VIDEO: Allergies to Essential Oils – Pharmacist Lindsey Elmore

Summary of Lindsey Elmore video from March 1, 2017

Do essential oils cause allergies?

That’s one of the most common questions I get. I think that oils get a bad rap because, typically, when people think of allergies, they picture the big, over-the-top [trying to catch breath, panicked breathing] IGE-type reaction. But there are lots of types of sensitivities that can happen—not just with essential oils, but also—with plants, metals, etc. Skin irritation, sensitization, and photosensitivity can all be made worse by certain essential oils. But the data has to be interpreted really carefully because, often, it is really dealing with a constituent of essential oils, not whole oils. Also, the studies are often dealing with blends that compounded with synthetic things like petrolatum. So it’s important to be careful when interpreting the data.

What is an allergy? An allergy is simply an abnormal reaction to an ordinarily harmless substance. When you have an allergy to something, your body views it as an allergen or invader and attacks it. The panicky, IGE style reaction is a TYPE of allergy, however, those types of reactions haven’t been caused by essential oils except in very isolated cases which we will discuss further down. This severe instance is called a TYPE 1 hypersensitivity reaction. What happens is that your body sees the allergins, it produces antibodies, and then those antibodies cause the release of histamine from mast cells. Histamine is particularly nasty and causes a wide variety of symptoms including eczema, hives, rash, severe asthma, etc.

While whole essential oils have never been associated with a TYPE 1 reaction, isolated cinnamaldehyde and other essential oil constituents have.

There have only been two reported instances of anaphylaxis shock related to essential oil molecules. One instance occured when a nurse was attacked by a patient and sprayed in the face with an unidentified perfume. Anyone might have a similar reaction under those conditions.

Type 2 and Type 3 allergic reactions are really uncommon and neither one has been associated with an essential oil. Type 2 reactions are delayed, B-cell mediated type immunity. Type 3 hypersensitivity is where proteins form immune complexes.

Type 4 immunity type reactions are slow. Nothing happens at first exposure to a substance. But repeated exposure over time builds up an immune response. The good thing about Type 4 hypersensitivity type reactions is that, for example, if you put something on an area of your skin, the reaction is generally limited to that one area.

6:00 You may hear the words “haptens” and “prehaptens.” These are the little bits that are left behind and stick around in the body to start to build an immune response. Haptens and prehaptens ARE found in essential oils. Also related is that as people get older their skin changes dramatically and they are having different responses. This is why you may find that you can tolerate an oil and then, all of a sudden, you just can’t. You may give it up a while and then start tolerating it again. Until you can’t again. This is the same type of hypersensitivity that is caused by poison ivy as well as lots of different substances like household cleaners, cosmetics, metals. So it’s not surprising that some fragrance molecules have also been associated with this type of reaction.

Hapten comes from a Greek word meaning “to fasten.” A small molecule combines with a protein which then causes the protein to produce antibodies. Some people say essential oils can’t cause allergies because they don’t contain proteins. However, they CAN if they contain haptens which can then attach to existing proteins.

There are a lot of terpenes that are prehaptens which may be converted to a hapten which may then hook up with a protein to trigger that small localized reaction.

8:30 But here’s the kicker…it doesn’t happen right away. It happens only after repeated usage. This is why it’s a little foggy as to whether you can create a “tolerance” or “get immune” to an essential oil. It’s not that so much as it is those little bits are collecting in the body that, over time, begin to react. If this happens to you, dilution may be a possible solution.

9:10 Headaches. Aromas are a well-known trigger for migraine headaches. However, for people who don’t have migraines, headaches aren’t associated with essential oils at normal concentrations. Having said that, even I can envision getting a headache if I breathed a high-concentration of essential oil I didn’t like for a long period. AromaDome usage might be a good example of this.

There’s no good scientific data explaining what would cause someone to get a headache straight away from breathing a normal concentration of oil. I have to wonder if there is something like a bit of an emotional component involved in these circumstances.

10:30 Watery Eyes. This CAN be a reaction to certain essential oil molecules in the air. However, it’s generally the result of very high concentrations and you don’t generally see it unless you have it in the workforce [as in an industrial type environment].

Fascinating point. If someone experiences ongoing reactions on the skin, stress has to be considered. Psychological stress plays a very important role in both dermatitis and skin sensitivity. Stress changes the form of the lipids in the stratum corneum so that the lipids become susceptible to human stress. So what may happen is that a small reaction to a substance that is ordinarily safe becomes a huge reaction.

Stress also reduces the barrier function of the skin because the reaction of glucocorticoids is increased. Under constant stress, the body is already in fight-or-flight mode, so the immune system is already primed to mount an immune response. This means the magnitude of the body’s reaction to haptens will be larger when under chronic or acute stress. This causes more Substance P to be released in the nerves which creates the perception of more pain.

Weather can also play a role in skin sensitivity.

These reactions are more common in women than in men.

People who eat crappy diets are more prone to any type of immune response.

14:00 Photosensitivity – Photo-allergy is a very rare occurrence in which the skin reacts with UV light but doesn’t change colors. Photosensitivity is much more common. This is when the body reacts with UV light to cause what is perceived to be a sunburn. This happens with botanicals that are in the rutaceae and the apiaceae families.

Oils that cause photosensitivity

This list includes most of the citrus oils. But, interestingly, yuzu, tangerine, and a few others DO NOT cause photosensitivity.

15:45 Phototoxicity – Furanocoumarins are essential oil constituents that squeeze themselves inside DNA causing the DNA to pull apart and shift when exposed to UV light. When this DNA movement happens, it can cause what we perceive to be a sunburn and, in severe cases, it can actually cause blistering of the skin.

These reactions happen slowly so it might be two or three days before it is noticed. So, for example, you may go out in the sun with bergamot on your skin and three days later wonder why you’ve got a sunburn.

17:15 What about Young Living’s personal care products that contain photosensitive citrus oils? These products have the furanocoumarins removed so there are no photosensitivity issues.

What about drinking these oils? Theoretically, there is still cause for concern because the furanocoumarins will still be int the body. But, practically, the chances for a reaction are substantially less.

In a study with 63 volunteers, differences in eye color, age, sex and ability to tan did not effect phototoxic responses. However, darker skin required more of the essential oil in order to cause the reaction. And, of course, people with albinism are at very high risk.

Oxidation of the oils increase the likelihood of creating a sensitivity. Oils like tea tree and citrus oxidize more easily.

19:30 Allergic Contact Dermatitis – A fragrance mix was developed in the 1970s that combined a number of perfume and aroma constituents with petrolatum. On average, 11% of people were allergic/sensitive to this combination. However, this study is highly questionable because other studies have shown that using oils like sandalwood, cedarwood, peppermint, spearmint, pine, etc diluted 2-10%, the average risk was less than 1%. So it is likely that the higher rate of sensitivity in the first study was due to the combination of oils used.

Ylang Ylang and Lemongrass often get a bad rap for being harsh on the skin. However, the people who showed that it was irritating already had a baseline of dermatitis.

23:00 The most at-risk population is children less than 3 months of age and women between that ages of 20 and 60. Women are 3-4 times more likely to have these sensitivities than men.

24;20 USE CARRIER OIL if you are sensitive to essential oils on the skin.

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