Dilution of Essential Oils for Topical Application
Aromatic Intelligence, General

Dilution of Essential Oils for Topical Application: What You Need to Know

Although essential oils are absorbed through the skin into the blood stream somewhat more readily when applied undiluted than when used in diluted form, this is not a good practice because the risks of experiencing skin irritation and sensitization (a type of allergic reaction) increase greatly when undiluted essential oils are put on the skin and the risk of systemic toxicity and drug interactions also increases. I want to repeat that because it’s important – using undiluted essential oils on the skin substantially increases the risk of skin irritation and sensitization reactions and also increases the risk of systemic toxicity and drug interaction.

Risk of Systemic Toxicity

While the risk of systemic toxicity from reasonable external application of  the essential oils used by responsible aromatherapists  is very low, the occurrence of skin sensitization reactions has been increasing in the United States as a few companies here have irresponsibly recommended the topical use of undiluted essential oils. Even lavender essential oil, which was once considered by most aromatherapists to be safe for undiluted use, is now being found to produce sensitization in some individuals, apparently as a consequence of over-use in undiluted applications.

Not everyone who uses undiluted essential oils will develop sensitization reactions, and those who do will generally only have problems after repeated use of the same undiluted oil. However, for those unfortunate people who do experience these often avoidable reactions, the experience can be very distressing as it can be accompanied by severe itching that lasts for days. This may leave the affected individual more likely to develop such reactions to other topically applied substances in the future. Why would anyone want to take such risks when diluted essential oils are much safer and work very well to achieve the desired therapeutic effects?

Reasonable Dilution Rates

Here are reasonable dilution rates for several methods of topical use of essential oils:

ProcedureRecommended Range of Essential Oil Concentration
Full-body Massage1.5 – 3%
Facial Care0.2 – 1.5%
Bath & Body Products1.5 – 4%
Wounds / Necrotic Skin Ulcers5 – 15% (on a small area)
Localized Pain5-15%
Other Localized Issues3-10%

These are general guidelines and extra care must be utilized with essential oils that are known to be sensitizing, irritating and/or phototoxic, some of which have specific maximum dermal concentration levels. Information on maximal dermal concentrations for essential oils of such types can be found in Tisserand and Young’s reference book on essential oil safety.

About Joie Power, Ph.D.

Dr. Power is a retired neuropsychologist with a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia. She was an Assistant Professor of Surgery/Neurosurgery at the Medical College of Georgia before entering private practice and has over 20 years of clinical experience in inpatient and outpatient settings. She is both a student and practitioner of alternative healing methods, including herbal studies, aromatherapy, and Chinese Medicine. Her training in the olfactory and limbic systems of the brain gives her a unique qualification for understanding the actions of essential oils and she is an internationally known writer and teacher in the field of aromatherapy. Her approach to aromatherapy weaves together her solid scientific training and strong clinical skills with a holistic philosophy that honors body, mind and spirit.

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