Tuesday, February 18, 2014

No Feels, Only Reals: Essential Oils Mythbusting Edition

*I originally posted this to reddit, but figured I would reproduce it here (with minor edits for clarity) on the blog, so that everything is all in one place.*


People start looking into no-, low-, and natural-poo for a variety of reasons.  For whatever reason, we do have a tendency to let our beliefs and emotional reactions (feels) get in the way of facts (reals).

One of the key sources for No-Poo info is the NoPoo subreddit.  It and Haircare Science are the two places where I actually posted this first, and are major sources for information.  There’s a link in the sidebar of r/NoPoo to a page about “Essential Oils and Haircare”.  This set off crazy warning bells: essential oils are not something with which to be tinkering around.  This is about 7000 times more true if they are being used topically, rather than for aromatherapy, which is how the linked website (and many of this subreddit’s users) recommend using them.

Just because something is “natural” or derived from a plant does not mean it’s a-okay for your skin.  There’s no market out there for poison ivy tea rinses, after all.  I want to work through (for now) the oils specifically mentioned on the linked page, since that is what the subreddit “advocates” or is, at least, what most users will find when looking into essential oil use.


  • BASIL: first up, this essential oil has some compounds that are going to be old friends by the time we get through this: linalool and eugenol.  This are BOTH documented irritants that you should avoid in any skin care product. (http://www.aromaweb.com/essential-oils/basil-oil.asp), (http://www.paulaschoice.com/cosmetic-ingredient-dictionary/definition/eugenol), (http://www.paulaschoice.com/cosmetic-ingredient-dictionary/definition/linalool)
  • CHAMOMILE: this one checks out; it doesn’t appear to be widely irritating in general, though some people with allergies to the daisy family may have issues. (http://www.paulaschoice.com/cosmetic-ingredient-dictionary/definition/chamomile)
  • CEDARWOOD: this is a fragrance, and like many fragrances, can be irritating and allergenic.  There is also, apparently, some research which found it to cause tumors on mouse skin.  The evidence is far, far from conclusive, and even if there were more studies with similar results, “correlation is not causation” would still apply.  However, if you’re going to freak out about parabens or whatever, it doesn’t make sense to use cedarwood oil. (http://www.paulaschoice.com/cosmetic-ingredient-dictionary/definition/cedarwood)
  • CLARY SAGE: this is tagged with the Risk Number* R38, marking it as irritating to the skin.  Don’t put it on your scalp, fer Pete’s sake. (http://www.chemicalbook.com/ChemicalProductProperty_EN_CB9340183.htm)
  • EUCALYPTUS: this is a fragrant oil which, as the sidbar-linked website says, may well have some anti-fungal and anti-microbial effects.  HOWEVER, some of its components are known irritants.  "Truly a mixed bag, because this oil, like rosemary oil, is one that has benefits and risks. Because the risks are primarily with topical application to skin, eucalyptus oil is an ingredient to avoid” (http://www.paulaschoice.com/cosmetic-ingredient-dictionary/definition/eucalyptus-oil)
  • LAVENDER:  STOOOOOOOOOOOOP putting lavender essential oil anywhere near your skin. The “tingling” feeling that many people describe isn’t lavender oil stimulating your bloodflow or anything, it’s the oil irritating and damaging your skin.  You do NOT want to experience tingling with any product you apply topically: it is your body sending you distress signals.  Lavender is so, so misunderstood, so I’m going to quote the whole article: "Of particular concern is the lavender oil, which smells great but causes havoc on skin. Research indicates that components of lavender, specifically linalool, can be cytotoxic, which means that topical application causes skin-cell death (Source: Cell Proliferation, June 2004, pages 221–229). Lavender leaves contain camphor, which is a known skin irritant. Because the fragrance constituents in lavender oil oxidize when exposed to air, lavender oil is a pro-oxidant, and this enhanced oxidation increases its irritancy on skin (Source: Contact Dermatitis, September 2008, pages 143–150). Lavender oil is the most potent form, and even small amounts of it (0.25% or less) are problematic. Although it’s fine as an aromatherapy agent for inhalation or relaxation, it is a must to avoid in skin-care products. (Sources: Psychiatry Research, February 2007, pages 89–96; and www.naturaldatabase.com)."(http://www.paulaschoice.com/beautypedia-skin-care-reviews/by-brand/bio-oil/_/Bio-Oil)
  • LEMON: this provides no demonstrated skin care benefits, but can be both irritating and photo toxic, i.e. reactions may result following exposure to sunlight.  (http://www.paulaschoice.com/cosmetic-ingredient-dictionary/definition/lemon-oil)
  • LEMONGRASS: this is another fragrant, volatile oil which contains the same compounds that make lemon oil (above) irritating to the skin. ( http://www.paulaschoice.com/cosmetic-ingredient-dictionary/definition/lemongrass-oil)
  • MYRRH: another one that contains limonene, an irritant also found in the two oils above, as well as pinene (see “volatile oil" description below) and eugenol, which you also don’t want on your body. (http://www.baseformula.com/product.php/6670/myrrh-essential-oil), (http://www.paulaschoice.com/cosmetic-ingredient-dictionary/definition/eugenol)
  • PATCHOULI: this is derived from mint, can sensitize skin, and contains eugenol (see myrrh, above) which is an irritant.  Patchouli is considered a “counter irritant”, for which see below for a full explanation. (http://www.paulaschoice.com/cosmetic-ingredient-dictionary/definition/patchouli)
  • PEPPERMINT: it’s another counter-irritant; move along. (http://www.paulaschoice.com/cosmetic-ingredient-dictionary/definition/peppermint)
  • ROSEMARY: this one kind of almost barely checks out.  In very, very small quantities rosemary EXTRACT can be okay, but if you look at the main constituents of rosemary OIL, it’s a whole lot of known irritants: pinene, borneol, linalol, camphor, etc. (http://www.aromaweb.com/essential-oils/rosemary-oil.asp), (http://www.paulaschoice.com/cosmetic-ingredient-dictionary/definition/antioxidants/rosemary-extract)
  • SAGE: I feel like this is starting to get repetitive: it’s a fragrant oil, and all the usual, skin-annoying compounds are there, including camphor.  Nope.  (http://www.paulaschoice.com/cosmetic-ingredient-dictionary/definition/sage-extract)
  • TEA TREE: Fiiiiiiiiiinally!  This one kind of checks out too!  It can have anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal effects and seems effective at treating certain skin conditions.  However, that doesn’t mean you should go whapping it all over your head: it still contains components that can cause issues, so it should STILL be treated with caution.  (http://www.paulaschoice.com/cosmetic-ingredient-dictionary/definition/tea-tree-oil1)
  • THYME: once again, fragrance compounds found in thyme oil are undesirable on your skin.  Billionth verse, same as the first, no?  (http://www.paulaschoice.com/cosmetic-ingredient-dictionary/definition/thyme-oil)
  • YLANG YLANG: allllllllllll together now!  It’s a fragrant oil made up of compounds known to cause skin issues!  Skip it!  (http://www.paulaschoice.com/cosmetic-ingredient-dictionary/definition/ylang-ylang)


