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What is Essential Oil Sensitization?

As essential oil use becomes increasingly popular, more people are using them incorrectly. One of the first safety issues an aromatherapist learns in their training is to understand the three important reactions to the skin when essential oils are used topically. An essential oil allergic reaction, known as sensitization, is the worst.

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One of the first safety issues an Aromatherapist learns in their training is there are three important reactions to watch for when essential oils come in contact with the skin.



Three Important Skin Reactions to Watch for When Using Essential Oils

1. Irritation (localized to the areas where the product has been applied)

2. Phototoxicity (a light-induced reaction to a photoactive essential oil that requires contact with the aromatic then subsequent exposure to UV light)

3. Sensitization (an allergic reaction that shows up in places other than where the oil was applied).

The first two are pretty well understood.  But how well do you understand No 3, the reaction called sensitization?  Would you recognize it if happened to you or one of your aromatherapy customers?  Would you recognize it if it happened to you?  I am sensitized to Kombo Butter and let me tell you, it ain’t pretty.

My Kombo Butter Sensitization Story

I am highly sensitized to this gorgeous African nut butter.  So sad.   And how do I know this?

Here is the sequence of events that led to understanding my own sensitization:

1. The first time I used Kombo Butter was in a butter blend with jojoba oil, cocoa butter, Kombo butter, and essential oils.  I used it under my arms in place of deodorant.  Within about 4 hours I started to itch slightly but didn’t give it much thought.

2. A few days later I used it again under my arms.  More itching, this time more severe, and now red bumps began to appear. I was also getting itchy in places where I didn’t use the butter, like the inner crease of my elbow, groin, belly.  It looked something like this: 

I began to get suspicious. I knew there was an ingredient in the butter that I was reacting to, but I didn’t know what.

3. A month later I used this butter blend on a massage client’s feet.  That was it.  The only contact I had was on my hands and I washed them immediately afterward.  Within an hour I was itchy from my neck to my knees with red bumps everywhere.  Know I am SURE there is something in this butter than I have to avoid but I didn’t know which ingredient.

4. A full six months after my last use of my mystery butter,  I was given a gift of a bruise blend that contained jojoba and Kombo butter in it.   I thought “dare I try it?”.   I gave it a little rub over my knee where I had a bruise.  VIOLA!  Within 30 minutes I was violently itchy, with red welts all over my body.  This reaction lasted one week!

Kombo Butter.  That was the ingredient I was reacting too.  I use Jojoba oil with no reaction at all.

I now know to avoid Kombo butter, which is a pity because it’s a beautiful, rich healing African nut butter.  Please don’t misunderstand the point of my story.  I’ve never heard of anyone having this reaction to Kombo so please don’t be afraid to use it.  I tell this story to illustrate what sensitization/allergic reaction/contact dermatitis of any substance can look like.   And it can happen with anything, even our gorgeous aromatics.

Do A Patch Test

If you suspect sensitization on yourself or a client, please do a patch test!  Add a tiny bit of the substance to the inner elbow and cover it.  Wait an hour or two.  If there is itchiness, even slight, avoid the product!

Maybe one day I’ll try it again to make friends with Kombo butter again, but until then, it stays in the fridge at school for my students to use, far from my body. 


This blog post was updated on May 8, 2024 for accuracy. 

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