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Essential Oils in Skin Care

Essential oils are everywhere in the world of beauty. You’ll find them in skin care, body care and hair care products.

They’re commonly used for their active compounds or to add fragrance to products. Some essential oils are even used as preservatives.

The explosion in natural skin care has led to an increase in the use of essential oils. Brands like to market the benefits of the essential oils and claim their products only use natural fragrance.

But, as with other things in life, there is more to this story than first meets the eye. Essential oils may have a good many benefits, however they also come with some cautions.

Natural skin care and essential oils

In skin care, the use of natural is not regulated and therefore subject to manipulation. Unfortunately, however, many skin care products that claim to be natural are not as skin loving as you might think.

Natural skin care brands often use high amounts of essential oils to fragrance and preserve their products. And this can cause serious skin issues, such as contact dermatitis or allergic skin rash.

Increasingly, though, essential oils are being used across the board, from organic skin care through to cosmeceutical skin care. This appears to be more about increasing sales than creating better products. It is troubling, given what we know about these essential oils, that essential oils are so heavily pushed as being skin miracles when they can cause irritation, contact dermatitis and sensitisation in many people.

Skin reactions to essential oils

We hear it all the time from the brands: “We’re only using small amounts”, yet there is no declaration of what that amount is.

For some people, a concentration of 5% can cause sensitisation, whereas for others it may only be less than 1%.

Two points to consider: When used to replace preservatives,  essential oils are not being used in ‘small’ amounts. And, besides, even small amounts can be quite harmful over the long term for you and your skin.

While essential oils may have some beneficial effects, they can also cause skin inflammation at the epidermal level and in the basal layer, where it is not as immediately obvious to you but can lead to skin problems later on.

Skin sensitisation can make your skin reactive and sometimes this can happen without warning, years down the track. Essential oils also can lead to photo-sensitisation and severe skin burns, blistering, swelling, hyperpigmentation and even an allergic response.

This is because some essential oils contain allergenic compounds, typically monoterpenes and sequiterpenes. Tea Tree Oil may be great to treat fungal nail infections when used for a short period, however it may not be a good choice to treat acne over the long term.

Allergic compounds in essential oils

Many essential oils used in skin care products can trigger skin reactions. These include Basil, Black Pepper, Camphor, Cinnamon, Citrus, Clary Sage, Clove, Fennel, Frankincense, Geranium, Ginger, Jasmine, Juniper Berry, Mint, Lemon Verbena, Neroli, Nutmeg, Oregano, Patchouli, Peppermint, Petitgrain, Rosemary, Sage, Spruce, Thyme, Verbena, Wintergreen, Ylang Ylang…

Some essential oils contain compounds called furanocourmarins. These compounds react when exposed to sunlight, in particular UVA rays, which penetrate clouds and glass. When applied to the skin, essential oils can suddenly activate photo-dermatitis irrespective of whether or not you may have experienced dermatitis in the past.

The worst offenders are essential oils that are commonly used in skin are products, including Angelica Root, Bergamot, Bitter Orange, Cumin, Fig Leaf Absolute, Grapefruit, Lemon, Lime, Mandarin Leaf, Neroli, and Rue. Mandarin, Parsley Leaf, Petitgrain, Mandarin and Tangerine also contain furanocourmarins, but at lower levels. Reactions can occur up to 12 hours after application following skin exposure to sunlight.

Steam-distilled essential oils

While it really is best to avoid essential oils in skin care products, this is not so easy. There are some better options, such as those that don’t contain the irritant compounds. Look for bergapten/furanocoumarin free versions, such as Bergamot – steam distilled, Lemon – steam distilled, Lime – steam distilled, Mandarin – cold pressed, Sweet Orange – cold pressed.

Skin care brands that are going to the effort of selecting these better versions are most likely going to want to tell you about them on their label! If this is not spelled out, assume they are using the standard, more irritating versions.

Even though these steam-distilled essential oils may not cause skin sensitisation when exposed to sunlight, they should not be in your skin care products in anything but very small amounts.

Anyone who is prone to contact dermatitis, has reactive skin or suffers from fragrance sensitivity may find it helpful to exclude essential oils from their skin care routine.

Also read our page on Fragrance in Skin Care.

Safety of women, children and pets

Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should be especially careful when using essential oils or products containing essential oils. In particular, they need to avoid Camphor, Hyssop, Parsley Seed, Pennyroyal, Tarragon, Wintergreen and Wormwood.

Consider also that infants and young children have thinner skin and less developed liver and immune functions. For this reason, it is often recommended that Eucalyptus, Fennel, Peppermint, Rosemary, Verbena and Wintergreen, in particular, are not be applied topically or diffused around them.

Just like infants and young children, pets are also particularly vulnerable and great care should be taken not to expose them to various essential oils, especially when diffusing them around the home. Cats and dogs have enhanced scent receptors, and this can make the aroma of essentials oils overwhelming for them. Further, their livers cannot metabolise some of the compounds present, making them more susceptible to toxicity. Cats are particularly sensitive to phenols and phenolic compounds, found in some essential oils.

There is a lot of misinformation claiming that essential oils are good for pets, and most of it is wrong. Many essential oils are harmful to animals.

It really is best not to expose your pets to essential oils, unless something has been specifically prescribed for your pet by a vet.

Exposing your animals to essential oils could lead to needless suffering or even their death. Keep them safe and away from essential oils.

Animals have a heightened sense of smell and these products can be very irritating to them. They also can cause, nose, eye and respiratory problems, as well as distress.

If you enjoy using fragranced products in the home, such as oil burners and fragranced candles, always make sure your pets have a safe and unscented place to escape to.