As essential oil use becomes increasingly popular, more and more people are using essential oils 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.
What is Essential Oil Sensitization?
One of the first safety issues an aromatherapist learns in their training are the three important reactions to watch for when essential oils come in contact with the skin.
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.
YES! do a patch test ~ i know too many massage therapists who know NOTHING about aromatherapy who simply blend and think it’s ‘fine’ or worse use something neat without any knowledge whatsoever……….drives me NUTSO!
Thanks for letting peeps know more about this
I love an educated consumer! Thanks for stopping by Laura!
This is so helpful! I printed it and put it on our bulletin board at work. This is such valuable information. 🙂 Happy Friday.
Jessica, KUDOS! The work you do at Pompeii Stree Soap Company puts you and your employees in the perfect position for sensitization. They’re lucky to have a boss who is aware of this! Gloves are important when handling aromatics frequently as you do (I know you already wear them, but I’m underscoring this point for other soapmakers, perfumist and anyone else who manufacturers their own aromatic products). Happy Open House this weekend!
Do you do patch tests for every individual ingredient? How do you patch test essential oils that cannot be used neat on skin? How common are combination allergies in the aromaworld? Is it ever the case that it is only ingredient X when it is used in combination with Y? I recently had a reaction to Kombo Butter. It didn’t happen with first exposure though. This butter can develop mold. Is it possible you were allergic to that or is it the butter period for you, even at its youngest?
Thanks for this in-depth article about sensitivities! Very interesting to me as I love essential oils, but I do have pre-existing sensitivities to fragrances! I think the idea of using gloves as protection is a great idea if your work blending essentials often! ! Do you have an opinion about eye protection? I think, too, that there is confusion as some books say you can use some oils neat and others don’t. It’s great to hear from an experienced teacher! thanks! Kathy
What are you using to get rid of this type of rash. I have had one since Oct.
I basically had to wait until the oil was out of my system. Have you seen a dermatologist?
What can you do to treat the sensitization. I think I may have had this occur from using frankincense neat (undiluted) on my face. 🙁 It occurred two weeks ago around my eyes and on my forehead and I still have some redness. It’s also dry and itchy.
It’s hard to know if what you’ve experienced is irritation or true sensitization. Avoid using essential oils on your face and use an unscented oil like jojoba to soothe the itch and dryness.
I am also havin a reaction to frankincense on my wrist. Im looking for ways to get rid of it.
I am pretty sure I have a sensitization to lavender. I’ve gone to my Dr., been referred to a dermatologist and they don’t really know what is going on. I have had a rash under one or both of my eyes for over 6 months now. Started on my right eyelid then moved to under my eye, then went to other eye and is now really red and painful. I am trying to avoid anything with lavender in it, but it is not going away. It looks exactly like the pictures you provided. I don’t know what to do to make it go away. Any advice??
If you suspect sensitization, always see a dermatologist first. In the meantime, I would suggest avoiding all essential oils and aromatic products in general, like perfumes and fragranced soap.
I just read your blog post on sensitization as I was searching for more information on it and came across your blog. I am a Chiropractic Physician and Certified Aromatherapist ( within the year). I have enjoyed incorporating essential oils into my practice, particularly for inflammation, pain, headaches etc. About 4 months ago I began developing an intense itchy rash that seems to start at hairlines ( back of neck, under arms, groin) then quickly spreads pretty much everywhere. It is extremely uncomfortable and it always kicks in at night. I am grieving the loss of my son and I honestly thought since the holidays were coming, that it was an emotional reaction. Well, it’s mid January and if I don’t take a Zyrtec about every 48 hours, I am an itchy mess, can’t sleep etc.
It occurred to me a couple of months ago that it may be the repeated use of the same oils in my practice, but honestly I really hoped that wasn’t the case and waited out the holidays. Anyway, I thought I would get your opinion on this if you don’t mind?
The idea of isolating all the oils in question to find the culprits seems daunting as I use SO many oils in the practice! I do use a fairly strong blend as many patients have acute pain and muscle spasm. My first plan was to highly dilute my blends and possibly use latex gloves when applying for the next several weeks (yuck!) Do you have any other suggestions. I can’t stand taking zyrtek, but the oil blend I have been putting on it (lavender, eucalyptus and german cham ) only gives temporary relief and doesn’t stop the spreading.
This is highly distressing as I use the oils to help me sleep and anxiety associated with our loss, not to mention, as a huge part of my practice. My patients love that aspect of my practice. It’s my niche. . I NEED them. Any help would be so appreciated!
