We consider ourselves informed beauty consumers, always checking product labels and feeling proud of ourselves for memorising the long list of toxic ingredients we should avoid. Though we by no means discriminate, we do cling to our favourite natural products in times of need, knowing that their 100% organic formulas will do us (and our skin) no harm—or will they? Recently, we found out some very interesting information about an ingredient in many natural beauty products: essential oils. We’ve touted their many benefits ourselves, so it came as quite the shock when we realised they might not be as safe as they seem. Curious? Keep scrolling for all the details.
Are you sitting down? Because we’re about to drop a bombshell: “Natural” isn’t always synonymous with “good for you.” But wait—how does that make sense? And what does this have to do with essential oils? Allow board-certified dermatologic surgeon Dr. Dendy Engelmen to explain. “By definition, essential oils are a natural oil typically obtained by distillation and having the characteristic fragrance of the plant or source from which it is extracted,” she tells us. “But if you’re allergic to something, no matter how natural or straight from the source it is, you’ll still develop an allergic reaction.” This might seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised by how many people slather on natural skincare products without realizing they may be sensitive to the ingredients in them.
Such was the case with Tiffany Masterson, creator of non-toxic skincare line Drunk Elephant. “Several years ago, I started using a cleanser that seemingly addressed all of my skin issues,” she tells us. “When I tried to introduce other products in my routine, like serums, oils, or sunscreens, my skin would react negatively immediately. I started paying attention to the ingredients in these products, and I figured out that there were a few names I was seeing over and over again: limonene, linalool, geraniol, and more.” What were those ingredients? Essential oils—yes, the same essential oils you’ve been holding in such high regard. As it turns out, Masterson was sensitive to orange, lemon, tangerine, and other citrus essential oils, whether or not they were natural, pure, or high grade. Since the names of essential oils can be confusing to pinpoint, she resorted to just smelling the products and determining what she would use through a sniff test. The elimination of essential oils was something she ended up taking into account when starting Drunk Elephant. “I had a theory that if I isolated only the very best actives, synthetics, and naturals while eliminating any toxins and potential irritants and sensitizers, I could launch a line that would be clinically effective, safe, and suitable for all skin types,” she says. “Our deal is that we don’t believe in sensitive skin—only insensitive ingredients.”
Masterson says she eliminates essential oils from any of her products because the inflammatory properties outweigh the anti-inflammatory ones. “When you really think about it, the only reason, in my opinion, that essential oils are included in a formulation is to scent the product,” she says. But is that true? We asked Engelman for her take, and she pointed out that tea-tree oil—also known as melaleuca—has proven acne-fighting properties (in one study, it was as effective at treating acne as 5% benzoyl peroxide was). She also mentions peppermint oil, which she says can actually help regulate your skin’s natural oil production. But Masterson thinks there are other natural, antibacterial ingredients out there that don’t contribute to sensitivity and irritation, too (she names bearberry extract and raspberry seed oil as two of her favorites). In the end, it’s up to you whether the pros outweigh the cons. If you can’t stand the smell of natural products, it may be better for you to choose something that adds scent with essential oils, instead of a whole bunch of artificial fragrances with names you can’t pronounce. However, if smell doesn’t matter to you, you might want to consider switching over to essential oil–free products and see if your skin problems improve.
One other thing—if you are using a product with essential oils, Dendy says to be especially careful with organic lines. “Since organic ingredients are treated with fewer chemicals, they’re often growing alongside weeds and other allergens, which means organic essential oils are more likely to have traces of those allergens than conventionally farmed varieties,” she says. “The result? They may be more likely to cause allergic reactions on the skin.”
As we were doing our own research about essential oils, we stumbled upon a study from 2007 that linked lavender oil and tea-tree oil to breast tissue growth in three young boys. But before we were able to fully freak out over that, we found other studies and articles that refuted it, claiming it had no grounds—it wasn’t a controlled study, and the researchers couldn’t prove that it was the lavender oil that had caused the tissue growth, just that it was a common factor in all three cases. Since then, people seem to have accepted that small doses of topically applied lavender and tea-tree oils are not endocrine disruptors at all, and the initial uproar has pretty much died down. But still—it’s always good to be informed, right?
What do you think—will you stick with essential oils or try giving them up? Had you heard any of this research before? Comment and shop two of our favorite essential oil–free skincare products below!