Estimating the Adverse Dermal Effects of Essential Oils
by Examining their Chemical Composition

By Martin Watt
Published in NORA news Dec .1995 vol. 1 issue 2

Yes this is a very old article, but I am using it to show how long ago
that I wrote about issues covered in newer articles on this site.


This is an extremely arbitrary and unreliable method of ascertaining the
potential of any essential oil to cause skin problems, and yet it is increasingly
being used within the aromatherapy trade; now common!!

Sesquiterpene lactones that occur in Inula helenium and other essential oils
can cause adverse skin reactions at levels as low as 0.00001%, amounts that
will not be recorded with routine commercial analysis of essential oils. 'The
role of sesquiterpene lactones in contact hypersensitivity' E. Rodriguez et al
1977. Com. Derm 3,155-162.

The I.F.R.A. recommend to members that oils derived from the Pinaceae family
should only be used if the level of peroxides is less than 10 millimoles per litre.
This is because of the many reports indicating that oils containing high levels of
peroxides can cause sensitisation.

It is not uncommon to find known or suspected sensitising agents occurring in
essential oils at very low levels. As some of these compounds can initiate
severe dermal reactions, it is playing with fire to attempt to judge the potential
adverse effects of an essential oil from a quick examination of the major
components. If judging the potential for adverse effects were really that easy,
then the IFRA and other organisations could have saved a fortune over the
years. They and other testing organisations, would not have invested so much
time and effort on checking for adverse dermal effects on humans if all they
had to do was look at the chemical composition. Real experts on fragrance
materials know that the only way of telling if a material is safe is to thoroughly
test it.

In aromatherapy we are increasingly being introduced to new chemical variants
or 'chemotypes' of known oils. Just because one or two of the chemotypes
major chemicals occur in other known and tested oils, it is then assumed the
whole oil must be safe. Additionally we have an increasing number of oils that
have never been submitted to any form of safety evaluation.

It simply is not acceptable for a tiny number of practitioners to say as they
often do, 'we have been using if for years and never seen an adverse reaction'.
The numbers of people exposed to these untested materials is tiny in
comparison to the numbers exposed to the well tried and tested essential oils.

If a fragrance material is only being used by aromatherapists then there are a
number of reasons that they may not detect adverse skin reactions:

(1) A client may not report a transitory inflammation or itchiness following a
massage thinking it normal 'warming up' of the skin caused by the massage.

(2) If a client gets a moderate skin reaction then they may simply not return
for further treatment. The reaction therefore goes unreported.

(3) Due to the appallingly poor training standards on some aromatherapy
courses, such a reaction on a client may not be recognised for what it is, but
rather be dismissed by the therapist as 'a healing crisis' or the clients
'hypersensitive skin'.

(4) Unlike the wider fragrance trade, aromatherapy has no centralised method
of recording and collating information on adverse skin reactions.

This position of using untested aromatic materials for applications to peoples'
skin has been made far worse in recent years. With the push towards
increasing scientific input into aromatherapy, we have had several scientific
researchers as well as certain essential oil suppliers, giving talks at
conferences around the world about 'new' aromatic substances. While there is
absolutely nothing wrong with investigating potential uses of new aromatic
extracts, unfortunately, because of lack of knowledge, or to be one up on the
opposition, aromatherapists start using these materials long before anyone has
determined if they are safe or not.

This introduction of untested fragrances to the skin is often compounded by
reports of the oils concerned being used 'by doctors in France'. It is completely
overlooked that the internal use of an essential oil may not elicit the same
adverse reaction as occurs when it is applied to the skin, or that doctors are
free to use almost anything they please whether it be safe or not.

As a herbalist, I am well aware that many herbs have not been fully evaluated
for safety but we often do have thousands of years of practical use from which
a certain amount of safety can be judged. In the case of essential oils it is an
entirely different ball-game. These substances are frequently concentrated to
more than 100 times that which occurs in the plant. The extraction process can
also concentrate levels of undesirable substances
which, if the whole herb is
used, the body can tolerate perfectly well, but not when they become highly
concentrated. With certain essential oils it is not uncommon to find they have
absolutely no traditional medicinal use and this, of course, makes safety even
more difficult to judge.

In conclusion:
It is my opinion that no untested 'chemotypes' or other
untested oils should be applied to the skin other than as an emergency
treatment. They should never be used in small scale cosmetic production such
as in 'aromatherapy type' skin creams, bath and hair care preparations.

Aromatherapists should stop pestering their suppliers for these untested
extracts, just so they can be seen to be using 'something new'. Unfortunately
some suppliers will sell you anything if it makes them money. Haven't we got
enough effective and wonderful essential oils and absolutes which have been
thoroughly tried and tested? I am certain many of our tried and tested
aromatics still have many therapeutic properties left to be found, so why not
stick to them rather than risk the health of clients and particularly yourself by
using aromatics with unknown effects.

Source and copyright:
More posts
Advice on the safety issues of using essential oils