This Is the Scary—and Toxic—Danger of Using Essential Oils on Your Skin

Before you use these ancient home remedies, you'll want to do your homework—or seriously regret it.

Who hasn’t heard of essential oils by now? Thanks to this beauty trend, retail sales have soared 38 percent in the past year alone, with consumers spending more than $1 billion on oils and accessories. And let’s not forget the tens of millions of dollars made through sales via independent distributors.

The mania could be for good reason; after all, essential oils can do everything from minimizing stretch marks to calming anxiety. But these ancient home remedies aren’t all that they appear, either.

Rachael Armstrong learned this lesson the hard way. When the mother of five started using essential oils last year, she “dove right in,” she told WebMD. From the tip of her tongue to the bottoms of her feet—literally—she placed essential oils everywhere. But after sitting outside one day, Armstrong noticed a rash on her neck and arms. It quickly grew until it swelled her eyes shut and created burning, oozing welts on her neck. Doctors eventually injected her with steroids to calm the outbreak, suspecting that she had had a toxic reaction to essential oils.

“I admit I was probably overusing them,” Armstrong said. “But I don’t think people are aware that even though they’re natural products, they can do real damage.”

This-Is-the-Scary—And-Alarming—Danger-of-Using-Essential-Oils-on-Your-Skin_580580344_Ternavskaia-Olga-AlibecTernavskaia Olga Alibec/Shutterstock

Essential oils do their jobs by making contact with the skin and being absorbed in the bloodstream. While research is just now beginning to confirm the scientific benefits of essential oils, misinformation regarding how they are used still persists. People who use essential oils at home have reported nearly 230 injuries since the fall of 2013, according to WebMD.

“There is definitely credible science behind certain benefits for certain essential oils,” Cynthia Bailey, MD, a dermatologist in Sebastopol, CA, told WebMD. “But you have to choose wisely, and you cannot use them indiscriminately.”

Following a few key dos and don’ts can protect you against the negative side effects. Essential oils should not be swallowed, says Joie Power, PhD, a neuropsychologist and aromatherapist. Ingesting them can increase your chance of an allergic or toxic reaction. Experts also advise teens, children, and pregnant women to avoid using these home remedies. Overusing the oils can lead to an allergic reaction over time (just like what happened to Armstrong) and putting 100 percent essential oils on your skin could cause burns and large blisters. (This is the worst skin care advice dermatologists have ever heard.)

All in all, experts emphasize the importance of purchasing oils from a reliable brand, especially because the FDA does not test oils for effectiveness or safety before they’re put on the market.

Despite the risks, oils are still worth a try, according to doctors and aromatherapists. Just make sure to use them wisely—and do a bit of research beforehand. Get started with the best essential oils for your beauty routine.

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