never allergenic. It is "impossible for an essential oil to cause an allergy," but he explains that sometimes people do have allergy-like reactions when using essential oils, but these reactions are not allergenic in nature. They are detox reactions that are easily confused with allergic reactions. Essential oil reactions are temporary, therapeutic and indicate the initiation of a cleansing, healing process.
Stewart notes that there has never been a documented instance of an antigen-antibody response to an essential oil. Essential oil antibodies have never been found or detected in anyone, and essential oils are not and cannot be allergens. There is no such thing as an essential oil allergy. However, oils that are not distilled, such as citrus oils and absolutes, may be potential allergens. Fatty oils, because of their larger molecules, can be allergens as well. These would be carrier oils such as olive, almond, sesame oil and so on. Robert Tisserand, aromatherapy author and educator wrote: "There is no documented evidence of inhaled allergy to any essential oil, the only existing evidence relates to [synthetic] fragrances."
Pure, premium, authentic essential oils distilled from plants are free from allergens. With few exceptions (poison ivy), allergens are proteins or polypeptides, both of which are composed of amino acids. Essential oils contain no proteins, polypeptides or amino acids so, therefore, contain no potential allergens. Interestingly, someone can be allergic to a particular plant, like goldenrod, but have no allergy to the essential oil distilled from that plant since the aromatic oil contains none of the plant proteins or amino acids that are the source of the allergenic reactions to the plant.
Allergies are malfunctions of the immune system, and almost all have to do with proteins and polypeptides, which the immune system labels as antigens (foreign or hostile invaders). In the case of allergies, most of the time the protein or polypeptide is actually harmless and should have never been identified as an enemy antigen. The immune system has made a mistake by labeling it as something to attack. An allergic reaction is when the antigen-antibody reaction is inappropriately intense. Allergens are not the cause of allergies—they are the triggers. The problem is with the immune system. Essential oil antibodies have never been found in anyone. Unless antibodies are produced and stored in the body, there can be no allergic reaction.
Allergic vs. Detox Reactions
Allergic and detoxification reactions seem similar, but long-term they are very different.
Allergic reactions almost always worsen with repeated exposure. Given enough time and cleansing of the system, detox reactions to essential oils will cease, and the oils that caused the reaction will no longer do so.
Sometimes referred to as a "healing crisis," the "Herxheimer Reaction" presents symptoms that make you feel worse as the body deals with cleaning out impurities and restoring balance. Such reactions are temporary and can occur immediately or within several days or even weeks of a detox. They usually pass within 1-3 days but can last for weeks. Some cleansing protocols cause a large scale die-off of bacteria, and a significant amount of endotoxins (toxins within the bacteria itself) are released into the body. The range of possible symptoms of a healing crisis are:
headache (possibly caused by buildup of toxins in the blood or acidity)
aches and pain similar to the flu
insomnia (possibly due to acidity)
fever (usually low grade)
drop in blood pressure
skin eruption including boils, hives, rashes
cold or flu-like symptoms
strong emotions and/or mood swings
How to Cope
Dr. Stewart explains that when detoxification takes place at a rate greater than can be eliminated through our kidneys, colon and respiration, then allergy-like symptoms can occur. Eliminating toxic exposure, a cleansing regimen and time will help the body heal and detox reactions to oils will cease. The oils that had caused a reaction initially will no longer do so, and Dr. Stewart feels that this is an indication that cleansing is complete and proof that the reaction was no allergy.
Stewart suggests that when a detox reaction happens, stop using the oil for a time or reduce the frequency and/or quantity of use in order to slow down the release of toxins. Focus on cleansing procedures with lots of water, fiber and fresh foods to flush out the toxins. A cleansing fast and enemas are usually helpful. As you gradually use the oils again, the toxins will eventually be flushed out and you won't have unpleasant reactions anymore. Detox reactions are temporary and beneficial if we can keep enough control over them that they happen slowly. They are the beginning of healing in a body invaded by toxins that, left to run rampant, may have eventually resulted in a serious, chronic disease.
