The essential oil market is expected to reach $11.67 billion by 2022. Their rising popularity - especially in skincare - raises two important questions: What risks are involved with the use of these powerful and potent little oils, and what exactly is their impact on the environment? Essential oils, without a doubt, smell amazing. When they're used properly, they can be great tools for self-care and wellness. In fact, certain essential oils have been shown in studies to help reduce nausea after surgery, lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and even prevent anxiety in some cases.
However, there is a dark side to these popular oils. There is an unspoken truth about the serious risks, reactions, environmental impact, and long-term implications of essential oils in skincare, and especially, daily use of them. That is what we're talking about today.
WHY ARE ESSENTIAL OILS IN SKINCARE PROBLEMATIC?
Essential oils have long been used - we're talking centuries - for their aromatherapeutic and wellness benefits. The difference between then and today is that essential oils were incredibly labor-intensive and only created from raw plant material that was local and available. They were used sparingly and for medicinal purposes, the same way you might use ibuprofen, and not day in and day out.
Because essential oils have become so widely available, the way that we use them has changed. Now you may find your skin slathered in a cocktail of essential oils multiple times a day in unknown concentrations and without knowing the quality or purity of the essential oils used.
Anything powerful enough to heal also has the power and potential to harm - especially when used in excess or by formulators who often aren't trained to work with these substances.
While there are many ways to use essential oils, and while some of them are even more problematic (ie. ingesting essential oils), the use of essential oils in skincare is worth shining a light on because a) We use skincare products daily, sometimes multiple times a day. And b) most adverse reactions due to essential oils are caused by fragranced cosmetics (including skincare) and occur on the face.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS?
It's probably not news to you that essential oils have the potential to cause irritation and sensitization of the skin. But most of us, when we hear this, attribute these types of reactions to those with very sensitive skin. I've been using skincare with essential oils forever, and my skin is fine? But here's the thing:
The Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety in the EU considers 28 natural constituents of essential oils to be ‘established contact allergens in humans’. This doesn't only mean that humans are potentially allergic to these substances - this means that they have the potential to cause an allergy and allergic reaction in humans. So, even if you aren't allergic to an essential oil, you can develop an allergy - a life-long allergy - through repeated exposure to it. In fact, the more you use a product that contains essential oils, the greater your risk of developing an allergic reaction to it and to essential oils in general.
"Skin allergy to fragrance ingredients occurs when an individual's skin has been exposed to a certain minimum dose of a fragrance allergen. For example through regular use of a fragranced cosmetic product. Once an allergy has developed, it is a life-long condition...Skin allergies to fragrance ingredients are most commonly caused by fragranced cosmetic products and frequently involve the skin of the face, hands or armpits."
They go on to say that...
"Once a contact allergy has been developed, cells capable of recognizing and reacting towards the allergen will always be present in the immune system. As a consequence, symptoms of allergic contact dermatitis characterized by erythema (‘redness’), swelling and vesicles occur upon re-exposure to the fragrance allergen in question. If exposure continues over a longer period of time, it may develop into a chronic condition with scaling and painful fissures of the skin...The disease can be severe and generalized, with a significant impairment of quality of life and potential consequences for fitness for work."
You can use an essential oil for years with no problems, and then develop a severe intolerance to it. In fact, you'll notice that many of the brands formulating with essential oils are not formulated by cosmetic chemists or scientists. This is because the risks of essential oils in skincare often outweigh their potential (and in many cases, unproven) benefits.
What does an allergic reaction look like?
Reactions to essential oils can be immediate or delayed, but perhaps surprisingly, most reactions don't occur immediately and don't occur the first time you use a product. Reactions generally include redness, itching, and/or a burning sensation. Dermatitis is commonly caused by fragrance allergens aka. essential oils. Some essential oils are more prone to causing allergic reactions than others.
The following are known to cause allergic reactions more frequently and even when diluted below 0.8%:
- Cinnamon Bark
- Cassia Cinnamon
- Clove Bud
- Peru Balsam
If you find that you start experiencing these symptoms - ie. dermatitis - or have developed them in the past on one or more occasions, essential oils in your skincare routine may be the cause. Because symptoms can worsen and become chronic with repeated exposure, it's suggested that you stop use of all essential oil-containing skincare, at least for a period of time.
What about the environmental impact of essential oils?
We can't have a conversation about the dark side of essential oils in skincare without talking about their (massive) environmental impact. Essential oils, in comparison to other natural ingredients (ie. cold-pressed oils), are particularly problematic for a few reasons.
First, the amount of raw material required to produce many essential oils is astronomical. We're talking 625 pounds of rose petals to produce a single (1) ounce of essential oil. 30 pounds of jasmine flowers to produce a single (1) ounce of essential oil. While some brands wear these facts like a badge of honor, the truth is: there's nothing sustainable about it.
This requires farms to produce a massive amount of plant material and often in a short period of time because many of the plants used to create essential oils grow seasonally and not year-round. This calls for the use of heavy pesticides and chemical soil preparation (or massive water & resource usage to produce the plant in an off-season.) The un-sustainability of these farming practices is reason enough to avoid using essential oils in skincare where they're used daily and liberally.
Additionally, many conventional essential oils will be contaminated with pesticides because of chemical soil preparation. And while there are certified Organic essential oils on the market, there is little way to verify that indie skincare brands are using these carefully vetted oils.
There's also the issue of wild-harvesting, which is often done so irresponsibly because there's really no oversight or way of regulating it. Unscrupulous suppliers contribute to deforestation by over-harvesting and threatening certain species to the point of extinction. When you see essential oils like Sandalwood, Rosewood or Atlas Cedarwood on an ingredients list, you should be aware that these are endangered species and for the most part, have no business being turned into essential oils.
With a growing demand for essential oils that is, frankly, next to impossible for Mother Nature or farmers to keep up with, there is also the issue of adulteration. The same way that honey, maple syrup, and olive oil are now widely adulterated and falsely labeled, essential oils are not always what they say they are. The FDA doesn't test essential oils for safety or purity before they're sold, so unless very carefully vetted, many brands and formulators don't actually know the quality of what they're using.
When supply can't meet demand, you get essential oils like Sandalwood, an endangered species and one of the most sought after essential oils. Consequently, it's also the most adulterated essential oil on the market.
If you take a look at the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for an essential oil, you'll see that essential oils are highly flammable and considered hazardous waste. They're toxic to aquatic life and to marine eco-systems. This means that they, and products that contain them, can cause harm to marine life when they go down the drain. This also means that they can't be disposed of normally in the trash or recycling.
In many places, depending on local laws, even recyclable containers that are rinsed and washed that held flammable or hazardous materials, cannot be recycled. That's billions of dollars worth of essential oil waste (ie. glass bottles) that typically end up in landfills every year.
So - are essential oils worth it? Yes, definitely. Just not in your daily skincare routine. Like our predecessors, it's best to use essential oils sparingly and with respect to the plants and the planet that make them possible. This means limiting exposure, only purchasing essential oils from trusted, Certified Organic sources, and not falling into the trend of essential oils-for-everything.
Have you had a bad or allergic reaction to essential oils? Let us know in the comments below.
Wabi-Sabi Botanicals skincare is proudly essential oil-free.