Essential Oils: The fragrant danger in your skin care

essential oil bottles

Essential oils are not "essential" for anything. In fact, essential oils are the exact opposite of essential. Essential oils are inessential for your health and inessential in your skincare. Essential oils are downright bad for your skin.


Essential Oil Bottles
Essential oils may smell nice but they wreak havoc on your skin.



If essential oils are anything but essential, why are they in your skin care? Because essential oils smell nice, and a nice smelling product sells. Misled consumers believe that a skin care product must be a fragrant product to be a good product. But what utility does fragrance add to your skin care? If you are using a moisturizer to combat dryness, why does it matter what the product smells like? The only thing that should matter is the product's ability to work. Fragrance may be a selling point, but it's the wrong selling point. Fragrance, from essential oils or synthetic ingredients is sensitizing, and sensitizing ingredients don't belong in a product marketed as a way to care for your skin. Fragrance-free skin care lines focus on product safety and effectiveness. Fragrance-ladled lines focus on product marketability. One might smell bad, but benefit your skin. The other might smell pretty but do harm to your skin. Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath and swear to "first do no harm." Skin care manufacturers should do the same, and to do no harm, add no fragrance. Add no essential oils.


 Scent-Free Space
Can we extend this warning to skin care too?



Fragrance is unnecessary and a marketing gimmick to sell an otherwise ineffective product. The same way a Hollywood blockbuster masks a lack of plot by dazzling you with special effects, skin care companies draw you into buying an inadequate product with an alluring fragrance.


Audience in 3D glasses
Either my glasses aren't working or this movie has no plot.


To understand why essential oils are, at the very least useless and at their worst, harmful, let's first discuss what they are. Essential oils are the volatile aromatic compounds of the plant, i.e. they are the plant’s scent or “essence”, hence the name. Essential oils provide no nutrition to the plant, so why do plants make them? Essential oils have two main purposes in the natural world: reproduction and protection. A plant's strong essence will attract pollinators (bees, butterflies, etc.), and deter herbivores.


Bee on Lavender
You smell awesome...But I'm not putting you on my face


Essential oils are not oils like olive oil, carrot seed oil, or avocado oil is an oil. Seed and vegetable oils are rich in skin-benefitting fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals while Essential oils lack such beneficial components. Other oils that are bereft of nutritive value include motor oil, mineral oil, and petroleum.


Sandalwood Oil Vial

Sandalwood Oil


90% sesquiterpenic alcohols

Additional components: bergamatol, santalol, bisabolol, nuciferol





Source: Subasinghe, U., Gamage, M. and Hettiarachchi, D.S., 2013. Essential oil content and composition of Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) in Sri Lanka. Journal of Forestry Research24(1), pp.127-130.



Avocado Oil

Avocado Oil


54.5-59.5% Oleic Acid (fatty acid)

26.2-29.3% Palmitic Acid (fatty acid)

11.9-13.0% Linoleic Acid (fatty acid)

0.9-6.8% Stigmasterol (plant sterol)

1.4-6.0% Lycopersene (plant pigment)


Source: Abaide, E.R., Zabot, G.L., Tres, M.V., Martins, R.F., Fagundez, J.L., Nunes, L.F., Druzian, S., Soares, J.F., Dal Prá, V., Silva, J.R. and Kuhn, R.C., 2017. Yield, composition, and antioxidant activity of avocado pulp oil extracted by pressurized fluids. Food and Bioproducts Processing102, pp.289-298.



Note that essential oils contain no vitamins, no minerals, no antioxidants, no fatty acids, and no triglycerides. Unless you are trying to detract an herbivore from eating you, essential oils are useless. 

If being devoid of benefits for skin health wasn't bad enough, essential oils add injury to insult. Essential oils cause allergic reactions and skin inflammation. Balsam of Peru is a common essential oil used in skin care fragrance and is among the "top five" allergens identified by dermatologists when conducting allergic reaction patch tests. However, Balsam of Peru may be in your skin care and you would never know it because Balsam of Peru is often combined with other fragrant ingredients to make up what the manufacturer will collectively and vaguely term "fragrance". Since companies are not required to disclose what ingredients make up their "fragrance" you may be putting something on your skin that will cause an allergic reaction and you would never know it. The only way to avoid an allergic reaction due to harmful essential oils is to avoid them when listed, or when you see fragrance in an ingredient list.

