Using essential oils directly on the skin without a carrier or base oil is referred to as undiluted or “neat” application. Typically, undiluted application is only used in a specific localized area for acute conditions, treatment work, or reflex/acupressure work.
There is significant controversy within the aromatherapy industry regarding the undiluted application of essential oils. Experts and educators have different opinions, often falling into one of two camps. Some believe that undiluted application is highly beneficial and necessary under certain circumstances, while others believe that it is extremely hazardous and unprofessional to apply essential oils directly to the skin without dilution. However, like internal use, the appropriateness of undiluted application depends on the context and specific circumstances. The pendulum swings from one extreme to the other, without providing a clear understanding of when and why undiluted application is sometimes appropriate.
According to many aromatherapy practitioners, Lavandula angustifolia, Melaleuca alternifolia, Helichrysum italicum, and Chamaemelum nobile are the only essential oils that can be safely used undiluted. However, it is reasonable to assume that other essential oils with similar chemical compositions could also be used undiluted, provided that they are applied correctly and by an experienced therapist or individual.
Undiluted application may be appropriate for the following acute conditions:
- Acne (spot treatment)
- Cold sore (sandalwood or geranium works great!)
- Minor burn (although I have actually found lavender or cape chamomile in aloe vera gel works much better!)
- Minor skin trauma or infection
- Insect bites
- Migraines (acute)
- Bruises (acute – when it first happens, applying Helichrysum italicum and/or Matricaria recutita can be incredibly beneficial!)
- Musculoskeletal trauma (e.g. whip lash: think Helichyrsum italicum and/or Matricaria recutita)
- Reflex or acupressure work
- Ear infections (just behind ear and on reflex points associated to the ears on the feet)
Specific essential oils that tend to be safe to apply undiluted include tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) **Be sure it has not oxidized!, lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum), Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile), rose (Rosa damascena), and sandalwood (Santalum album or Santalum spicatum), Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus radiata or globulus), Bay Laurel (Laurus nobilis), etc. etc. It is important to only use a small amount (1 to 2 drops) of essential oil. Other essential oils may be used for reflex or acupressure points, however care should be taken in selecting essential oils, and essential oils that can be irritating, sensitizing, or are rich in aldehydes or phenols should be avoided all together for undiluted application due to dermal irritation or sensitization which may occur.
Safety note: Some individuals within the aromatherapy profession are quick to point out that it would seem to be more prudent to err on the side of caution due to the litigious society in which we live. From the authors point of view, we have included undiluted application because it has some valid uses, however it is up to the individual practitioner to decide whether this method of application is right for them and/or their client. (from our book, Aromatherapy for Bodyworkers) Please note that we are not advocating the wide spread usage of undiluted essential oils, but rather simply to find a middle ground. It is not Never apply undiluted NOR is it to apply undiluted essential oils with abandon. One must always have a purpose, a reason for dong so that is based upon the safety of the individual essential oils being utilized.
My own observations over the years have been:
- Not all individuals can have undiluted essential oils applied to their skin. Fair skinned or red headed individuals tend to be more sensitive but it could be anyone. Best to err on the side of caution for sure. When I lived in Seattle (even today during the winter months), I often applied 3-4 drops of Eucalyptus globulus to my neck each morning. I never had a reaction. Then one day I did this on a friend and he quickly got two red lines of irritation on his neck where I had placed the oil. He was fair skinned. Lesson learned. Although no harm was done, I am sure clients would not appreciate this.
- Not all irritation is of the same strength. In my advanced program I have each of the students apply undiluted thyme ct. thymol onto the inside of their arm. Over the years I have noticed the following:
- some individuals react very quickly with inflammation directly in the area the oil was applied
- some individuals do not react at all and experience only a hint of warmth
- some individuals have a reaction that is localized and then spreads either in a vertical line or diffused throughout a larger area
- some individuals find the sensation quite unpleasant
- some experience irritation but it does not bother them
- Another friend of mine applied lavender (source unknown and questionable quality) on her daughters neck and her daughter experienced what looked like chemical burns. Not horrible but clearly not good. It took about 2 weeks for the marks to heal. Lesson learned: The quality of the essential oil is crucial! This could possibly have happened with a high quality oil as perhaps her daughter had very sensitive skin, but I suspect quality of essential oil in this particular case.
- Undiluted can also look like – Yet another friend used lemongrass in water and then cleaned her house with it. Unbeknownst to me, she did not like to use gloves so she had cleaned her home with a relatively high dilution of Lemongrass in warm water. She experienced quite severe dermatitis. It took about 3 weeks to go away. Lesson learned: when using lemongrass or other similar oils to clean with, wear gloves!
- I have had hormone related migraines for years now. Acupuncture treatment helps them to go away for quite a while but when I don’t have acupuncture in a while, they return. I have been using undiluted peppermint to ease the pain, provide a sense of cooling, and to serve as a vasoconstrictor. Sometimes the peppermint prevents the migraine from becoming full blown, other times it simply takes the edge off enough so I can sleep it away. I use a fair amount of peppermint: basically add about 7-10 drops in my palm and rub on my scalp, then 7 drops on finger tips to rub on my temples, then another 7 drops to rub on my neck up into the occipital bone area. I get huge relief from this. The peppermint feels great and the smell helps to ease tension.
- What I know is that this method of application for peppermint is not for everyone. What I also know, is that sometimes individuals stating that this is ‘crazy’ have obviously never had a migraine. For some individuals, this type of peppermint application would not feel good. In fact, to some individuals, peppermint may feel heating instead of cooling and hence further aggravate the migraine. Use caution if you plan on trying this. Use a little essential oil and see how it works for you. One thing for sure, always wash your hands thoroughly after applying any essential oil undiluted so as to avoid accidentally rubbing your eyes (ouch!) with essential oil/s on your hands.
