Are essential oils safe to use on your skin?

Can these age-old plant extracts really boost your mental and physical health? MALENA HARBERS finds out


Essential oils have been used for their healing properties for centuries and are the gold standard when it comes to natural skincare solutions. “With growing concern over pharmaceutical side effects and increasing mental-health issues, essential oils are set to become a vital part of a total health and wellness plan,” says New York-based dermatologist Dr Rachel Nazarian.

However, reports of skin sensitivities and reactions are on the rise. “There are about 90 commonly recommended essential oils but, because they are alternative medications, there is a lack of regulation and consistency between them,” says Dr Nazarian. She advises sticking to the tried-and-trusted ones, to use them as recommended by the manufacturer and to always patch-test first when adding any essential oil to your health and wellness regime. Here’s the lowdown on these potent therapeutic oils…

What are they?

“Essential oils are highly concentrated extracts from flowers, roots and bark that contain the essence of the plant’s fragrance,” says Shrankhla Holecek, founder of Uma Oils. It’s extremely technical to extract them and requires a lot of raw material to produce a small amount – 1,000 petals give one drop of rose oil. “Pure essential oil is very alcoholic by nature,” says Holecek. “It’s ideal for use in perfumery and aromatherapy, but must be diluted before any contact with the skin.”

How do they work?

Each essential oil has its own unique scent and therapeutic benefit and can be applied topically or inhaled. “They’re incredibly effective at permeating the layers of skin and are absorbed into the bloodstream,” says Holecek. From there, the active compounds in the oils work to regulate hormones and other ailments, much like medication does. When inhaled, the process works differently. “The scent molecules of an essential-oil aroma trigger a neurological response in our limbic system, the part of our brain that controls our emotions as well as our heart rate, blood pressure and breathing,” says Amy Galper, an aromatherapist and co-author of Plant-Powered Beauty. “They have a profound effect on your state of mind.”

How should you use them?

According to Dr Nazarian, diffusing essential oils into the air decreases the risk of allergy or irritation. But to get the best mental-health benefits, Holecek swears by their absorption into the skin, too. “It increases their impact.” Try a dedicated bath oil, body oil or fragrance roller ball for best results. Holecek likes massaging the oil between her fingers and toes, where skin is thinnest, and dabbing it behind her ears to strengthen its therapeutic effects. “If you’re in an anxiety-inducing situation, work the oil into your chest, near your heart, so it hits your bloodstream faster.”

Essential oils in skincare

Not all essential oils should be used on skin – and even those that are deemed safe can aggravate your complexion when applied too often and mixed incorrectly. But you don’t need to avoid them altogether. Think of them as a bi-weekly treatment instead of a daily essential – and never blend essential oils yourself. Stick to using products from reputable brands instead, where quality control and the right blend are assured. “Part of an aromatherapist’s expertise is to know the properties and potential interactions of each oil, to avoid irritation,” explains Michel Pobeda, botanist for skincare brand Cosmydor and author of Les Bienfaits des Huiles Végétales.

The more an essential oil is diluted, the smaller the risk of irritation. Our experts recommend 0.5 percent mixed with a carrier oil base. For problem skin, Dr Nazarian likes juniper, clary sage and tea-tree oil. “Frankincense is a superb natural exfoliator and total anti-ager, while rose and geranium act like hyaluronic acid on the skin, helping it to retain moisture,” says Holecek. If you have sensitized, red and inflamed skin, try turmeric. “You get all the anti-inflammatory properties of the spice in one concentrated oil.”

The best essential oils for every concern

Galper recommends starting with a wardrobe of three well-known oils to cover overall wellbeing. “Rosemary is great for upper respiratory support and focusing the mind; sweet orange soothes digestive issues and boosts a low mood; while lavender is good for everything from calming irritation to helping you sleep.” However, Holecek cautions against using lavender if you suffer from depression. “It has slightly sedative properties, so can end up depressing the nervous system.”

Sleep and anxiety…

“Vetiver has been shown to calm frayed nerves and help you sleep,” says Holecek. Try jasmine for panic attacks. “It’s very grounding when you feel one coming on.”

Jet lag…

Basil and ginger invigorate and help with circulation. “Add them to your bath with energizing eucalyptus, too,” advises Holecek.

Mental focus…

According to Galper, rosemary, eucalyptus and peppermint share similar chemical compositions that support clear thinking.

A mood boost…

“Sweet orange, bergamot and grapefruit lift spirits and combat depression,” says Galper.



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