Sensitization: A True Story

Once up a time, there was a girl who didn't know any better. She was passionate about essential oils. There was a shower gel she particularly enjoyed. It was manufactured by an MLM company and the first essential oil listed on the label was lemongrass (Cymbopogon flexuosus). She found this essential oil to be uplifting, stimulating, and just plain intoxicating. She used it every day for months and months without any problems.

Then one day hives broke out on her stomach. Perplexed, she thought maybe it was something she ate or something she came into contact with. She thought, "Well, it couldn't be the body gel because you can't be allergic to essential oils." Oh so, she was told. So she kept on using the body wash and the hives got worse. They spread to her stomach, chest, back, and upper arms. They became red and angry looking. 

In fact, at the beach, strangers approached her asking if she was ok and needed to see a doctor.

"Nah", she said. She attributed the hives to everything except the body wash. The hives were itchy to the point of painful. Her skin looked like she was suffering from chemical burns but she couldn't determine the cause of this irritation. So she made an appointment with her dermatologist for an assessment.

Then one day, before her appointment, she ran out of body wash. To her dismay, it was no longer in stock. So she went without the body wash for weeks and the hives slowly started fading away. 

Once the body wash came back in stock, the hives came back with a vengeance.

That's when a lightbulb went off. 


So she stopped using it altogether and the hives dissipated. She avoided the body wash and kept wondering how and why it happened.

That girl was me.

Many months later, I was blending an anti-fungal blend for a client which I formulated with lemongrass. Just by inhaling lemongrass, the hives returned to the trunk of my body. It never touched my skin. 

Here is a picture of what my sensitization looked like after inhaling lemongrass when formulating for my client.

Here is a picture of what my sensitization looked like after inhaling lemongrass when formulating for my client.

Now, I avoid lemongrass at all costs. I doubt I will ever be able to use lemongrass again, which is completely heartbreaking. But because I continued to use it after the initial reaction, my body has most probably developed an immune response that cannot be reversed.

Sensitization is an immune response to an essential oils, usually caused by:

  • Overuse of the same essential oil
  • Improperly diluting the essential oil or not diluting it at all (called "neat "use)
  • Using an essential oil on open wounds or broken skin.

You can have this type of allergic reaction usually develops over time.  This reaction can occur elsewhere from where you applied the essential oil. The reaction can last days, even weeks. Once sensitized to an essential oil, you may also become sensitized to other essential oils that share the same components.

Sensitization can look like:

  • Hives
  • Very red, angry rash
  • Inflammation
  • Painful itching
  • Blotchiness

In order to prevent this from happening to you, let's dispel the myths about sensitization.


When you break out in a rash when exposed to poison ivy, do you think, "Oh, how helpful. I'm so glad the poison ivy is detoxing me."  You are having an allergic reaction to urushiol, which is the sticky oil found in poison ivy, oak, or sumac. The smart thing to do it to avoid poison ivy in the future to avoid any future reactions. The same applies for essential oils. If you have an adverse reaction, stop using the essential oil.

Is it possible that you can use that essential oil again?  I guess anything is possible. But it is not probable. And honestly, not worth the risk, Essential oils are multi-faceted. That means if you don't like the aroma or have an adverse reaction to one essential oil, you don't need to give up hope. There are always many more to choose from.

If you do have a skin reaction, here's what you need to do. First, apply a carrier oil, such as coconut oil or sweet almond oil. It really doesn't matter, any fatty oil will do. Then wash the area with soap and water. Pat dry and apply the carrier oil again. 

If you have hives and you are having an allergic reaction, you need to follow the same precautions as you would a food allergy. If you have difficulty swallowing, breathing, etc. do not hesitate to go to the emergency room. It is not likely that you will have this type of severe reaction, but it is possible.


I have been surprised to hear of a lot of people who are having reactions to gentle essential oils, such as lavender. While dermal sensitizers give you a greater chance of a skin reaction, they are not the only essential oils that cause sensitization. Try to avoid dermal sensitizers topically. If an essential oil has a maximum dermal dose, please respect and abide by that. But again, you can become sensitized to any essential oil. That's why proper dilution of ALL essential oils is crucial. 


As you read it my story, it looks MONTHS of over-exposure of lemongrass to develop a reaction. I had no problems at all until one day, BAM, I broke out in hives. Sensitization does not follow any rules. It can happen at any time, without warning. 

So, here are some tips to avoid sensitization.

1. Dilute properly.

2. Switch up your essential oils. Every few weeks, switch it up to another blend if you use it on a daily basis. I would suggest having several blends to rotate between if you have an issue that requires long-term essential oil use. Each blend should contain different essential oils. 

3. Use carriers and hydrosols on broken skin or open wounds, not essential oils.

We all make mistakes. If you are a beginner and are making these mistakes, do not worry! We've all been there! But now, you know better, so you can do better! You can easily change the way you use essential oils. When used properly, essential oils can continue to make a powerful impact in your health and life.


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