Learning how to use essential oils topically is a little more delicate, but still fairly simple. Please remember that although most essential oils can be used topically, HOW they are used will vary from oil to oil. Some come with precautions for dilution or frequency, but even those that don't can still affect some skin types, causing itchiness or a rash if not used with mindfulness.
Know your skin type! Do you tend to have sensitive skin? Then always dilute, no matter the oil. Are you not sure? Do a patch test an area of your inner arm first. Start with one diluted drop, then increase an undiluted drop if the oil is generally safe for undiluted use in most people. And always use one oil at a time, so that if you have a negative reaction, you know what you reacted to.
Diluting NEVER hurts. It doesn't decrease the effectiveness of the oil, and may help to increase absorption by preventing evaporation, as well as decreasing the likelihood of a skin reaction, so unless you have reasons not to, it's a good idea to do so.
All the essential oils I talk about include a simple visual guide to help you know how to use essential oils:
NEAT - NEAT means you can generally apply the oil in question directly to the skin without any dilution. HOWEVER, it's still a good idea to patch test your own skin first, just in case, or follow sensitivity guidelines above if you know you have sensitive skin. Also, because dilution can't hurt and can help, it's a good idea to do it anyway.
Sensitive - "Sensitive" means that although some can apply the oil without any dilution, directly to the skin, those with sensitive skin, as well as children and the elderly, should do a patch test or dilute before use. Use a guideline of 1 drop per 1-4 oz of carrier oil, such as coconut oil, or at minimum a 1:3 ratio (1 drop of essential oil to every 3 drops of carrier).
DILUTE - These oils are very potent. It's important that you dilute these at least 1:3 and more depending on age and skin sensitivity, as they can cause irritation to any skin type when applied directly. If you're pregnant or nursing, use more caution or talk to your naturopathic doctor. I would personally avoid for children, although a high dilution rate may be okay in small amounts for a limited period of time.
Here are some other topical precautions to consider:
Citrus oils, and a few others, can cause a sensitivity to the sun. It's usually recommended to avoid sunlight for at least 12 hours of applying topically, but Bergamot in particular can cause issues for up to 3 days. We usually will apply these in the evening, or to an area of the body that won't be exposed to the sun, or we avoid topical use altogether.
Everyone is different and even the most gentle oils can still cause a reaction. If you know you're prone to sensitive skin or skin reactions, always test the oils highly diluted first, then with a lighter dilution, before trying undiluted if it's an oil that is generally recognize as one you can use "neat". Like I said above, dilution never hurts, so if in doubt, dilute.
Even if you've used an oil before without problems or don't consider yourself to have sensitive skin, you can still develop a reaction to it with excessive use over the same area of the body. Try to mix it up when possible (alternating application locations AND the oils you're using) and dilute as necessary. Again, diluting never hurts. Because you may not know you have a sensitivity, this is why many say you should ALWAYS dilute. You may feel comfortable not diluting some "neat" oils, but when in doubt, dilute.
It's usually better to "layer" oils than to blend them. What this means is that if you're using 2 or more oils topically, apply one, then wait between 5-30 minutes and apply the other over it (instead of mixing a drop of each in your hand and then rubbing this into the skin). Mixing the oils is as much an art as it is a science, which is why we tend to stick to the blends a company has already created, since we know they are safe and effective.
Here's how to use essential oils in some of the most popular topical applications:
In a Massage: Massage is one of the most enjoyable ways to use essential oils topically. Massaging the oils into joints, muscles, and tissues is relaxing and beneficial. Always move toward the heart when working on the arms and legs and avoid a heavy hand, or moving over the spine or other sensitive areas, with too much pressure.
Over the Area of Concern: The next option is to apply the oils to the chest, the abdomen, back of the neck, or directly over the area of concern (diluted as indicated). You can also apply to the energy centers of the body.
Over the Reflex Points: But probably the best, most effective, and yet gentlest option for how to use essential oils, especially for sensitive skin, children, or elderly, is to apply the oils to the reflex points of the feet, hands, and even ears (still dilute as needed). The feet especially are beneficial because they still quickly the oil into the blood stream, but they are tough enough to make the likelihood of irritation much less if your skin is prone to reactions, and they are easy to cover if you don't like the aroma or if you're applying to a child and don't want them touching it (cover their feet with socks). The reflex points of the hands and feet also correspond to the different areas of the body by way of the nervous system. Learning how to use essential oils is made easier with visual guides to reflexology to understand which reflex points to massage the oil into based on the area of the body you wish to support. Follow these guides below:
Other ideas on how to use essential oils topically:
Auricular Therapy: Similar to acupuncture, acupressure, or reflexology, auricular therapy stimulates small reflex points on and around the ears by massaging the essential oil into the area. (Try some Lavender to help calm an upset child.)
Hot or Cold Compresses: Soak a cloth or towel in cool water with drops of your favorite essential oil to place over the area of concern. Or wrap the cloth/towel in a hot water bottle to use as a warm compress. (Oils for muscles and joints and a cool or warm compress on the muscles is amazing.)
Bathing, Foot Baths, Etc: You can add essential oils to your bathwater, to your bath salts, or to a foot bath to soak in. (Melaleuca in a foot bath helps soothe itchy feet.) When using it in these ways, it's often a good idea to mix with a carrier oil to help disperse the oil and protect your skin from getting multiple drops all in one (potentially very sensitive) area!
Personal Care: You can use essential oils as a natural deodorant (applied "neat", diluted, or in a homemade deodorant recipe, depending on your needs and the oil in question), as part of a skin care regimen, added to lotion or moisturizers, and so on. (Skin regenerating oils might be a wonderful oil for skin care, from fine lines to irritated skin.)