Many people who avoid shampoo do so because they feel it contains too many “harsh” or “irritating” chemicals.  Swapping out a rigorously-tested, carefully-formulated shampoo only to start smearing essential oils (chemicals) over your head is, however, nonsensical.  Not that you can’t do it, of course; it’s your body.  If, however, you’re going to invoke science in defense of any part of your regime (often done in no-poo-land), why not apply that standard consistently?  “Diluting” these oils with carriers may help, but these compounds can be problematic for skin even in tiny quantities in professionally-made products.  If you’re avoiding shampoo to limit your exposure to chemicals and irritants, why risk the above-listed essential oils


  • VOLATILE OIL: "Group of volatile fluids derived primarily from plants and used in cosmetics primarily as fragrant additives. These components most often include a mix of alcohols, ketones, phenols, linalool, borneol, terpenes, camphor, pinene, acids, ethers, aldehydes, and sulfur, all of which have extremely irritating and sensitizing effects on skin.” (http://www.paulaschoice.com/cosmetic-ingredient-dictionary/definition/volatile-oil)
  • COUNTER-IRRITANT: "Ingredients such as menthol, peppermint, camphor, and mint are counter-irritants (Sources: Archives of Dermatologic Research, May 1996, pages 245–248; and Code of Federal Regulations Title 21—Food and Drugs, revised April 1, 2001, CITE: 21CFR310.545, www.fda.gov). Counter-irritants are used to induce local inflammation for the purpose of relieving inflammation in deeper or adjacent tissues. In other words, they substitute one kind of inflammation for another, which is never good for skin. Irritation or inflammation, no matter what causes it or how it happens, impairs the skin’s immune and healing response (Source: Skin Pharmacology and Applied Skin Physiology, November–December 2000, pages 358–371). And although your skin may not show it or doesn’t react in an irritated fashion, if you apply irritants to your skin the damage is still taking place and is ongoing, so it adds up over time (Source: Skin Research and Technology, November 2001, pages 227–237).”(http://www.paulaschoice.com/cosmetic-ingredient-dictionary/definition/counter-irritant)
  • RISK NUMBERS: an explanation can be found here (https://www.mountainroseherbs.com/newsletter/essential_oils_handle_with_care.php)