Are Your "Natural" Skin-Care Products Actually Hurting Your Skin?

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
Maybe it’s the instinctual need to find solid ground in the vortex of technology and turmoil that is our world, or just the natural outcome of what happens when we have more knowledge at our fingertips (and therefore more to be paranoid about) than ever, but over the past few years, all the usual hallmarks of an alternative lifestyle have become trendy. Trading in your psychiatrist appointments and SSRIs for a spiritual healer and a bushel of sage, chanting over crystals, stirring mood-enhancing supplements into your water, daily transcendental meditation — what was once considered counterculture is now en vogue. These days, we just call it wellness.
And with all that wellness has come a similarly wholesome approach to beauty, prioritizing formulas rich with certified-organic essential oils extracted from flowers grown on the sprawling farm of a former Wall Street banker-turned-botanist over “chemicals” developed in a lab by a team of white-coat scientists. With a long, storied history of uses, from Ayurvedic medicine to bug repellant, the essential oils and extracts at the core of these clean, green products are perceived as the purest, most naturally effective ways of attaining your beauty goals. They’re costly, beautifully packaged, and cult-like in their followings — but there’s reason to believe that, in some cases, they’re actually causing more problems than they cure.
I first suspected that essential oils were fucking up my skin when it was in a constant state of distress and I couldn’t figure out why. I’ve always thought of myself as having sensitive, reactive, acne-prone skin, the kind that erupts in a cluster of itchy red bumps if the wind blows too hard, which is why I habitually avoid known triggers like sulfates, alcohol (used topically, that is), artificial fragrance, and mineral oil. But I was using some of the buzziest, best-loved green beauty brands on the market, and the breakouts continued no matter how much I simplified.
After a particularly bad few months during which my skin maintained a miserable baseline of oily, generally irritated, broken-out, and dry, I put up my white flag and left my entire million-dollar routine behind for a drugstore cleanser for sensitive skin and a $10 bottle of rose hip oil, without an essential oil or floral extract in sight. The breakouts stopped. My skin got better. The call had been coming from inside the house.
I was lucky. Dermatologist Suneel Chilukuri, MD, says that skin-care products with certain essential oils can actually leave the skin with real long-term damage, not just temporary irritation. “I’ve seen severe contact dermatitis from a variety of products containing lavender essential oil, or even rose,” he says. Those patients were referred to him for help treating the scarring left behind. Though he isn’t necessarily opposed to essential oils, as a sweeping statement, he says that one should always see what a board-certified dermatologist, “the only physicians with extensive skin training,” has to say about the ingredients — not your spirit guide.
Marie-Veronique Nadeau isn’t a board-certified dermatologist, but she is a chemist, esthetician, and former high-school chemistry teacher who — with her daughter Jay, a physicist and biomedical engineer — founded her own eponymous skin-care line. (The brand’s website describes Nadeau as “determined to move an industry ensconced in hype into the realm of science.") Nadeau does not oppose essential oils, per se; in fact, they’re used judiciously in many of her own formulations. But she does call their beneficial aspects “overrated,” and she says that while there are studies demonstrating the benefits of some individual essential oils in regard to antimicrobial or anti-fungal properties, there are other studies emerging that suggest that the overuse of “volatile organic compounds” can lead to or worsen skin sensitivities, or cause contact dermatitis.
In response to the recent research, and an increasing demand, Nadeau teamed up with skin-care specialist Kristina Holey to release a collaborative line formulated entirely without essential oils — to, as Nadeau explains, “eliminate one factor in the guesswork with sensitive skin issues.” Both Nadeau and Holey found that their clients were suffering from a host of skin problems due to a compromised barrier function that they believe is related to overexposure to essential oils. They started with three serums, launched last year, and just added a cleanser, toner, oil, and mask to the lineup.
Tiffany Masterson is another expert in the field who's done away with essential oils in her enormously popular brand, Drunk Elephant. Where Nadeau and Dr. Chilukuri are diplomatic about their usage, Masterson, a stay-at-home mom turned beauty entrepreneur, is adamantly against them — beyond the aromatherapeutic benefits, she says, she does not believe that essential oils belong on the skin. "When I stopped using essential oils, my rosacea and inflammation went away," Masterson says. "I think they are more of a marketing ingredient than anything else when used in skin care."
Of course, it’s not that simple. (If only the key to perfect, problem-free skin was simply removing essential oils from the equation.) If the question is whether they’re sensitizing, then that’s a yes, especially with frequent use. But industry veteran Dara Kennedy, who founded Ayla Beauty — and for whom Nadeau specially formulated an essential oil-free hydrator, called Dara’s Oil — believes that essential oils can do positive, powerful things to the skin, but they should be used carefully, not in a full regimen, and made by a bona fide expert using the highest possible quality ingredients.
“I think the main thing to think about is whether you can trust the company making it to really understand the quality and properties of the essential oils they’re working with,” Kennedy says. “I most frequently recommend brands like Uma, which has a vertically integrated, farm-to-bottle process, and Vintner’s Daughter, which comes from a family with a long tradition in agriculture.” It’s not just about whether or not you use essential oils, but which essential oils, the quality of the essential oils, the concentration, and even where they came from.
Some people have great success with essential oils. Others end up in a dermatologist's office requiring chemical peels and laser treatments to minimize the scarring left behind. If they're working for you, then there's no reason you should feel like you have to give them up. But instead of treating them like a necessary component of your skin-care routine, or welcoming them with open arms like they're a new student at your restorative yoga class, approach them as you would a friend who's dead set on convincing you to join them on an ayahuasca retreat in Peru: cautiously, but with an open mind.
Related Video:
appearance by Mi-Anne Chan.

More from Skin Care

R29 Original Series