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Picky Panel: Essential Oils

You’ve been asking for it, finally we’re here with a Picky Panel on essential oils! We’ll cover what essential oils are, the debate around them, and what our Picky Experts opinions are about this ingredient!

Essential Oils in Skincare

What are essential oils? Essential oils are the concentrated essences from plants that create a unique and wafting fragrance. They can be extracted from the flower, bark, stem, leaves, roots and sometimes fruit, of any plant. No matter the source, these oils are complex mixtures, often containing up to 60 different substances- some great for your skin, and others not so much.

These natural oils can be rich in antioxidants and contain antibacterial ingredients that can help protect the skin. However, there are a significant amount of components that could potentially irritate your skin. Common examples include fragrant ingredients like limonene, citronellol and eugenol. But, we know the answers are never black and white which is why we turn to our panel of qualified Picky Experts to give their insight and opinions. Especially when it comes to masking unwanted odors in skincare with essential oils.

Question #1

Do you avoid products with essential oil?

Gabby: Yes, I avoid nearly all essential oils because I have a fragrance sensitivity. My skin can tolerate small amounts of tea tree oil, but otherwise the potential for irritation is too large so I’d rather not take the risk. It also makes it easier for me to filter through all the different products out there!

Beibei: My skin is not sensitive or irritation-prone, so I do not check ingredient lists to avoid essential oils particularly. However, I personally do not like very strongly scented facial skincare, so I generally avoid scented products or use products with milder scents. 

Erlin: It all goes down to benefit vs risk ratio. But personally, for leave-on products, I usually prefer them without. For rinse-off products, if they are from legitimate brands and follow regulations (IFRA guidelines), I am fine with that since I don’t have any allergies. 

Question #2

Is there a group you’d recommend steer clear of essential oils?

Beibei: Fragrant ingredients found in essential oils such as linalool, citronellol and eugenol are commonly found in cosmetic products (including ones targeted at babies), and limonene is often used in cleaning products. It is therefore almost impossible to completely avoid such products and sensitization could be extremely inconvenient! The problem is that for those who have a true allergic contact dermatitis, even a small exposure may result in an uncomfortable reaction. Symptoms are varied but may include:

  • Patches of itchy bumps
  • Flaky red skin
  • Depending on the type of exposure, it could affect different areas such as the face, eyelids or even cause an itchy bottom
  • Rare reports of individuals with contact allergy experiencing breathing difficulties

For those with a weaker skin barrier, such as babies, or those with eczema or very sensitive irritation-prone skin, it would be a good idea to avoid unnecessary exposure to essential oils.

The greatest concern I have is that they are marketed as safe due to being ‘natural’, but the component ingredients are still potentially irritating or sensitizing chemicals.

Question #3

What’s the percentage of essential oils in skincare?

Gabby: The amount of fragrance needed to mask unwanted odors is unique to each product and is dependent on many factors such as the product type, intended use, the odor itself, and desired final scent. Typically, fragrance is only used in ranges of 0.1%-5%.

Erlin: It really depends on each EO chemistry and the formulation  and the usage rates are also limited by dermal limits of each and its sensitizers, but typically the usage 0.1-0.5% (w/w) is good enough to mask surfactants and oil odors. Some formulations might need more or less, but just as a rule of thumb:

  • <1% for facial leave-on products
  • Body and rinse-off products can have slightly higher percentages (up to 1.5%)

Question #4

How can you outweigh the negative effect of an essential oil?

Gabby: The threshold for triggering a fragrance allergic response is different for everyone. If you have an allergy, you have an allergy regardless of what else may be in the product. There are so many varying factors unique to each person. A list of questions to ask:

  • Type of product: is it a leave-on or a rinse off?
  • Where you use it: is it for your face or a body part?
  • How much you use
  • How often you use it
  • What other products are also used: do they also contain fragrance?

Beibei: There are studies about antioxidants being used in products containing ingredients like limonene, which can cause issues when they oxidize. It’s thought that this may reduce its oxidation and therefore risk of causing sensitization, but the research into this is ongoing. As a dermatologist looking after patients with impaired barrier conditions like eczema, I would still advocate complete avoidance rather than using products formulated in this way.

Erlin: The best way to outweigh the negative effects (for formulators) are :

  • To formulate them in very diluted  concentrations
  • Proper delivery vehicle. Essential oils delivered in dilution with Triglycerides (vegetable oils or waxes) found in oil-based products. And emulsions will penetrate slowly (thus lower the risk) than they are dispersed in aqueous forms (toner or hydrogel). Also we avoid using EO in products that have large amounts of free fatty acids, alcohol, propylene glycol.
  • Formulate them in the right pH of skin. Extreme pH can disrupt the skin barrier thus EO may penetrate easier thus enhance the irritation.

Get Personal on Picky

On the Picky app, you can customize what you want and don’t want in your product search. This includes “Fragrance-free,” “Oil-free,” “Eczema-safe,” and so much more! Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram and check out more skincare science content on our blog.

2 Responses

  1. At first, don’t really look at the ingredients as my skin is adaptable and normal skin but when I get to seeing bumps and feeling a burning sensation then I realized that when I use products that got essential oil ingredients it causes skin irritation. I even stopped diffusing essential oils too 🙁

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