Of all the Great Beauty Debates— single or double cleanse? body lotion or body oil? bar soap or body wash?— none is quite as fevered as the debate over essential oils. But where doubling up on face wash or slathering oil over your limbs is a matter of personal preference, the efficacy of essential oils for skin is a matter of fact. Scientific studies show that certain essential oils are rich in beauty benefits, from reducing inflammation (chamomile, lavender) to eliminating acne-causing bacteria (cypress, rose).
What makes an ‘essential’ oil
“Essential oils are concentrated oils that contain volatile chemical compounds from plants,” explains Dr. Devika Icecreamwala, a board-certified dermatologist with Icecreamwala Dermatology in San Francisco. (Don’t let the word “volatile” scare you; in chemistry terms, it simply means that the substance in question evaporates easily.)
This type of oil is typically extracted from plant matter via distilling (with steam) or cold-pressing (with pressure). The result is a super-potent substance that packs the entire “essence” of the plant into a single drop of oil — hence the name. “Essential oils are very concentrated compared to regular plant oils,” Dr. Icecreamwala says. A little goes a long way, and they “should not be directly applied to the skin,” per the dermatologist. Rather, essential oils need to be diluted in water or a carrier oil (i.e. in an actual skincare formula) before application.
The benefits of essential oils for skin
In small quantities, the large majority of essential oils demonstrate anti-inflammatory properties. For instance, research shows that lavender oil can be beneficial to blemishes, eczema, and dry skin. Frankincense has skin brightening and tightening effects; rose, chamomile, jasmine, and cypress oils have acne-fighting antimicrobial properties; vetiver is an antioxidant that neutralizes pollution particles.
Bonus: Since they’re highly fragranced, these oils also boast aromatherapy benefits, too. Lavender is a stress-buster, frankincense may ease symptoms of anxiety, and bergamot is energizing, just to name a few.
Why essential oils get a bad rap
So, why are essential oils vilified, exactly? It comes down to potency and formulation. Essential oils are highly concentrated, and all of the above benefits happen at low doses. Many beauty brands and at-home DIYers go overboard with them, which can have the opposite of the intended outcome and lead to irritation. Worth noting? This is the case with almost any skincare ingredient or product—exfoliating acids, for example.
How to choose the right essential oils for your skin
Unfortunately, finding the right essential oil products isn’t always easy. Because these oils are expensive and require a lot of plant matter (a five milliliter bottle of rose oil requires nearly 250,000 rose petals), it’s common for essential oils to be mixed or “cut” with other substances.
“Many companies that go through large quantities of essential oils use what are called isolates to save money,” says Kurt Schnaubelt, Ph.D., an aromatherapist and author of The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils. “Take neroli, which contains a certain percentage of the compound linalool. You can add a natural isolate of linalool, which is really inexpensive, to your neroli, and that stretches the supply of your very expensive neroli. And this linalool isolate could have been extracted from basil. If you add the basil in there, it’s not a whole, authentic essential oil, it’s 90 percent neroli and 10 percent basil.”
Adulteration of a whole essential oil not only compromises the quality of a product, it can also lead to the aforementioned irritation. That’s why it’s important to seek out brands that exclusively formulate with whole essential oils. And if the material is organic or wild-harvested, even better. (True Botanicals prioritizes all of the above.) These methods ensure the plant was grown exactly how nature intended—better for the earth and better for your skin.