Some adverse reactions may be caused by an interaction of the essential oil with residues of synthetic, petroleum-based personal care products that have leached into the skin. Avoid personal care products containing ammonium or hydrocarbon-based chemicals. Other compounds that present concerns are sodium lauryl sulfate, propylene glycol (common in everything from toothpaste to shampoo) and aluminum salts found in many deodorants.
Of particular concern are the potentially hazardous preservatives and synthetic fragrances that abound in virtually all modern personal-care products. Some of these include methylene chloride, methyl isobutyl ketone, and methyl ethyl ketone. These are not only toxic, but they can also react with some compounds in natural essential oils. The result can be a severe case of dermatitis or even septicemia (blood poisoning). Eliminate as many toxic exposures as you can.
The Importance of pH in Health
People with acidic body conditions (low pH) are more prone to unpleasant detox reactions, such as skin rashes, than those with a more alkaline (healthy) body chemistry. Acids attack oils and destroy them, which means an acidic system does not respond to essential oils as well as a healthy, alkaline system. Acidic people may respond negatively to the scent of essential oils saying, "That stinks," or "I can't take that smell," or "That essential oil gives me a headache." This reaction is not because the oils themselves are unpleasant. What is unpleasant is that the oils have stirred up toxins which need to be eliminated. It is the toxins that cause the unpleasantness. When a person's acidity and toxicity levels are reduced, they will find that they actually like and enjoy the very fragrance they formerly could not tolerate.
Those that soak up essential oils like sponges are alkaline people whose bodies readily accept and utilize them.
Incorporating essential oils into one's daily life will increase the alkalinity of the body. The aggressive parts of an acid are the free hydrogen ions (H+) that cause bodily damage whenever they circulate. When a therapeutic-grade essential oil enters the body, its molecules "sacrifice" themselves to the acid, engulfing and neutralizing the H+ ions, which allows the pH level to be raised to a healthier, alkaline state.
Acidity creates an environment where we become vulnerable to disease and runaway yeast and fungus overgrowth, which produces mycotoxins as a poisonous by-product. By balancing the body's pH and creating a more alkaline environment, you can rein in the microbial overgrowth and choke off the production of disease-producing mycotoxins.
Even though essential oils are neither alkaline nor acidic in and of themselves, their effect upon a person is to alkalize their bodies and move them toward a higher state of health.
1. I used to hate to go into a gift shop that sold candles because it would ultimately cause me to go into a sneezing attack and I would feel awful. What I've learned is that this was not an allergic reaction to a true essential oil aroma, but it was an allergic reaction to petrochemicals manipulated to smell like true essential oils like Lavender. When someone has a negative reaction to fake lavender, their body was crying "Uncle! I can't take anymore." It was so filled with junk that the addition of new junk caused it to spill over. I am living proof that such reactions are not to authentic, high-quality essential oils.
2. When I first started using essential oils, I had one older child that said he'd get a headache every time he smelled them. I explained how it is impossible to be allergic to a true, pure essential oil and encouraged him that he was just very toxic and needed to try to smell a little every day until they didn't bother him anymore. It took a while, but now this child will actually ask me for an oil when he has a headache!
3. In the late 1970s I became very sensitive to chemicals and allergens. Over a period of several years, I became unable to use any scented commercial products, plus I was experiencing major problems with food allergies, digestion and awful fatigue.
Due to an almost universal reactivity to chemicals in the environment, I couldn't even focus, and I lived in much fear as to how I would manage to continue living on the planet. A good friend of mine kept suggesting that I try using essential oils, but it was impossible for me to trust that I would be able to handle essential oils or trust that they were indeed pure. Those of you who have had serious bouts with chemical sensitivities will understand. I moved many times due to environmentally toxic living spaces, was fired from several jobs and forced to quit several others due to chemicals. I was a mess and my situation was awful.
