There is a battle of beauty philosophies emanating through the skin care industry. On one hand, you have conventional beauty companies claiming that their formulas are the most effective because they contain isolated, high concentrations of synthetically-produced actives. On the other, green/natural/organic skin care companies believe that skin needs smaller, gentle doses of actives found in plants.
Recently, I heard some very influential beauty company founders say that all essential oils are bad for your skin because they are inherently irritating. This is a very generalized statement to make about substances derived from plants, which are composed of countless variations of natural chemicals. The only things that are common amongst all essential oils are the method of extraction (mostly distillation), the fact that they are volatile (dissipate in the air), and that they are aromatic (have scent). Their chemistry is as varied as the plant world itself and to claim that they are all irritating to skin is simplistic and false. While I’m aware that some people have allergies, most sensitive skin types can handle essential oils in correct percentages much better than synthetic skin care. The North American Contact Dermatitis Group lists the following cosmetic ingredients as the top irritants:
- Balsam of Peru
- Cocamidopropyl betaine
- Diazolidinyl urea
- DMDM hydantoin
- Lanolin alcohol
- Imidazolidinyl urea
- Propylene glycol
- DMDM hydantoin
- Imidazolidinyl urea
Apart from balsam of Peru (very uncommon in skin care), all the ingredients are synthetic. In fact, of the 80 ingredients that are recommended for patch testing for contact dermatitis, only 4 are essential oils. That’s not to say that you can put straight essential oils on your skin and it will be fine. They are extremely potent and can cause reactions like photosensitivity but when they are used in a safe percentage and diluted with other natural ingredients, there is very little risk of having a reaction.
Now that we’ve gotten what essential oils AREN’T out of the way, let’s discuss what they ARE. In skin care, they are gentle and effective actives for your skin that have various properties to keep skin looking its best for a very long time.
Anti-aging - The culprits behind aging skin (i.e. loss of elasticity, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation/sun spots) are free radicals caused in part by environmental factors such as UV rays and air pollution. They create cellular damage and interfere with healthy skin functions such as breaking down elastin, a very important substance that keeps skin smooth and firm. The best way to slow the aging process down is to deliver antioxidants to the skin because they will prevent this type of damage. Many essential oils are antioxidants because they are composed of terpenes and terpenoids that work together synergistically. Rosemary essential oil is particularly effective in preventing lipid peroxidization, which can damage the skin and its protective barrier. The levels of activity are so high that rosemary CO2 is now a common preservative against rancidity in oil-based products.
Antimicrobial - Essential oils combat the most stubborn microbes. What makes them unique to synthetic versions like triclosan (an eco-toxin) is that their chemical composition changes and evolves as much as bacteria does so it has a better chance of combating microbes that become resistant to standardized chemicals. Lavender has been used for bathing since ancient times and its name comes from the Latin word for wash, lavare. Its antimicrobial properties are impressive in combatting against bacteria and fungi, which is why it’s a go- to for wound healing allowing speedy infection-free healing. To have such strong activity against unwanted microbes while being a gentle substance makes this an ideal essential oil to use for cleaning and purifying the skin. It also has anti-inflammatory properties and can provide soothing relief for skin conditions such as eczema, dermatitis, and acne.
Healing - When skin repairs after injury, it goes through the process of inflammation, rebuilding, and restructuring. It’s in a vulnerable stage where infection can derail the entire operation and can lead to much bigger problems. Speedy healing is key. Helichrysum essential oil is anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and encourages quick rebuilding of the skin so it is the ideal ingredient for healing wounded skin and reducing scars.
Anti-inflammatory - Inflammation in the skin creates redness, swelling, and irritation. It can be caused by overexposure to sun, harsh chemicals, allergies, and many internal factors. It is very taxing on the skin and can create damage over time so keeping skin soothed with anti-inflammatory ingredients is very advantageous to its health and appearance. One of the natural chemicals known to have this affect on the skin is chamazulene, which can be found in the essential oils of chamomile, blue tansy, and yarrow.
I must admit that I don’t have very much knowledge when it comes to synthetic actives because I don’t formulate with them. The reason for this is that I don’t see much in the way of results out there. If I met someone with extraordinary skin and they told me peptides or retinol was behind it, you can bet I would be on board, but time and time again I have watched people’s skin transform from using natural skin care over their previous synthetic choices. I’m convinced that essential oils are synergistic miracles in a bottle that are gentle enough for the skin (in appropriate doses), but pack a punch when it comes to keeping it flawless, healthy, and radiant.