Essential Oils and Botanicals
By Cynthia Bailey MD. This page was updated on Wed, Aug 30, 2017
What are essential oils and botanicals in skin care? You’ve probably heard a lot of buzz lately about essential oils and botanical based skin care. The popularity of products with botanical and natural ingredients are increasing astronomically. In fact, studies indicate that, “nearly 1 in 5 adults in the United States report taking an herbal product.”
But what exactly are essential oils?
They are made by distilling plant materials so that the oil components are separated from the water components. The oil components that constitute an essential oil is made of over 100 different constituents, meaning any single 'essential oil' is complex from a chemistry perspective, benefit perspective, and from an allergen potential for allergic contact dermatitis!
Essential oils and botanical ingredients have been used since ancient times around the world. Some of the earliest recorded use of essential oils comes from China and Egypt where they were used to treat maladies or in healing rituals. In the early 19th century, chemists started evaluating the chemical components of essential oils and other botanical remedies and modified them to create medical treatments.
Today, essential oils are primarily known for use in aromatherapy, but you can find these oils in lotions, cleansers, shampoos, detergents, perfumes, deodorants, lip balms, and more. You’ll even see them in products used to treat ailments, including in highly sensitive skin areas such as the anogenital region.
The popularity of essential oils is rising because consumers are starting to realize the positive effects they can have on their health. In fact, reporting from the National Cancer Institute indicates that, “laboratory studies and animal studies have shown that certain essential oils have antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, calming, or energizing effects.”
Do essential oils work?This is the big question. Historical claims are strong, but western scientific proof is just starting to trickle in. Some claims are backed up by modern scientific evidence, but others are not. Concentrations, ingredients, and preparation all come into play. Often times, it’s tricky to make any scientifically based conclusions. The historical benefits cited for most botanical ingredients include:
- relief for strained muscles,
- gas relief,
- headaches, and
- other maladies.
However, most oils are sought out for their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antimicrobial benefits.
What are the most common botanical ingredients used in personal care?
The most commonly used medicinal plant in skin care is aloe vera. It is used as a gel or powder added to products and is not an oil distillate (essential oil). Benefit claims include moisturizing, treating burns, anti-inflammatory and analgesic benefits. I find it a beneficial skin care ingredient and am a huge fan of aloe vera.
Other commonly used botanicals in personal care are:
- lemon, mandarin, and orange and,
With this in mind, should you make essential oils a part of your natural skin care routine?
To start, do your research. Pick a single or small range of botanicals you want to use for very specific reasons. Then, test it out to see if their claims are true. And there is something to be aware of…
Essential Oils Can Cause Allergic Reactions
This is the most important context in which to discuss essential oils and plant-based skin care products. While essential oils are time-honored remedies for many maladies, they are also allergens that can cause skin reactions akin to rashes from poison ivy.
What do you need to know about essential oil and botanical skin care allergic reactions?
- The more repeated exposure, the more likely you are to become allergic to your favorite essential oil.
- The stronger the exposure, the greater the risk.
Note that essential oils are so strong that they can cause skin irritation even when you’re not allergic.
What Skin Reactions Can Botanical and Essential Oils Cause?
You can experience numerous reactions to these natural oils. Specifically:
Skin irritation reaction from botanical skin care
The most common reaction you’ll see is a skin irritation (irritant dermatitis). This is seen as a stinging or burning at the application site. It can happen almost immediately or build up after days or seeks. Ingredients concentrate in skin folds, such as the eyelids and you may see a reaction there first.
Allergic contact dermatitis from essential oils and botanical ingredients in skin care
Allergens penetrate skin where product is applied. They can also be transferred to the site of allergic reaction. For example, your skin may have contact with the oil on pillowcases or towels that repeatedly touch your skin. The tough skin of your hands may transfer allergen to thinner skin of your eyelids where the rash manifests from something that your hands can easily tolerate such as botanicals in a hand cream or soap.
Systemic allergic reaction to plant ingredients in skin care
Allergic reactions can also occur on skin that did not physically come into contact with the oil. This “systemic allergic reaction” happens when a botanical allergen is ingested. Skin will develop a widespread rash that can be very dramatic.
Here, the combination of an essential oil with UV light (including through a tanning bed or windows) can cause a severe rash. The usual cause is furocoumarin in oils such as citrus (i.e. Margarita burn).
What Botanical Ingredients Are Most Likely to Cause a Skin Allergy?
As you can see, there are numerous reactions to be aware of when using essential and botanical oils. When conducting your research on various products, here are a few ingredients to note as they are more likely to cause skin allergies:
Tea Tree Oil
Widely used for its antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties, many apply it to bug bites to ease itching. However, tea tree oil is tricky. Fresh tea tree oil is less likely to be allergenic than old tea tree oil due to photo-oxidation/degradation of the oil components due to light. Because of this, you may be more likely to have an allergic reaction to old tea tree oil versus fresh tea tree oil. Allergen constituents of tea tree include terpenes and hydrocarbons. At high concentrations, tea tree oil is also irritating.
