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Essentiall Oils for Skincare - Benefits for your skin

Natural Essential Oils

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First published: 23.Aug.2023


Essential Oils (EO) have been used as natural plant medicines and in cosmetics since antiquity. In this article we will explain what they are, how they are obtained, their bio-active ingredients and properties.

EOs have benefits and are used in cosmetics and skincare formulations, especially those that are homemade. They are perceived as natural botanicals and therefore harmless, but they can irritate your skin and are toxic if ingested. We will discuss their risks, side effects and how to use them safely in your home and on your skin

In this Article (Index)

The skincare properties and uses of Essential Oils

Essential Oils properties and uses

Human beings have been using natural ingredients since the dawn of time. Botanicals and phytochemicals (chemicals produced by plants), clays, and animal fats have been tested by trial and error over thousands of generations.

red rose hips on a wood surface and a small vial with red tinted oil
Rose hip essential oil

What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils (EO) are volatile substances that are liquid at room temperature, they may be slightly colored and they are less dense than water and insoluble in it. They are soluble in common organic solvents (alcohol for instance) and in oils and fats (coconut-oil, olive oil) (1).

They are obtained by distillation or mechanical pressing from the bark, fruit, or leaves of aromatic plants. They are concentrated plant extracts with the smell or flavor of their original botanical source.

The Renaissance physician and alchemist Parcelesus (1493-1541) named the oils he distilled in his retorts essential oils because according to his theory of the quinta essentia or "fifth element", he was using fire to separate and purify the essential part (essence) from a crude substance.

Each essential oil has its own chemical composition and this gives it a particular smell and properties. Only natural oils are considered true EO (2).

Below are some plant parts used to obtain essential oils, and some examples:

  • Flowers: lavender, orange, chamomille, jasmine, clove flower.
  • Leaves: tea tree, eucalyptus, mint, sage, pine needles, bay leaf, thyme, rosemary.
  • Roots and Rhizomes: vetiver, ginger, angelica.
  • Seeds: coriander, cumin, nutmeg.
  • Fruits: fennel, citrus peel (epicarp), anise, rosehip.
  • Bark and wood: cinnamon, rosewood, cassia, sandalwood.
  • Resin: frankincense, myrrh.

Chemical Composition

Essential oils contain hundreds of chemical compounds belonging to different classes of orgainc chemicals: alcohols, ethers, adheydes, ketones, esters, amines, amides, and phenols. However, most of them are terpenes.

Alcohols, aldehydes and ketones provide aromatic notes such as the citric smell of Limonene or the floral touch of Linalool.

Thousands of terpenes have been identified in EO such as geraniol, menthone, citronellal and thymol.

Some are more common than others; for instantce in an analysis of the components of 93 different EO, the following eight appeared in most of them, and they are all terpenes (2):

  • limonene (lemon)
  • alpha-terpineol (cardamom, pine)
  • linalool (citrus fruits, lavender)
  • 4-terpinenol (tea tree)
  • eucalyptol (rosemary, eucalyptus, ginger)
  • gamma-terpinene (tea tree)
  • alpha-terpinene (allspice, cardamom)
  • linalyl acetate (lavender, citrus

Properties of the bioactive ingredients

Chemicals that protect the plants

Essential oils are known by science as secondary metabolites. The primary metabolites are directly related to the plant's growth, metabolism and reproduction while secondary metabolites help the plant interact with the environment: they act as antiseptics, insecticides, antibiotics, antifungals and antivirals to protect the plant from pathogens and some also protect the plant from the sun's UV damage. It is these properties that have made them interesting for humanity since prehistoric times, using these chemicals as medicine, in cosmetics and for recreational purposes.

Terpenoids, limonene, and phenolic compounds present in EOs have strong antioxidant activity.
EOs of sage, prickly juniper or cade, and oregano have been reported to "encourage wound healing. Similarly, a combination of sesame and lemon EOs accelerated the healing process of wounds in ... rats."
Other EOs help "inhibit ... elastase (anti-wrinkle effect)" (3).

How are Essential Oils obtained?

They are extracted from the plant matter through different processes, and how much EO the plant raw material contains. For instance, 10 lb of cloves can yield almost 2.2 lb of clove essential oil, while 10 lb of lemon balm leaves will yield only 1⁄20th of an ounce (1).

  • Steam distillation. Steam from boiling water containing the plant matter or boiling beneath it and going through a layer of plant matter extracts the essential oils. The steam and vapor of EO are condensed and the oil and water separated by decantation (oils float on the water).
  • Dry distillation. The plant matter (usually bark or stems) are heated without steam, the oils evaporate and are captured and condensed.
  • Mechanical extraction. Also known as "cold pressing", the plant materials are crushed under a stream of water, that removes the oils. The liquid is then filterd to remove the solid residue and the oil is spearated by centrifugation.

Essential Oils: Using them Safely

There are many uses for EO in wellbeing and cosmetics:


Though this practice has not yet been properly evaluated for medical effectiveness it is a popular alternative or complementary therapy used to improve physical or mental wellness and some health conditions.

Aromatherpay consists on blending different EOs and using them for inhalation, and on the skin using bath salts, massage, body lotions, creams and oils, aromatic diffusers, masks or conmpresses. It entails the risks listed further down.

Cosmetic & Bath Ingredient

Essential oils are used mainly in diy cosmetics, to provide a fragrance and beneficial properties to homemade skincare preparations.

