How to Use Essential Oils for Skin: A Beginner’s Guide
Take a look at the labels on your skincare products, and you’re likely to find at least one (if not several) that list various essential oils on them. With Latin names like lavandula angustifolia or lavandula officinalis (aka lavender), and descriptors like “cold-pressed” or “pure” attached to them, it can be a tad confusing to navigate what it all means. That’s why we consulted a few pros on the matter to guide us: Shrankhla Holecek, founder and CEO of UMA oils, Marie Veronique of Marie Veronique Skincare and Athena Hewett, founder of Monastery Skincare.
To start, what are essential oils?
To put it simply: Essential oils are extractions of oils from plants. Or as Holecek explains, “Essential oils have the characteristic fragrance and properties of the plants from which they are extracted, typically via steam distillation, solvent extraction or expression. They are highly fragrant and very concentrated and can have extremely targeted and potent effects on skincare and wellness, which is why they have been used for centuries in natural therapy techniques.”
We’ll get into specific carrier oils and their best counterparts below, as well a, our favorite pre-blended products for easy shopping (in case you’re not into the whole DIY chemist thing).
The best essential oils for skin
1. Rose essential oil
Holecek recommends rose essential oil for dry skin, as “it’s extremely active in promoting and retaining your skin’s natural moisture and delivering moisture without clogging your pores.” Combine it with avocado oil (which is rich in lecithin, a lipids and vitamin E) or coconut oil (which is rich in capric, caprylic, and lauric acids that have natural antimicrobial and antibacterial properties) as your carrier oil.
2. Frankincense Oil
Two common complaints of aging skin are dryness and loss of firmness. For the former, rose oil is great for plumping up dry skin. For the latter, Holecek recommends frankincense. “It’s arguably the most powerful essential oil that stimulates skin turnover and strengthens the skin’s elasticity,” she says. Combine with pomegranate oil or argan oil as the carrier, which both have vitamin E in them. (Pomegranate is a tad lighter and absorbs rapidly, but is pricier.)
Buy it: Vitruvi Frankincense Essential Oil ($18); Uma Oils Total Rejuvenation Night Face Oil ($150)
3. Neroli Oil
For tackling dullness or pigmentation, Holecek likes neroli oil. “Resplendent in vitamin C, it helps to heal the cracks, dryness and wear-and-tear in skin that often results in the pigmentation.” Pair it with rosehip seed oil, which has vitamin A in it and reinforces the vitamin C to promote increased cell turnover.”
Buy it: Eminence Organic Skin Care Neroli Age Corrective Hydrating Mist ($38); African Botanics Neroli Infused Marula Oil ($120)
4. Chamomile Oil
To help minimize the appearance of large pores, try chamomile oil. “It’s rich in azulene, which is a naturally occurring compound that helps with cellular turnover and clears up dead skin cells,” says Holecek. (Ed note: When dead skin cells build up on the surface of your skin, it can clog your pores and make them appear larger.) Combine chamomile with pomegranate oil as your base because it has “ultra-small molecules that penetrate the skin quickly and deliver the nutrients without sitting on top of your skin and feeling too slick.”
Buy it: Shea Terra Organics Egyptian Chamomile Cold Pressed Extra Virgin Oil ($19); Odacité Camelina-Chamomile Sensitive Skin Serum Concentrate ($39); Jao Goe Oil ($50)
5. Clove or tea tree oil
When it comes to addressing acne-prone skin, there are a number of factors to consider. Let’s start with bacterial overgrowth. For this, Holecek recommends clove or tea tree essential oils, which clear up acne-causing bacteria (i.e. P acnes) rapidly, but gently so as not to dry out your skin.
For the carrier oil, jojoba is great for oily skin because “it resembles the actual molecular structure of your skin, so it rapidly penetrates the skin and delivers nutrients sub-dermally. It ‘tricks’ your skin into believing that it has produced enough oil, so it doesn’t go into overdrive and produce excess oil,” explains Holecek.
6. Clary Sage Oil
For an overproduction in oil, try clary sage essential oil. “Instead of trying to artificially ‘dry out’ your skin like some acne treatments do (which can cause your skin to go into panic mode and produce even more oil to compensate for the loss), clary sage has the unique function of balancing sebum production,” says Holecek.
Another great carrier oil for blemish-prone skin is grapeseed oil. “It actually controls skin’s natural oil-producing functions and has excellent anti-inflammatory properties, which is great for soothing skin that’s already breaking out,” explains Holecek.
7. Sandalwood or Lavender oil
For inflamed skin or spots, try sandalwood or lavender oil, which can help calm irritation and settle raised skin. Hewitt does caution that some people are allergic to lavender, so if you suspect you might be, make sure to patch test on your body first on an area where the skin is thicker. Combine it with jojoba or grapeseed oil as a carrier.
Buy it: Vitruvi Lavender Essential Oil ($18); Odacité Jojaba-Lavender Clogged Pores Serum Concentrate ($36); Kypris Clearing Serum ($90)
8. Juniper Berry Oil
“With acne and inflammation, there is typically some tissue breakage that occurs (especially if you pick at the spot or treat it with an overly drying product that compromises the skin barrier). Juniper berry oil is excellent at helping heal and repair the skin’s dermis and also helps resurface the skin after a breakout,” says Holecek. Again, it’s best used with jojoba or grapeseed oil.
Buy it: Uma Oils Anti Aging Face Oil ($175)
Why have essential oils gained popularity in skincare products?
“I love this question because it carries me back to when I first started formulating skincare products and I used essential oils, like everyone else in the industry, because we assumed that they were the best natural alternative to synthetic fragrances,” explains Veronique.
Take a minute to think about your skincare products. If you have two face creams that are, on all other accounts, the same, but one smells better than the other, you’re probably going to favor the better smelling cream, right?
Most of us expect our skincare to smell good and “essential oils are the easiest way to achieve smell and still claim to be natural,” says Veronique. “However, even EOs can cause contact dermatitis in some people, and cause skin sensitization in many others. You don’t want to overuse or misuse them.” Which brings us to our next question…
Are there any precautions to take when using essential oils?
“Because they're so concentrated, essential oils must be handled with care, and in almost all circumstances, should be diluted in a carrier before being applied to your skin,” says Holecek.
Hewett agrees, adding that “essential oils are the closest thing we have in the plant kingdom to a pharmaceutical and should be treated like medicine. Just like medicines, there are recommended practices and dosages, which, again, is why you should never place an essential oil directly onto the skin. In their undiluted form, they can cause pigmentation, burn, rashes or welts.”
Veronique also has a surprising tip for cat owners: “Do not use essential oils in a diffuser if you have cats. If accidentally ingested, it can kill them, as they lack an enzyme in their liver that metabolizes certain compounds found in essential oils.”
Yikes, OK, but back up a second. What’s a carrier or carrier oil?
“Carrier oils are usually cold pressed oils from fruits and nuts that have strong penetrative abilities that allow them to carry botanically derived essential oils into the skin. So think about carrier oils as a base for carrying your actives ingredients (in this case, the essential oils) into your skin so they can have the results you intend them to,” explains Holecek. “Depending upon the essential oil, you’ll want to dilute them down to at least one parts EO to seven parts carrier oil or even up one parts EO to 20 or 25 parts carrier oil, depending on the EO.”