Is It Safe to Use Essential Oils on Your Skin?

If you love natural skin care products, you've probably noticed that many of them boast essential oils in their ingredient list. Although you may be familiar with essential oils for aromatherapy, applying them topically may not be familiar to you. Here is everything you need to know about using essential oils on your skin.

What are Essential Oils?

Before we can talk about essential oils, how they end up in our skin products, and whether they are good for us, we should first define what an essential oil is. Essential oils are the “essence” derived from the scent of various plants. They can be gotten either by distilling the plant or by cold pressing them. The result is a pure concentration of that plant in oil form.

You get a rich and complex oil that can contain hundreds of different components. Some of these components have beneficial properties, such as antioxidants and anti-microbial purposes, but many of the components can be very irritating to the skin.

Why Essential Oils are In Your Skin Care Products

Skin care companies have experienced a backlash over the years for their heavy use of chemicals like artificial fragrances and phthalates. Customers want natural products for their skin, but they also want their natural products to smell good. Essential oils seem like a great middle ground. They are natural, fragrant, and just plain sound healthy. Who wouldn't want to pop out of the shower invigorated by lemon, peppermint, or lavender?

The problem is the very nature of the essential oils, as we discussed earlier. In general, the stronger the scent of an essential oil, the more irritating it is for our skin, but those are the scents most often found in our skin care for that very reason.

Natural isn't always better for us.

How Essential Oils Can Harm Your Skin

Essential oils can be very irritating to the skin in a few different ways. The most common way is through allergies. Essential oils from the Balsam of Peru tree are a popular ingredient in perfumes and skin care because of its incredible smell. It's also listed as one of the most common allergins dermatologists see people for. 

Allergies to essential oils are fairly common. If the product you use has a variety of essential oils in them, that greatly increases the chance of allergy.

Even if you're not allergic to an essential oil, it can still cause problems for your skin. Many components in essential oils, such as limonene, citronellol, eugenol, and linalool are part of the chemical makeup of dozens of different kinds of essential oils. These components are highly irritating to skin, causing redness and irritation.

Some essential oils are also phototoxic, which means they are harmful to the body when exposed to light. Even if you don't have sensitive skin, you can still experience phototoxicity from certain essential oils, such as bergamot. To make it even trickier, some essential oils don't become phototoxic if they are steamed, but do if they are cold-pressed.

Even if you don't see irritation when you apply the essential oil, it's possible that irritation is happening below the visible level of the skin. By the time you notice the damage done to your skin, the problem may already be well advanced.

A few essential oils have been proven beneficial for use on the skin, such as tea tree oil and lemongrass. Essential oils that have been carefully studied in a variety of circumstances and skin types are much more likely to be safe for your skin than those with no research, or those that have found problems with applying topically. A quick google search may be all you need in order to avoid a painful reaction.

Why You Should Not Use Essential Oils On Your Face

Even if you choose to use essential oils on your body, you should rarely (if ever) use them on your face. We've already talked about how irritating these can be, but also that some essential oils are safer than others. Some essential oils are used to treat acne and other skin blemishes, which we typically want to remove on our faces.

Although it's tempting to reach for tea tree oil to treat that big blemish, there are safer alternatives. The skin on our face is much more delicate and sensitive than in other locations. 

If you insist on using tea tree oil (or any other essential oil) on your face, make sure to do so safely.

How to Use Essential Oils on Your Skin Safely

If you want to take advantage of the benefits of essential oils, but stay safe at the same time, there is a way to strike a happy medium? The answer is in moderation. Here are a few safety tips for using essential oils on your skin.

Dilute, dilute, dilute

No essential oil should be used on your skin undiluted. Use a carrier oil such as coconut oil to water down the essential oil you want to use. A carefully chosen carrier oil can complement your choice of essential oil, and do even more for your skin.

Spot test first

Before slathering essential oils all over your skin, test a new essential oil out on a small patch of your skin first. If you have a reaction to it, you'll have less damaged skin to worry about and an easier time removing it than if you'd treated the whole area before realizing your mistake.

Talk with your doctor

Believe it or not, essential oils can interact with medications. Ask your doctor about essential oils if you are on any medications, and let your doctor know if you are using them at your next checkup even if you aren't. If something comes up later, it will be helpful to your doctor to know which oils you are using.

Avoid strong scent

Although we are attracted to the oils that have the strongest scents, these are also the essential oils most likely to cause a reaction. If your goal is to treat a blemish, having the whole area become inflamed is the exact opposite of what you want. Stick to gentle oils with proven safety margins and your skin will thank you.

Essential Oils to Avoid in Skin Care Products

There are some essential oils that you should simply never use on your skin. Of all the essential oils out there, the citrus essential oils are without a doubt the most irritating. On top of being phototoxic, they can also cause irritation to the skin including allergic reactions, as well as general redness and irritation.

Other essential oils to avoid are the minty ones. Although many people recommend mints for soothing sore muscles, these essential oils can irritate almost all skin types.

Although it may seem counter intuitive, many flower essential oils are also not recommended. Lavender, despite how great it is for relaxing when inhaled, isn't very safe when applied to the skin.

Some companies claim that their essential oil products are fine to use even though they contain citrus or mint because they are in very small amounts. The problem with this is that we don't use just one skin care product, and many products use essential oils and don't list them. You might think you're only applying a safe amount to get the benefits when in reality you're layering a toxic amount on.

With so many that really aren't safe, which ones are okay in safe amounts?

Safe(er) Oils for Your Skin

Gentler essential oils for the skin include chamomile, cypress, eucalyptus, and tea tree oil. Many of these oils have been safety tested. A 2018 study on chamomile essential oil found that application to the skin had beneficial effects for women after a cesarean section, and eucalyptus essential oil was found to have anti-microbial properties.

There are actually a number of essential oils that have been researched for topical application, although many more are meant to be inhaled or even ingested. If you're not certain about a specific essential oil you want to use, try researching it first. Essential oils are beginning to be studied for their useful properties, and both the dangers and benefits become clearer every day.

Essential oils can be used on your skin, and they may even be beneficial if used mindfully. To get the most benefits out of your essential oils, practice safe usage guidelines at all time.

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