Balsam Tree

Balsam of Peru Tree

Skin irritation caused by essential oils may be obvious, but it may also be subtle. Both are cause for concern. When skin irritation is obvious, skin will appear pink or red, a rash may form, and skin may be puffy and inflamed. One example of obvious skin irritation is contact dermatitis.

Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis.

Contact dermatitis is a type of localized rash or irritation found on the skin and can take several days to several weeks to heal. Topical irritants cause contact dermatitis by inflaming the top layers of skin. Those with contact dermatitis will experience a localized burning and/or itching sensation and large red rashes. To say it is an unpleasant skin condition is an understatement.

The reason why contact dermatitis and other skin ailments occur from essential oils is because essential oils break down the cell. The inflammatory response elicited from the topical application of essential oils breaks down the cells outer membrane, causing the cell to die. The same mechanism is utilized by the body naturally when a cell commits "cell suicide" in a process called apoptosis. Apoptosis is a good thing, say when there is a pre-cancerous cell in the body, and the body commands it to kill itself to prevent cancer from forming. However, when essential oils cause your skin cells to die, it is dangerous, and age-accelerating.

Not everyone who uses skin care with fragrance will experience a condition as obvious as contact dermatitis, and this doesn't mean your skin healthy because you do not have the plain-as-day visual cues. If you have "sensitive skin" then this is a sign that you are putting something on your skin that is irritating. Sensitive skin is not natural, it is not normal, and it should not be accepted as a general property of your skin.

The term, sensitive skin, is pervasive in the skin care industry. The fact that particular skin care is labeled " for sensitive skin" is troubling because it tricks consumers into believing that sensitive skin is a property, like skin's color is a property. That you were born this way, and there is nothing in particular that caused it and nothing that can treat it. Sensitive skin is not a property. Sensitive skin is a condition that is caused by bad skin care products. What is the first thing you can do to remedy skin sensitivity? You can throw out all the harmful junk products that made your skin that way and never buy them again.

Don't believe me that skin sensitivity is a condition? Ask yourself this, do babies and young children have red, irritated skin? No. They don't. Babies have perfect skin, hence the term "baby face" or "baby soft" skin. I would even go so far to claim that most men do not claim to have sensitive skin. The term, sensitive skin is a favorite phrase of girls in their teens and adult women. Why teen girls and adult women? Why not kids? Why not men? Because teen girls and women make up the bulk of cosmetics and skin care product users. Cosmetics and fragrant skin care products create skin sensitivity because they use essential oils, fragrance, and other harsh irritants.

Creating a problem with one product, and then selling another product to remedy that problem is what I term "beauty racketeering". You'll have a brand with a harsh, irritating product, for example, a fragrant facial scrub. This scrub will harshly tear away at your live skin cells, and micro-lacerate your skin. The fragrance further irritates the open and exposed skin. With continued use, you will have sensitive skin, and possibly acne. That same brand that sold you the scrub will now offer you a cream for "sensitive skin" and probably an acne spot treatment. Maybe that spot treatment will contain tea tree oil, which as we previously discussed will only continue the vicious cycle of skin ailments. Racketeering is a shady, illegal mafia business practice that steals money from the innocent and unsuspecting. Beauty racketeering steals your money by making your skin and your wallet the innocent and unsuspecting victims.

The Godfather

Leave the essential oils. Take the cannoli.

At this point, I'm sure I have some people thinking that although essential oils offer no direct skin benefit they still make you feel calm when you smell them. Like this somehow justifies the harmful, irritating effect of fragrance in skin care. To which I respond, sure, but at what cost? If I told you chugging gasoline will cure your stomach cancer, would you do it? I hope not because it will kill you, but then again once you're dead cancer will stop growing. I digress, but I will concede that essential oils have a calming effect in some people, which is why aromatherapy exists. I will also add that at least one death is attributed to essential oil use in aromatherapy.

