Essential oils are used for a variety of reasons. They are used for culinary flavoring, indoor and outdoor cleaning, spa treatments, skin care, fragrances, aromatherapy, cleansing of the skin and even for healing purposes. While most essential oils are considered safe for external use, they can cause adverse reactions in some individuals. Conversely, some essential oils have been shown to have antibacterial and antimicrobial properties which promote health and fight off infection. It's best to talk to a doctor before using essential oils to treat any conditions.
According to Alan Wolf in “Essential Oil Poisoning,” essential oils are natural, aromatic substances that are found in plants, trees, flowers and seeds. When the aromatic plant is steamed, essential oils are distilled and extracted. These oils are termed "essential" as they bear the characteristic scent of the plant from which they were derived. Essential oils are commonly found in cosmetics, perfumes, soap, cleansers, and as seasoning for food. The oil may possess medicinal properties derived from its plant origin. Common essential oils include juniper, lavender, eucalyptus, peppermint and tea tree.
As defined by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, an allergy is a hypersensitivity to a specific allergen. The allergen causes the body’s immune system to react to an otherwise harmless substance. When the body recognizes a substance as potentially harmful to the body, the immune system tries to fight off the invader. In individuals with allergies, specific allergens can cause sneezing, wheezing, coughing and itching. Allergies are identified by the symptoms they produce, their trigger and the time of year when they occur. In addition, allergic diseases range from hypersensitivities to foods and drugs, reactions to latex or insect bites, skin irritation, asthma and rhinitis.
One essential oil of interest is eucalyptus. It has made its way into the traditional medical system worldwide due to its therapeutic value. In “A Study of the Antimicrobial Activity of Oil of Eucalyptus,” N. Trivedi states that eucalyptus has both antiseptic and antibacterial properties useful in treating allergy-related respiratory symptoms and other bacterial infections. Jesper Nielsen in “Natural Oils Affect the Human Skin Integrity and Percutaneous Penetration of Benzoic Acid Dose-Dependency,” evaluated the impact of eucalyptus, tea tree and peppermint oil on skin integrity. Results indicate that peppermint has a protective effect on skin integrity. Additionally, other essential oils have proved beneficial for use in allergy treatment. Lavender acts as a natural antihisimine, peppermint relieves sinus-related headaches and orange peel clears stuffy noses.
Essential oils have the ability to interact with other substances in the environment that may cause them to act as allergens in sensitive individuals. One example is lavender oil, which collides with oxygen when exposed to air to form hydroperoxide, a potential allergen. Geraniol oil reacts with skin enzymes to form geranial, an allergic compound irritating the surface of the skin. As Peter Smet points out in “Herbal Remedies,” therapeutic uses of essential oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and can pose serious health risks. In addition to the direct adverse effects of the oil, there may also be drug interactions, phototoxicity, and indirect dangers as herbal remedies may compromise, delay or replace the effective form of traditional medicine.
Essential oils can be effective in a variety of ways. However, when it comes to allergies, it is important to research specific herbs before using them for any reason. To avoid severe allergic reactions, only use a minimal amount of oil, diluting it according to package directions. Trying only one oil at a time can help to determine which oils cause allergic reactions. Essential oils are aromatic, fresh alternatives that can promote health if used as directed. Finding the right essential oil or blend of oils might even help to ward off allergens.