Undiluted application is the use of essential oils applied directly to the skin without a carrier oil (also known as “neat” application).
The topic of applying undiluted essential oils on the skin is quite controversial among aromatherapy experts. While some believe undiluted application to be highly beneficial in some cases, others simply warn against it in all circumstances.
But like everything in life, it should be a matter of balance. As long as we ask ourselves:
- Why is neat application needed?
- Who are we treating?
- How much are we using?
- How long is the treatment?
and make sure that we “first do no harm”, neat essential oil application can be tremendously helpful for a variety of conditions.
Skin: As a Direct Pathway to the Body
Before discussing the matter, let’s understand what happens when we apply essential oils on our skin. While topical treatments (neat or not) can address conditions of the skin itself, they can also reach deeper levels of our body.
Although our skin is a natural barrier, essential oils and other substances can find their way through our epidermis and into our dermis, where they penetrate into our blood vessels, muscles, organs and other tissues.
Topical application to the skin allows a direct localized delivery of the precious compounds. It can prevent immediate absorption in the liver, which happens when essential oils are ingested.
The soles of the feet offer one great delivery site: Although it’s not been proven that applying oils to the feet is the best method, our skin is covered in sweat glands – especially the feet, and that may act as a direct way ‘in’ to deliver essential oils throughout our whole system.
When to use undiluted essential oils?
Among aromatherapy literature, even authors who advocate for careful, diluted use of essential oils in most cases, often also consider undiluted application in some specific cases.
In Essential Oils Safety, Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young, although warning against possible skin reactions, believe undiluted application can be beneficial in the following instances: bites and stings, burns, herpes simplex, mouth ulcers, legs ulcers, warts, tinea (fungus)…
According to Jade Shutes’ and my own personal experience, a few others can be added to this list: migraine, acne (spot treatment), bruises, musculoskeletal trauma, reflex or acupressure work, ear infections, respiratory support and short-term immune system boost.
The similarities between all these instances?
- Acute treatment: ie. only for short-term treatments.
- Small area of the body: for one specific topical treatment.
- Controlled dose: usually a very limited amount of drops.
Only the mildest oils ought to be used undiluted: Roman chamomile (Anthemis nobilis), Helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum), Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia).
There are other essential oils which are okay to apply neat on the skin, but these are the very safest.
When not to use undiluted essential oils
Undiluted application should be avoided with children, although, again, it will depend on the situation, and the type of oils that are used (see mildest oils above). Instead of pure application, I usually recommend a 50% dilution at the most in jojoba oil, and of course use of oils that are safe for children in general. In most cases, regular proper dilution is best for children, the elderly, and anyone with sensitivities.
Here again, it really depends on your type of skin and overall sensitivity. For example, my husband and I have fair skin, are very sensitive to sunlight and have light-colored hair and eyes. I recently applied Tea Tree neat on his skin as a disinfectant, and even if we continued the treatment for only 3 days, he had a visible redness around the treated area.
I myself used neat Tea Tree, Niaouli (Melaleuca quinquinervia) and Ravintsara (Cinnamomum camphora) for cold sore treatment, and it dried my skin so much that it kept cracking, and the scarring process took a long time and left a red mark on my lip for weeks.
*Tip: For people who are sensitive to Tea Tree, try Rosalina essential oil (Melaleuca ericifolia). This is a different species from the Melaleuca family; it is less drying and milder on the skin.
Every skin type is different, your level of sensitivity might not be the same as mine. For this reason, people with sensitive skin should use extra care when dealing with undiluted essential oils. And even if there is no immediate reaction, a sensitivity can happen over the span of a few days to a few months.
Of course, some essential oils are NOT to be used neat in any case whatsoever. This caution especially applies to oils rich in phenols and aldehydes, two compounds known to be skin irritants.
Oils that contain furanocoumarins – phototoxic compounds, are to be used with care especially when sun exposure is likely to happen, as they can cause minor to severe burns on the skin.
Oils not to be used undiluted at any time include: Thyme ct. thymol (Thymus vulgaris ct. thymol), Oregano (Origanum vulgare), Winter Savory (Satureja montana), Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus), Cinnamon Bark or Leaf (Cinnamomum zeylanicum), and Clove Bud (Syzygium aromaticum).
Phototoxic oils include Bergamot (Citrus bergamia), Angelica Root (Angelica archangelica), Grapefruit (Citrus paradisi), Lemon (Citrus limon), Lime (Citrus aurantifolia), and Bitter orange (Citrus aurantium).
My acne spot treatment recipe
I have used this undiluted essential oil synergy to treat acute hormonal acne on my face with very good results.
- 12 drops of Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): astringent, anti-inflammatory, vulnerary
- 16 drops of Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia): antibacterial, astringent, drying
- 28 drops of Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, vulnerary
- 16 drops of Frankincense (Boswellia carteri): antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, vulnerary
- 20 drops of Helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum): antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, vulnerary
I blended them together in a 5ml bottle, and used a Q-tip to apply on individual pimples. The overnight result is amazing!
Undiluted application of essential oils is a method that should not be taken lightly. Although it’s very useful in some cases, it should not be a systematic response for all types of cases or all types of persons. But with appropriate awareness, this can be one more choice to add to your aromatherapist’s toolkit!
Tisserand, Robert; Young, Rodney, (2014). Essential Oil Safety (Second Edition)
Shutes, Jade. Foundations of Aromatherapy.
Schnaubelt, Kurt (1998). Advanced Aromatherapy. Rochester, VT: Healing Art Press
Festy, Danielle (2008). Ma Bible des Huiles Essentielles. Paris, Leduc S. Editions