I will also have some people saying that essential oils do offer a skin care benefit because of their antibacterial properties. As if  this somehow balances out the bad with some good. Firstly, essential oils are not effective preservatives because they do not offer broad spectrum protection against the slew of bacterial, fungal and other growths that can occurs in your skin care. And furthermore, your skin already has a natural antibacterial barrier. I will also add that your skin's natural antibacterial barrier breaks down a little bit every time it gets irritated. And how does your skin get irritated? By harsh ingredients like essential oils. Tea tree oil is a common essential oil used by those hoping to "spot treat" acne, and it does more harm than good. Studies have found tea tree oil to damage mucous membranes, and to cause contact dermatitis, making it dangerous when inhaled and when applied to the skin.

Besides to causing skin diseases, essential oils can cause skin aging and skin cancer due to their photosensitizing effect. Photosensitivity is the term used to described skin's heightened vulnerability to sunlight, and your skin can become photosensitive from certain medications (oral and topical), and from certain skin care ingredients like essential oils. Essential oils act as a magnifying glass on your skin, leaving you susceptible to burns, sun spots, wrinkles, and skin cancer. In particular, studies have found that essential oils from citrus fruits (lemon, orange, lime, grapefruit) leave skin vulnerable to UV damage from the sun's rays.

Sun Diagram

UV rays can penetrate the skin, damaging the DNA housed within skin cells.

Essential oils may show some promise in natural therapy to treat disease, but the evidence is far from conclusive. Some studies have found that topically applying essential oils on tumor cells can suppress growth, but everyday consumer use of essential oils is not for suppressing tumor growth. Skin care users are not going home and applying essential oil-laden moisturizer onto tumor cells (or I would at least hope not, get thee to a doctor if you are). I get annoyed when something is touted as ‘anti-cancer’ and for some reason then on it is considered safe for every use one can think of. I have to think that putting any volatile substance, whether it is essential oil, gasoline, or butane will probably kill off cancer cells, so we should just stop it with the anti-cancer talking point as a justification for using essential oils in skin care. We need to stop treating essential oils like some miracle natural anti-cancer panacea. It's unwise, misguided, and possibly dangerous. Additionally, what works on cells in a petri dish may not work in the human body, so we are far from ready to come to any conclusions.

What is certain is that essential oils do not belong in products you put on your face every day to keep your skin healthy. Turpentine is an essential oil, and it can strip the paint off of a house, do you want that on your face? Rose oil may smell luxurious, but it has no anti-aging properties, and lemon oil may give your products a fresh scent but can accelerate the aging process by increasing your skin's sensitivity to ultraviolet radiation. Essential oils aren’t helping your skin, they are doing you harm, but at least you'll smell good in the process, right?

When it comes down to it, your skin care can either smell good, or it can work. Choose.

Turpentine Can


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Edris, A.E., 2007. Pharmaceutical and therapeutic potentials of essential oils and their individual volatile constituents: a review. Phytotherapy research21(4), pp.308-323.


Hammer, K.A., Carson, C.F., Riley, T.V. and Nielsen, J.B., 2006. A review of the toxicity of Melaleuca alternifolia (tea tree) oil. Food and chemical toxicology, 44(5), pp.616-625.


Kaddu, S., Kerl, H. and Wolf, P., 2001. Accidental bullous phototoxic reactions to bergamot aromatherapy oil. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology45(3), pp.458-461.


Larson, D. and Jacob, S.E., 2012. Tea tree oil. Dermatitis, 23(1), pp.48-49.


de Oliveira, M.L.M., Bezerra, B.M.O., Leite, L.O., Girão, V.C.C. and Nunes-Pinheiro, D.C.S., 2014. Topical continuous use of Lippia sidoides Cham. essential oil induces cutaneous inflammatory response, but does not delay wound healing process. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 153(1), pp.283-289.


Posadzki, P., Alotaibi, A. and Ernst, E., 2012. Adverse effects of aromatherapy: a systematic review of case reports and case series. International Journal of Risk & Safety in Medicine, 24(3), pp.147-161.


Schmalz, G. and Arenholt-Bindslev, D., 2009. Biocompatibility of dental materials (Vol. 1). Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer.


Trattner, A., David, M. and Lazarov, A., 2008. Occupational contact dermatitis due to essential oils. Contact Dermatitis, 58(5), pp.282-284.