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What is an Adverse Reaction to an Essential Oil?

Would you know what to do if you or your child had an adverse reaction to an essential oil or oil blend? Do you know what an adverse reaction looks like? I will be covering a few of those here in hopes to make you more aware of what that might look like, and what to do if it happens.

First and foremost, this article is not written to scare or instill fear, but to make you more knowledgeable. I want to empower you to use them properly and know what to look for in the rare case there is a reaction. It is important to note, if you are following basic safety instructions, the likelihood of an adverse reaction is greatly reduced.


Skin Reactions

The first thing to look out for when using essential oils topically is skin reactions.

– Skin irritation, which is a direct result of contact with the skin and is localized to where the oil was applied. Once the material is removed, healing occurs. Removal is best done with a carrier oil such as almond, jojoba, or milk. Healing may not occur immediately, but you should see improvement after proper removal.

-Skin sensitization is a more serious reaction that is systemic (affecting the entire body or organism), involving the immune system called sensitization. According to Dorene Petersen of ACHS, “Sensitization occurs once the offending substance has penetrated the skin, been picked up by proteins in the skin, and mediated by the IgE response that produces histamine and other irritants.” (1) This is an allergic reaction that begins at the site of application but quickly spreads to the whole body. If the immune system response is activated, you likely will not be able to use the oil, or constituent in the oil again (the constituent can occur in multiple oils). If this happens to you please seek medical attention immediately. Save the bottle of oils for the medical staff, to help them to understand what they are dealing with.

 Phototoxic reactions can occur from a specific list of oils. This can occur when certain essential oil constituents on the skin react when exposed to the sun (ultraviolet light). This can result in general redness and burning of the skin, permanent changes in melanin, and chemical burns. These oils can be used on the skin, but utilize caution by not going out into the sun for 12-24 hours after exposure. If you follow this simple safety precaution, you will never have to deal with this type of reaction. **It is important to note that his applies to the area of skin where the oil was applied, not your body as a whole.

Here is a list of oils that should be used topically with caution:

-Angelica Root
-Bitter Orange (Cold/Expeller Pressed)
-Lemon (Cold/Expeller Pressed)
-Lime (Cold/Expeller Pressed)
-Mandarin Leaf

If you have a phototoxic reaction such as a chemical burn, seek out the care of a medical professional to reduce permanent effects.



Diffusing Essential Oils

Essential oil diffusers disperse essential oil into the air in tiny droplets. A good rule of thumb for diffusing is 30-60 minutes at a time, of 30 minutes on and 60 minutes off (2). In order to explain possible reasons for this, let’s talk a little bit about our sense of smell, or our olfactory system. Our sense of smell goes through five stages, those are: detect, transmit, perceive, analyze, and store. These stages cycle incredibly fast. The reception area of our olfactory system is called the olfactory epithelium. The olfactory epithelium is the size of a small postage stamp in each nostril, and is packed with an impressive 40 million sensory neurons, capable of detecting .0000000013 of an ounce of a scent in a single breath of air (3). Our olfactory system is incredibly efficient, obtaining the therapeutic benefits of these amazing oils happens quickly. To receive maximum benefit and not waste your precious oils, follow the diffusing times recommended above.

So, what can happen if we diffuse in a small space for too long with no ventilation? The most common reaction would be headaches and nausea. In the more aggressive aromatics (High levels of 1,8 cineole, menthol, camphor, cinnemaldehyde, etc), CNS (central nervous system) reactions such as decreased heart rate, impaired concentration, insomnia, seizures, and abnormal dream state are possible. These reactions are more common in pediatric cases. You would be able to notice these reactions in yourself quite easily, but think about your small children? The CNS reactions are not commonplace with all families of essential oils so it is important to recognize that if you follow the diffusion recommendations, this will likely never be something you have to worry about.


Internal Use

At times online and in social media, internal use is recommended quite casually without much respect for their true power. In my opinion, if you are not trained on the internal use of oils (Aromatic Medicine) or are being helped by someone who is, this is a risky thing to do. Why would I say this? Often times the methods that are being shared are not AT ALL the way that they should be used. Let me explain…

The liver is not equipped to handle this amount of aromatics. You may have heard in certain circles that essential oils are pure and this is perfectly safe. Essential oils are still chemicals. The liver’s job is to recognize foreign substances such as these and remove them as quickly as possible. A good analogy here is water in a glass. Begin pouring water in, once the glass has hit maximum capacity the water overflows. The liver is no different.

