Are Pure Essential Oils Good or Bad for You?

English: Glass vial containing Sandalwood (San...
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, 2001).

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.”

Hydro-Distillation process used to extract aga...
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, 2008).

2.)  Essential Oils Can Increase Free Radical Production.

Animation of the structure of a section of DNA...
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!

Round Kumquat, Citrus japonica, Fortunella jap...
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, 2006).

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.

Bottom Line

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.

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  • @John I agree with you – carrier oil should be a neutral cold pressed oil that you would be comfortable to ingest. Examples are walnut, olive, canola – the list is endless. The idea behind their use is to dilute the essential oil.
    In tea tree oil there is new evidence that dilution for control of cancer cells is more effective when diluted see Ireland et al (2012) here: This mode of action in tea tree oil appears to rely on the minor irritant activity of dilute TTO to disrupt the faster growing cancer cells.
    If anyone is interested in learning more about this (or anything else to do with TTO please have a look at the newly available database resource specifically related to published research, reviews etc on tea tree oil available here: Alternatively go to and hover your cursor over ‘Research’ in the navigation bar – click on Literature Database & use the search facility.
    I also completely agree with @ Nicki in the original article: only purchase fresh essential oils from a trusted supplier. There is far too much adulteration going on with many EO’s. The Australian Tea Tree Industry Association ( has a Facebook site that tells you more about what is happening with tea tree oil: Go to the website and click on the FB link.

  • John

    @Rebecca and @Nicki

    Actually, Rebecca is right. Essential oils are completely different than what Rebecca refers to as “carrier” oils, or you could call them non-fragrant plant oils.

    Essential oils aren’t even “oils” in the traditional sense of the word. Essential oils are just a distillation of aromatic (olfactory) compounds from plants. They include compounds like (you said Nicki), esters, linear and cyclic terpenes, etc… But these are all tiny compounds that don’t exist by themselves on shelves; there has to be some organic solvent like ethanol.

    Non-fragrant plant oils on the other hand, like olive, jojoba, and canola oil, are available by themselves. In composition, they are almost nothing alike when compared to essential oils. They typically include varying ratios of fatty acids, such as oleic, linoleic, and palmitic acid. Certainly they are also compromised of compounds like phenols. But in a general sense, essential oils and non-fragrant plant “carrier” oils, are nothing alike.

    Perhaps I’ll do a comparison post on the two, since a few people seem to be confused by the topic.

  • @Rebecca – I don’t believe that carrier oils (e.g. grape seed, olive, sesame, jojoba, et. al.) are that different from pure essential oils. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t find any literature distinguishing the two.

    Here’s the thing. If your essential oils are not causing your skin to break out, get a rash, etc., then perhaps yours come from a solid source. And not all essential oils are pro-oxidant.

    I guess I should ascertain: I wrote this article to caution people in general, particularly those who have not used essential oils on their skin in the past, that essential oils are strong, potentially irritating long-term, and potentially non-pure. It all depends on where you are getting the oils from and the purity of their distillation methods, as well as the sensitivity of your skin to them.

    I always worry because people seem to associate “natural” and “homeopathic” with “safe” and “effective” nowadays, when in reality, chemicals are chemicals, whether they come from a natural source or the lab. Your skin cell receptors do not know the difference. Truth be told, some of the natural ones have less scientific research behind them than the synthetic ones nowadays. And anyone who says natural is less irritating is also wrong – remember, poison ivy is all-natural!

    Hope this helps,

  • @Eileen – Thank you for sharing this view! I love that – “living better through chemistry.” It’s true. Sometimes it scares me when I read so many women’s magazines tout the wonder of natural cleansers. Has everyone forgotten the Germ Theory of Disease?! But I suppose that’s the natural swing of things – too many germs lead to (perhaps) too harsh of cleansers, leading to (perhaps) too gentle of cleansers. I just look forward to the day when science has ascertained the perfect balance. 🙂 Love that view though!

  • @Angela – Not all essential oils increase free radicals, no. For instance, though limonene and citral can be irritating and cause contact dermatitis, they also contain vitamin C and are antioxidants. Tea tree oil is also not known to be pro-oxidant.

  • @Dekadye – That’s interesting! Thanks for the tip!

  • Eileen

    What an informative and timely article! Although there are so many wonderful natural ingredients, natural does not always equate to the best in skincare. I’m a firm believer in “better living through chemistry” and think that the ideal product takes advantage of both nature and the lab.

  • Rebecca

    I use oils a lot, most particularly to counteract the drying effects of my nightly retinol, so I was concerned when I read this blog. However, I realized that you are likely differentiating essential oils from carrier oils (e.g. grape seed, olive, sesame, jojoba, et. al.). The latter of which I assume the studies above do not apply to? I often include a little jasmine oil in a base of cold pressed grapeseed and jojoba oil over my retinol at night and in the morning under my makeup. If the essential oils are diluted in a carrier oil would the same cautionary advisements apply?

  • Angela

    Do all essential oils increase free-radicals? What about Tea Tree Oil?

  • i add a few drops of lavender essential oil to witch hazel – smells great, doesnt irritate, works well for my skin

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