Essential oils are touted for their ability to treat a range of skin conditions, from inflammation and acne to dry skin and wrinkles and lots more in between.
Essential oils are extracted from the flowers, stem, leaves, seeds and roots of some plants. Their use in dermatology has been growing with great popularity worldwide.
Dermatologists caution, however, that these oils are complex mixtures, which are generally made up of hundreds of organic chemical compounds that are responsible for the essential oil’s many characteristic properties.
Some of these compounds are good for skin, others are not.
While some essential oils may offer some anti-inflammatory, healing or antimicrobial activities, negative side effects such as skin irritations, allergic reactions and photosensitivity (an extreme sensitivity to ultraviolet rays resulting in an itchy, burning skin rash) are concerning (1).
Essential oils are not regulated by the FDA for medical treatment of skin.
1 Essential oils can help treat acne. While there is ample research demonstrating the efficacy of benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid — two main ingredients used in many acne treatments — the appeal of using natural alternatives remains.
Tea tree oil is one of the most popular natural ingredients used to treat acne. Due to its anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, it is thought to calm redness, swelling and inflammation.
While this essential oil does have some benefit, using the right concentration is a must to get results.
Studies show that topical 5 percent tea tree oil is an effective treatment for mild to moderate acne vulgaris (2).
Other essential oils that may help treat acne include, thyme, rosemary, cinnamon and rose.
2 Essential oils can help moisturize dry skin. There are many causes of dry skin. Typically, this condition is caused by environmental factors such as hot or cold weather and low humidity, as well as soaking in hot water or using harsh, drying soaps.
In addition to applying moisturizer to damp skin to trap moisture, limiting water exposure and using a humidifier during dry months, essential oils may help.
Chamomile is a gentle herb that acts as natural anti-inflammatory and is known to increase moisture due to one of its main components, azulene.
Lavender, helichrysum, frankincense and sandalwood essential oil are other essential oils that can soothe dry skin.
3 Essential oils may aid in wound healing. According to a 2015 animal study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects of Commiphora guidotti (myrrh) make it an effective wound healer.
In fact, researchers found that the antibacterial and antifungal activities of the oil and resin of myrrh were comparable with the standard prescribed medications, ciprofloxacin and griseofulvin (3).
A 2016 study found that lavender essential oil promotes wound healing by increasing collagen and regenerating tissue, especially during the early phase of treatment (4).
Chamomile and rosehip oil are other essential oils that some studies show can also enhance wound healing.
4 Essential oils may help reduce the appearance of scars. Rosehip oil has been used for decades to treat wounds and scars. Clinical trials of its efficacy, however, are lacking.
In 2015, researchers evaluating the effect of rosehip oil on the improvement of post-surgical skin scars in patients who had a skin tumor surgically removed were met with promising results.
Patients who applied rosehip oil twice a day, for six weeks on the scar (after the removal of sutures) found that treatment was useful for cosmetic improvement on redness, discoloration and atrophy of post-surgical skin scars (5).
The beneficial effect of this oil has been attributed to its high content of essential fatty and unsaturated acids.
Other essential oils that can help reduce the appearance of scars, include helichrysum, frankincense, geranium and carrot seed essential oil.
5 Essential oils may protect against premature aging. In addition to causing dangerous skin cancer, chronic exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) causes premature aging of the skin, known as photoaging.
Photoaging most commonly appears on the face, neck and the back of hands. Signs include uneven skin color, pigmented spots and wrinkles around the eyes and mouth (6).
In one study, researchers found that topical application of almond oil in mice was capable of preventing the structural damage caused by UV irradiation and was also useful in slowing the photoaging process (7).
6 Essential oils may help treat athlete’s foot. Tinea pedis (athlete’s foot) is a fungal infection that causes a scaly rash, itching, stinging and burning between the toes.
In a study of 158 patients with athlete’s foot, researchers found that the twice daily application of a 50 percent tea tree oil solution (for 4 weeks) resulted in a 64 percent cure rate compared to 31 percent in the placebo group.
Four patients applying tea tree oil developed moderate to severe dermatitis (skin rash) that improved quickly once the application of tea tree oil was stopped (8).
7 Essential oils can help treat cold sores and warts. A 2009 study found that cypress oils were effective against the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). This virus is commonly called oral herpes, and causes sores around the mouth and lips (sometimes called fever blisters or cold sores).
Among the different parts of this medicinal plant tested, the fruit’s extract appeared to possess the strongest anti-HSV activity (9).