Sorry this is so long and thank you in advance.
the only relief I have found for my reactions is ice and Aveeno Eczema lotion. For some reason, I think the colloidal oatmeal ingredient, soothes the itching and helps it to heal more quickly. Thanks to the recommendation of my dermatologist!
I do have the same issue with the massage oils at the place where I frequent. The skin usually reacts within 12 hours, and sometimes I just find it too annoying to deal with it that I am prepared to forgo using it.
Mallory, I assume you’re talking about your own skin reacting within 12 hours? If that’s the case, I would suggest using your own massage oils. There are many carriers available and I’ll bet you can find one that doesn’t give you a reaction. Have you tried Jojoba Wax or Fractionated Coconut Oil? You may have better luck with those. Liz
I am so happy I found this article. I began experiencing this when using EOs 2 years ago on an injury while pregnant. My doctor thought I had a bacterial infection because I was getting blistery bumps around the site of the injury, but not on it or super close. Pumped me full of steroids and other meds, which caused more reactions. I spent months in the dermatologist office, with “contact dermatitis” and eczema reactions they said. Any time I used an oil I reacted… After years of using oils. And the reactions always lasted at least a week. After a year of struggle I found a naturopath assuming my liver needed some detoxing and healing… A year after that I rarely have reactions anymore but with occasionally breakout in the original site of the rash.
I am glad to know there is a term for this and I am not crazy. I am not certain exactly what oil I am sensitive to, but I know I have had reactions to frankinsen and an oil blend by YL, Melrose, as well as Melaluca 😔
Thank you for sharing this info!
I am a massage therapist and after months of narrowing the field, I have concluded that I am sensitized to Wintergreen. My concern is, am I now allergic to aspirin? I am avoiding wintergreen and birch which were bountiful in my daily massage cream. I calculated proper dilution for my clients but forgot that I would absorb it for 5 clients/5 hours per day. Should I be wearing a medical bracelet? I don’t know what to do next besides avoid it. I phoned my supply company and got horrible advice, and reported to Atlantic Institute for injury. Ideas for aspirin?
Hi Erica, Oh I’m so sorry you’re sensitized to Wintergreen. It is most likely the Methyl Salicilate that you’re having a reaction to. You’re doing a wise thing to avoid it and birch. And yes, I would avoid aspirin as well plus Ben Gay and other products made with methyl sal. The good news is, there are still a lot of wonderful essential oils you can use in your massage practice to help your clients. I would recommend you see an allergist to see if there is anything else you react to. I’m curious how you might have become sensitized? Do you use it a lot? Use it neat? And what is the physical reaction you’re getting from the oils? Thank you for sharing, Liz
Kombo oil may not be as innocent as it is thought to be. I had an extremely severe reaction that came the next morning. My face became disfigured and distorted with welts, dermatitis, swelling, redness, etc. It took 2 weeks to resolve. I was not sure what the culprit was because I used several essential oils with it. I thought it would be more likely that it was from one of the essential oils. Seven weeks later I dabbed my finger in the oil that puddled up on top of the kombo butter and touched it to my forehead. Next morning, I had the exact same reaction all over my face. Now I feel that I may have sensitivities the other essential oils that may be similar in nature. Particularly spice oils. Just smelling clove oil makes my face start to tingle.
Hi Melanie, Wow, you sure did have a strong reaction to Kombo Butter! It’s a pity because it’s so great for pain, but alas, I too am unable to use it. Thank you for sharing this story that clearly demonstrates that sensitivities are to be taken seriously! Liz
How long does a reaction last? Can the itching last more than two weeks? I was using a combination of peppermint oil and Doterra’s digestZen on my belly for GERD. A homopathic doctor suggested that I use it in a rollerball cut with coconut oil once an hour for 24 hours and also on my left foot. I have done this routine on two other occasions within several years and never had an issue. Initially I did not have any kind of allergic reaction, but two weeks later my stomach started itching with a rash. It has been 2 weeks. No rash, but still itches. It comes and goes. I have not used the oils since. I am not convinced that the oils are the culprit. What are your thoughts?
Hi Lora, I would suggest you visit a dermatologist if you’ve still got an itchy stomach. The fact that it appears then disappears tells me there is some kind of allergic reaction happening, especially if you used the essential oils without a carrier I doctor will be able to tell you better. I hope you feel better soon! Liz
I’m having that reaction to kombo right now. Same thing, I used it, loved it, and today I spent the afternoon in the ER for a severe skin reaction involving my upper body.