Why should you stay away from dropping oils in a glass of water and drinking it? When you add a drop of oil to a glass of water it doesn’t mix with the water. Most oils will sit on top of the water, therefore being the first thing to hit your lips and delicate tissues in the mouth. After you drink it, the first signs of distress may be mouth and throat irritation. Some may get an upset stomach. At first you may not notice any distress at all. If you continue this method of use, your risk of becoming sensitized to the chemical components in that particular essential oil increases –you might break out in hives, trigger a migraine, or even worse; have permanent damage to the mucous membranes of your throat and esophagus, chemical burns, and liver/kidney damage. There have been reports of people having permanent esophageal damage as well as liver damage due to putting oils in water everyday (4).

Oral dosing can interfere with medication or aggravate other medical conditions. You may hear something like “our oils are pure therapeutic grade and are safe for internal use” or “certain oils are GRAS” (generally recognized as safe for consumption), but this applies to consuming in food (food additives), not in water.

Internal usage does have its time and place, but you MUST know what you are doing…or at the very least, consult with someone who has been properly trained.


Interference with Medications

Some oils are contraindicated for use when taking certain medications. These oils can be problematic for those taking diabetes medication, heart medication, cancer medication, and medications via patches just to name a few.

If you are sharing the benefits of oils to others, are you aware of the specific contraindications? If so, are you asking your neighbor of friend what kinds of medications they are taking? The majority (not all) of these warnings are more of a concern when taking the oils internally, but if you are unaware, this can really be a concern.

When I say interference, I mean either inhibiting or enhancing the effects of the drug, which can be a very serious issue. For example, 1,8 cineole used around dermal patches can increase the effects of the drug up to 95x (5).


As you can see, there are quite a few things to look out for where adverse reactions are concerned. Look for my new book to be released early this fall, entitled “Essential Oil Safety for the Home User”. This book will cover these things and more in great detail empowering you to use essential oils safely for you and your family.


Leslie Bio

Please note that I am not a medical practitioner. The content of this website is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as, nor should it be considered a substitute for, professional medical advice. Do not use the information on this website for diagnosing or treating any medical or health condition. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. By using this website, you assume full responsibility and liability for your own actions.


(1) Peterson, D. (2012) Aroma 101

(2) (3) Tisserand, R., Young, R. (2014) Essential Oil Safety (2nd Ed)

(4) Kreydin, A. Barefoot Dragonfly, Essential Oils Are Not Flavoring Agents. Retrieved from: http://www.thebarefootdragonfly.com/why-essential-oils-are-not-water-flavoring-agents/

(5) Webb, M. (2015) Aromatic Medicine




Marvy Mom’s Dilution Calculator

Learning how to blend (as a beginner) or formulate (more advanced) can be really fun. However, if you are not a mathematician, it can seem a little bit daunting.

Before You Begin!

There are some things to keep in mind before you begin, the first one is skin protection. Repeat exposure to neat oil is not a good thing, and can greatly increase your risk for sensitization. I recommend these nitrile gloves that you can pick up cheap. This is the very minimum in skin protection recommended, I think a long sleeve shirt is also be a good idea. If you are formulating large amounts of product I recommend a lab jacket and possibly even a hair net. Proper GMP is a must if you are a business owner.

Pipettes are another investment I would not do without. Have you ever tipped over your bottle to get out a couple drops and it pours out? Yeah, that has happened to me too…..but not since discovering pipettes years ago. These are one time use disposable pipettes to avoid contamination. Just squeeze the bulb, insert into the bottle orifice, and slowly tip bottle upside down while releasing squeeze on the pipette. No more overfilling, and you can easily squeeze the leftover back into the bottle.

Dilution Calculator

Once you have these basic supplies you are ready to start blending. My friend Emily Carpenter, Certified Aromatherapist over at Marvy Mom’s created this fantastic and extremely accurate dilution calculator. She has graciously offered for me to link to it here so that you can bookmark it for use. You will LOVE it!

Simple click the image below to get started!


Before you go, check out a couple of Emily’s other blog posts:

What’s In Your Bottle?

How To Choose An Essential Oil Brand

And a guest blog that I wrote for her- Is There Vitamin C in Orange Essential Oil?


Thanks for visiting, enjoy the dilution calculator!

