Why Essential Oils in Skincare Get a Bad Rap
As part of our ongoing discussion about essential oils in skincare products – pros and cons – we asked Estefania Vazquez Conde, founder of The Chic Spirit, for her take on the subject (she’s done extensive research on the matter, and writes about it often on her site).
TBH, I’m still on the fence: I keep hearing that EO’s ruin the skin’s acid mantle and contribute to irritation and inflammation (aka acne breakouts!), but there’s no denying that some essential oils have positive skincare powers (here’s looking at you tea tree oil). But I’ve been doing a zero fragrance/ essential oil skincare regimen to see if my finicky, breakout-prone, angry skin gets better and I will say that it is difficult to use products that formulate without any EO’s (a moisturizer I have been using, for example, has the slightest bit of lavender oil in it — and it’s pretty far down on the ingredient list, so should I abstain entirely? IDK). My derm said to stay away from them too, at least for the time being, because my skin is NOT happy (that’s what happens when you test so many products).
Read below for Estefania’s take on essential oils and why they should be avoided if you’re having skincare issues.
“Essential oils in cosmetics are a controversial subject for many. While some are known to have soothing, antioxidant or antibacterial properties, often times the risks of including them in skincare outweigh the benefits. So, what are essential oils exactly? Essential oils are the essence or aromatic derivative of a plant, flower, root, seed or peel, often created through a process of distillation (although there are other methodologies of production). The word “essential” comes from the essence of the plant’s characteristic fragrance. In this case, essential should not be confused with indispensable, as often is the case with other terms one comes across in skincare such as essential fatty acids or essential amino acids, which instead are necessary to the body and it’s functions.
The main reason cosmetic companies use essential oils in their products is because they are a ‘natural’ fragrance as opposed to a ‘synthetic’ fragrance which is made of scent compounds in a lab. However, although fragrance, wether in essential oil or synthetic form, should be avoided for anyone with sensitive skin, it could be argued that synthetic fragrance is the better choice because it is formulated in a controlled setting whereas essential oils are complex and not every factor in the mixture can be easily accounted for.
One of the biggest concerns with essential oils is that many of them can be phototoxic, cytotoxic or a mixture of both. Furthermore, although they are often added into products in quantities that are considered ‘safe’, many products contain more than one essential oil and, when the product is included in a skincare routine alongside other products containing essential oils, the skin is exposed to a quantity that may no longer safe.
Phototoxic means that a certain ingredient becomes activated by exposure to sunlight and causes damage to the skin, resembling sunburn but usually with a faster onset. Ironically, many cosmetic companies include these types of essential oils in sunscreen! Some examples of Phototoxic essential oils are:
Some but not all EOs derived from citrus fruits
Angelica Archangelica (wild celery)
Cuminum Cyminum (cumin)
Eucalyptus globulus (eucalyptus)
Pogostemon cablin (patchouli)
Zingiber officinale (ginger)
Cytotoxic means that the ingredient causes damage the cellular and organelle membranes. This type of damage is imperceptible to us because it occurs internally, but be weary of finding cytotoxic essential oils in skincare. Some examples may include:
Fusanus spicatus (sandalwood)
Lavandula latifolia (lavander)
Mentha balsamea (peppermint)
Basically, as stated, a cytotoxic substance/agent/ingredient/process kills living cells. The technical definition of Cytotoxicity is “the quality of being toxic to cells” cell-killing, cell-toxic. Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy are examples of cytotoxic therapies.
Keep in mind that, although the mechanism is not fully understood, some essential oils can be both phytotoxic & cytotoxic. Citrus aurantium dulcis (bitter orange) and Cymbopogon citratus (lemongrass) are some examples.
Sometimes you will also find components of essential oils included in the INCI of a product. The most common ones are: limonene, citronellol, eugenol, and linalool.
Since essential oils remain a controversial subject within the beauty community, as always the best bet is to document yourself as much as you can and see if removing essential oils from your skincare is beneficial to your skin. Should you reintroduce a product that contains them after a few weeks or months of not using them and see that they cause you no adverse reaction, there’s no reason you should boycott a product because it includes them. As always, you do you!”
I’d love to hear your thoughts on essential oils. Leave in the comments below!