Allergy to Essential Oils

Young woman smelling an essential oil
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Essential oils have become popular in recent years, and are used for their supposed health benefits. These oils are made from various plant products and are used in various ways. Oils can be diffused into the air, called aromatherapy, or used topically on the skin. Oils can also be taken by mouth and ingested internally. By doing so, homeopathic practitioners claim that these oils have various health benefits, include physical, mental and spiritual. While essential oils are derived from natural plant sources, this doesn’t mean that they can’t cause side effects, especially allergic reactions.

Contact Dermatitis

The most commonly reported allergic reaction to essential oils is contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis from essential oils causes an itchy, bumpy rash on the skin at the site of contact with the oil. The rash may appear similar to poison oak, may have blisters and peel when the rash is resolving. It is also possible to have systemic contact dermatitis from taking the essential oils internally (by mouth). In this circumstance, a person may experience a full body rash, whole body itching (without a rash), and/or abdominal pains and diarrhea.

Contact dermatitis to essential oils may occur in people who have experienced past rashes to fragrances or have allergy symptoms related to weed pollens. People with this type of medical history should be extremely cautious when using any essential oil and should consider performing a patch test by placing a small amount of the oil on the skin at the fold of the elbow (antecubital fossa) twice a day for 3 to 5 days. If there is no reaction at the site of the oil application after the 5th day or so, then it is not likely that a person is allergic to the oil being used. If, however, the skin at the site of oil application becomes red and itchy, or the skin blisters and peels, then that particular oil should not be used by the person.

Nasal Allergies and Asthma

People with nasal allergies and asthma, especially those allergic to weed pollens, should use extreme caution with using essential oils, especially when diffusing or ingesting the oils. Essential oils are made from various plant products, usually weeds, which may contain significant allergens—especially when the flowers of the plants are being used. Inhaling or ingesting these essential oils could result in symptoms or nasal and eye allergies, and even asthma symptoms. It is possible that these symptoms could be dangerous and even life-threatening in very sensitive individuals.

Non-Allergic Rhinitis

Even if a person doesn’t normally suffer from nasal allergies doesn’t mean that he or she wouldn’t have some form of nasal symptoms as a result of using essential oils. Strong odors from the use of essential oils—including from diffusing, ingesting or topical use—could result in nasal symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion or postnasal drip. These symptoms aren’t always a result of nasal allergies. People without allergies can still experience symptoms as a result of an irritant effect from the strong odors.

There is no test for non-allergic rhinitis per se; this is a diagnosis of exclusion that is made as a result of not finding any allergic cause of a person’s nasal symptoms. However, the symptoms are real, and often more difficult to treat than those of allergic rhinitis. Avoidance of irritant triggers, however, remains the mainstay of the treatment of non-allergic rhinitis.

If you suffer from contact dermatitis from fragrances, have a history of allergies to weed pollens, have significant asthma or chronic nasal symptoms, I would highly recommend speaking with your physician, allergist or dermatology prior to the use of any essential oil product.

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  1. Rudbäck J, Islam MN, Börje A, Nilsson U, Karlberg AT. Essential oils can contain allergenic hydroperoxides at eliciting levels, regardless of handling and storage. Contact Derm. 2015;73(4):253-4. doi:10.1111/cod.12427

  2. Gibbs JE. Essential oils, asthma, thunderstorms, and plant gases: a prospective study of respiratory response to ambient biogenic volatile organic compounds (BVOCs). J Asthma Allergy. 2019;12:169–182. Published 2019 Jun 21. doi:10.2147/JAA.S193211

Additional Reading
  • Cheng J, Zug KA. Fragrance Contact Dermatitis. Dermatitis. 2014; 25(5):232-45.