How Giving Up Essential Oils Finally Fixed My Skin

Illustrated by Aimee Sy.
It's never easy to let go of something you love. Really, it's one of the hardest conclusions a person will ever have to come to, acknowledging — and then accepting — that a part of your life is no longer servicing you as it once did. I have suffered two great disappointments of this kind, two crushing blows of realization that a thing I had built my life around wasn't working for me the way I wanted it to. The first, years ago, was smoking weed. ("It's actually really good for anxiety," everyone would tell me, while my hands shook and my heart raced and my vision blurred and I considered calling my parents to tell them I loved them before I died.) And the second, far more recently, was essential oils.
Here's where that ill-fated love story begins: me, over the age of five but definitely no older than 10, huffing the huiles aromatiques in their frosted-glass flacons that my mom kept on her dresser. And here is where it ends: around two decades later, relying on an expensive cocktail of skin-care products enriched with oils, both essential and non, to tackle problems ranging from acne to redness to sensitivity to just... problematic. According to my internal narrative, I had bad skin, and I was using good products to treat it. But it never got better. Why?
There's that quote that's always attributed to Albert Einstein, even though it might well have originated in an old Narcotics Anonymous handbook from 1981 and never been spoken at all by the German-born genius: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results." So maybe I'm insane! Or maybe I'd just invested so much in the idea that natural "toxin-free" products with organic essential oils were Good and my skin was Bad that it was hard to flip that script.
The first step was a kind of trial separation from my bergamot and neroli and orange blossom and lavender and all the aromatherapeutic blends I used to inhale deeply for ten breaths as I massaged them into my skin. I found a line of products that I liked that happened to leave out essential oils. The brand's founder, chemist Marie-Veronique Nadeau, said that she formulated an essential oil-free range as a way to "eliminate one factor in the guesswork with sensitive skin issues," and that it did. I used them consistently for a few days, and that was it. Irritation: gone. Redness: gone. Weird flakiness around my mouth: gone. Breakouts: gone. Like magic — or, at the very least, like normal, balanced skin.
And because I'm not insane, I haven't gone back to my old ways. I no longer use any essential oils; in fact, I scan every ingredients list with an eagle's eye before trying anything new, and if I see any of my old floral-extract friends, I'm out.
This, I should mention, is controversial. I know, I know — controversy should be limited to discussion around things like Michelle Wolf at the White House Correspondents' dinner, not whether or not I like putting essential oils on my face. But you'd really be surprised: I've sat down with esteemed founders of popular skin-care brands who balk at my suggestion that essential oils do not work for me. They act like I'm lying, or like I am an idiot who has put pure undiluted tea-tree oil on my face and wondered why it burned, which I haven't. "I’ve seen severe contact dermatitis from a variety of products containing essential oils," a board-certified dermatologist with a medical degree once told me, which is to say: I am not making this shit up.
But for every brand that puts essential oils in their formulas like they're going out of style (and they're really not — people have been using them for thousands of years, which is a good indicator that they'll probably never stop), there's another brand that's wising up to the fact that, while they're not inherently bad, they just don't work for everyone. Peet Rivko and Drunk Elephant have sworn them off entirely; Trilogy and Sunday Riley both offer some essential oil-free formulas. And if you find your skin in constant turmoil for a reason that remains a mystery, consider taking a break and seeing what happens. Breaking up was hard to do, but things are so much better on the other side — which, coincidentally, is exactly what I'd say to my pot-peddling high-school boyfriend, too.

More from Skin Care

R29 Original Series