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The Great Essential Oil Debate: The Argument For and Against

There is heated discussion about the controversial materials in the skin-care community right now.

To formulate or not to formulate with essential oils?

That has become a key question many skin-care brands now have to ask before developing the cleansers, moisturizers, face oils, masks, serums, essences and more that make up their lines. With the beauty industry divided on the issue — most either firmly for or against these plant extracts, with few in between — the market is left with two opposing camps: natural- and organic-driven lines laden with active essential oils or clean, nontoxic brands that steer clear of them.

While a divide in philosophies has always existed — albeit more behind the scenes — a backlash has emerged as of late. The result: a public outpouring of opinions from customers to brands speaking out against the potential risks essential oils pose for skin. These risks range from allergic reactions to photo-sensitivity to irritation and sensitization of the skin.

A story about a 24-year-old woman in London enduring severe chemical burns on her face and eyes from an essential oil diffuser making headlines last month didn’t help. It only heated the conversation up further.

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A move away from chemicals and harsh ingredients in skin care has also spurred a reliance on essential oils for many brands, especially those with a natural focus. But this could be confusing to consumers, experts claim, because the potential adverse effects could wind up leaving many wary of these plant-based, organic lines.

Tiffany Masterson, founder of Drunk Elephant, is perhaps the most outspoken when it comes to essential oils, which she refuses to use in any of her products.

“Essential oils are the volatile, fragrant concentrations from plants that studies have shown can be damaging and sensitizing to skin, pure or not. Any listed benefits associated with them can easily be had instead by using non-fragrant extracts and oils, without the risk and potential downside. That was a no-brainer to me when formulating my line,” she said.

But pro-essential oil beauty companies, aromatherapists, holistic nutritionists and experts alike stand by the ingredients, which are a cornerstone of natural skin care. They insist that the benefits outweigh the risks, and some, including Tata Harper, founder of Tata Harper Skincare, blamed the negative chatter on the rise of the clean beauty movement.

Tata Harper Aromatherapy Family, Tata Harper founder Tata Harper.
Tata Harper Aromatherapy Family, Tata Harper founder Tata Harper. Courtesy Photo

“Clean isn’t necessarily embracing being natural. It’s this idea of avoiding some of the known harmful chemicals that are banned around the world and then this idea of simplicity. [Meaning] simple in that formulation should be simple and minimalistic, it should be about minimizing the allergens. It’s a less risky formula, I get that,” Harper said.

She thinks that essential oils have been targeted because some contain a lot of allergens — but so do many other raw materials and skin-care ingredients such as acids, she said. For instance, Harper avoids essential oils that could cause allergies for a large percent of the population, including linalool.

“But some people are not about being simple, they want the best that there is and for their products to be fully loaded. There’s a market for everything. I have friends that like it super simple, they love the idea of a very basic formula, just vitamin C. I share the philosophy that I also share with many of my friends: we want the most, the best, the most concentrated,” she said, pointing out there is no way to formulate a product today that will be completely nonallergic to everyone. “You want to use the ones that are the safest…so all of those risks are minimized for the client. But they also bring so much to the table that it’s a tiny risk for a small percent of the population.”

It’s the dermatologists still might need a little convincing, though.

Dr. Jessica Weiser, a dermatologist at New York Dermatology Group, said she sees a fair amount of allergic contact dermatitis from patients experimenting with potent essential oils and other natural products.

For her, the biggest issue with essential oils now is that everyone is so excited about the prospect of “all-natural” skin care that they don’t understand the line between an all-natural regulated product intended for skin use and a distilled plant extract that hasn’t been tested.

She pointed out that there are products formulated with oils that aren’t essential oils that are “excellent” for the skin — and she’s always been a proponent of these. She cited Drunk Elephant’s Marula Oil, a non-essential oil that’s derived from the seed of a marula plant.

“The way that it’s [marula] extracted is in a pure form, but it’s not from a leaf extracted through a distillation process. Marula oil is extracted from the kernel or nut of the marula plant and coconut oil from the kernel or meat of a mature fruit, but they both exist naturally and are extracted. It’s really the process of the distillation that creates these potentially toxic, highly concentrated products,” Weiser explained, clarifying that essential oils are distilled from plants, whether it’s from roots, bark, leaves or petals.

