Essential Oils in Skin Care

Essential Oils in Skin Care

Essential oils are pressed plant extracts used primarily for their fragrance. They are usually added to skin care products to mask unpleasant smells or to add fragrance to the skin care product.

Essential oils can be found in products like perfumes, colognes, air fresheners, candles, aromatherapy, massage oils, and skin care products.

They are used in various products according to their individual capabilities based on the plants they came from.

Essential oils are not always oils, as many essential oils lack fat content and/or glycerol backbones.

Essential oils that are not true oils do not hydrate the skin nor strengthen the skin barrier.

Some essential oils have little use beyond their fragrance.

What are essential oils?

what are essential oils

The name" essential oil" is used in the fragrance industry to describe an aromatic liquid plant extract.

The benefits of essential oils depends upon what plant they come from and how they have been extracted from the plant.

Essential oils (EOs) used in skin care products can be categorized as any of these ingredient classifications:

  • plant extracts
  • oils
  • preservatives
  • fragrances
  • penetration enhancers

How are essential oils extracted from plants?

Essential oils are extracted from a single plant at a time. Not all plant extracts are classified as essential oils, and not all plants are a source of essential oils.

For example,  Aloe vera extract has a gel- like consistency and is not considered an oil or an essential oil although it is derived from plants. However, essential oils may be combined with aloe vera extract.

It can be a bit confusing but the important point is- essential oils come from plants and are often not real oils. 

EOs are extracted from leaves, roots, flowers, stems, fruits or any part of the plant.

EO extracts are collected from plants through several processes:

  • steam distillation
  • pressure processing
  • expression such as grating the peel of a fruit

"Real" plant oils are usually obtained by pressing such as with olive oil. This helps them retain the fatty acids and other components that are removed in steam distillation and pressure processing.

A "first press" would have more active ingredients than subsequent presses.  An example is extra virgin live oil with comes form the first press so it has a higher amount of antioxidants.

The components, benefits and activities of the final EO extract depend upon the type of extraction process used.

The process of expression usually allows the extract to retain the fatty acids and other oil components.  However, steam distillation and pressure processing usually leave the fatty acids behind.

This is why many essential oils do not  do not contain lipids and do not meet the scientific definition of oils.

Some essential oils contain fats and are considered real oils. Their skin benefits depend upon their individual fatty acid content.

Viscous oils like Aloe vera oil can have other essence oil essences added to them.  In this case they are called carrier oils.

Carrier oils give body to, or thicken essential oils, giving them oil characteristics. The term "carrier oil" does not originate from the skin care industry.

The term is not to be confused with other oil classifications like saturated or unsaturated which is a better designation when contemplating the benefits of essential oils on skin.

Essential oils that do contain lipids might be either saturated or unsaturated, depending on the original plant.

Sunflower seed oil is a plant extract containing unsaturated fat used in skin care.

are essential oils real oils?

Are essential oils real oils?

This question is kind of complicated because the term "essential oils" wasn't designed to measure fat content or to represent real oils.

They are called “essential” because they’re meant to carry the “essence” of the original plant and is an umbrella category for pressed plant extracts that does not indicate fat content.

These oils should not be confused with “essential” fatty acids that cannot be synthesized by the body but are essential for good health.

Most essential oils are not “true” oils because they do not contain fatty acids.

Some essential oils do contain fatty acids, but can be classified simply as "oils," saturated or unsaturated, in skin care. 

Essential oils are usually flammable like typical oils.

They can sometimes be hydrophobic like normal oils, but not always.

Some do not meet the requisite definition of oils as having a molecular glycerol backbone.

The shape of each essential oil compound depends on the plant it came from or the way it was processed.

The simple answer is that some essential oils are real oils, but not all of them.

Even essential oils that are not real oils can have skin beneficial qualities like being an  antioxidant or having anti-inflammatory properties.

Are essential oils used in skin care?

Yes, many essential oils, or plant extracts, are used in countless skin care products.

They may be used for their skin benefits or for their fragrance or as aromatherapy products.

Not all essential oils are used in skin care, though, as some are considered allergens or irritants on skin.

Essential oils maintain some chemical properties of their original plant. The type of skin care products they are used in depends upon which of these properties they have.

Which are the best essential oils in skin care?

Many essential oils are used in skin care products, some examples of common ones are:

The best essential oil varies between each person's skin type and allergies. To find the best essential oil products for your skin, shop by your Baumann Skin Type.

benefits of essential oils

What are the benefits of essential oils?

As a category of plant extracts, the benefits of each essential oil is individual to the plant they came from.

Lemon oil has antioxidant properties, while sunflower oil has anti-inflammatory properties.

The benefits, side effects, and allergies to essential oils are just as diverse as the oils themselves.