I wish I could tell every chemically sensitive person to try essential oils. I wish I hadn't waited so long; they do work. They help clear the brain fog (POTENTIAL), clean up the intestines (DIGESTION SUPPORT), decongest the liver (LIVER/GALBLADDER) protect (PEPPERMINT and VETIVER, which is awesome for this), improve sleep (PEACEFUL) and over time, generally lesson one's sensitivity to chemicals. I still avoid chemicals like the plague, but everyone who is health conscious should do this. I can now tolerate a certain level of toxicity thanks to these wonderful oils. They are truly amazing.
4. After using commercial deodorants for 20+ years, I switched to using a natural deodorant with essential oils in it. I was warned that eventually my underarms would probably detox in the form of boils. Sure enough, after a year of using the natural essential oil deodorant, during a time of burning the candle on both ends, the boils showed up. I took WARRIOR blend internally, and within a day the boils had significantly reduced in size, and I've never experienced subsequent detoxing symptoms. Some might argue that this was not a detox. Call it what you may, I don't believe it was an allergic reaction. I have continued to use the same natural deodorant to this day with no problems.
5. In every case we know of, when a person complains that the smell of a pure essential oil gives them a headache, once the person balances their pH, the offending aroma is no longer a problem, and in most cases, the person comes to like the aroma that once caused them grief.
Headache/pH testimony from Brenda:
Having just recently purchased my first diffuser, I was excited to start trying different oil blends. I purchased Peaceful as my first "non illness" blend, but I was really turned off by the smell. I developed a headache within minutes after starting the diffuser. After turning it off and wondering why on earth I had bought it, I emailed Linda with my issue. She emailed me back stating what a popular blend this was and wondering if my reaction might be due to my body being too acidic. I have run acidic in the past, so I spent the next few days trying to balance myself. I then tried the diffuser again and thoroughly enjoyed it. I realized that it had a strong citrus base that I had not been able to detect the first time. Not only will I be able to enjoy this blend, but I will now be able to use it as an indicator that my body is running acidic.
Our Experience with Reactions
We have very rarely heard from someone who has experienced any problems using essential oils. These are the cases we can recall:
1. A well-meaning mother applied a *hot* blend to her child's chest with insufficient dilution or testing it first. The child's skin reddened and the child cried. Then the mother put her into a warm bath to wash it off, which only exacerbated the discomfort and spread the essential oil and reaction.
Never try to reduce the negative effect with water - it will trap the essential oil against the skin. Warmth opens the pores and increases the discomfort. Always dilute with a fatty carrier oil, such as coconut or olive oil.
This is not a case of "allergic reaction" but rather a case of skin that was burned by the inefficiently diluted use of a *hot* essential oil. [*Hot* oils include: Cassia, Cinnamon Bark, Clove, Hyssop, Lemongrass, Oregano, Peppermint, Rosemary, Sage, Thyme and Birch/Wintergreen.]
2. A child had been on topical corticosteroids for years to control eczema, and the mother wanted to try essential oils instead. She applied a blend that has been helpful for many others all over her child's body, and the child's skin reacted negatively (we are not sure how quickly the reaction appeared). Was this a detox such as what Dr. Stewart described?
We caution people to test essential oils on a very small area first to see how the skin will react, and then, if no reaction occurs, to apply a little more and slowly increase the application area. It might possibly be the case that this was a steroid withdrawal rash. For more information about steroid withdrawal/Red Skin Syndrome, you may find these links helpful:
3. We've heard from two ladies who used our Circulation blend on their chest for heart issues, and the use eventually caused skin irritation. One lady used it without any problems until after she had a heart attack and returned home from the hospital. She wondered if perhaps it was a detox to the drugs she'd used during her hospital stay. The other lady was going to wait a while and try it again diluted, to see how she reacted.
The Chemistry of Essential Oils by David Stewart, Ph.D., D.N. M., pages 394, 462-465.
Tisserand, Robert, Challenges Facing Essential Oil Therapy: Proof of Safety, Presented to the Alliance of International Aromatherapists (AIA) Conference in Denver, Colorado,
October 18-21 2007.
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