The consensus from most essential oil devotees is that these oils are derived from plants, so therefore they are natural, and because they are natural means that it’s safe for use on human skin.

But humans are not plants.

And the essential oils plants create to defend against bacteria, fungus and microbes, which could be most closely compared to the human immune system, don’t have the same intended effects on human skin.

“What I tell people all the time is that the plant-based products applied directly to skin can be highly sensitizing and that the biggest concern is a phototoxic reaction. The classic essential oil that causes this phototoxic reaction is the oil from bergamot. There are certain plants that have photo-coumarins that react with UV rays and create a very exaggerated sunburn like effect,” Weiser said.

Dr. Macrene Alexiades, founder and director of the Dermatology & Laser Surgery Center of New York, associate clinical professor at the Yale University School of Medicine and chief executive officer and founder of skin-care line 37 Actives, is also not a proponent of applying essential oils directly on the face.

“It is a very insidious culprit in nasty acne that takes me months to clear,” Alexiades said, adding that “there is a proper place and proper application for oils.”

“The problem starts insidiously after weeks of use so most often the patient does not realize the oil is causing the acne. The type of acne that it causes starts with a deep plug that quickly becomes red and slowly grows into deep-seated cysts,” she continued, noting that the midcheek area, chin and jawline are more prone to these breakouts.

She is, though, “obsessed with essential oils,” for many other places, including the lips, where she infused more than 10 therapeutic oils from coconut to mint oil in her 37 Actives High Performance Antiaging and Filler Lip Treatment. She’s also a firm believer in aromatherapy and cellular effects through aromatic oils and thinks volatile compounds provide antioxidants that are absorbed through the lungs.

Perhaps Adina Grigore, a holistic nutritionist and expert on the topic who has written two books, “Just the Essentials” and “Skin Cleanse,” summed it up best: Essential oils is a full category, or an entire cluster of ingredients, which means one of them might work for some people and a different one may work for others.

“You’re not looking at one ingredient. So if everyone was saying ‘shea butter is good for you’ or ‘shea butter isn’t good for you,’ that’s how people are talking about essential oils. But you have an added layer of complication because they require a little bit of knowledge and a lot of care in how you use them,” Grigore said.

She compared this conversation to when the beauty industry began to create products free of parabens, phthalates and fragrance — all ingredients proven by scientific evidence to aggravate skin.

“Essential oils, in my opinion, should not be in that category because they are really good for you,” Grigore said. “They’re really intense but can be amazing if you dilute them correctly in a carrier oil. You’re not going to take peppermint leaves and rub them on your skin for relief. Essential oils is the way to get the nutrients from the plant in a hyper concentrated form straight to your skin and your body.”

Paula's Choice Resist Omega + Complex Serum, Paula's Choice founder Paula Begoun.
Paula’s Choice Resist Omega + Complex Serum, Paula’s Choice founder Paula Begoun. Courtesy Photos

1. Paula’s Choice
“Never. Never ever. Not synthetic or as a natural fragrance,” replied Paula’s Choice founder Paula Begoun when asked if she uses essential oils in any of her products. “If I were to sum it up in a sentence, I would say essential oils are great for your nose and they’re really, really, really bad for your skin.”

She acknowledged that there is confusion because since plants can live in the sun and the air and even in polluted environments and still do “pretty damn well” naturally — a result of robust antioxidant and anti-fugal systems — but when it’s a fragrant plant, their essential oils can have negative aspects on the skin that people “just don’t need.”

“It isn’t purity or not purity — or synthetic or non-synthetic. There are a lot of natural plant oils — there’s avocado, there’s sunflower, there’s olive, there’s canola — that have no fragrance components that are brilliant for skin. There are [also] the omega oils, there is flaxseed oil — the non-fragrant, non-irritating plant oils. I don’t even know what the word essential is; it’s a made up cosmetic term. It’s not about the purity, no matter how pure it is — it’s about the volatility of how a fragrant ingredient releases a fragrance,” Begoun said. “And because there are so many brilliant plants that don’t have any negative impact on skin in terms of inherent sensitivity and irritation, why bother with the essential oils?”

