FREE Shipping on orders $199 or more

Essential Oils and Botanicals

By Cynthia Bailey MD. This page was updated on Wed, Aug 30, 2017

What are Essential Oils? essential oils You’ve probably heard a lot of buzz lately about essential oils. After all, 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. And each essential oil is made of over 100 different constituents. 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, they 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 in the anogenital region, where skin is highly sensitive. 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:
  • Relaxation;
  • 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. For example, aloe vera is the most commonly used medicinal plant with claimed benefits of moisturizing, treating burns, and as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic. Other commonly used plants are chamomile, eucalyptus, fennel, frankincense, geranium, ginger, lavender, lemon, mandarin, and peppermint. 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. 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
The most common reaction you’ll see is a skin irritation (irritant dermatitis). This is an immediate stinging or burning at the application site.
  • Allergic Contact Dermatitis
Here, rashes can spread through allergen transfer. For example, your skin may have contact with the oil on pillowcases or towels that repeatedly touch your skin.
  • Systemic Allergic Reaction
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.
  • Phototoxic Dermatitis
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
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 inproducts 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.
  • Propolis
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.
  • Ylang-ylang 
This top allergen has 52 compounds. It is mainly used for aromatherapy and dandruff treatment. However, it’s also an insecticide and laxative!
  • Lemongrass Oil 
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.
  • Rosemary Oil 
It contains carnosol, carnosic acid, and caffeic acid and is used as an anti-depressive. It relieves gas and reddens skin.
  • Sandalwood 
This has over 100 constituents and is used mostly for fragrance. But, there are claims that it has anticancer and antimicrobial benefits. 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. Mother Nature is an unrivaled chemist.

Do You Have an Allergy to Botanical Ingredients?

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). Here, you rub 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 if it reads “natural.” After all, regulation and standardization of how the essential oils are made is difficult. Research indicates that, “essential oils are challenging to standardize because of the variable growing conditions, genetics, and harvesting of 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.

The Bottom Line on Botanical Ingredients and Essential Oils

When 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. Our basic, building blocks of skin care are primarily hypoallergenic and contain botanical components with low allergy risk and at low concentrations. That said, every person’s body is unique and allergy is always an issue with all personal care products. I have created a line of natural products that capitalize on the benefits of Mother Nature while minimizing allergic risk. To give it a try, start here and then strategically add pharmaceutical-grade products to correct and protect your skin with the best that modern science offers. It’s this bridge between the two worlds that creates the best overall results for your skin and health. Complete Skin Care Involves 4 Essential Steps: Cleanse: Body cleansers are an easy way to eliminate exposure to many useless chemicals in personal care products: Correct: Pick products based on your skin problems. I offer botanicals in pharmaceutical-grade formulations: If acne is a problem for you, click here to see some helpful products. Hydrate: Head-to-toe natural formula moisturizers are another great way to minimize exposure to some notorious chemicals in your skin care. My preferred options include: Protect: Mineral zinc oxide sunscreens made in natural product bases will protect your skin from damage while minimizing exposure to potentially toxic chemicals. I have chosen products without botanical allergens that include: Don't forget that home cleansers get on your skin too! Try these natural and hypoallergenic choices to help avoid allergic reactions: Want to learn more about the best, natural skin care for you? Check out these articles. References: 1. Mortimer Sarah, BS and Reeder Margo MD, Botanicals in Dermatology: Essential Oils, Botanical Allergens and Current Regulatory Practices, Dermatitis, 27(6) Nov/Dec 2016 2. 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 3. Simpson EL et. al., Prevalence of Botanical Extract Allergy in Patients with Contact Dermatitis, Dermatitis, 15(2) 67-72, 2004 4. 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