There has been an explosion of skin care products claiming to be natural. The word natural, of course, means different things to different people. In skin care, the use of natural is not regulated and therefore subject to manipulation. Typically, it is used by brands to imply their skin care products are better and safer for you. Unfortunately, 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 skin types.
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.
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 phyto-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.
While it really is best to avoid essential oils in skin care products, this is not so easy. 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.
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding 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.
The list of oils that affect pets is long, and so is the misleading list of what oils are claimed to be good for pets. It really is best not to expose your pets to essential oils, unless something has been specifically prescribed for your pet by a vet. There is way too much misinformation about the use of essential oils for pets and this could lead to needless suffering or even the death of your precious one. Also do not forget to ensure your pet has a safe and unscented place to escape to when using fragrance or fragrant candles around the home.