- Ear infections: My son, Soren, exhibited possible otitis media symptoms at about 8 months of age. His symptoms included: unusual irritability, tugging at ear and inability to sleep through the night (highly unusual). He was being bottle fed which is one of the potential causes of otitis media. I applied 2 drops of Helichrysum italicum and Chamaemelum nobile each right behind both of his ears. I used my finger (both hands were washed before applying e/o’s) to rub the essential oils behind his ears and also placed my finger inside his ear. There appeared to be almost immediate relief and by the next day all signs of otitis media had disappeared.
Catty (2005) has found that Monarda fistula (purple bee balm, bee balm) essential oil and hydrosol to be highly effective in the treatment of otitis media. In two case studies she documented the following: One drop of M. fistulosa was applied undiluted to the index finger of the mother’s hand; the oil was then applied to the solar plexus and lung reflex points of the foot. Care was taken to apply the oil when the child was asleep or being put down for a nap to avoid the child playing with her feet, touching the oil and then getting that oil near her eyes or face. If this was not possible, then after application the feet were covered with socks. One drop was applied three times a day for the first three days and then twice daily for four more days. According to Catty, virtually all signs of the infection resolved within the first three to four days of treatment.
Catty noted that other potential methods of application include a compress to the external ear and temporal/mandibular areas which can offer great relief from pain, swelling and inflammation and can also facilitate the draining of fluid and infection. Her final comment was that ‘perhaps the most important observation is that in virtually every case of OM that she has treated, the use of essential oils not only cleared up the infection but also prevented any re-occurrence, even in those cases where the infection was chronic or had recurred on several occasions despite antibiotic treatment.16
- Respiratory congestion: For just about everyone in my family and on clients when needed (when I practiced massage and/or reflexology), I have used undiluted essential oils of eucalyptus, rosemary, peppermint, lemon, tea tree, or ginger for easing respiratory congestion and supporting the immune system particularly at night. Just a couple of drops applied to the chest, feet and/or neck. I have seen this method work, over and over again. It is easy and harmless if done properly and on appropriate age groups (e.g. over the age of 5).
- Years ago when I taught a class up in Alaska to a group of Young Living distributors, I noticed that when I began to do a massage on a few of them, using diluted essential oils, that both sides of their spine would go bright red from sensitization. It is possible due to overuse or misuse of RDT, they had become sensitized to a number of different essential oils. Not good but probably not as harmful as eating at a fast food restaurant or eating processed food containing a host of synthetic additives and food colorings 🙂 Not advocating RDT here but simply recognizing that any method misused and/or overused or used for inappropriate reasons can create safety issues.
- I have used essential oils undiluted for things such as bruises, trauma to tissue caused by hockey puck hitting leg, burns, scrapes, chigger bites (cape chamomile), ringworm on my dog (tea tree), shingles, and about once a day I place a few drops of an essential oils (lavender, rosemary, eucalyptus, sandalwood, etc.) to do direct palm inhalation and then rub anything left on my neck or chest. I have also used essential oils undiluted during reflexology sessions and for extreme pain in neck and shoulder area with a warm compress during massage sessions. And finally, I have found that the use of more sedative oils on the soles of the feet can be quite helpful for individuals with insomnia or anxiety.
No matter what the response, however, undiluted application thankfully did NOT kill anyone nor did it ever cause any significant or long lasting harm. It takes any where from 1 to 5 hours for irritation to dissipate with the exception of severe contact dermatitis or what may be more a ‘chemical’ burn. This can take 1-2 weeks to heal. And of course, once sensitized to an essential oil, it can take a lifetime to get over (both because of the physiological response and due to the memory based association). Some may consider sensitization as long term harm since they won’t be able to use the particular essential oil/s that caused the sensitization but it is not long term ‘harm’ per se. Simply a tragedy that an oil or two can no longer be used, in my humble opinion anyhow.
So the main lesson learned from all the above experiences and others I have had over the years: Respect the individual constitution and have a reason or purpose for applying the essential oils undiluted in the first place. And I think above all, know your essential oils. Know and understand their therapeutic actions, their chemistry, their nature, and even the plant which brings them forth, if at all possible.
When considering applying essential oils undiluted, ask yourself, for what purpose?
The undiluted application of essential oils is a highly controversial topic in aromatherapy. Practitioners and educators are divided on the issue. Current standards for aromatherapy education in the United States do not prohibit undiluted application.
According to Kurt Schnaubelt, author of Advanced Aromatherapy and Medical Aromatherapy: “It appears that most, if not all, of the sweeping generalizations are not inspired by a thorough analysis of potential toxicity, but by a sentiment to err on the side of safety. The aim is to establish simply rules which would prevent a public, often perceived as less than intelligent, from incurring any and all adverse reactions with essential oils”. He recommends that a more balanced approach be adopted based upon individual essential oils and their therapeutic efficacy and safety.17
To utilize the undiluted application of essential oils effectively, a practitioner must be able to balance their understanding of the therapeutic benefits and applications of a given essential oil with possible concerns. From this knowledge base, a practitioner or individual is empowered to make a responsible professional decision to use undiluted application when deemed necessary or appropriate.
My own experience and practice have taught me that there are indeed times when the undiluted application of essential oils is called for. We certainly should not live in fear but rather should work towards gaining a greater understanding of the potential benefits of this form of application so that it may be used wisely and for therapeutic benefit. I think that sometimes individuals can be so overly concerned with safety that they may be forgetting to see the forest through the trees.