Be extra cautious when using these essential oils on your skin

It's important to understand how to use essential oils and in what quantity, before you start trying them on yourself

woman smelling essential oils

If you’re bringing home an essential oil [EO] with the intention of using it on your skin, say for facial acne, or for arthritic knee pain, it’s important to know how suitable it is for skin application.

Not all essential oils are the same or even similar by any standard when it comes to their natural chemical makeup, their energetics, and quite importantly, their routes of application. It is fairly common knowledge by now, even amongst lay enthusiasts, that EOs need to be diluted before topical application. However, there are essential oils that are specifically skin-soothing and skin-friendly; some that are not particularly so; and some that might cause an adverse reaction on your skin. There are many essential oils that fall in the latter two categories and discussing all of them will perhaps need a small book of its own. But as a beginner you are probably interested in buying and testing out just a few oils; usually from amongst the ones that are most popularly used. Let’s look at some common essential oils that need particular caution for topical application.

Clove bud essential oil [Eugenia caryophyllata]

This is the commonest form of clove oil used; the others being clove leaf, and clove stem. The fact that whole clove has been traditionally used as a common home remedy for reducing tooth pain speaks volumes of the powerful analgesic properties of this oil. It also has great anti-infection and antioxidant properties; it increases circulation and warms the skin. However, its chemistry makes it somewhat irritating and harsh for the skin and mucous membranes. It can also be skin sensitising. The best way to use clove bud EO is highly diluted with a good carrier oil such as coconut, almond or jojoba oil. You could mix in a couple of more skin friendly EOs that are complimentary to the therapeutic purpose you’re using clove for. I would not use more than 2 drops clove bud EO in 30ml carrier oil. Also, use this oil only for few days at a time, when in acute need of its comfort, and not on a regular basis.

Black Pepper essential oil [Piper nigrum]

This is also traditionally used for some similar purposes as above. It is hot in nature due to its chemistry, and therefore its EO too can cause irritation and skin sensitisation, especially if it is old or oxidised, and if not used with caution. It is not suitable for massage purposes. It is also unsuitable to be used for bathing. Use not more than 2 drops black pepper EO in 30ml carrier oil

Lemongrass essential oil [Cymbopogon citratus]

This is a very popular oil due to its antimicrobial, antifungal, cooling and refreshing properties. However, it is not particularly skin friendly due to its primary chemical constituent. It can be a potential skin and mucous membrane irritant and sensitizer. It should therefore be used in a well diluted manner mixed with other skin friendly EOs having similar therapeutic properties. Use not more than 3 – 4 drops of this in 30ml carrier oil.



A reaction that is localised on the area of application, and might manifest in the form of redness, rash, itching etc.


An allergic / inflammatory reaction of the immune system that may also occur in places other than the area of application. It may be mild or severe, and may manifest as the same symptoms as those of ‘irritation’ or in other ways like a headache etc.


The reaction produced by exposure of a photoactive substance to direct sunlight, causing mild to severe burning, discolouration, pigmentation etc. Some EOs contain molecules of such substances.

Peppermint essential oil [Mentha x piperita]

This is a great smelling oil with many therapeutic qualities to boast of. But again, it can be harsh and irritating on the skin if used in excess proportions [undiluted is of course, out of question]. It must be avoided for body massages; and must not be used in a bath so as to avoid skin irritation and reddening. It is great to add to a soak for tired feet though! Use 5-8 drops in 30ml carrier oil.

Bergamot essential oil [Citrus bergamia]

Coming from a citrus fruit, this is one of the most uplifting, refreshing, stress releasing, and air deodorising oils, as are most citrus essential oils. It is great for using in diffusers. However, it has some concerns for topical application, the most serious one being that it is the most photo toxic oil out there. Topically applying a blend containing even just a few drops more than the safe prescribed limit, and unknowingly exposing that part in direct sun, puts you at a very high risk of a serious sun burn or skin damage, which may sometimes be permanent. If you still want to use this otherwise lovely EO as part of a topical blend, make sure it’s on a body part that will be covered under clothing for at least 18 hours.

Lemon essential oil [Citrus limon]

This is the most popularly used citrus EO for many of the same properties as of Bergamot. It’s also an astringent and great against acne. However, like most citrus oils this too tends to have a very limited shelf life, and can be skin sensitising if oxidized. This is also phototoxic [not all citrus essential oils are], though thankfully not to the same degree as Bergamot. As long as you are not using more than 8 – 10 drops in 30ml, and preferably with other more skin soothing oils in a topical blend, it’s in the safe zone. As in case of all essential oils, this holds good only for a pure, and well stored EO.

Ylang Ylang essential oil [Cananga odorata]

This is an exotic and intensely floral EO, widely used in perfumery and cosmetics. It is great for skin care blends, and for comfort in times of anger and stress. However, ironically, it can be skin sensitising too, and so, in home blends, must not be used more than a few drops in 30ml, whether it is for skin application or for use in a bath. It should be completely avoided for use on skin that is hypersensitive, inflamed and irritated in any way.

One can reap the benefits of essential oils even when they might not be particularly skin friendly, but, in order to do so one must know how to use them correctly. As with most other things in life, in aromatherapy too, when in doubt simply avoid!

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

Shuchi is a NAHA Certified Professional Aromatherapist, a Reiki practitioner, a student of Vipassana and a yoga enthusiast. Her mission is to seek answers which can support a sense of wellbeing that’s sustainable and in harmony with nature’s intelligent ways and infinite wisdom. This journey which was motivated by personal need has now taken on a new life through ‘Antahsaara’, her holistic wellness venture, based out of Los Angeles, where she lives.


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