Topical Use of Essential Oils: Why and How To

How to use essential oils topically | Virginia George

Did you know…

  • Essential oils are estimated to be 50-70x more powerful than herbs
  • Some essential oils can pass through the blood-brain barrier
  • Essential oils work with our bodies to support wellness

We love using essential oils in our home for a wide variety of things from cleaning to emotional issues, and more. I love the versatility, and that I can use the same oil for supporting our immune systems when we’re sick and for cleaning my house. Or calming irritated skin and a tantruming toddler. Essential oils come to our rescue on a daily basis, for one reason or another.

There are 3 basic ways we use essential oils in our home: aromatically, topically, and internally. In this post we will look at how we can use oils topically.

To Dilute or Not to Dilute

Essential oils are extremely potent, as mentioned before they can be more than 50x more potent than the plant from which they are derived. For this reason, we need to use them cautiously.

Some people recommend using oils “neat”, or without dilution while others say essential oils should only be used diluted. Watch this quick video about the use of essential oils neat vs diluted.

Using Oils Neat

Oils like lavender, tea tree, or frankincense are often recommended to be used neat,or by applying them directly to the skin. Neat application is often recommended for quick use or on skin conditions.

There are a few concerns with using essential oils neat. The most basic is skin irritation. Before you use any oil, you can do a patch test to determine if it will cause skin irritation. Oils like oregano and clove should never be used neat, and citrus oils are known to cause phototoxicity (sensitivity to the sun for a few hours after use).

The second, and more concerning possibility, is sensitization.Sensitization occurs particularly with overuse of a particular oil, and is often irreversible. It can present as an irritating rash or burning sensation when applied. Sensitization is similar to an allergic reaction, and in the best case, the oil can be used again in a few years. Worst case, never again.


As far as I’m concerned, diluting essential oils is really never a bad idea. You reduce your risk for sensitization, and per the video, adding your essential oil to a carrier is going to reduce evaporation so more of the oil might be used by your body. The added oil will also help to transport the oil further into your tissue, again maximizing the therapeutic use of the oil. And… let’s be honest, your oil will last longer.

Some tips on dilution:

Some oils are what we consider “hot”. Oregano, cinnamon, peppermint, lemongrass, and clove are all hot oils. These oils can cause a burning sensation when put directly on the skin, and in some cases can cause irritation and even burn the skin. Hot oils should be diluted with another neutral oil, like olive oil, coconut oil, or sweet almond oil. {See a list of carrier oils here.}

I like to keep my dilutions under 10% for adults, 5% for children, and 1% or less for babies. Always read about safety of the particular oil before using with children and infants.

You should also never put an essential oil in your eyes or in your ears. In the instance that an essential oil begins to burn your skin or you get some in your eyes, never dilute with water. Consider the old saying, that oil and water don’t mix. Putting water in your eye to flush out an essential oil is only going to push the oil further into your tissue, rather than wash it out. Instead, flush the area with a carrier oil to dilute it. I can say with firsthand experience, that this works very quickly.

One of my favorite ways to have oils ready to use, is prediluted in a roller ball container. I ordered mine on Amazon. These also make it really simple for the kids to apply their own oils, and I can be sure they are diluted properly.

Where to Apply

Our skin is our largest organ, and is in place to protect our bodies from threats. It is our first line of defense, but it is also permeable. We have glands in our skin that can absorb what we put on it, so choosing our personal care products carefully is critical.

The condition of the skin largely affects absorption. “There are variations between individuals in the rate at which drugs are absorbed via the skin due to factors such as thickness of the stratum corneum, skin hydration, underlying skin diseases or injuries, ethnic differences, and body temperature.” (Source)

The dermis is the thickest layer of the skin at 3-5mm, and is the systemic “gateway” into our bodies. Since we have talked about a few places NOT to put our essential oils, let’s talk about a few places we CAN put our essential oils!

Affected Area

When it comes to some kind of acute condition or discomfort, oils can be put right on the place of discomfort. For example, when I twisted me knee, I rubbed a diluted anti-inflammatory and soothing blend right onto the sore knee to help reduce inflammation and discomfort.

Sometimes there are more systemic or emotional reasons to be using an oil, in those cases, one of the following application sites.

Bottoms of the Feet

The bottoms of the feet are a really common place to use essential oils for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the soles of the feet and palms of the hand are less sensitive than other areas of the body. The skin is thicker there and less susceptible to irritation.

Secondly, there are a lot of nerve endings and pressure points. By applying an oil to the appropriate reflex point, the oil can make a bee-line to the affected area. Or that’s the theory. There is little empirical evidence out there regarding reflexology and aromatherapy combined, but that is to be expected with any natural remedy.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons by Stacy Simone

Thirdly, it is commonly said the the pores on the bottom of the feet are larger than the pores in other parts of our bodies. There is a lot of confusing information out there, and it’s unclear if this is true. There are two different kinds of glands: sebaceous glands and sweat glands. The feet do not have sebaceous glands, only sweat glands. Some people say “oil and water don’t mix” so sweat glands would repel the oil. Others say that sebaceous glands would be more likely to block an essential oil, and as long as the body isn’t actively sweating, oils can be absorbed in this manner.

All I know is that anecdotally, people have benefited from using essential oils on their feet, and the skin is less sensitive, and therefore less likely to become irritated.

Back of the Neck

The back of the neck is another common choice for using essential oils. It’s close enough to the face that you can get some aromatic benefit, and it is also close to the brain stem. I often use essential oils and blends to affect mood in this manner.

Pulse Points

Behind the ears and on the wrists are common pulse points, and great places to apply your essential oils. Pulse points provide proximity to the bloodstream for quick effect. These points are also common sites to apply perfumes, and essential oils are a great alternative to conventional perfumes!

Belly Button

The belly button is an area I had never heard of using as an application site until a friend of mine told me about it. I have found little information to corroborate it, but there are a lot of nerve endings around the belly button, just as there are on the bottoms of the feet. For that reason, it makes sense.

Getting the Most Out of Your Oils

Using essential oils topically is a great way to address many issues, but the condition of your skin can greatly affect how much of that oil actually gets into your system. It is estimated that less than 50% (more likely much lower) of the oils you apply make it into your bloodstream. Here are a few tips for increasing the absorption rate.

  • Dilute. By using some kind of carrier oil (coconut, almond, olive, etc.) the essential oil is carried deeper into your skin, and less is lost to evaporation.
  • Cover. By covering the area where the essential oil was applied, less of the oil is lost to evaporation.
  • Heat. Using heat, such as a hot washcloth or a rice bag can help the essential oil travel into your body.

So now that you know how to use essential oils on your skin, which will you use first?

Do you have a favorite topical use of essential oils? Please leave any additional questions in the comments!

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