An essential oil is a concentrated volatile oil or hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants like herbs and flowers. The term "essential" simply comes from the "essence" of the plant.
May Not Penetrate Skin
Although skin is slightly permeable, it is not a digestive organ that readily absorbs oils or nutrients. In fact, the skin is equipped with several barriers to keep foreign matter--even water molecules out--based upon molecule size and solubility. It is debatable whether or not most essential oil ingredients can penetrate past the skin's natural protective barriers. Most foreign substances that do manage to make it past the skin's top layers and past the moisture barrier are disposed of as waste.
Essential oil dealers will point to nicotine patches to prove essential oils can be absorbed which is clearly an "apples-to-oranges" comparison. Topical medications and pharmaceutical patches use scientific techniques to create "carriers" which transport medicines past the protective barrier. Food, plants and event water molecules do not come with carriers.
Benefits of Essential Oils
However, for use on the surface of the skin, essential oils can act as humectants, and they can sooth minor irritations. Some essential oils do kill bacteria on the surface of the skin, and there is evidence certain lipids can help break down sebum and exfoliate skin in a less aggressive fashion than scrubs.
Problems with Essential Oils
On the flip side, oils like olive oil and some essential oils are comedogenic, so they can clog pores, and the wrong oils can also aggravate sensitive skin or skin with other irritations. In addition, harsh chemicals are often used in the manufacturing process of these oils. And, as mentioned above, it is unlikely most essential oils penetrate past the top layer of skin.
Even sites that sell essential oils caution "Certain essential oils are more inclined to cause skin irritation and/or sensitization in normal individuals than other oils. For those with a sensitive skin some oils should be used with care."
The same sit lists some of the essential oils known to cause skin problems:
- Black Pepper
- Lemon Verbena
- Pimento Berry
- Red Thyme
And oils with citrus photosensitize the skin and should never be used when going outdoors.
Effective in the Right Formulations
The good news about essential oils is there is no doubt that the right oils, used in the right formulations with the right medicinal ingredients, can have a positive effect on the skin, and many excellent dermatologist-grade skin care lines use botanicals and essential oils along with medicinal ingredients to create products that deal with skin issues on more than one level.
Find out how to make essential oils at home in a crock pot using herbs, flowers and/or spices.
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