She called the research about essential oils “really clear” that fragrant oils or synthetic fragrance can be problematic for skin, but admitted it gets tricky because there’s also research that shows the positive effects of essential oils, primarily because of antioxidant or antimicrobial content.

“Look, I love having essential oils in my home, I love the way they smell, I love lighting a sandalwood stick,” Begoun said. “Smell it in your home, just don’t put it on your skin.”

2. Peet Rivko
“I thought there should be some natural skin care without essential oils. There are a million face oils in the market, and it’s actually hard to find face oils without essential oils. Natural, plant-based beauty should be as diverse in its offerings as mainstream beauty,” said Johanna Peet, founder of skin-care range Peet Rivko.

She maintained that the line is 99.7 percent to 100 percent plant-based across products, noting that a preservative system is used both in the Gentle Cleanser and Daily Moisturizer.

“I don’t want to say essential oils at large are bad, but I have really sensitive skin and I had trouble finding really clean, natural nontoxic skin care that was free of essential oils,” Peet added, likening her skin care to a plant-based version of Cetaphil or CeraVe.

For her, formulating with as few irritants and allergens as possible became the most important aspect of developing the four products in her range. (She’s releasing an exfoliator and a hand cream next year.) Very early on Peet decided not to use any essential oils, nut oils, floral extractions or harsh acids to adhere to a value proposition of delivering “super gentle daily essentials.” She clarified that the line contains oils, but they are all carrier-based ones such as jojoba oil, avocado oil or prickly pear oil.

When it comes to essential oils, I always say they work for some people, [but] they don’t work for me and they tend to be irritating to those with sensitive skin. I think they exist on a spectrum. Lavender is maybe less irritating than some of the citrus oils that have photosensitizing properties, but we just decided not to use any because the focus of our line is to be gentle as possible,” Peet said.

The primarily direct-to-consumer e-commerce brand, which launched in February, is available at

Products by Kristina Holey (pictured right) and Marie-Veronique Nadeau.
Products by Kristina Holey (pictured right) and Marie-Veronique Nadeau. Courtesy Photos

3. Kristina Holey
Kristina Holey, a San Francisco-based facialist, launched a buzzy skin-care line with formulator Marie-Veronique Nadeau last December that was free of essential oils. In October, the two added four more products to the initial collection of three serums, which began as a range Holey developed for her clients to target the conditions she saw on a daily basis like dermatitis, rosacea, hormonal acne or adult onset acne.

While she touted essential oils for being powerful and medicinal with many benefits, the issue with skin care today has risen from “improperly produced products where the use of essential oils maybe isn’t appropriate for topical application of the skin.”

“I look a lot toward defining and identifying potential triggers. When you look at someone’s current condition, you ask, ‘What are you using and what could be a potential trigger?’ For me, using products with essential oils — there are a million constituents [within the formulas] that I don’t know that can be a trigger,” she continued.

Holey noted that there has been an uptick in autoimmune disorders and sensitivity that has changed the state of many people’s skin over the past three decades. Additionally, she pointed out that essential oils can trigger sensitivity to UV rays or create barrier dysfunction over prolonged usage. With fragrant oil components that contain more than one essential oil, for instance, Holey said different elements can be irritating to skin and it’s sometimes difficult to identify which essential oil is the root of the problem.

Nadeau has historically formulated with essential oils but when asked if that impacted Holey’s mission to create an essential oil-free brand, Holey maintained that “she’s an amazing formulator and knows which essential oils are safe and what concentrations to use them at, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t change and create a different philosophy.”

“With my and Marie’s philosophy, we found faster and better results by being biomimetic, by looking at what vitamins and minerals make up the skin and trying to supply that to make corrections,” Holey said. “It’s more complicated than just essential oils; they aren’t bad, we just don’t know the whole picture right now. We’re constantly evolving with our understanding of the skin, and it makes sense to simply and follow the body’s lead.”

4. Drunk Elephant
Tiffany Masterson, founder of Drunk Elephant, has a strict no-essential oil policy in her skin-care range. She is clear that she’s not out to destroy essential oils or prove they are bad, but if documented research has found fragrant oils are sensitizing or pose other potential risks, it’s preferable to proceed with caution and not include them in formulations altogether.

