Is It Safe To Use Products With Essential Oils On Your Face?
by Heather Smith on Jan 18, 2022
What Are Essential Oils?
The modern world of essential oils is grounded in aromatherapy. In some cases, the chemicals extracted are also desired for their internal or external effects on the body.
The history of essential oils is tied to that of herbal medicine from the ancient world. It's easy for modern scientists and physicians to discount the potential benefits, but it does us well to remember how so many of our current medical breakthroughs originated from natural, plant-based ingredients and phytochemicals (note: I'm not a herbalist or naturopath. I don't advise taking any extracted plant compounds internally).
It's also important to remember the natural vs. chemical debate, simply being natural and plant-extracted does not make these chemicals automatically safe!
Many chemicals are extracted from plants, those responsible for the production of the aroma are called terpenes. Aromatic compounds are considered volatile because they will degrade into byproducts, evaporate readily, and are destabilized easily by UV light and temperature.
The term aromatherapy didn't come about until the late 1930s. The story goes that a scientist used undiluted lavender oil to treat skin burns from a laboratory explosion and found that his pain was healed and his wounds didn't get infected or develop scars (sounds great, but please do not do this…).
Essential oils require dilution by any one of many carrier oil options. Individual carrier facial oils each have their own characteristics and are an entire topic of their own.
How Are Essential Oils Extracted?
A common way to extract essential oils is with steam distillation. The plant (or flower or leaf or root) is placed onto a grid inside a sill. The chamber is sealed and high temperatures cause the essential oils to evaporate. They rise up through a collecting pipe and then condensation occurs and they become liquid again. Since water and oil don't mix, it's easy to separate the two in the collection pot.
Another method is to use pressure or expression. This works well for citrus oils because the heat used in steam distillation usually destroys them.
More delicate plants that can't handle temperature or pressure, can have their natural oils extracted using solvents (ie. petroleum, alcohol). When solvent extracted, the oil is called an absolute. The solvent is entirely removed from the absolute oil that's produced, but concerns about contamination exist.
The concern about residual solvents is not much of a worry since CO2 (carbon dioxide) extraction methods have been perfected. Using this method, carbon dioxide is pressurized and becomes a liquid that extracts the essential oils. Once the pressure is released, the CO2 turns back into a gas and simply evaporates - leaving a pure product.
Skin Safe Essential Oils: Beyond Aromatherapy
Nothing feels better than a quiet meditation or relaxation session complemented by the scent of essential oils. Or perhaps the feeling of a bubble bath or massage with a diffuser or aromatherapy candle nearby.
How do we know if an essential oil is skin safe or best left in the diffuser?
The short answer is that we don't. For a single individual, skin reactions occur at any unpredictable time and in response to any topical substance. Essential oils are notoriously irritating and the cause of many allergic or contact reactions for many people.
However, there is still a role for essential oils in skincare products. The main thing is that both skincare brands and consumers need to be aware and ingredient lists need to be transparent.
Is It Safe To Use Essential Oils In Skincare Products?
Strictly unscented products should also be free from essential oils. The avoidance of any aromatic volatile compounds is very important for people who have sensitive skin. When you see a product advertised as 'naturally scented' or 'synthetic fragrance free' they usually contain essential oils.
If scenting is the only desired effect of the essential oil, they are used in very low concentrations that should be non-irritating for a large number of people.
It is important to note that, for some people, essential oils are more likely to cause skin irritation than synthetic fragrances. The reason is because synthetic fragrances can isolate the specific aromatic compound and control exactly how much goes into the product.
Lavender essential oil is a great example. When tested, the natural oil generally contains about 40% of the aromatic substance called linalool. This is a very common terpene used in the scenting of many products. A brand could scent their product using lavender essential oil. They could choose naturally extracted and purified linalool. They could also choose synthetically manufactured linalool.
For consumers, it doesn't really matter. If you're sensitive to linalool, your skin will react.
As a Functional Ingredient
If the goal is to harness the natural powers of the medicinal properties of the oil, higher percentages are needed and the risk of skin irritation increases. Commonly used oils seen in skincare are:
Essential Oils For Dry Skin: chamomile, frankincense, rose (absolute), lavender, clary sage
Essential Oils For Mature Skin: rose (absolute), palmarosa, carrot seed
Essential Oils For Oily or Acne Prone: neroli, lemon, bergamont, cypress, oregano, lemongrass, tea tree*(see below), neem, manuka, blue tansy
If the essential oil is included in the formulation as a functional ingredient, it will likely be used at a higher concentration. Theoretically this could be anywhere between 0-100% and brands rarely disclose to their customers the exact percentage of ingredients. As concentrations move higher, the risk of skin reactions increases.
Chamomile (specifically German chamomile) is a great example. It contains 50%-90% bisabolol, a highly desirable, active phytochemical that treats skin damage. You could choose to use skincare products with the German chamomile extract, but there would still be a higher risk of irritation because of the other volatile compounds. Instead, you could look for products with purified bisabolol as an ingredient, which is still natural but will be the least likely to cause a skin reaction.
Another example is the chemical compound psoralen. It can be irritating and photosensitizing and can be found in babchi oil and celery oil.
Other Considerations If Your Skincare Contains Essential Oils
Phototoxicity: citrus oils and bergamont can be photosensitizing so should only be used in the evenings.
Pregnancy and Breastfeeding: The advice given to women about risks in pregnancy and breastfeeding often comes from an illogical fear of the unknown. We need to keep this in perspective. Yes, it is best to avoid all substances that have unknown effects, but there is no need to panic (and certainly NO need to pump and dump) if you use a face cream that contains fragrance or some oils. This refers to topical use only. Talk to your doctor if you are considering taking anything internally.
Sensitizers: some oils are irritants that also sensitize the user so that they are prone to developing ongoing irritation and allergies. Tea tree oil is one example. While it may have effects that reduce acne, the risk of significant irritation is high.
Patch Testing: it is always a good plan to patch test any new skincare product - especially if it has active ingredients and you'll be using it on your face. However, don't be falsely reassured. Substances like retinol take several days of use before irritation develops. Similarly, tea tree oil and other sensitizers often don't start to cause allergic reactions until after multiple uses.
Can You Use Essential Oil Products On Your Face?
First, you probably already know if you have sensitive, easily irritated, or atopic/allergic skin. If this is you, avoiding products with essential oils is best. If you are in love with the scent or idea of a particular product, cautiously trying it can work especially if you patch test for several days first.
Alternatively, if your skin is usually hardy and not bothered, then using a product containing essential oils isn't a no-go. Think of it this way:
if you love using facial products and they generally have a scent, the only ways to achieve that scent is through (1) synthetic fragrance or (2) natural oils. There really isn't a third option and both synthetic and natural fragrances can cause irritation.
Always stop using any new products if you develop irritation or signs of allergy.
What is the bareLUXE Approach to Essential Oils and Scenting?
Our bare Essential products are strictly free from any scenting agents, natural or synthetic, so they're a good place to start if you're shopping for a skin barrier serum or face oil.
You won't find our products to be heavily scented, but some do contain essential oils. We select them carefully and they are included at low concentrations. Their primary purpose in our formulations is to enhance scent. However, we choose them based on the fact they also match the goal for the product.
Our primary goal is to produce effective facial products. We want them to look, feel, and smell luxurious, but only if we can do it in the safest manner possible.