Leslie Bio

Dr Google

By Leslie Moldenauer CHNC, HHP, Cert. Aroma


Dr. Google is a colloquial term used in the medical community. Dr. Google searches can result in both an incorrect diagnosis as well as a cure for what ails you, by listing a variety of possible diseases to match your symptoms. Dr. Google has become so pervasive, that it is hard to imagine a life without this ability to seek out help for our health concerns.


Quality of Information

With so much information at our fingertips, it can be challenging to sort out what is trustworthy, what is personal opinion, and what is marketing material. Numerous blogs are written that make claims without substantive evidence. This can be a challenge for those with the best intentions looking for ways to help themselves and their family. Online articles about specific conditions are unable to take into account someone’s medical history, genetics, lifestyle factors, and social context when providing their opinion, all of which are important for a diagnosis, and the key to treating the whole person.


With the accessibility of information on the Internet, should we go to the doctor, whether it is an allopathic or complementary practitioner? When speaking to aromatherapy, people search the Internet, Facebook or Pinterest, asking for an oil or oil blend that will help their health concern. Many times, the method of application and safety is not covered, so in cases of someone searching for information with limited knowledge of the topic, it can be a precarious situation. The recommendations given online come from a place of wanting to help others, but many times, they miss the mark.


Here is a small sample of real-life situations that transpired through a Dr. Google search:

  1. A woman who was currently under the care of a medical provider for a suspected collapsed vein performed a Google search looking for remedies for venous insufficiency. She found suggestions online to use wintergreen essential oil on her leg for relief. She had recently had a major surgery and was taking a variety of drugs including three blood pressure medications and one blood thinner (anticoagulant). She did not find a warning online about the use of wintergreen oil while on medication. She was grateful to have contacted a reflexologist/aromatherapist before attempting this at home, and found there could have been unwanted side effects.


Wintergreen essential oil is contraindicated (all routes) while taking anticoagulant medication, or after a major surgery. [1] Wintergreen has a great potential for interaction with Warfarin, a popular blood thinning medication. [2]


  1. A mother performed a Google search for essential oils that could help her child (5), with symptoms of her cystic fibrosis. Mom wanted to do all she could to help her daughter, and was told that essential oils could be of great benefit. Her search brought her to a large list of essential oil blends (a meme on Pinterest), which could address her daughter’s issues. The recommendations included but were not limited to: cinnamon bark, eucalyptus, peppermint, lemongrass, oregano and wintergreen. The recipes however did not give instructions, so she asked her neighbor, an aromatherapist in training, how to use the oils. Mom was grateful she did, as she learned that many of the recommended oils had contraindications for a child her age, as well as with her current medications.


Wintergreen oil is contraindicated for children, and all the other oils listed here have restricted uses for safety reasons. [3]



  1. Mom with heartburn and indigestion completed a Google search to see which oils could help her to find relief. She found a blog instructing her to take one drop of peppermint essential oil in her water every day. At first she thought there was improvement but it quickly got much worse with pain, burning, and a new symptom of intense acid reflux whenever she lay down at night. She sought advice from a trained aromatherapist and discovered that ingestion of peppermint can increase the risk of GERD. She stopped immediately and the severe discomfort subsided.


Peppermint oil should be used with caution, with those suffering from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), as it can exacerbate the condition if taken orally. This is because peppermint oil can relax the sphincter between the stomach and esophagus, allowing stomach acids to flow back into the esophagus. [4]


  1. An aromatherapist finds in a FB group a mom who was asking about treating her baby for a suspected staph infection with clove essential oil. Mom stated she searched online and saw that clove essential oil should be applied to the skin to remedy the infection. The aromatherapist reached out to her to try to explain the safety issues surrounding clove on the skin for a young baby. The outcome is unknown.


Clove should be used with caution in children under two years of age [5].

Clove is not the best choice here because it is considered a hot oil, and can increase the risk of skin irritation.


  1. A first time mom is having issues with her milk supply, and wants to be sure to support her growing baby the best that she can. She completes a Google search for oils to help increase her milk supply, and finds someone suggesting trying fennel essential oil. She begins using it faithfully every day but was not finding much benefit. She asks in a FB group what she can do to increase supply and mentions what she has already tried. She discovers that fennel is actually contraindicated during nursing and it is the herb that would provide the results she is looking for. She immediately switches to the herb, and was very grateful to find results quickly.