“I know there are benefits for your skin, listed benefits from using essential oils. There are all of these pros, but then you have this other side that says that fragrant oils are sensitizing. My thing was, ‘OK, wait, there’s a doubt about essential oils,'” Masterson said. “I think that fragrant oils are bad for your skin. That’s my opinion. And I don’t think you always know when it’s happening; it can be invisible or cumulative. It’s imperceptible.”

She has found that users of essential oil-heavy products will start to use other ingredients such as glycolic acid, and when their skin reacts poorly will blame it on the incoming ingredient — glycolic — without even considering that their skin might already be in a reactive state from application of sensitizing essential oils.

“I really feel like there’s enough of a question and doubt, and I thought to myself, ‘I have to make a choice.’ Do I know for a fact that all essential oils are bad? No, I don’t. No one does. Do I know that some are good? No, I don’t know for a fact,” Masterson noted.

So Masterson decided to identify the benefits she could be missing out on by not using essential oils and find them in plant oils, plant extracts and non-fragrant plant oils — without the doubt.

“I believe fully that essential oils don’t belong on your face ever, but I’ll give you that I don’t know that for a fact.…I’m looking at the health of the skin. How does skin function?” Masterson said. “I don’t believe in types. Skin functions the same way if we feed it and nourish it and don’t confuse it. It can really thrive and it won’t age as fast. Reactive skin ages faster. I consider the ingredients I leave out to be pro-aging. There are lots of synthetic ingredients that are great for your skin.”

Biossance Squalene Vitamin C Rose Oil, Biossance founder Mollie Jensen.
Biossance Squalane Vitamin C Rose Oil, Biossance founder Mollie Jensen. Courtesy Photo

1. Biossance
Mollie Jensen, marketing product manager at Biossance, believes essential oils are “fantastic,” but at the same time acknowledged that they’re active ingredients that need to be used cautiously and with “respect.”

She blamed a recent backlash on the category of oils on an upsurge of use that hasn’t been done from a standpoint of safety.

“The percentage that should be used in skin care should be quite low. You should never use more than 1 percent in any facial product, and not even that much,” Jensen said, explaining that essential oils are fluids from plants that act as regulators similar to how hormonal systems work in humans. “If you think about that and how active that is, that’s when you have to realize that they aren’t just pretty fragrances.”

Jensen said products undergo testing — inclusive of all ingredients from essential oils to synthetics — to see if they cause sensitizing reactions to ensure that Biossance is putting safe products in the marketplace.

“Essential oils have been used since the beginning of time. They’ve been used for medical purposes internally and externally, and when done in a safe way they are phenomenal,” Jensen said, noting that rose oil is used in one of the brand’s best-selling products, the Squalane + Vitamin C Rose Oil, $72. “We want to use ingredients that come from the purest sources and cleanest sources but also do something for the skin. Again, we’re looking at small quantities and if it’s over a certain percent we don’t use it on the face — a body oil is different from a facial oil.”

2. Oille
Oille launched in June of this year and contains a dozen products that are all formulated with essential oils, according to founder Kirsten King, also a clinical aromatherapist. Prices start at $48 and the most expensive item in the line is an antiaging facial serum that retails for $198.

“During my studies I learned that 95 percent of essential oils are fraudulent and no one is talking about it.…Women deserve to know the truth, and that truth is that most essential oils are fraudulent by adulteration. They are adulterated with synthetic ingredients or with alcohol to increase volume for profit. Essential oils are a very lucrative business and they’re very vulnerable to becoming fraudulent and adulterated, because oil simply looks like oil,” King said.

She detailed a GC/MS technology she uses to make sure essential oils are safe for applications, which combines two scientific techniques that prove whether or not an essential oil has been adulterated in any by separating volatile compounds and identifying their constituents.

“If you don’t have this technology then there is a 95 to 100 percent chance that the essential oil is adulterated and this is where people are having a reaction…and their skin is reacting to the hidden toxic ingredients inside the essential oil. If they are using a true, pure essential oil they most likely are not having a reaction to the oil,” King stated.

