Essential oils have become quite a hot button issue over the last few years. I’ve seen some drastic statements claiming that all essential oils (or EOs) are somehow toxic, and it feels like there’s a race for every beauty brand to declare that they’re essential oil-free. I swear there are some people and brands out there that make you feel like using EOs at all will make your face fall off. And if there’s one thing that I totally reject in beauty marketing it’s using fear to get people to buy or not buy product, and using the word “toxic” is total overkill.
However, let me be clear—I’m referring purely to essential oils that are used in skin care or cosmetic products. Essential oils that you can purchase in bottles are an entirely different beast that must be handled with care and caution. There are some essential oil companies that shall remain unnamed that want you to do all types of stuff with essential oils including ingesting them. I have yet to hear of a practicing physician advising you to consume essential oils. That can actually be toxic, and there’s not much more to say other than I do not advise that at all.
Besides, essential oils are not meant to be used undiluted or neat on the skin. If they aren’t properly diluted before being applied to the skin, the results can be very intense, painful, and severe. We’re talking the potential for burns and irritation on the skin that require medical attention. I know I just mentioned not liking the use of fear, but to be extra clear again, I’m referring to marketing in that case. This is serious, people. Do NOT try to DIY skin care with essential oils.
If there’s one thing that I totally reject in beauty marketing it’s using fear to get people to buy or not buy product, and using the word “toxic” is total overkill.
Essential oils included in skin care ingredient lists, however, are a different story and require a bit more investigation. Let’s break it down.
Essential Oils vs. Carrier Oils
One of the main distinctions I need to make is that not all oils are essential oils: There are carrier oils and essential oils. Carrier oils are often used, as the name suggests, as carriers for other ingredients that must be diluted, like essential oils. The most common carrier oils are derived from things like nuts, seeds, and fruits, and are usually going to be found higher on an ingredients list than essential oils. Sweet almond oil, coconut oil, marula oil, argan oil, and hemp seed oil are some of the most common stars of this category, and anything in the carrier oil family can be used on its own without dilution. An honorable mention to jojoba oil is deserved as well—it looks and feels like an oil, but is technically a wax that’s liquid at room temperature.
Essential oils are normally derived from other parts of plants like the roots and the leaves, and are going to be found near the bottom of a product ingredients list. This is because—and I cannot stress this enough—you are not meant to use essential oils on the skin without diluting them first. They also generally have a strong scent to them that you’re definitely going to notice—think of things like tea tree oil, ylang ylang oil, lemongrass oil, neroli oil, patchouli oil, oregano oil, or bergamot oil. Depending on who you ask, you’ll be told these types of oils are purely for fragrance purposes and aren’t necessary, or you’ll hear they each have potent properties that can benefit your skin.
The Case Against Essential Oils
The group of people who believe essential oils should not be included at all in skin care is definitely larger than those who believe in their use. The overwhelming reason is the belief that they cause more harm than good, even when properly diluted in a formulation. The concern from this camp is that even if there is not an obvious, dramatic reaction on the skin like redness or burning, EOs still can cause low-level inflammation that, over time, can lead to heightened sensitivity and overall just weaker skin.
Even when there’s an acknowledgement that some EOs have been scientifically shown to have benefits, those against EOs say that other alternative ingredients are available that can accomplish the same thing without the significant risk of irritation. A good example of this is from Paula Begoun of Paula’s Choice, who says that EOs like rosemary oil and tea tree oil have been proven to have beneficial effects on acne-prone skin, but other ingredients, like benzoyl peroxide, are equally effective without as great of a chance of skin irritation.
The Case For Essential Oils
On the other side of the fence, you have the group of people who believe essential oils can be used to great positive effect on the skin. There’s an acceptance of the fact that if used improperly, EOs can cause problems rather than help address them, but so can any active ingredient on the skin like retinoids or acids. Some cannot tolerate certain types of ingredients altogether (I have a friend who cannot use any form of vitamin C on her skin without serious rashes popping up), but most people can use the majority of active ingredients in some form. This same rationale is applied to EOs—some people aren’t able to tolerate them, but most people can use them in some form.
The quality of product being used and the formulation is important, according to formulator and beauty brand founder Josh Rosebrook, whose eponymous skin care and hair care line includes essential oils. He claims that certain products may use incorrect proportions of EOs in their formulation or the sourcing of the ingredients is not being handled properly, resulting in rancid or pre-diluted EOs being put into products.
Such poor quality of essential oils can result in the final product having negative effects on the skin, and these negative results are then attributed to all products containing EOs. This, of course, may not be an accurate representation of what essential oils can do when properly sourced and utilized. When used correctly, scientific studies show the positive effects EOs can have, argues Rosebrook, which include anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibacterial effects.
When used correctly, scientific studies show the positive effects EOs can have, which include anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibacterial effects.
Find What Works For You
So where do I stand? As always, somewhere in the middle. I’ve used products from both Josh Rosebrook and Paula’s Choice with great success. I approach EOs the same way I approach any other active ingredient—I make sure that I’m only incorporating one product containing EOs at a time, with several weeks in between, and they’re the first thing out if my skin starts throwing a fit.
Essential oils definitely need to be approached with caution, just like many other ingredients I choose to use. But they also have provided me with some noticeable benefits. They help calm irritation and take down redness in my skin. And they provide a deeply calming, pleasant user experience, thanks to their scent, and that is hard to say no to.