Fennel essential oil is contraindicated for all routes during breastfeeding based on the estragole content. [6]


“Billions of people are embracing essential oils as a way to encourage health and wellness. At the same time more questionable and risky uses are emerging in popular practice, evidence-based medicine shows real promise for the future of aromatic medicine both as an alternative and complementary approach to healing.” –Kristina Bauer, Uncommon Scents


Be a Critical Thinker

The basics of aromatherapy can be researched well on the Internet. Looking up oils to help improve mood, or help with restful sleep for example, are some of the things a home user can find help with relatively easily. The more in depth topics however, need more scientific, evidence-based research. The credibility of the source needs to be considered. Many popular health gurus have recently taken on the role of essential oil expert, without proper training. We should all be cautious with using unvetted health information, no matter the topic. Confirmation bias plays a big part in personal online research. This is a propensity to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms our preconceptions. Google, based on what is typed in its search queue, also gives results based on popularity. Question and verify what you have read with other sources. A good goal is to look for an additional 3-5 sources that back up the original information.


Here is a sampling of websites that may be helpful to you:

Alliance of International Aromatherapists
National Association of Holistic Aromatherapists
Personal Care Truth
For more on this subject, refer to my previous post on TI: “Information vs Education-Reliability in the Aromatherapy Industry”.


What Type of Research Should You Look For?

Superior to a blanket Google search would be to utilize research databases for evidence-based information. Find quality research that has been validated.
Here is a sampling of databases to help you perform your research:

Google Scholar
Tea Tree Oil Database
PubMed Central-Open Access research


Trained aromatherapists are another great way to find quality information. I encourage you to ask what training they have received. A basic aromatherapy course includes 200+ hours of training, and a clinical level program is 400 hours of training. Aromatherapists are taught to analyze and critique current aromatherapy research and apply this knowledge to positively affect their client’s commitment to their well-being. Aromatherapists help to rebalance the body and restore wellness.


Many wonderful aromatherapists have dedicated their time and money to their field, and have a large personal investment in helping others. They focus on safety and the notion of “Above all to do no harm”.


Finding Balance

Aromatherapists at times struggle to find balance between managing the misinformation that is seen on the Internet and operating their business. Many aromatherapists are present and active on social media sites in an effort to help the consumer practice aromatherapy safely. They are there to help those who ask, but there is a line to be drawn. This would be similar to calling your doctor for advice. That advice might cover the immediate concern, beyond that you would need to make an appointment to be seen, in order for the doctor to properly assess you and your concerns.


If you have specific concerns about yourself or your child, I encourage you to seek out an aromatherapy practitioner. A consultation will be specific to the client and should incorporate knowledge about contraindications, chemistry of the oils, and synergistics of making essential oil formulations. Aromatherapists look at the whole person and work to restore homeostasis to the body, mind, and spirit. As Madame Maury states: “Each of us is a unique message. It is only the unique remedy that will suffice.”


Here are two helpful resources to help you find an aromatherapist near you:

National Association of Holistic Aromatherapists 

Facebook can be helpful here as well. Many times the admins of the aromatherapy groups are aromatherapists themselves, and would be happy to help you to find a reputable individual in your area. Here are a few groups I recommend:

Essential Learning
Essential Oils
Ethical Aromatherapy
Real Essential Oil Education

In utilizing aromatherapy, nutrition, or any other complementary therapy, Google can be utilized as a reference point, one that needs further research. If you find an article, please research other sources to see if the information is up to date and accurate. The goal for all of us is the same, to make the best choices for ourselves and our family using trusted information, as well as to know when and where to look for assistance when needed.




[2] Valussi, M. A short review of wintergreen/methyl salicylate toxicity. The International Journal of Professional Holistic Aromatherapy. Volume 4. Issue 3. (2015) p 43-49

 [1] [3] [6] Tisserand, R., Young, R. (2014) Essential Oil Safety (2nd Ed) London: England. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier (p 255, 277, 387, 469, 652-653)

[4] Peppermint. University of Maryland Medical Center. Retrieved January 10, 2016 from: https://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/peppermint

Leslie Bio



Like so many practices in life I encourage you to become educated on the proper use of essential oils. When using them, please do so cautiously, understanding that there is often misinformation on the internet.  You can be assured that I support only educated and proven resources. While essential oils should not be feared they should be respected and used properly to ensure the safety of the individuals using them.

Please note that I am not a medical practitioner. The content of this website is provided for general informational purposes only and is not intended as, nor should it be considered a substitute for, professional medical advice. Do not use the information on this website for diagnosing or treating any medical or health condition. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. By using this website, you assume full responsibility and liability for your own actions.