Essential oils have been used for decades in aromatherapy and for medicinal purposes. And while they've also been used in skin care for years, there's been a noticeable movement towards natural skin care and wellness recently, especially when it comes to the use of essential oils within our products. While on the surface, essential oils and their many healing, beneficial properties seem impressive, there's an ongoing debate over whether they're actually helpful or harmful to our skin.
Let's start with the basics: essential oils are, put simply, concentrated essences of a plant. They're extracted from a plant then distilled at a highly concentrated level, and there are more than 90 of them. Examples of the most well-known include rose, eucalyptus, bergamot, frankincense, geranium, jasmine, neroli, and lavender. Chances are, a bunch of your favorite skincare products have some sort of essential oil in them, be it in large quantities or smaller, less noticeable numbers. If you're a fan of natural, "clean" beauty, there's an even higher chance you're using them on a day-to-day basis.
Why should we be worried?
So what's the deal and why should we be concerned? Well, it's worth approaching essential oils in skin care with caution, especially if you suffer from sensitive skin. "Anyone with sensitive skin or conditions such as rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis should avoid essential oils," says Rose-Marie Swift, makeup artist and founder of natural brand RMS Beauty. Why? Often essential oils are highly concentrated and act as irritants to skin types prone to reaction — and this affects more of us than we might think: "We face a staggering incidence of skin sensitivity in the Western world with reported figures ranging from 40 to 54 percent in studies across Europe and the US," notes Dr. Mervyn Patterson, cosmetic dermatologist at Woodford Medical in London. "That means that nearly 1 in 2 of the population have issues with the health of their skin that predisposes them to reacting to a topical skincare ingredient. Experimenting with various essential oils can lead to irritation and allergic reactions that can be severe."
This is all relative though, right? It's true that all essential oils and their effects do differ greatly depending on a number of variants. "The state of the original plant, the method of extraction, the concentration, the combination with other oils, and the formulation will all dramatically affect the potential penetration and biological activity of ingredients in the skin," says Dr. Patterson. But unfortunately, this exposes the next potential problem with essential oils: all of the factors above — such as the concentration and mixing — are unmonitored and unregulated by the FDA in the US. "Essential oils and their use in personal care products is an example of how random and unscientific our approach to helping our skin has become. People (and companies) can 'essentially' just make it up as they go along," Dr. Patterson explains.
"We are so brainwashed by fragrance in products that we tend to buy something just on its scent alone."
This fact is definitely a little distressing, and one that may cause you to rethink your approach to essential oils. Swift also stresses a third key issue: that essential oils are thought to be put in products to mask the smell of other inferior ingredients that could have gone rancid before they even hit the shelves in-store. "They are overused and often just used as a fragrance mask in products," she explains. "We are so brainwashed by fragrance in products that we tend to buy something just on its scent alone without asking or knowing absolutely anything of what quality is in these products. That worries me tremendously when it comes to skin as that is our largest organ and most vulnerable."
But what about the good stuff?
We've established there's cause for concern, sure. But on the flip side, we have to remember the multiple uses for essential oils and their seemingly endless list of benefits, from calming inflammation to giving the skin a hit of antioxidants. "They heal, hydrate, and give skin — and the senses — a much-needed boost," says Anita Kaushal, cofounder of hit Brit aromatherapy-based brand Mauli Rituals. Used in small, considered doses, essential oils have the potential to boost the skin's radiance and nourish deeply. Beyond skin care, the oils — particularly the smell — also help us to feel better upon application: "The smell receptors in the nose connect with the part of the brain that stores emotional memories," Kaushal notes. "Breathing in essential oils activates this area, bringing positive benefits." The good thing about these ingredients is that if you don't feel confident about using them on your face, you can always try them on your body or hair.
Essential oils: friend or foe?
It's hard to demonize essential oils to the extent that we totally write them off altogether. But there are several reasons why we should approach them with caution, particularly if using them on our face. Follow these tips when trying them:
- Buy from reputable brands you trust, rather than picking up blends that could have been concocted by an essential oil novice.
- Be careful with dosage and concentration. It's best to take a "less is more" approach to begin with, so always check the ingredients list and ask when possible what's in a product.
- Know the shelf life of your products. While they don't technically "go bad," essential oils can oxidize, deteriorate, and lose their scent and therapeutic value over time. Some ingredients like neroli and frankincense only last around a year.
- If you have sensitive skin on the face, stick to using essential oils on the body and hair, or just use them for aromatherapy purposes (inhaling them, adding some to your bath, meditating with candles, etc.).