Search in our skincare ingredient dictionary for the specific oil that you want to learn about.

Are Essential Oils Scientifically-Proven?

Many scientific studies have been conducted to define the efficacy of essential oils for many cosmetic purposes.

There is evidence-based data on using essential oils to kill skin pathogens like bacteria. (5) This is why they are often used as preservatives in skin care products. (7)

One study in 2017 showed that bergamot, cilantro, and spikenard oils exhibited anti-inflammatory effects in neonatal fibroblast cell cultures. (8)

Many essential oils penetrate easily into skin and take other ingredients with them which is why they are often used as penetration enhancers.  (9)

There is a lot of science supporting essential oils being used in skin care products. 

essential oils for sensitive skin

Best essential oils for sensitive skin?

Essential oils are not always active ingredients in skin care and some have limited effects.

To help find the best oil for your skin, essential or otherwise, shop by your Baumann Skin Type!

Three of the most commonly used essential oils in skin care products are:

  1. Green tea extract
  2. Argan oil
  3. Tea tree oil

One of the newest and most interesting essential oils for sensitive skin is Saururus Chinensis extract (Chinese lizard tail leaf)

Can you use essential oils for your hair?

Some plant extracts and oils are used in hair products for their various effects including fragrances, fatty acid contents, and effect on hair texture, etc.

Each essential oil varies in effect based on the chemical compounds it retains from the original plant.

Five of the most common plant extracts in hair products are:

  1. Camphor Bark oil
  2. Eucalyptus oil
  3. Lavender oil
  4. Lemon peel extract
  5. Orange peel extract
are essential oils safe

Are essential oils safe for skin?

Depending on your allergies to certain ingredients, essential oils are safe for skin.

The dangers of using an essential oil in your skin care routine depends on the oil and your skin type.

If you have acne-prone skin, it is advised to avoid comedogenic essential oils because they can clog your pores.

Make sure you wash your face at night before you go to sleep because you do not want these oils covering dirt, sweat and sebum on your skin.

If you are using an essential oil on your skin and having problems, see a dermatologist. They can help you find out if you are having an allergy.

Cases of skin inflammation following exposure to essential oils also exist.

Applying essential oils without fatty acid content can damage dry skin types.

To be safe- make sure you only us products that are right for your Baumann Skin Type.

Common misconceptions about essential oils.

Essential oils are very misunderstood. They have been attributed many beneficial properties which may or may not be realistic.

It is best to look up the individual oil and read about it, because they are all very different.

There can be a lot of variability in effectiveness of a certain type of essential oils depending on the source, the soil it was grown in, and how it was processed and bottled.  For example, a lavender essential oil from one brand may work very differently than a lavender oil from another brand.

Think about olive oil and how many varieties there are to help you understand this concept.

There are many myths and misconceptions about essential oils so keep in mind that:

  • They are not always real oils
  • They don't have other moisturizing ingredients unless they have fatty acids in them
  • Not all essential oils are the same
  • They are not always a good source of vitamins and minerals
  • Some are very potent allergens
  • Not all essential oils are equally valuable and healthy.
  • While some essential oils are derived from medically useful plants, this is not universally true.
  • Some essential oils are just fragrances.
dangers of essential oils

What are the dangers of essential oil use in skin care?

A number of essential oils are known to irritate most skin types when used in isolation, but those essential oils are not used in skin care.

However, there are still many essential oils that can cause a skin allergy. (40)

5 essential oils most likely to cause a skin allergy:

  1. ylang ylang
  2. lemongrass
  3. jasmine
  4. sandalwood
  5. neroli

Because there are so many types of essential oils from so many kinds of plants, allergies to an essential oil are always possible. If you have an allergy to lemons, for example, you're also probably allergic to lemon extracts and oils.

As another example, eucalyptus oil, a common allergen is used in some hair products for fragrance.

Make sure you are familiar with the ingredients of any essential oil products you use to avoid allergic reactions.

Common essential oils to avoid using on the skin

Skin irritation is not the same as a skin allergy.  When a strong concentration of these oils is used, skin irritation and rash can result.

5 essential oils to be careful with on the skin because they are irritating:

essential oils for sun damage

Which essential oils cause sun burn, photosensitivity, or phytophotodermatitis?

Some essential oils have furanocoumarins (40) in them which make the skin sun sensitive and cause sunburn and hyperpigmentation.

Always avoid using these in massage oils, skin care products and fragrances before going in the sun:

  • Fig
  • Lemon
  • Lime
  • Grapefruit
  • Orange
  • Bergamot
  • Tangerine

Is essential oil dangerous for dry skin?

Essential oils can irritate dry skin and are more likely to cause problems if your skin barrier is impaired.

Using essential oils without fat content on dry skin may result in damage to the skin barrier.

Essential oils that are real oils are better for dry skin types.

