A potent 100 per cent natural face oil found its way in to the hands of the Duchess of Cambridge earlier this year. Apparently she tried it, loved it, and proceeded to recommend it to her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Sussex.
The two are now avid fans of UK-made Beuti Beauty Sleep Elixir, which is made up of 14 natural plant oils, including pomegranate seed, chia seed, geranium, softalia nut, strawberry seed, lavender, blueberry seed and neroli.
The brand behind the sell-out product (the oil sold out almost instantly on Look Fantastic once news broke of its royal seal of approval) sells only two products, both of which are totally natural and made from essential oils.
Essential oils are having something of a moment: it’s been reported that the global aromatherapy market is projected to grow by 8 percent between 2017 and 2024.
In a piece for the New Yorker it was reported that in the autumn of 2017, American essential oils company Young Living grew tenfold. Similarly, its rival doTERRA claimed it made $1 billion in sales in 2015.
But the popularity of essential oils hasn’t come without controversy. There are as many proponents of the concentrated natural oils as there are opponents, and equally as many brands including them, as excluding them.
So we thought it high-time to create a guide to essential oils, what they do, how they work, and to give you both sides of the argument with a little help from the experts.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are the essences derived from plants, flowers, roots, seeds or peels, often created through a process of distillation (the process of purifying a liquid via heating.)
The word “essential” comes from the essence of the plant’s characteristic fragrance, and the oils are often used by companies as an alternative to synthetic fragrances.
But Dr Sophie Shotter, an anaesthetist who now works in aesthetic medicine, warns that it’s precisely “…these fragrances which can cause problems, and modern science has shown that these oils are actually problematic for the skin and can cause severe irritation.”
“The term essential oils covers hundreds of ingredients as it’s an umbrella term for potent oils extracted from plants,” explains Andrea Pfeffer, founder of Pfeffer Sal.
The natural plant derivatives possess a small molecular size meaning they can penetrate the skin’s multiple layers quickly, delivering high levels of nutrients as they do so.
However, the experts warn that they are incredibly potent and highly concentrated making them potentially volatile, as the skin’s reaction to them can’t always be predicted.
What are the benefits?
Essential oils have seen their popularity skyrocket, especially in an industry which has become ubiquitous with people searching out natural remedies. The plant derivatives themselves have roots in ancient beauty rituals and have been used for centuries to solve a myriad of skin complaints: from soothing dry skin to reducing signs of ageing.
But experts are advising that the oils must be fully understood from a technical perspective before people invest. London-based holistic health and skincare expert Gemma Clare advises: “Just because something’s natural doesn’t mean that it doesn’t come with potential dangers to be aware of.”
Clare recommends chamomile as a very good remedy for calming inflamed skin, while she advocates for rose oil being used to hydrate parched skin but, she warns, “with essential oils, balance and moderation is key as they can be very, very damaging if used incorrectly.”
“Essential oils are the most active components of a plant and that is why they have a place in skincare,” says Californian-based April Gargiulo, founder of cult-beauty brand Vintner’s Daughter, which has just two products, the Active Botanical Essence and the “multi-correctional” Active Botanical Serum.
The Vintner’s Daughter doesn’t advertise on Instagram – rare for a brand in 2020 – but has managed to build a cult following, which includes Goop-founder Gwyneth Paltrow.
The brand’s serum contains over 22 different botanicals which ex-acne sufferer Gargiulo claims “changed my skin and more importantly the relationship I had with my skin.”
AMLY is a British botanical brand which boasts the efficacy of its holistic skincare. “One of the most valuable attributes to a raw material that has been unadulterated lies within its strength of purity. In skincare we rely upon the values of science as well as the infinite value of nature’s design,” its co-founder, Lisa Smallpiece, explains.
In essence – pardon the pun – using these active treatments on the skin is a way of keeping a skincare regime natural and free of synthetic substances, but essential oils are highly concentrated and so must be fully understood before use.
But do they actually work?
This a conversation which has been doing the rounds in skincare circles for a while now, as there’s scientific research to back up scepticism.
While there are several oils that aid in healing, toning, and brightening skin (tea tree, rosehip and lavender are among the few), there are also those which have the potential to spark serious reactions and even chemical burns due to allergies and phototoxicity.
Phototoxicity is a chemically-induced skin irritation, which is exacerbated by sunlight. Some of the elixirs which can trigger phototoxicity include bergamot, lemongrass and clove, including many others, and it essentially means that by using these oils in skincare and then exposing skin to sunlight, the chances of burning skin or causing pigmentation are dramatically increased.
“There’s just not a one-size-fits-all answer as to whether essential oils are necessarily bad or good, but they are very, very potent and people must understand that. One drop of rose oil, for example, contains approximately 1,000 rose petals. That could be really damaging to sensitive skin,” Clare explains.
Paula Begoun founded her brand, Paula’s Choice, in 1995 and is a point blank opponent of using botanicals in skincare.
“Essential oils are a serious problem for skin. They cause inflammation, leading to all kinds of issues, including weakening skin’s barrier, triggering redness, depleting vital substances in skin’s surface, and generally preventing skin from looking healthy,” Begoun expands.
Paula’s website even goes as far as to say: “there is no best essential oil for skin. They all pose a risk in some way or another.”
And Paula’s not alone in banishing botanicals from her skincare. Tiffany Masterton, founder of award-winning skincare brand Drunk Elephant, also omits them from her formulations.
“There are some essential oils which have been shown to have beneficial effects, such as rosemary for acne. When used in very low concentrations of 0.1% some research suggests they can be non-irritant,” Dr. Shotter divulges. “However these research papers don’t take into account that most skincare products which contain essential oils combine multiple oils, again raising the risk of irritation. None of the essential oils have evidence of efficacy anywhere close to gold-standard medical skincare ingredients.”
Can I use them if I have sensitive skin?
It is believed by many that essential oils are inherently safe because they’re natural, but with that comes an immeasurable level of potency, which isn’t necessarily compatible with sensitive skins.
“If you have compromised, sensitive skin or are experiencing conditions such as acne or rosacea, we would recommend you steer clear as they are potent, could cause reactions, and will have limitations in what they can do to resolve your condition,” Pfeffer explains. “I would also say that they are not going to have a huge rejuvenating effect either.”
Dr. Shotter is clear in her advice: “Any skin with impaired barrier function will be particularly prone to problems from essential oils – rosacea, eczema and angry inflamed acne for example. The fragrant essential oils can make irritation worse, deteriorate the skin barrier further and can actually be pro-ageing by increasing micro-inflammation within the skin.”
The founders of AMLY are equally as tentative about recommending their active products to those with sensitive skin: “Oils are active, this is what gives the benefits, however for some people with skin sensitivities this may be an issue.”
Examples of gentler oils, which are low in aldephydes and phenols (the compounds found in plants which irritate the skin), are geranium, chamomile, blue tansy and ylang-ylang.
What’s the verdict?
Essential oils are controversial little plant derivatives, but the takeaway here seems to be that they are most impactful when used in moderation.
For sensitive skin, it would appear that their high potency would only work to irritate and further cause disruption to skin but, as Clare states, “people must learn how to ‘use them responsibly.'”
For Dr. Shotter, her advice is to steer clear of essential oils: “Nowadays we have fabulous, gentle medical grade ingredients suitable for even the most sensitive of skins.” She suggests avoiding any oil which is fragranced, as it is precisely these compounds which are most likely to irritate.
But for Clare, she recommends “doing research” and seeing a specialist because after all, as with Gargiulo, active botanical essential oils could just be your pathway to falling in love with your skin.