illustration of Hemlock from an old book

Hemlock. Not actually good for you, or so I’ve heard. (from Otto Wilhelm Thomé: Flora von Deutschland, Österreich u.d. Schweiz, Gera (1885))

Detoxing my home and beauty regime has been an eye-opening experience. The notion of “living naturally”–a typical-part of the DIY detox, has a lot of people talking about the dangers of modern chemistry and the health and environmental benefits of using more natural products. For the most part, I agree with this. But I’ve also encountered a few beliefs that are widespread in the DIY community that I feel the need to dispute.

Why dispute? Well, Realm, I’ve actually managed to make myself sicker in my attempt to cut back on chemicals. As I write this, my ears are so swollen I can’t put earrings on, I have a rash around my neck, and my face is so puffy I’m debating calling in to work to warn them maybe they don’t want me as a receptionist today. I still lean pro-nature over chemistry, but I have some new myth-busting caveats that I’d like to offer up for anyone else trying to take the plunge. Today I’m going to talk about my biggest pet peeve with DIY information I’ve seen.

If it comes from a plant, it’s safe.

* Corollary – essential oils can’t cause an allergic reaction; only synthetic fragrances

This is my biggest pet peeve because it’s an unsafe assumption. Faith in this idea is why I’m currently a puffy, itchy mess.

I have been seeing a dermatologist this year because I’ve been having some allergic skin problems. (The initial problem might’ve been due to starting my day with a green smoothie–not necessarily a good idea if you’re allergic to nickel! But that’s a different story.) He did a patch test on me and determined that I’m allergic to PPD (hair dye) and nickel–both of which I already knew. I also found out that (among other new things) I’m allergic to fragrance. I didn’t know that one. I didn’t worry about it, though, because I don’t wear perfume and I avoid products that use “parfum” or “fragrance” as an ingredient. (I’ve already written about why that’s a scary ingredient listing.)

Turns out, I should’ve been very worried. I’ve made a couple batches of soap with lemongrass essential oil and have also been using a (purchased) shampoo and conditioner made from plant-based ingredients and honey. I also recently switched to a tooth powder recipe using cinnamon. None of these have synthetic fragrance in them, so when rash exploded on both my legs and spread to my forearms, it took me a long time to connect that my hair products, soap, and tooth powderwere causing it. When the allergic reaction reached my face (not long after I started the tooth powder), I started crying because I felt so out of control of my allergies. But working with my dermatologist and the research he’s given me, I’m hopeful we can end the current outbreak and prevent future ones–at least of this magnitude!.

Here’s something I didn’t realize: synthetic fragrances are often derived from the same plant “essences” as essential oils. In a fragrance patch test, in addition to synthetic compounds, they check for eugenol, cinnamic aldehyde, oak moss, and geraniol–all of which are found in essential oils, often even touted as the reason for many benefits. According to the research my dermatologist gave me, geraniol is found in over 250 essential oils, including lavender, jasmine, rose, and geranium. A quick internet search will show that lemongrass also has it. Eugenol is found in clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, basil, anise, bay, and many other natural ingredients–hence the allergic reaction to the tooth powder.

Several sources claim that essential oils can’t be allergens because they don’t contain protein. This sounds scientific, but it’s flat-out wrong. Nickel? Not a protein. And yet it’s the leading cause for ACDAllergic contact dermatitis–in most countries. ACD from nickel or fragrance or whatever else all work the same as the well known ACD caused by poison ivy. When someone with a nickel allergy wears jewelry containing nickel, his/her skin reacts with the same allergic response most people have to poison ivy. The same thing happens when people allergic to geraniol “fragrance” put lemongrass or lavender essential oil on their skin–even if it’s diluted in a carrier oil, as you should always do with essential oils.

Let me repeat that. If you are allergic to geraniol, using lavender essential oil is like using poison ivy. So when people post articles like this one, claiming essential oils can’t cause allergic reactions–and then claiming that the rash you develop is some sort of helpful detox reaction–it just scares the crap out of me that somebody’s going to continue using something they’re allergic to in the mistaken belief they’re helping themselves. Allergic reactions get worse over time, not better. If you continue to use something you are allergic to, you can tank your health. If you have a topical fragrance allergy, essential oils must be used with extreme caution.

Nature is powerful, and I sometimes think in our drive to be “one with Gaia” it’s easy to forget that Gaia sends hurricanes along with gentle rains. As I think I’ve mentioned before (GG wants me to point out where, but I can’t find it…maybe I haven’t…), Heathens tend to be a lot more leery of nature than most other Pagan faiths. As I learn more about living with allergies, I have days where I feel like I’m battling a jotunn–a dangerous force of nature. I don’t want to give up on my battle to detox my life, but this certainly has been a setback, and I’m not totally sure what I’m going to do about it.

What about you, Realm? Have you ever had unexpected consequences derail your good intentions? And does anybody have any ideas for naturally curing dermatitis–without essential oils?

+ Featured Image: Calendula Officinalis by KENPEI (I have no idea what I did to this flower in a prior life, but it hates me with a fiery passion. Allergic I am.)