Everything you need to know about essential oils, from how to identify them in your products, to what they actually do to your skin.
Suffice it to say we’ve had a rocky relationship with oils and our skin. After years of shunning all things slick for fear of their supposed pore-clogging and sebum-exacerbating qualities, we gradually learned—thanks to the tireless efforts of aestheticians and derms—that no, actually, oils aren’t public enemy number one and, in fact, are beneficial for the skin. That said, “oils” is a broad term that encompasses both different sources and types, with the two most common being botanical and essential.
While both are technically oils, they are worlds apart in everything from how they look and how they are sourced to what they do for our skin. In fact, while nearly all experts believe that botanical oils are essential to healthy skin, essential oils exist in a bit of a grey area, with some believing that they have beneficial qualities, while others, like aesthetician and cosmetic formulator Mary Schook, thinking—with some notable exceptions—that the only place they belong is in your diffuser.
To get to the bottom of the “friend or foe” debate on essential oils, we talked to the experts—Schook, dermatologist Dr. Mona Gohara, and Uma founder Shrankhla Holecek (whose family estate is one of the beauty world’s most renowned suppliers of organic oils)—about the different types of oils, what they do for the skin, how to identify them on a label, and if you should be using them at all.
Read on to get the lowdown on all things slippery.
Botanical vs. Essential
Before we delve into the relationship these oils have with your skin, you first need to understand the difference between the two. As Holecek explains, a botanical oil (oftentimes called a carrier oil) is typically cold-pressed from fruits, nuts, and seeds—think coconut, grapeseed, plum, almond, jojoba, etc. “They are fatty in nature and don’t have strong aromas,” she says. They tend to be less expensive and are used as the base of most skin-care oils and moisturizers.
They are called carriers because they are usually meant to dilute or “carry” the stronger and more potent essential oils, which can be too harsh to put undiluted onto the skin. Says Schook, “Carrier oils help to deliver benefits of essential oils deeper into the skin, usually using the follicle entrance as a transport.”
Essential oils, on the other hand, are “a blanket term for the aromatic compounds derived from plants,” continues Schook. “They are aromatic, concentrated plant extracts that are carefully obtained through steam distillation, cold pressing, resin tapping, or solvent extraction.” Essential oils don’t actually look like an oil as we know it—they more closely resemble a liquid and can evaporate if left out in the open. They are very concentrated and pricey, meaning brands only use small amounts of them in their products, both for safety purposes and cost effectiveness.
Basically, explains Schook, “a carrier oil is the fatty part of the plant (generally the seed), and essential oils come from the aromatic part of the plant (leaves, et cetera). For example, hemp seed oil does not have the terpenes or other properties that the flower, leaf, or stem has. It has a nutty smell, not the weedy smell you get from the rest of the plant.”
The Essential Oils Debate
Here’s where things get a bit contentious. While no one disputes the nourishing and moisturizing benefits of carrier oils, essential oils have skin experts split.
On the pro side are those like Holecek, who believe that the right essential oils, when expertly sourced and crafted, can be beneficial by helping to improve specific skin issues as an alternative to conventional beauty treatments. “Essential oils and essential oil blends have extremely targeted and highly potent effects on skin care and wellness, and have been used for centuries in natural therapy techniques,” she notes. She points to essential oils like lavender, which she says have been shown to have esters to help skin heal, tea tree and clove for managing acne, and chamomile, which has azulene that can help with cellular turnover and skin-barrier strengthening. “Then you add in the additional vitamin and antioxidant support that a carrier base oil can provide, and voilà—you have a potent, all-organic skin-care solution without fillers or synthetics.”
On the anti side are those like Schook, who believe that, for the most part, essential oils are overused and overhyped in the industry and have seen many clients dealing with skin issues that can be linked to their sensitizing ingredients (more on that later). “Essential oils are seen as holistic, and with a clean and green movement under way, you’re seeing a massive deluge of them being used because they are perceived as ‘natural’ and safe compared to synthetics,” she says. “While the purpose might be to create a synergy between the oils, I sometimes feel like companies like to put in a long list of essential oils so that the consumer perceives a higher value and benefit in the product.”
That said, she does note that there are some cases where essential oils can be beneficial. From an aromatherapy standpoint, essential oils—when combined with massage therapy—have been shown in studies to benefit depression and anxiety, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence around the mood-altering effects of sniffing essential oils like lavender, peppermint, and citrus.