She maintained she sources essential oils directly from the producer, which is often times the farmer, and cuts out the middleman because “nine out of 10 times they aren’t the ones diluting their oils.”

Oille is sold at as well as a handful of independent beauty shops across the U.S. King said she envisions the brand as a “large department store brand for the seasoned beauty consumer who wants to go one step beyond organic.”

When asked if the line was certified organic, King said the line is not USDA-certified organic. She maintained that products are made with at least 89 percent organic ingredients. (She added that her supplier holds the USDA organic certification.)

3. Tata Harper
“Essential oils have been getting such a bad rap,” Tata Harper, founder of Tata Harper Skincare, said exasperatedly. “Here is my take on all of it: Essential oils are very elaborate; it’s very elaborate chemistry, it’s hundreds of individual chemical compounds on average for every essential oil. The composition is intense.”

For Harper, it’s these complicated chemical compounds that enable essential oils to provide so many benefits. She believes they having calming properties and can clarify blemish prone skin as well as aid in hydration and wrinkle and sebum reduction. She also touted the fragrance essential oils can give a formula, since no synthetic fragrance is used in her line.

“You’re smelling what it’s made out of because they’re in a higher range of what concentrations are permitted by law. For us we use them as actives — we don’t use them as perfume; they are part of our active count.…[But] they make formula smell amazing and give you, secondarily, all these emotional benefits. They are uplifting, calming, they are happy, they take the customer through this emotional journey,” Harper said.

But inevitably, any time a raw material is “so, so active,” there is going to be a percentage of the population who is going to find it “too much,” Harper said. She compared it to people who react to acids, and therefore can’t use products formulated with acids.

When the brand does use essential oils — many products in the line contain rose, lavender, geranium or neroli essential oils — Harper said precautionary measures are taken to ensure that the materials are being used at the right levels. She steers clear of essential oils with “questionable repercussions,” or if they are on a list of substances not to use while pregnant.

Harper maintained that the company complies with the International Fragrance Association’s guidelines, with all ingredients used at the right levels and percentages.

“We do as much as we can to prevent, including anything that is toxic or that has high allergen counts, but we love essential oils, which have as much risk as many of the raw materials used in skin care…[from] infusions with tons of pollen to acid mixes to synthetic to fruit acids. I, for example, can’t use fruit actives. My skin reacts in the most aggressive way,” Harper said.

Herbivore Lapis Facial Oil, Herbivore co-founders Alex Kummerow and Julia Wills.
Herbivore Lapis Facial Oil, Herbivore cofounders Alex Kummerow and Julia Wills. Courtesy Photo

4. Herbivore
“We use them for everything. They make their way into all of our products,” said Alex Kummerow, cofounder of Herbivore. “It’s always been our go-to to add essential oils.”

Kummerow maintained that he and cofounder Julia Wills started using them for the fragrant element because they wanted to scent the line with all natural fragrance, which meant no synthetic fragrance oils. But once the two started researching, they learned that fragrance was just a small part of what essential oils had to offer.

Wills said two of the brands best-selling products — the Blue Tansy Resurfacing Clarity Mask, $42, and the Lapis Balancing Facial Oil, $72 — both contain blue tansy, an essential oil that smooths and balances skin and also works as an anti-inflammatory agent.

“I’m not sure why there is a backlash. There are certain essential oils that are not great for your skin and you don’t want to put them directly on your skin. There have been some red flags in the market,” Kummerow said.

“There are some specific essential oils that aren’t great to put directly on your skin so we don’t include those,” Wills interjected, specifying that clove, cinnamon, lavender and lemongrass are among the essential oils they avoid putting directly into Herbivore’s line.

But overall, Wills believes the good outweighs any potential negatives, and as a result, the majority of the brand’s 35 products contain essential oils.

“I think that might be part of the backlash. In general we find that they’re gentle on the skin, especially the ones we use in our skin care have great benefits for the skin. Blue tanzy, rose, neroli, jasmine sambac — those are the core essential oils [we use],” she revealed, noting that studies also show the emotional benefits from essential oil use, inclusive of elevating mood.

“We think they have really incredible properties and they should be used more in the beauty industry instead of less,” Wills said.