When Kristen Fanarakis emerged from a facial at an all-natural salon in Atlanta, her face did not have the fresh, glossy glow she had hoped for.
“My face was basically falling off,” she said, noting that the result was closer to what happens after a Fraxel laser treatment, which can leaves patients with red, shedding skin for days. “I looked Frankenstein-ish.”
It wasn’t a normal reaction for Ms. Fanarakis, the 44-year-old founder of a clothing brand. She has what she describes as “strong Greek skin” that can withstand regular chemical peels and ample retinol usage. What her skin apparently couldn’t withstand was the papaya and pumpkin essential oils used during the facial.
“Skin care is a science, so assuming that something ‘natural’ is better is risky,” she said. “There are plenty of compounds out in nature that are bad for us.”
That sentiment is growing amid an unregulated “clean” beauty boom in which many new brands position themselves as better for skin simply on the basis of their natural, nontoxic ingredients. Essential oils, often added to products for fragrance or for their antibacterial properties, have become particularly controversial as they’ve grown in popularity, with companies like doTerra and Young Living raking in billions of dollars on sales of the oils.
Dermatologists have long argued that essential oils are risky for skin, but customers are starting to catch on in the wake of unexpected and sometimes painful skin reactions. Last March, an article on the satirical website Reductress, titled “Essential Oils to Cure Your Rash From That Other Essential Oil,” offered a succinct summary of the backlash.
Dr. Annie Gonzalez, a dermatologist in Miami, has seen an uptick in essential oil reactions, calling them one of the leading causes of allergic contact dermatitis. The situation has worsened during the pandemic, she said, because people are experimenting with essential oil remedies while stuck at home.
“It’s becoming more problematic because people are using undiluted forms of these oils to make their own product,” Dr. Gonzalez said.
Lab-prepared products, however, can be just as problematic.
Last February, Gabrielle Puig, a 21-year-old student at George Washington University, decided to test out the Jet Lag mask from Summer Fridays, a much-hyped skin-care brand from the influencer Marianna Hewitt, to soothe her dry skin. Minutes after application, her face started stinging and tingling in a way that seemed counterproductive.
“I immediately took it off, and my skin was more red and irritated than ever before,” Ms. Puig said. After reviewing the ingredient list, she became convinced that the peppermint and citrus oils were the culprits.
In January, Summer Fridays posted an apology to customers after receiving a slew of negative reviews that mentioned rashes and hives as side effects. While the brand attributed the reactions to a product batch being compromised by a third-party manufacturer, it noted that it would be working to remove essential oils from its products “to mitigate any future potential for irritation.”
Why Essential Oils Are So Risky
To understand why essential oils can be risky for skin, it helps to understand what they are and are not. Extracted from flowers, bark, stems, leaves, roots and select fruits via either distillation or cold-pressing, essential oils are highly concentrated chemical components that contain a plant’s essence or smell.
“They require a high amount of plant material for processing, so they usually have much higher active ingredient concentrations than we’re used to,” said David Petrillo, a cosmetic chemist in Los Angeles. They are much more concentrated than popular oils like coconut and argan, for instance, which are considered “carrier” oils that are milder and are often used to dilute stronger essential oils.
While inhaling certain essential oils has been shown to affect the central nervous system and stimulate the brain to release neurotransmitters like serotonin that help with mood regulation, they’ve also been shown to disrupt the normal functioning of hormones. When it comes to the skin, some experts say that in small concentrations they offer antibacterial benefits, but many believe that beyond giving a product a nice scent, they do more harm than good.
“Using them on your skin almost insures that some of it will get into your bloodstream,” Dr. Petrillo said, listing a skin-crawling list of common side effects, including redness, chemical burns, headaches, swelling and blisters. And although many brands maintain that the antibacterial properties of essential oils aid in fighting acne, they can actually worsen breakouts.
“A lot of our clients with acne are using ‘cleaner’ skin-care brands that can actually clog pores because of the oils and botanicals they’re formulated with,” said Sofie Pavitt, an aesthetician in New York.
Although it’s possible to experience an allergic reaction to any essential oil, some are known to be riskier than others. Citrus oils, including lemon, orange and bergamot, are particularly dangerous, as they can be phototoxic, meaning they react to UV light and can cause skin to burn and blister. Cinnamon bark, clove, lemongrass, oregano, peppermint and jasmine oils are also known to cause irritation.
But the essential oil that most commonly wreaks havoc is also one of the most recommended by naturopaths and natural skin-care enthusiasts.
“Tea tree oil wins the prize,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “I see so many patients with acne or fungus who are convinced that tea tree oil is a miracle remedy for pretty much everything.” Using too much undiluted tea tree oil purchased at the drugstore for face masks, or for spot treatments, patients end up worsening their skin condition and develop tinea incognito, a fungal infection that’s masked and often exacerbated by the application of a topical agent.
“It makes it even harder for me to diagnose the primary issue, and it becomes more complicated to fix because you now have to repair the skin barrier that has been compromised by the use of these oils,” Dr. Gonzalez said.
How to Experiment With Clean Beauty, Safely
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to essential oils, and blacklisting them from your routine doesn’t have to be the answer. “Most of what we use in the beauty industry is really in that gray zone, where some people can use it without a problem and other people can’t,” Dr. Gonzalez said. “I always tell patients that it really depends on the dosage, the concentration and the source.”
Experts recommend looking for diluted concentrations of 0.5 to 1 percent or lower, preferably mixed with a less reactive carrier oil like argan or coconut. Since many brands don’t list concentrations, a simple smell test will do: If it’s very fragrant, it’s more likely to irritate your skin.
Your safest bet, Dr. Gonzalez said, is to do a patch test on the inside of your arm and let it sit, unwashed, for 48 hours to see how your skin reacts. People with underlying skin conditions like psoriasis, rosacea or eczema should be particularly cautious.
If you happen to fall in the sensitive camp but still want to experiment with “clean” beauty, a growing number of products explicitly avoid essential oils. Drunk Elephant lists them in its “suspicious six” ingredients to be wary of and keeps them out of its products.
Marie Veronique, a veteran brand in the clean beauty space, sells an essential oil-free line created in partnership with the San Francisco facialist Kristina Holey. And the skin-care line Peet Rivko was created by Johanna Peet specifically to address the lack of clean options for sensitive skin, the line positioned as the high-design version of the gentle drugstore stalwarts Cetaphil and CeraVe.
While a soothing line without fragrance isn’t a sexy sell, consumers (particularly Gen Z) are getting savvier about ingredients and the risks involved in the products they use.
“The idea that, just because something is natural it’s not necessarily better for your skin, is gaining more traction,” Ms. Peet said. “But as with many things in the beauty industry, it needs to be repeated many times before people fully get the message.”
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