She also admits that there are some specific examples she’s come across that have demonstrated tangible benefits. “At very low percentages, while maintaining high quality, [essential oils] can have benefits for the skin,” she says. “For instance, the tea tree in Averr Aglow’s Clear Skin Elixir is the perfect percentage and I think is part of the success that brand has at helping to clear up skin.” She also points to scientific studies showing how some essential oils can help increase the penetration and delivery of certain drugs. “A great example of this is eucalyptus being used to help penetrate CBD oil better, which is why you see a lot of topical CBD formulas with some kind of peppermint or eucalyptus oil.”
The Dark Side of Essential Oils
You know all those articles you see written (guilty) about how just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you? Essential oils are a prime example of this unwritten rule. Explains Dr. Gohara, “Essential oils are highly concentrated plant extracts. Although they can aid in hyperpigmentation, toning, and moisturizing, it’s like walking a tightrope because they can also cause irritation, burning, and extreme sensitivity.”
That same potency that makes them such potential powerhouses for the skin can also make them dangerous if not diluted properly. “Because they’re so concentrated, essential oils must be handled with care and be diluted in a carrier before direct application to skin,” says Holecek. “Treat essential oils as you would a potent synthetic skin-care ingredient—would you use undiluted retinol or a 100 percent glycolic acid directly on your skin?” (Hint: That’s a big ol’ nope, unless you feel like literally burning off the top few layers of your face.)
Another big downside is photosensitivity—essential oils, particularly citrus oils, can cause sun sensitivity and enhance your susceptibility to sun damage. Meaning if you do decide to use products containing them, you better be loading up (and reapplying, frequently) with sunscreen.
The Smart Shopper’s Guide to Essential Oils
If you want to add essential oils to your routine, you’re sadly in for a bit of a frustrating endeavor. Schook’s main complaint with essential oils (as is mostly the case with products in the clean beauty space) is that science and regulations are either lacking or missing when it comes to ingredients and formulation claims, particularly in the United States. “The plant and species, location of the plant, and the extraction method are a big part of the quality of the essential oil,” she explains, “and thus general claims with the essential oils versus the actual ingredient [in the product] comes into play. I see a lot of borrowed claims [on labels referencing the general ingredient] because there is very little science about the specific product formulas to back up their claims.”
Holecek agrees, saying, “One of the big reasons I think some feel allergic to essential oils is either poorly formulated essential oil products that are improperly mixed or diluted, or worse, essential oils that are actually contaminated because of poor source control. As with any active ingredient, risk of damage exists with essential oils that are not properly diluted or may be adulterated, just like you would with a badly formulated acid product.”
Unfortunately, because of the lack of regulation, it’s very much a buyer-beware scenario, wherein it’s up to the consumer to do the heavy lifting to figure out if a product is legit. And while there are brands like Uma that use high-quality oils and clearly call out their origins, most labels won’t tell you things like the plant species or extraction method. However, there are some things you can do to help ensure (as much as possible) you are getting a safe product.
First up is to familiarize yourself with which essential oils have the most potential for irritation. Holecek says that essential oils of clove, turmeric, and eucalyptus can be particularly sensitizing without dilution, as well as some citrus. So if you already have very sensitive skin, you might want to skip those. Lavender, on the other hand, is generally tolerated well by all skin types, but over time will cause sensitivity. She notes that making sure the essential oil is contained in a high-quality carrier oil is also a good indication of both the safety of the formulation and how your skin will interact with it. Her top picks for carrier oils are pomegranate, coconut, avocado, and almond (although, she warns, those last three are comedogenic, so people with acne-prone skin should avoid them).
Schook says that while labels shouldn’t necessarily be trusted, since they don’t tell the whole story of the origins or quality of the ingredients, in general you will be able to identify an essential oil on a label because it will be listed clearly as one, i.e., lavender essential oil, as opposed to lavender extract, lavender hydrosol, or just lavender. “You should also look for your essential oils to be at the very bottom of the ingredient label so at least you know that it is the lightest ingredient in your formulation.”
And finally, if you find a cheap essential oil, it is too good to be true. “Essential oils are powerful substances in arguably a plant’s most concentrated form,” says Holecek, meaning they are pricey for the manufacturer to purchase for their products. “If it’s cheap,” says Schook, “it’s likely being diluted with a filler or synthetic.”
Like many things in the beauty industry, the scientific evidence around essential oils is scant, but that’s not to say there isn’t value in it as an ingredient. As long as you are smart about how you use them, do your research, and invest in quality formulations, they’re worth exploring as a possible addition to your regular skin repertoire. And hey, if they’re not for you, there’s always the aromatherapy diffuser.
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