The Truth Behind Essential Oils in Skincare

The Truth Behind Essential Oils in Skincare

Essential oils seem to be all over social media and on store shelves these days, as people search for cleaner, natural alternatives to traditional skincare products. They are derived from plants, often smell wonderful, have antibacterial and antioxidant properties, and are “all natural” - doesn’t that all sound great? Unfortunately, despite these amazing properties, essential oils can actually be problematic for your skin. 

To understand why essential oils can be problematic, it helps to understand where they come from. Essential oils are highly concentrated chemical compounds that are extracted from various parts of plants (flowers, seeds, stems, leaves, etc) through a process of distillation or pressing. The resulting oils contain volatile aromatic compounds that play a crucial role in a plant’s immune system—whether it be to attract pollinators, or repel pests—and using these chemicals directly on the skin can have unwanted side effects. When used for aromatherapy  in small amounts, they have potential therapeutic effects, with studies showing calming effects on the brain. When applied directly to skin or hair, however, the highly concentrated nature of these chemicals can be very irritating, causing redness, itching, burning, and even allergic reactions. This is particularly true for those with sensitive skin, rosacea, and eczema. It is therefore important to approach the use of essential oils with caution

There are a few essential oils that are known to be particularly problematic. Citrus oils like lemon, bergamot, and orange, smell wonderful, but react strongly to sunlight, and if left on skin that is exposed to UV radiation, can cause a phototoxic reaction - meaning skin can blister, burn, peel, and discolor. Cinnamon, clove, lemongrass, oregano, and peppermint oils are also known to be irritating—even those innocuous sounding mint lip balms can cause irritation. And while everyone’s favorite, tea tree oil, does indeed have antibacterial properties, it is only really safe at highly diluted concentrations (and even then it can cause skin drying and peeling). Applied directly to skin at high concentrations, it can cause skin irritation and even burns.

While it might be disappointing to find that the lovely smelling serum or cream that your bestie or favorite social media influencer swears by isn’t ideal for long term skin health, don’t forget there are many gentle, scientifically proven oils and extracts to consider for skin care. When it comes down to it, science continues to help us figure out best practices for skin care and anti-aging - and so assuming something natural is better, doesn’t always make sense. Dermatologists often like to say that while poison oak is definitely natural, you wouldn’t slather that all over your skin! The bottom line is, if you have sensitive skin or simply want to use the gentlest possible products, avoid any skincare products with fragrance and essential oils—especially when your skin is experiencing changes such as during pregnancy and postpartum.

Additionally, because of the way that essential oils are manufactured, their chemical makeups can vary dramatically from batch to batch depending on the weather, the season, and the crop, resulting in inconsistent products that are difficult for manufacturers to quality-control. And anytime you’re dealing with a cultivated product, there is a risk that there may be pesticide residues present—even when certified organic.

Finally, from an environmental perspective, essential oils are very resource intensive to produce and many are known to be unsustainably harvested. In order to produce a small amount of an essential oil, large quantities of plants are required as inputs. For example, it takes between 25-50 pounds of rose petals to produce just 5 milliliters of rose oil.

While essential oils can be a powerful tool for promoting wellness and improving skin health, they can also be harmful for your skin if used incorrectly. It's important to be aware of the potential issues and to use these oils with caution. Consult with a dermatologist before using essential oils.



As with all our posts, this article is meant to be for informational and educational purposes only, and is not medical advice. When in doubt, please ask your physician.  

Teresa Fu, M.D.

Dr. Teresa Fu is a board certified dermatologist and mother of two. She graduated from Stanford Medical School and practices in the San Francisco Bay Area.