Peppermint oil is made from steam distillation of Mentha piperita, a member of the Labiatae family that includes other fragrant herbs. At high concentrations, peppermint oil can be an irritant. The main allergen component is menthol. When used in products like lip balm, you may see a negative reaction like having chapped lips. Other potential problems include ulcers and burning mouth syndrome. However, alleged benefits include relief from itch, irritation, and inflammation. Peppermint oil is also used as an analgesic, anesthetic and antimicrobial.
This is a mixture collected from bees and is a well-known allergen for beekeepers. An ingredient in many personal care products, propolis is used for anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antioxidant, wound healing, and burn treatment.
This top allergen has 52 compounds. It is mainly used for aromatherapy and dandruff treatment. However, it’s also an insecticide and laxative!
This is used for cough relief, to sooth arthritis, and as antimicrobial, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory. It has over 23 compounds including geraniol, neral, and beta myrcene.
It contains carnosol, carnosic acid, and caffeic acid and is used as an anti-depressive. It relieves gas and reddens skin.
This has over 100 constituents and is used mostly for fragrance. But there are claims that it has anticancer and antimicrobial benefits.
This family of plants is large and ubiquitous. A quick browse in the personal care section of your favorite natural foods store will turn up many members of the Compositae family because of their therapeutic and medicinal benefits in natural medicine. Plants such as chamomile, echinacea, chrysanthemum, calendula, and arnica fall into this family. Arnica (Arnica montana) and elecampane (a member of the sunflower family) are the most allergenic. The other Compositae family members are only weak allergens and often well tolerated.
Citrus is very popular in personal skin care and home cleaning products. Many people enjoy the refreshing aroma, which is also associated with a sense of "clean". It may be noted as lemon, lime or orange extract or essence. Also look for limonene, lemon oil, or citrus peel extract on an ingredient list. Don't confuse 'citrus' with citric acid which is not an allergen. Citric acid is a citrus derived AHA and is also used to adjust the pH of products.
Citrus allergy often manifests as chronically chapped lips or hands because citrus is a popular addition to cleaning products and lipsticks.
I'm allergic to citrus thanks to my 30-year-old Myer lemon tree and the lemons I've squeezed in water for years. I know how ubiquitous citrus oil is in lovely personal and home care products - drats!
This is just a short list, and it’s important to remember that every essential oil is made of numerous constituent compounds. Each of which has unique potential for allergic or irritant reaction from complex botanical ingredients.
Mother Nature is an unrivaled chemist. Dermatologist Dr. Cynthia Bailey
How do you know if you have an allergy to botanical ingredients and essential oils?
Your personal care products contain many other potential allergens such as preservatives, dyes, fragrance, sunscreens, and other botanical extracts. When you suspect you might be allergic to a product, do a repeat open-application test (ROAT).
How to do a skin test to see if you are allergic to your skin care product?
A repeat open-application test involves rubbing the product on your forearm twice a day for a week to see if a rash occurs. I don’t recommend doing this with pure essential oil as it is too strong, and you may actually cause a rash! Also note that you cannot trust a label on essential oils even if it reads “pure" or natural.” Plants are complex and regulation and standardization of how the essential oils are made is difficult to control. Factors such as growing conditions, genetics, harvesting and distillation and/or processing all impact components of essential oils and botanicals.
Marketers are also clever and can label a product as “natural” or “organic” to trick you into thinking the product is safe and natural. Green washing is common, and I like to remind people that poison oak and ivy are natural and usually organic!
The Bottom Line on Botanical Ingredients and Essential OilsWhen it comes to using these products:
- Choose wisely, limit overall exposure, and use them at your own risk.
- Apply low concentrations and apply only to areas that you desire to treat.
- For aromatherapy or fragrance, don’t apply directly to your skin. Apply to fabric or hair.
- Don’t use essential oils alone unless you are treating something like a bug bite with tea tree oil.
- Dilute essential oils with water or with carrier oils (olive or jojoba). Otherwise, there is a higher risk of allergy or irritation.
And while there are many things to be aware, know that…
I love botanical ingredients when they add benefit! There are many botanical ingredients in the products I use and recommend. However, I chose the ingredients in these products for a specific purpose and ensured that they’re formulated carefully for the best results.
My skin care line includes your basic, building blocks of skin care that are hypoallergenic and contain botanical components with low allergy risk, careful concentrations, and high benefit value. In my pharmaceutical grade products, we even have the opportunity to include beneficial botanical fractions with the notorious allergen fraction removed.
