Are Essential Oils Necessary in Skincare?
I recently received a question from @skinsleuth on Instagram: "Are essential oils necessary in skincare, and if so, what do they do, since they are not nutritious?" At first I was floored by this question, because it made me realize how confused even the most smart and savvy buyers of high-end skincare may be today. And I immediately wondered, who is disseminating the anti-essential-oil message? Which wealthy lobby group? In my experience, there are often big industry sponsors of certain information that gets disseminated via blogs and other outlets, in order to send a semi-hidden yet persistent message intended to sway customers away from small businesses by making them seem somehow dirty, unscientific, or otherwise not trustworthy.
In brief, for the purpose of skincare formulation, essential oils are one form of plant extract, one form of herbal extract. They are not a whole plant extract by any means: they are usually created by distillation, so only the volatile components become separated and constitute the essential oil. This means that an alcohol, glycerite, or lab-prepared herbal extract from the same plant will have different properties than the essential oil. Some essential oils, usually very expensive ones, make for powerful active ingredients for skincare, but the formulator should consult professional aromatherapy journals, studies, and books to know which ones to pick and what percentages to use. The majority of larger skincare companies use essential oils in their facial care products exclusively, or at least primarily, for the scent. That is because a little bit of essential oil in informed hands can help create exciting, appealing, and safe scents (by safe, I mean nontoxic, nonphotosensitizing, and nonsensitizing).
Just like with many herbs, there are long lists of chemical constituents in essential oils that are responsible for scar healing, firming, or other results, and they are not vitamins or minerals. A natural skincare formula gets vitamins and minerals from ingredients such as plant carrier oils (cold-pressed oils made using roughly the same method as extra-virgin olive oil, by pressing the seeds or fruits with a press machine).
The word "oil" is actually a misnomer: Essential oils are more highly concentrated extracts than oils. They do not have an oily feel (unless they are adulterated). Essential oils are not crucial components in effective facial skincare, but some are exciting for their scents, and some are just wonderful active ingredients for which it is hard to find a substitute that would act similarly. Some are also beneficial as co-preservatives.
An adjacent topic is the sourcing of essential oils, since so many of them are made from wild-growing plants or precious woods. In order to make redwood essential oil, for example, a redwood, a majestic tree in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, needs to be cut. At Earthwise, I do not formulate with essential oils whose production threatens any wild plant or any animal species or habitat.
Quantity also matters when it comes to our health and to sustainability. It is a better long-term strategy to formulate skincare products with a low ratio of essential oils (typically 1 to 1.5% total essential oil content in a formula is considered the upper limit of what is safe; if you spot marketing claims that a skincare product contains 10% or higher of essential oils, I suggest forgoing these products).
Authoritative sources and professional aromatherapy books and training courses offer specific guidance on which essential oils are recommended to use in facial care products, which are suitable for use on the body, and which are only safe to apply to the bottoms of our feet (oregano is one example). There are essential oils that are considered highly toxic or that can even harm or terminate a pregnancy, so certainly these strong medicines should not be chosen lightly or used freely. If you have a skincare product that includes a noticeably or verifiably high percentage of essential oils, I would advise not using such a product on babies, children, or pets.
There are a number of other issues around sustainability, adulteration, sourcing, standardization, ethical concerns, and so on, which I will plan to address in a future post. This post started out as a heated discussion on our Instagram page, which you can visit to read the many thoughtful comments.
The following Earthwise Beauty products are formulated without any essential oils:
I am making an effort to create more new products without essential oils to better meet all our customers' needs, and overall the needs of sensitive skin and sensitized skin are always on my mind as I work on new formulas.
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