Are Essential oils like dry oils?

Dry oils are polyunsaturated fats, meaning they are made up of fatty acids and other lipids. 

Essential oils are not categorically the same in terms of fat content, some essential oils contain fatty acids, but many do not.

An essential oil is any pure pressed plant extract, while dry oils are specific nomenclature for a sub-category of true oils.

Essential oils without fats in them, therefore, are different from other true oils purely because they are not composed of any fats.

Some essential oils are also unsaturated fats, or dry oils, while some others are saturated fats.

Because many essential oils do not contain fats, some should not always be used on dry skin.

essential oils for specific conditions

Essential oils for specific conditions

Essential oils are often used by herbalists and naturopaths to treat specific skin conditions.

They may used as tinctures for oral use or combined in a carrier oil (If they are themselves not real oils).

While there is not a lot of evidence-based data for the use of essential oils on skin diseases, they are still very popular.

Essential oils for dry skin conditions

People with eczema, psoriasis, or otherwise dry skin should avoid using essential oils without fat content.

As they often contain no lipids, essential oils can damage dry skin by removing moisture from the skin barrier.

In particular, avoid using olive oil on dry skin like eczema, as the high concentration of oleic acid can further damage dry skin barriers.

Essential oils for oily skin conditions

There are no essential oils that have been shown to decrease sebum production.

Willowbark and wintergreen have salicylic acid which may help unclog pores.

essential oils for rashes

Essential oils for skin rashes

There are many causes of rashes, often skin allergies.

Skin rashes are caused by inflammation, mediated in part by histamine.

Essential oils with antihistamines or anti-inflammatory properties could work for treating an allergy-related rash.

Essential oils with antihistamines are:

  • lavender oil
  • chamomile oil

Essential oils with anti-redness properties include (44):

  • Aloe vera
  • Bergamot
  • Chamomile (contains bisabolol)
  • Cinnamon
  • Eucalyptus
  • Green tea
  • Juniperous berry
  • Lavender
  • Star anise
  • Thyme
  • Willowbark
  • Ylang-ylang

Essential oils for acne

Some essential oils are comedogenic, meaning they're likely to clog pores. 

Essential oils without lipids in them can be safe for use with acne.

It is important to make sure any ingredient you use fits within your acne skin care routine.

Some essential oils might be safe for use with acne depending, check with your dermatologist.

These are the essential oils known to have antimicrobial properties:

essential oils for aging

Essential oils for skin aging

Each essential oil has unique qualities based on the plant it was extracted from and where the plant was grown and how it was processed..

10 essential oils with antioxidant properties (44):

  1. Basil
  2. Billygoat weed (ageratum conyzoides)
  3. Cannabis
  4. Ceylon cinnamon
  5. Clove
  6. Evergreen (myrtus communis var. Italica and dodecadenia grandiflora nees)
  7. Lavender
  8. Lemon
  9. Thyme
  10. Star anise

Can I use essential oils with retinol?

Yes you can use some essential oils with retinol.

Essential oils are not always real fats, so whether you can pair them with retinoids depends on your skin care routine and the essential oil you want to use.

Essential oils vary from thin and completely devoid of fats to extremely fatty oils which can form protective barriers on the skin.

Retinoid side effects are effected by occlusive ingredients which can modulate the absorption of retinoids into skin.

Some plant extracts with anti-redness capabilities are ideal to be combined use with retinoids, like Argan oil.

Many plant extracts contain various kinds of fats and are used in occlusive, moisturizing, and cleansing skin care products in combination with retinoids.

Best essential oil products in skin care

Many skin care products use essential oils, or liquid plant concentrates, for fragrances.

Perfumed products come in many kinds including:

To find out which products containing essential oils are right for you, shop by your Baumann Skin Type!

Some generally popular skin care products containing essential oils or plant extracts include:

Essential oils are a lot more complex than the name would indicate; it is an umbrella category of all sorts of liquid plant extracts that does not account for fat content. Keeping all of this in mind, some essential oils are true oils with regular use in skin care, while others are different from true oils and see different, if any, use cases from typical oils.

There can be no doubt that the fragrances produced by essential oils have shown soothing effects for people using them for aromatherapy, but they are not classified as an ingredient type in skin care.

