The Truth About Essential Oils In Skin Care

 

Anything that is delicate, pure and has value in this world eventually gets taken advantage of. When there is a demand for something, an adulterated version will always come along. Whether it’s green tea, honey, agave, nut and seed oils, spices, or any essential oil.

Essential oils are a hot topic right now, there's an enormous amount of misinformation being spread and it's become very damaging to essential oils, skin care, and natural medicine. It's also very harmful to humans - there are many people that need the therapeutic, medicinal, and beauty benefits of essential oils. Essential oils are powerful and extremely effective but they can also be used wrong or be adulterated and be harmful. 

With the popularity of natural and organic products, some brands are also jumping on a marketing opportunity to differentiate themselves and trying to pull customers away from the booming green beauty industry that typically formulates with EO's by telling consumers, "we don't use essential oils - they aren't good for you" – or worse, blanket statements I've read saying "essential oils are toxic." Which is absolutely not true and horribly misleading. 

Pure, organic essential oils formulated professionally assist the skin in proper function and health. Essential oils contain a vast array of healing and skin-supporting benefits and are characterized by the most important antioxidant properties[1]. They must be used at specific concentrations, they must be pure, organic and unadulterated, and they must not be past their shelf life. This is where many brands and products go wrong and essential oils are incorrectly blamed. When EO's are used in too high of a concentration, or if an impure, oxidized, or fake essential oil is used, they can be sensitizing, dangerous, and damaging to your health. Essential oils that have been adulterated, are NOT essential oils.

Essential oils do contain potential allergens. But they are not sensitizing to all people - in fact, most people have no issue with pure, organic, and unadulterated EO’s, and find pure, organic EO's extremely therapeutic, anti-inflammatory[2] and regenerating[3], to the skin[4] as well as acne skin conditions[5]. The molecules that are a potential trigger for some are the same molecules that deliver the extraordinary benefit to most. Essential oils may not be for absolutely everyone - but what skin care ingredient in the world is for everyone. 

Essential oils are extremely complex and powerful and must be formulated professionally.

Here is a quote from a popular brand that doesn't use essential oils responding to a customer's inquiry about essential oils: 

"The compounds that make up essential oils are toxic. Their purpose is actually to work as a plant’s defense mechanisms (re: pesticide) against fungus or being eaten by bugs. That explains why they have antibacterial or anti-fungal properties, as well as why they can be sensitizing to skin. Natural or not, our take is that pesticides aren’t a good thing to expose your skin to on a regular basis." 

The quoted statement above is false, without merit, and misleading. Saying that 'the compounds that make up essential oils are toxic' is ridiculous. The components of EO’s do work as pesticides in the plants - science has shown - but that is how the plant kingdom survives, not just plants that create EO’s, and EO’s are being singled out and vilified. By making essential oils out to be "toxic" is truly ignorant, greedy and drives fear. Also, this brand formulates with conventionally grown plants, so they’re actually having their customers apply pesticides to their skin in trace amounts if you want to look at it that way. Snap.  

If a brand formulates without any given ingredient, and they are going to talk about that ingredient they don't use and continually share why, that is their marketing, and they have to take responsibility to fully understand what they are publicly implying and be entirely accurate.

Yes, there are essential oils that can be dangerous when used wrong or certain ones that should be avoided during pregnancy, this applies mainly to these essential oils being taken internally (which should not be done) or when certain essential oils are used inappropriately topically, or "neat." 

Essential oils are whole, complete plant compounds. They contain the life force of the plant, which makes them beneficial and powerful. Within their dynamic mixture, the extremely beneficial molecules are also what can cause sensitivity and possible irritation.  

Now, for those people who have extremely sensitive skin and/or skin issues, yes, EO’s should be avoided at first to find out what is going on with the skin. Sensitive skin is not always a type, but a condition, which can ultimately be healed, but many ingredients should be avoided when skin is in this condition to determine what is going on internally and topically. This is why, as with any new product, you should do a skin patch test first.

Quality and formulation are queen. Always. As we've discussed, essential oils being effective in skin care has to do with many things, and the purity/quality, shelf life/stability/oxidizing, and the EO's dilution in the formulation are a massive part. Many essential oils are anti-inflammatory[6] with antioxidant[7] benefits, but they must be used in precise concentrations to be beneficial for the skin. Inexperienced brands may increase the amount of EO’s to cover the natural nut and seed aromas, often making the concentration too high for topical therapeutic benefits. It's a slippery slope out there with brands making “natural” products however suits them, without the proper formulation or experience in natural cosmetic development. And even when some brands do incorporate high quality, organic essential oils, they may use them in an incorrect concentration, which can then cause the EO to cross over from being beneficial to skin to sensitizing or irritating. The EO's aren't always to blame. It can be the formulation of the EO's, the poor quality and/or oxidized/expired EO's. 

My friend and industry professional, Sandra Chiu LAC, an herbalist and acupuncturist who focuses on holistic dermatology, shares her opinion:

"In my opinion, it is essential that any skincare formulated with EOs be done so by formulator(s) who are professionally trained. Like herbal medicine, these powerful plant essences can be injurious to skin if used improperly or on the wrong skin types. Who would ever think to go to an herbalist who just read a book about them? 
There is a saying that goes: the only difference between a toxin and a medicine is dosage. So if used in amounts too high EOs can become harmful. But used in appropriate concentration at the right time, on the right person, can be the perfect fit. The tricky part is how much is the right amount for any given individual? The right amount for one person can be harmful to another. This requires professional training and experience to know. People like to include essential oils in skincare because of their healing properties. So if you make something with them, in a way you have put yourself in the role of a physician. And all physicians take the Hippocratic oath which demands: Physician do no harm. And this guides every decision you make when delivering medicine. So I have no problem with people who aren’t professionally trained in EOS making products for themselves, family etc. But once you get into the game of making skin care for the masses you and or your team of formulators need to know what you’re doing to make sure everyone is safe and benefits."