Every person’s body is unique, and allergy is always an issue with all personal care products, not just natural ones. That's why I have created a line of natural products that capitalize on the benefits of Mother Nature while minimizing allergic risk. I incorporate them with pharmaceutical grade products that utilize powerful stable isolates of botanicals for maximal results. I build Complete Skin Care routines that give you the best benefits from botanical ingredients to achieve your goals.
Dermatologist's Natural Skin Care for Sensitive Skin
Complete Skin Care Involves 4 Essential Steps: CLEANSE, CORRECT, HYDRATE AND PROTECT.
CLEANSE: Body cleansers are an easy way to 'go natural' and eliminate many useless modern chemicals in personal care products. Mine are certified organic, plant-based, and free of essential oils and fragrance:
I've had sensitive skin my entire life. I break out in dry itchy patches, at the slightest change in weather. It's been equally challenging finding products that don't trigger the issue, let alone remedy the issue. I was over the moon when I finally found Dr. Cynthia Bailey's products. I've been using them for the past two weeks and couldn't be happier. I especially love the Ultra hypoallergenic shower gel. It leaves my skin clean and soft without any issues. Thank you Dr. Cynthia Bailey for this miracle product!! Alana
Natural Foaming Hand Soap is essential to prevent dry hands because it rinses quickly to prevent retained soap residue that causes chapping.
Naturally Hydrating Pore Minimizing Toner. This is for people with oily skin, clogged pores, or who wear products that are extra hard to remove.
My pharmaceutical grade facial cleansers offer pH balanced cleansing in sulfate-free formulations. My Extremely Gentle Foaming Facial Cleanser contains the hypoallergenic fraction of lavender and my Triple Action Exfoliating Cleanser contains the hypoallergenic fraction of citrus, and yes, even I can use this. Smart skin formulation chemistry to the rescue!
HYDRATE: your skin from head-to-toe to keep it healthy and prevent dryness and chapping. Natural formula moisturizers are a great way to minimize exposure to notorious chemicals in your skin care. My natural and botanical 'head to toe' moisturizers for the entire family include my Natural Lotion and Natural Butter Cream.
I love the purity of this product. It contains no mineral oil or parabens, or other chemicals to irritate my skin. So many products have mineral oil, which my skin does not tolerate. I have psoriasis and dermatitis and react to many moisturizers with redness and irritation. This cream is lovely. Absorbs immediately. No redness or reaction. No fragrance to deal with. And it goes everywhere, head to toe. It is very, very moisturizing on my face. Christine
My Omega Enriched Face Booster Oil is another marvel of botanical wonder. Crafted from plant oils with known benefit to skin barrier and formulated into a product that is hypoallergenic, healing, and easy to use. Add a few drops to boost your favorite skin moisturizer. It is even the best beard oil to condition a man's facial hair and fight beardruff.
PROTECT: Protect your precious skin with mineral zinc oxide sunscreens crafted to include hypoallergenic plant-based actives and antioxidants. Click here to see the sunscreens that offer the best technology in mineral zinc oxide sun protection and that I trust for my own skin.
Plant based home cleansers for sensitive skin
Don't forget that home cleansers get on your skin too and cause rashes! I've treated skin rashes to home cleaning products for over 35 years and I know how common they are. Essential oils are added to home care products for the scent and I recommend steering clear of them. Try my organic Natural Spray and House Cleanser Concentrates and avoid allergic skin reactions to your home cleaners.
Mortimer Sarah, BS and Reeder Margo MD, Botanicals in Dermatology: Essential Oils, Botanical Allergens and Current Regulatory Practices, Dermatitis, 27(6) Nov/Dec 2016
Alexander R. Jack, MD, et al, Allergic Contact Dermatitis to Plant Extracts in Cosmetics, Semin Cutan Med Surg 32:140-146, 2013 Frontline Medical Communications
Simpson EL et. al., Prevalence of Botanical Extract Allergy in Patients with Contact Dermatitis, Dermatitis, 15(2) 67-72, 2004
Corazza Monica et. al., Topical botanically derived products: use, skin reactions, and usefulness of patch tests. A multicenter Italian Study, Contact Dermatitis 70, 90-97, 2013
Miroddi Marco, et. all, Research and development for Botanical Products in Medicinals and Food Supplements Market, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med., 2013: 64972 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3625613/
Stallings, Alison F., Lupo, Mary P., Practical Uses of Botanicals in Skin Care, J Clin Aesthetic Dermatol., 2009 Jan; 2(1): 36-40 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2958188/
Ribnicky David M, et. al., Evaluation of botanicals for improving human health. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87(2); 2008; 472s-475s. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/87/2/472S/4633400
Bent Stephen, Herbal Medicine in the United States: Review of Efficacy, Safety and Regulation, J Gent Int Med., 2008 June, 23(6); 854-859. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2517879/