Safe Use Guidelines

  • Don't apply an neat or undiluted essential oil to the skin, don't use them on your pets.
  • Buy products from reputed sources, this will ensure they are not adulterated with substances that can cause adverse reactions.
  • Each EO has its own safe usage level. Read and investigate each ingredient before you use it in a skincare formulation.
  • Expiration. Don't use expired essential oils, they degrade and produce secondary substances that could provoke life-long skin sensitization.
  • Patch Test, do a test for sensitive skin applying a small amount of it on small areas of your skin first, to see if you experience a skin reaction.
  • Remember that essential oils don't mix with water so they must be emulsified with a special carrier before applying them to the skin.
  • Play it safe with the dilution (see table below)

End Use

Dilution range %

Common %

Facial Cosmetics



Body lotions & oils



Bath products



Skin treatments (*)



(*) Topical applications for skin health such as acne spot treatment or wounds.

Oils and water don't mix

This fact is very important when we consider essential oils. As oils, they don't mix with water, they are hydrophobic, they will float as tiny droplets on the surface of any aqueous mixture. And these undiluted droplets will attach to your skin and may cause irritation in sensitive parts.

To blend an oil into water and form an emulsion you need a solubilizer. These are normally used in a 1 part of EO to 4 to 8 parts of solubilizer. There are many solubilizers, Polysorbate 20 is one of them.

Alternatively you can mix the EO into a base before adding it to a bath. There are bath bases that are formulated to allow adding EO to them and will solubilize them. You can try your regular bath product and add the EO to it, note however that it is formulated to disperse its ingredients and may not emulsify additional ones.

In diy cosmetics you can mix the EO with the carrier oil such as Coconut Oil this will dilute it. Carrier oils in baths are not recommended because the mixed coconut oil and EO will float on top of the water and make the bathtub a slippery trap.

Don't add EO to bath salts such as Epsom Salts. They will be absorbed by the salts but after the salt dilutes in the water, the EO droplets will appear and float on the water.

Read more about the risks and side effects of EO in the next section.

Adverse Effects and Risks

As essential oils are "natural" products with a botanical origin many people believe that they are "safe to consume" but this is not true, they are skin irritants, poisons and can cause serious effects if ingested.

Toxic: Essential Oils are poisonous and irritant

This is not true. Essential oils are not safe to consume and they can cause poisoning even if small amounts are ingested. Accidental oral ingestion of essential oils can cause severe poisoning, coma or even death.
Children are especially at risk of being poisoned by ingesting essential oils, so store them in child-proof containers and keep them out of the reach of children.

Some symptoms of EO toxicity can include: drowsiness, shallow breathing, cough, choking, wheezing, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. Irritation if applied to the skin and redness, pain and irritation in eye exposures. Don't induce vomiting or give oral fluids; contact your local poison center. Rinse eyes immediately under running water for 15 minutes, see a doctor if symptoms continue. Skin: remove contaminated clothes, wash skin with soap and water, see a doctor if symptoms continue (4).

Certain people can suffer negative effects from essential oils due to a previous skin sensitization to a given EO.
Adulterated EOs can provoke adverse reactions, buy your essential oils from reputed suppliers.

Age affects the structure and metabolism of ths skin so very young (infants, children) or the elderly can suffer adverse reactions from topical application of EO to the skin.

If products containing high concentrations of essential oils are misused the effects can be harmful especially in sensitive people, such as sensitised individuals and children European Directorate for the Quality of Medicines & HealthCare


Some EO such as lemon, bitter orange, grapefruit, cumin, angelica root or bergamot are phototoxic as the word implies ("photo" is Greek for "light" and "toxic" comes from Latin for "poisoned"), it is a toxic response provoked by exposing the skin evenr for a brief period to sunlight after certain chemicals have been aplied to it.

It is immediate and resembles a strong sunborn: pain redness, inflammation. Sometimes symptoms may appear with a delay (up to 5 days after exposure). These symptoms will last from 1 day to 1 week.

Skin irritant

Certain essential oils may cause skin reactions or irritate the eyes such as: Ceylon cinnamon, peppermint, clove, thyme, marjoram, lemon grass, to mention a few (1).

Endocrine Disruption

There have been several reports in the scientific literature mentioning the negative effect of essential oils that act as an endocrine disrupting chemical or EDC.

EDCs are external agents that interfere with the normal hormonal processes of the body: they disrupt the release, storage, action and metabolism of hormones.

There are reports that regular exposure to lavender oil and tea tree oil is associated with abnormal breast growth and premature male gynecomastia in or the development of breast tissue, in prepubescent boys (2) (3).

Natural does't mean safe

"Natural", "Organic" or "Botanical" ingredients used in homemade or industrial cosmetics are not necessarily safe. Essential oils and plant extracts can provoke irritation, rash and allergies. Especially on sensitive or sensitized skin. EO are also toxic and some of them are phototoxic.

References and Further Reading

(1) European Directorate for the Quality of Medicines & HealthCare, (2016). Guidance on essential oils in cosmetic products.

(2) National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, (2022). Essential Oils.

(3) Ramsey JT, Li Y, Arao Y, Naidu A, Coons LA, Diaz A, Korach KS., (2019). avender Products Associated With Premature Thelarche and Prepubertal Gynecomastia: Case Reports and Endocrine-Disrupting Chemical Activities. L. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2019 Nov 1;104(11):5393-5405. doi: 10.1210/jc.2018-01880. PMID: 31393563; PMCID: PMC6773459

(4) Department of Health WA Government. Essential oils – Health warning. Accessed 23 Aug. 2023

(5) Tisserand Institute (2010). How to Use Essential Oils Safely.

About this Article

Essential oils for Skincare - Benefits for your skin, A. Whittall

©2023, 20 Aug. 2023. Update scheduled for 23 Aug. 2025.

Tags: Essential Oils, Essential Oils in diy recipe cosmetics

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