How good are essential oils?

How good are essential oils?

The jury is out on whether they are truly beneficial or not

By Amina Grimen

Published: Thu 16 Jan 2020, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 17 Jan 2020, 1:00 AM

Essential oils sometimes have a bad reputation. But the truth is that when it comes to such oils and your skin, it's not a straightforward yay or nay.
Essential oils are plant-based, smell amazing, and contain chemical compounds that can do everything - from killing acne-causing bacteria to helping regulate hormonally-stressed skin. In fact, many of the essential oils can heal, tone and brighten your skin. That said, some of them are also known irritants and the elixirs can spark serious skin reactions and even chemical burns due to allergies and phototoxicity.
So, given the risk of a reaction, should you use them in your skincare routine or should you appreciate them from a distance for their calming aromatic appeal?
Let's begin my defining essential oils and leave the judgement until the very end. Essential oils can be extracted from flowers, bark, stem, leaves, roots, and, sometimes, fruits of any plant. They are considered to be volatile essences of plants that create unique, perfumed fragrances.  If you have sensitive skin, or if the barrier function of your skin is compromised, then fragrances and essential oils will only add to the irritation. So, as is key with any product, before slathering it on, always do a patch test just to be sure.  
So basically, if you are sensitive, stay away! It can be hard to avoid essential oils in products as they are often used to make the smell of products more appealing. If your product smells great, then that usually is a red flag, and you know there is essential oil in it.
Additionally, it's also worth mentioning here that essential oils can degrade when exposed to atmospheric oxygen, causing negative chemical changes.  The good news, however, is it's a very slow process. Make sure you note the date you open the bottle - most essential oils keep well for at least 1 or 2 years before oxidation starts to take effect.
However, we can't paint all essential oils with the same brush. There are gentler ones like geranium, chamomile, blue tansy and ylang-ylang, which are low in aldehydes and phenols, the compounds found in plants that can irritate the skin. Even so, you could check to see if the essential oils are low on the ingredient list - that signals their concentrations are small enough to help, but not irritate your skin. Anything listed after the fifth ingredient is usually at less than 1 per cent. When used on the skin, the more an essential oil is diluted, the less risk there is of an adverse skin reaction. This is not to say that it's lost some of its benefits, so diluting before application simply reduces the chances of irritation.
There are some oils that have been 'proven' to reduce the inflammation and help blemish-prone skin; a few of these are tea tree oil, rosemary oil, and lemongrass.
So, we can conclude by saying that pure, organic essential oils that have been formulated professionally do assist the skin in proper function and health. However, when they are used in high concentrations and if an oxidised one is used, they could be damaging.
(Amina Grimen is co-founder,

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