 

ESSENTIAL OILS DO HAVE A SHELF LIFE

 

EO’s, just like any pure oil, have a shelf-life and degrade over time, with the rare exception of patchouli, vetiver, and sandalwood, which actually improve with age. Essential oils should be stored in a cool, dark place or even refrigerated. Exposure to spoiled essential oils may[8] cause skin rashes and more serious allergic reactions.

These are some common allergens within essential oils, but can also be found as "isolates," which are molecules removed/isolated from a natural fragrance material and can be added to products for fragrance and preservation:

Linalool, found naturally in lavender and helichrysum and very stable, Limonene, Geraniol, found naturally in geranium and grapefruit and less stable, Farnesol, Benzyl Benzoate - when noted on labels as “natural constituents within essential oils," these are legal notations required by the EU that the allergens stated are already WITHIN the essential oils, not isolates added to the formulation. 

In addition to additives, many companies (usually for cost-effective reasons) pass off one essential oil for another[9]. This not only affects the integrity of the EO and it’s potential in being therapeutic, but it can actually increase the possibility of sensitivity and allergic reaction.

 

My friend Hope Gillerman of Hope Gillerman Organics contributed her professional thoughts as well:

  • The formulator and the manufacturer must be knowledgeable - and the retail seller manages their inventory properly so they don’t sell product past the shelf life.
  • Properly, professionally formulated - using only .25 for sensitive skin, and up to 1.5% for oily skin, and by avoiding oils that are prone to irritate the skin.
  • The essential oils have been sourced properly and are unadulterated and not contaminated.
  • Proper storage - Oils that are past their shelf life, or subject to prolonged heat and light exposure have oxidized and may even be rancid making them possible skin irritants and they lose their potency.

Hope is the author of the book Essential Oils Every Day and she expresses her thoughts on Essential Oils in skincare - here are a few highlights:

First, the more diluted an essential oil product, the safer it is to use. 

Skin care products use such small amounts of essential oils, there is much less likelihood of a reaction. For example, jasmine absolute is a possible skin irritant at levels more than .7%. While this amount may sound like very little, Jasmine has such an intense, strong scent and high cost, it is unlikely to be more anywhere near that percentage in a skin care preparation, whereas it might be in a much higher concentration in a “natural perfume”. - Hope Gillerman

 

Second, the closer essential oils get to your face, the more they will affect your health and wellbeing. 

Essential oils evaporate into invisible vapors as soon as they are exposed to air. When you apply to your face, you breathe in the essential oil vapors. and then your body absorbs these vapors very effectively and quickly into your brain and lungs.  Not only can inhaling an essential oil change your mood and lower your anxiety level, it can also lower the cortisol in your bloodstream. If you think of how stress and hormonal changes have such a powerful effect on our skin, how perfect that we have built-in stress reducers (like neroli and sandalwood for sensitive skin) and hormone balancer (like geranium and clary sage for breakouts and aging skin) in our skincare regime. My skin would still be covered in a full on rash every September if it weren’t for the essential oils in my face oil. - Hope Gillerman

 

THE PROVEN BENEFITS OF UNADULTERATED ESSENTIAL OILS

 

The benefits of applying pure essential oils to the skin are numerous. There are hundreds of verifiable, scientific studies. Rose oil for example, as discussed in a recent paper published January 12, 2018 -  “Essential Oils And Their Single Compounds In Cosmetics - A Critical Review” By Asja Sarkic and Iris Stappen, from the Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, University of Vienna, has antimicrobial, anti-HIV, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties[10].  And due to its antibacterial properties, Rose EO is incredibly effective as a moisturizing acne treatment.

The same paper discussed a study conducted to compare the effects of a German chamomile extract and 1% topical hydrocortisone ointment in colostomy patients diagnosed with peristomal skin lesions. And the results implicated that chamomile oil is just as an effective treatment for skin lesions, showing positive anti-inflammatory and antipruritic effects.

In addition to healing scar tissue, essential oils have also been proven to have sun-blocking and wrinkle-reducing effects[11]. With all the positive research around the use of pure, unadulterated essential oils[12], it’s really unfortunate how brands that choose not to use EO’s are influencing people and the negativity in the market surrounding truly incredible, therapeutic botanicals. I urge everyone to do proper research on brands and products that claim to use essential oils because when they are pure, fresh, unadulterated and formulated professionally, they can be incredibly effective for so many skin issues and slowing skin aging and decline.

 

[1] Aruoma O.I. Free radicals, oxidative stress, and antioxidants in human health and disease. J. Am. Oil Chem. Soc. 1998;75:199–212. doi: 10.1007/s11746-998-0032-9.

[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378874117300120

[3] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214008517300068

[4] http://www.journalrepository.org/media/journals/EJMP_13/2012/Dec/1354795022-Bertuzzi%20et%20al_312012EJMP1987.pdf

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18838824

[6] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S221400851730010X

[7] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167732215303834

[8] http://info.achs.edu/blog/debunking-dangerous-myths-about-essential-oils

[9] https://westcoastaromatherapy.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/The-Adulteration-of-Essential-Oils.pdf

[10] 1/12/18 Essential Oils And Their Single Compounds In Cosmetics - A Critical Review- Asja Sarkic and Iris Stappen, Department of Pharmaceutical Chemistry, University of Vienna

[11] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1011134416310016

[12] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10082788