Oh boy…I just happened upon this site when looking to add lavender oil to help with my anxiety…my anxiety however was triggered by an “allergic reaction” or “dermatitis” that started months ago! I broke out in insanely itchy, rather started on my left arm and since has moved to both legs. The dermatologist gave me a steroid ointment that helps, but the itch is still there and when i have to take a break from the ointment, it comes back full force! It gets more onimous…Now, I’ve used frankincense and lavender, geranium and ylang ylang with almond oil on my face as a daily beauty regimen for almost 1.5 years now…could it be I’ve become sensitized to these oils? Also, when I first came down with the rash, I slathered clove oil on it (directly! Smh) to help with th3 itch. Shortly after is when it “broke out”…and I stopped using the clove oil, but didn’t stop with my face oil. I am still rashy and itchy and I am desperate for relief! Also, I don’t have any rash on my face at all, only on my extremities. Losing my mind…any insight or opinion would be appreciated.
Please report your adverse reactions with Aromatherapy United and Tisserland Institute. Join the FB page named The Dark Side of Essential Oils. We share our adverse reaction stories plus safety use education.
I put a few drops of frankensence on my stomach and under my rt breast for a little rash. A couple of days later and I had sob and had to get my ventolin rescue inhaler RX renewed. 2 days later I got a large rash on my upper stomach rt breast area. I will report my adverse reactions with aromatherapy united and Tisserland Institute and check out the FB page. Thank you for all your Liz for all the work you are doing to assist others with aromatherapy sensitization.
I was using Bergamot on my skin as I read it was good for anxiety, but didn’t realize it probably must be diffused. I began to get funny cold chills and shivers and then my nipples tingled and were erect and my whole body felt like I was getting sick. Is there some way to detox from this stuff? I used it for about 3 weeks at night, but it wasn’t that long before I noticed the odd sensations. I rubbed coconut butter on my breasts and felt better and am not using it anymore or even defusing it. I have this love-hate relationship with the oils. If no way to detox, how long before it wears out of my body.
I am menopausal and some of the oils are so confusing to me.
I’ve been using lavender oil every night for about 1 year. I started getting hives all over my legs,stomach and groin area.. took me 3 months of nightly itching to realize I was allergic to my lavender tea (all of a sudden) and finally put two and two together that I was sensitized to the lavender oil and I suspect others. Now I am terrified of oils and tea. This was no joke, I was going crazy. I took a break with oils for 2 weeks and cut the tea out and I was hives free! I thought GREAT its not the oils its the tea. I introduced the oils back in and boom! Taking days to clear up. It’s a shame. I wish I would have known to not use them for long periods of time. Rotate them etc.
Thanks for sharing Booboobear; and I’m a little confused. When you say “lavender tea” did you use lavender essential oil combined with tea? I’d be curious to know what exact products you used. And I’m SO glad you resolved the issue! Liz
I have come across your site because I have had an extreme allergic reaction to kombo butter – I tested a tiny spot on my right thumb where I experience slight rheumatism, over the following 48hrs I developed pronounced swelling and inflammation on my face (eyes included), neck and the back of my right hand. It’s as though I have been badly burnt from the inside as the texture of the skin is now granular, flaking, extremely dry and slow to calm down. However, it did work for my rheumatism!but I won’t be renewing the process, I’ll just have to find something else. It’s great for those who can tolerate it.
I have keratosis pilaris and for the past month I have been using cold-pressed jojoba oil on my legs and arms with no complain. My skin turned smoother. But one day I started to grow tiny itchy red bumps all over my limbs, and 3 weeks later it is not going away. It seems like every pore of mine is clogged, and it is impossible for me to sweat despite the summer weather. Your post is really helpful, because all the google results tell me it is highly unlikely to be allergic to jojoba oil.
I’m training to be an aromatherapist and Kombo Butter is one of the products we are invited to use in a recipe. I LOVE it and it worked! And…. I believe I’m allergic. What is a good substitute for those of us who love it but our body doesn’t?
Thank you for this conversation.
Oh Amy, I’m so sorry that you’re also allergic to Kombo Butter 🙁 Luckily there are SO many beautiful carrier oils and butters that you can use instead of Kombo. I suggest you determine the specific properties that you want from Kombo Butter then search out another butter or carrier that also has those properties. Good Luck! Liz