Essential oils (EOs) are very popular addition to so many skincare products on the market but does the daily exposure to them have a detrimental effect? Essential oils are wonderful therapeutic extracts that have been used medicinally for centuries, but they do need to used with restraint.
Many natural cosmetics over use EOs and include them in every formula from cleansers to serums and moisturisers, so the daily exposure to them is very high. The likelihood of sensitisation to EOs increases with the amount or concentration you are exposed to and the duration of exposure, so as you layer products that contain EOs on your skin the risk of adverse effects increases and will continue to increase with long time use. In fact, the most common type of reaction to essential oils is "delayed hypersensitivity" contact dermatitis, which means that it happens gradually over time. There are quite a few commonly used essential oils that contain allergy causing compounds being used daily on the skin such as Linalool, Citral, Citronellol, Eugenol, and of course Limonene. If you ever see at the end of an ingredient list these compounds listed it is because they have to be listed in some countries like European countries because they are known allergens. Some may defend adding them into skincare as the concentrations are low, but lets not forget the layering effect mentioned above as well as constant exposure to these substances.
The addition of essential oils mostly to provide fragrance, is unnecessary and is often irritating to the skin, particularly when used daily on a long term basis, which can lead to photosensitivity, hyperpigmentation and reactions on the skin.
Seeing essential oils constantly added into natural skin care products is one of my greatest frustrations. I liken adding fragrances or essential oils to skincare products to adding sugar and salt on your food, it may make the experience of your food more enjoyable but its just no good for your health.
Essential oils are therapeutic, highly volatile, bioactive compounds that readily absorb into the skin where they can cause irritation and disruption to skin homeostasis. Most natural skin care products unnecessarily incorporate the use of cheap citrus oils to fragrance their products, but these oils contain some of the most photoreactive, sensitising compounds of all such as D- Limonene as an example. As you can see some of the most popular EOs used to fragrance natural skin care products contain a high amount of Limonene. I have even seen some of these oils adding to natural SPF products which means you are adding an ingredient that causes known photosensitivity to a product designed to wear in the sun, it really is crazy!
- Grapefruit (92% D-Limonene)
- Orange (90% D-Limonene)
- Lemon (70% D-Limonene)
- Lime (65% D-Limonene)
- Bergamot (30% D-Limonene)
The news about EOs is not all bad, they can contain high amounts of antioxidants, as well as anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory compounds. I have great respect for using these as therapeutic substances, and they do have a place in SHORT TERM therapeutic skin care, for conditions such as acne, fungal infections, and skin inflammation, but they shouldn’t be used long term on a daily basis, even when the skin doesn't appear to be reactive to them. Because many EOs are strong antimicrobials there is also the added concern of the impact on the skins own commensal (natural) bacteria and the imbalance that it may cause to the skin's microbiome.
By all means keep your essential oils handy in times when you need a little extra care and a targeted approach for when there is an imbalance or illness, or just to uplift. They have a proven effect on improving the mood and because they are so highly aromatic, these benefits can be achieved through inhalation. They are great to add to baths, in diffusers, and yes, on the skin when necessary. Essential oils are beautiful, powerful extracts that have a place in everyone’s medicine chest!