The detox myth
True or False?
If you get a rash, or any kind of skin reaction. from using an essential oil, it's just your body detoxifying.
If you get a skin reaction of any kind from using an essential oil (or any other substance), it is very likely either an allergic reaction or irritation from using an oil neat (without diluting in a carrier oil), at too strong of a dilution, an oil that has oxidized, or an oil that is too harsh to use on the skin. If it was a phototoxic oil, and you were exposed to UV radiation after applying the oil, it could be photosensitivity or a phototoxic reaction. It is highly unlikely to be detoxification.
First, what to do in case of an allergic reaction or skin-irritation after using an essential oil: if it's a severe reaction, seek appropriate medical attention immediately; otherwise, wash the affected area with whole milk or vegetable oil, then wash with soap and water. (An RN-Aromatherapist taught me that trick and it works well.) Do not use that essential oil again in the case of allergic reaction. If the reaction followed the use of an undiluted EO, wait several days before trying to use that oil again, and dilute it first to 1% or less (6 drops of EO in 1 oz of carrier oil). Test it out on a small patch of skin like the inside of your wrist or elbow and wait at least 15 minutes to see if you react. If you do react to the test, don't use that essential oil again - not even as part of a blend.
Second, let's take a brief look at what detox is and how it happens. Detoxification means cleaning the blood. Our bodies are designed to do this naturally through the kidneys, liver, lungs, digestive system, lymph system, and skin. Very simply put, we eliminate waste (the stuff our bodies can't use and the stuff that's bad for our bodies) when we use the restroom, when we perspire, and when we exhale. There's a great deal more detail that goes into our bodies' detoxification processes, but you get the idea here.
Then, why isn't a rash a form of detox? In the case of an allergic reaction, a rash, or skin reaction is the immune system saying "I don't like this substance" or "this is too strong and may harm the body". The purpose of the immune system is to protect the body from harm from invaders (i.e. germs). It does this by providing physical and chemical barriers and cellular 'soldiers' (like white blood cells, T-cells, and B-cells). Sometimes the 'soldier' cells make a mistake and think a substance is harmful. When that happens, the B-cells produce the antibody immunoglobulin E (IgE). The first time (or two) this happens, there may not be a reaction. But our immune systems have memory - once the system has encountered an invader it perceives as harmful (like a virus, a bacteria, or a chemical), when it meets that specific invader again, it goes to work producing greater amounts of IgE. This is why there are many occasions when it's the second or third exposure to a substance that a noticeable allergic reaction occurs.
There are a couple of things to take note of here: 1. It is possible to become allergic to something to which you've already had multiple exposures. 2. Often, continued exposure to an allergen will cause the reaction to worsen.
Skin irritation is a reaction on the surface of the skin caused by physical or chemical stimuli. Here are examples of each type: Physical -- You're cooking and a drop of hot grease splashes on your hand. You feel it burning and develop a blister on that spot. Chemical -- you use an oxidized oil (one that has been stored improperly and exposed too long to air, heat, light, and/or time), your skin turns bright red and feels like it's burning.
Let's go back to the cooking oil example. Would you say "Oh, the hot grease caused a blister - that must mean my body is detoxing." ? Would you then start deliberately splashing hot grease on yourself to detox more? That sounds pretty crazy, doesn't it?
In a phototoxic reaction, your skin may burn following UV exposure on an area of skin where a phototoxic oil was used at too high of a dilution. Many citrus oils fall in this category. I mention this here, because it is a skin reaction, but this topic will get a later blog by itself.
So, how does all of this relate to essential oils? Essential oils come from plants and consist of nature-made chemicals. If you have allergies to certain plants, plant families, or chemicals, then you should avoid using an essential oil that comes from that plant, plant family, or contains that chemical - or at least test a small amount first. A rash would be one type of allergic reaction. This reaction is a result of antigens coming to the rescue to combat something that the immune system thinks is harmful.
Let's make an analogy here. Let's say a person ate some peanuts, and went into anaphylactic shock (i.e. his/her mouth and throat swelled up and (s)he had trouble breathing). Would you consider that reaction a form of detoxification? Would you recommend that the person eat more peanuts? Of course not - you would tell him/her to avoid anything containing peanuts! Why? Because you know that that type of reaction is an allergic reaction and not a form of detoxification.
A rash or skin-irritation reaction caused by topical application of a substance may not be life-threatening, but it is a signal from your body that something's wrong. Therefore, if you get a skin reaction to an essential oil, you need to determine what caused the reaction. Was the oil oxidized or not diluted enough? Was it a phototoxic oil? Did you have an allergic reaction?
The one thing you can say with near certainty is that it is NOT detoxification.
Note: This is a VERY basic blog about rash and detox, for a much more in-depth discussion on the topic, I highly recommend the article Essential Oils and the "Detox" Theory by Kristina Bauer (Tisserand Institute).
Bauer, Kristina, Tisserand Institute, Essential Oils and the “Detox” Theory, June 18, 2015
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, Contact dermatitis, (1988 – 2018)
Johns Hopkins Medicine, Allergies and the Immune System: What You Need to Know; https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/allergy_and_asthma/allergies_and_the_immune_system_85,P00039
O’Lenick, Tony, Cosmetics & Toiletries, Exclusive! Comparatively Speaking: Irritation vs. Sensitization, October 13, 2008
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