The good: Essential oils are hydrating, anti-bacterial, and deliver other ingredients deep within the skin. The bad: Essential oils can contain volatile compounds, increase free radical production, and be irritating - in the amounts they are found in beauty products.
Every time I turn around, it seems there's a new haute oil for sale at Sephora. At first glance, this makes sense- these beauty oils often contain high concentrations of lipids that leave skin feeling softer and hydrated from the get-go. Even better: Essential oils have been proven to increase the absorption of other ingredients up to 30-fold (International Journal of Pharmaceutics
, 1989; Drug Discovery Today
, 2007). And a few have anti-bacterial properties as well, like lemon, tea tree, and fennel (Journal of Applied Microbiology
So you're getting soothing, hydration, anti-bacterial properties, and a top-notch delivery system - pretty fantastic! Unfortunately, there are issues in the science with essential oils:
1. Essential Oils are Rarely, if Ever, "pure."
In a chemical process known as distillation, volatile compounds like terpenes and terpenoids can be introduced to essential oils.
It's interesting: Salespeople often tell you that one of the benefits of essential oils is that they are perfectly safe and "non-toxic" when compared to synthetic products. Yet this is not the case. Due to the mode of extraction, usually distillation, essential oils may contain a variety of volatile molecules such as terpenes and terpenoids, phenol-derived aromatic components and aliphatic components (Food and Chemical Toxicology
2.) Essential Oils Can Increase Free Radical Production.
It sounds crazy, but some pure essential oils have been shown to cause pro-oxidant damage in skin cells and DNA. Your best defense? Avoid them - or dilute them!
Even worse: Essential oils actually increase free radical production within the cells. Though they are considered by many to be antioxidants, some pure essential oils "can act as prooxidants affecting inner cell membranes and organelles such as mitochondria" (Food and Chemical Toxicology
, 2008). Please note that only some
concentrated essential oils act in this fashion.
Still, your best bet is to use pure essential oils with extra antioxidants added for protection. Some may say these extra antioxidants "aren't natural," but let's face it, the sun is as natural as it gets, and too much of that will age you faster than almost anything else known to man. Sometimes synthetic/lab-produced is, dare I say it, great.
3.) Watch Out for Irritation!
Citrus oils make your skin more sensitive to the sun. They can also be irritating in general. Your best bet? Patch test on a small amount of skin first. (Photo credit: Vietnam Plants & America plants)
Another problem with essential oils: They can be irritating in the concentrations they are typically found in beauty products. Irritating essential oils include citrus oils, such as limonene (Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology
, 2002) and lavender oil (Contact Dermatitis
Because they increase the absorption of other ingredients into the skin, be careful of what else you use with essential oils. Your regular skin care regime can become irritating when you introduce a high-powered absorption system if you are not careful.
Essential oils show how important it is for twenty-first century physicians to understand patient use of alternative medicines. To protect yourself until more studies on essential oils are conducted, try the following:
- Purchase essential oils fresh, or from a trusted alternative medicine practitioner.
- Dilute, dilute, dilute! Never apply concentrated essential oils to your skin.
- Do not combine essential oils with other skin care ingredients.
- Do not use essential oils before going out into the sun.
After doing reading for this article, I must say, I am reluctant to use essential oils myself! I’m looking forward to learning what the western medical and scientific community discovers about essential oils in the years to come.