Level up your skin care knowledge with medical advice from dermatologists

Best scientific references and peer reviewed articles on the use of essential oils in skin care products:

  1. Baumann L. in Ch 38 Ant-iinflammatory Ingredients in Baumann L. et al. Baumann’s Cosmetic Dermatology (McGraw Hill 2022)
  2. Baumann, L. Ch.43 Moisturizers in Baumann’s Cosmetic Dermatology, 3rd edition ( McGraw Hill 2022)
  3. Baumann L Chapters 7-31 in Cosmeceuticals and Cosmetic ingredients (McGraw Hill 2015)
  4. Blank IH. Factors which influence the water content of the stratum corneum. J Invest Dermatol. 1952;18(6):433-40.
  5. Orchard, A., & van Vuuren, S. (2017). Commercial essential oils as potential antimicrobials to treat skin diseases. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine2017.
  6. Pavithra, P. S., Mehta, A., & Verma, R. S. (2019). Essential oils: from prevention to treatment of skin cancer. Drug Discovery Today24(2), 644-655.
  7. DOT, R. Essential oils and sustainability in cosmetic industry: a brief review.  https://anascrystal.care/blogs/news/essential-oils-and-sustainability
  8. Han, X., Beaumont, C., & Stevens, N. (2017). Chemical composition analysis and in vitro biological activities of ten essential oils in human skin cells. Biochimie Open5, 1-7.
  9. Moore, E. M., Wagner, C., & Komarnytsky, S. (2020). The enigma of bioactivity and toxicity of botanical oils for skin care. Frontiers in pharmacology11, 785.
  10. Buraczewska I, Berne B, Lindberg M, Lodén M, Törmä H. Moisturizers change the mRNA expression of enzymes synthesizing skin barrier lipids. Arch Dermatol Res. 2009;301(8):587-94.
  11. Ye L, Mauro TM, Dang E, Wang G, Hu LZ, Yu C, et al. Topical applications of an emollient reduce circulating pro-inflammatory cytokine levels in chronically aged humans: a pilot clinical study. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2019;33(11):2197-2201.
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  13. Yang M, Zhou M, Song L. A review of fatty acids influencing skin condition. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2020;19(12):3199-3204.
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  16. Wehr RF, Krochmal L. Considerations in selecting a moisturizer. Cutis. 1987;39(6):512-5.
  17. Kligman AM. Regression method for assessing the efficacy of moisturizers. Cosmet Toilet. 1978;93:27-35.
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  20.   Schnuch A, Lessmann H, Geier J, Uter W. White petrolatum (Ph. Eur.) is virtually non-sensitizing. Analysis of IVDK data on 80 000 patients tested between 1992 and 2004 and short discussion of identification and designation of allergens. Contact Dermatitis. 2006;54(6):338-43.
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  25. Kligman AM. The myth of lanolin allergy. Contact Dermatitis. 1998;39(3):103-7.
  26. Boonchai W, Iamtharachai P, Sunthonpalin P. Occupational allergic contact dermatitis from essential oils in aromatherapists. Contact Dermatitis. 2007;56(3):181-2.
  27. Bleasel N, Tate B, Rademaker M. Allergic contact dermatitis following exposure to essential oils. Australas J Dermatol. 2002;43(3):211-3.
  28. DiNardo JC. Is mineral oil comedogenic? J Cosmet Dermatol. 2005;4(1):2-3.
  29.   Blanken R, van Vilsteren MJ, Tupker RA, Coenraads PJ. Effect of mineral oil and linoleic-acid-containing emulsions on the skin vapour loss of sodium-lauryl-sulphate-induced irritant skin reactions. Contact Dermatitis. 1989;20(2):93-7.
  30. Agero AL, Verallo-Rowell VM. A randomized double-blind controlled trial comparing extra virgin coconut oil with mineral oil as a moisturizer for mild to moderate xerosis. Dermatitis. 2004;15(3):109-16.
  31. Tolbert PE. Oils and cancer. Cancer Causes Control. 1997;8(3):386-405.
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  39. Bertuzzi, G., Tirillini, B., Angelini, P., & Venanzoni, R. (2013). Antioxidative action of Citrus limonum essential oil on skin. Eur. J. Med. Plants3, 1-9.
  40. Geier, J., Schubert, S., Reich, K., Skudlik, C., Ballmer‐Weber, B., Brehler, R., ... & IVDK. (2022). Contact sensitization to essential oils: IVDK data of the years 2010–2019. Contact Dermatitis87(1), 71-80.
  41. Bruni, R., Barreca, D., Protti, M., Brighenti, V., Righetti, L., Anceschi, L., ... & Pellati, F. (2019). Botanical sources, chemistry, analysis, and biological activity of furanocoumarins of pharmaceutical interest. Molecules24(11), 2163.
  42. Miller, T., Wittstock, U., Lindequist, U., & Teuscher, E. (1996). Effects of some components of the essential oil of chamomile, Chamomilla recutita, on histamine release from rat mast cells. Planta médica62(01), 60-61.
  43. Koh, K. J., Pearce, A. L., Marshman, G., Finlay‐Jones, J. J., & Hart, P. H. (2002). Tea tree oil reduces histamine‐induced skin inflammation. British Journal of Dermatology147(6), 1212-1217.
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