8 Essential oils may help treat MRSA. Methicillin-resistant S. aureus (MRSA) is an infection that is caused by a type of staph bacteria that is often resistant to numerous antibiotics.
MRSA symptoms start as swollen, painful red bumps and may develop into deep, painful abscesses that require surgical draining (10).
Tea tree oil has been shown to have anti-bacterial, analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects that have been suggested in many in-vitro studies to have good efficacy against MRSA.
A randomized controlled trial, consisting of 32 patients with MRSA wounds that were not responding to traditional treatment, found that topical application of tea tree oil resulted in improvement in 87 percent of patients and a 100 percent healing rate within 28 days (11).
9 Essential oils may help treat contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is a red, itchy rash caused by direct contact with a substance or an allergic reaction to it.
As herbal ingredients are becoming increasingly popular for the treatment of various dermatological conditions characterized by inflammation and itching, researchers have turned their attention to essential oils.
In a 2011 study, researchers compared the efficacy of traditional topical therapeutic agents (zinc oxide and clobetasone butyrateversus) with tea tree oil on experimental contact dermatitis.
Researchers found that tea tree oil appeared to be a more effective agent than traditional treatments (12).
10 Essential oils can reduce histamine-induced skin inflammation. In addition to treating conditions such as athlete’s foot and acne, tea tree oil’s anti-inflammatory properties make it a potential treatment for skin inflammation.
In a study of 27 volunteers with histamine-induced skin inflammation, application of tea tree oil significantly decreased red swollen marks — as quickly as 10 minutes after use (13).
11 Essential oils may relieve pain. One of the most common complications of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia — a condition that affects nerve fibers and skin, causing burning pain that lasts long after the rash and blisters of shingles disappear (14).
Researchers of one study found that topical application of geranium oil treatment was associated with a significant reduction in neuropathic pain (15).
12 Essential oils may help fade dark spots. Licorice root extract is a common ingredient used in many skincare products to lighten skin discoloration.
Dark spots, or hyperpigmentation, may be caused by sun damage or an injury or inflammation to the skin from acne, eczema or psoriasis.
One of the active ingredients of licorice root extract is glabridin which is thought to protect skin from darkening in the first place. Another active ingredient — liquirtin — can fade pigmentation and increase skin renewal.
13 Essential oils may help prevent skin cancer. Early studies show that pomegranate oil may have chemopreventive effects on skin cancer development in mice.
In a study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, pretreatment of 5 percent pomegranate oil significantly decreased the number of new cases of cancer and multiplicity (16).
In another animal study, the essential oil of sandalwood was also found to be an effective chemopreventive agent against skin cancer (17).
While many in-depth, robust human studies and trials are needed, these early animal results are promising.
14 Essential oils can effectively remove makeup. With so many long-wear, waterproof cosmetics on the market, removing these products from the skin can be a challenge. Facial oils can help by effectively dissolving makeup from the skin.
Cleansing oils are particularly beneficial to those with dry skin.
Essential oils, when properly used, are typically safe and effective for many common skin issues.
The main concern with using essential oils is skin irritation or allergic reactions. Overuse and improper blending are common mistakes that may cause a reaction or irritation to the skin
One of the ways to help minimize irritation is to dilute the concentrated essential oils with a carrier oil so they can be applied to the skin without side effects.
Examples of carrier oils include jojoba oil, coconut oil, olive oil and grapeseed oil.
Allergic reactions typically occur in those with sensitive skin or those who have allergies to the essential oil.
According to The National Capital Poison Control Center, since essential oils generally are not regulated, it can be hard to know exactly what is in the essential oil bottle – what species of plant, what concentration of active ingredient, or whether there are any contaminants.
There could be also be interactions with other drugs, too (18).
1 Essential oils can cause contact dermatitis, characterized by a red, itchy rash that can be very uncomfortable. It is caused by direct contact with an ingredient in the essential oil or an allergic reaction to it.
2 Essential oils can cause other skin conditions, such as burning, discomfort or painful tingling
3 Photosensitive essential oils can cause burns to the skin. Certain types of essential oils, known as photosensitive or phototoxic essential oils, contain furocoumarins, which can cause severe burns, severe blistering and permanent loss of skin pigmentation when the skin is exposed to UV light or sunlight.
While this is more of a concern when these photosensitive oils are applied to the skin, they may also be troublesome when applied to the scalp.
Examples of photosensitive essential oils include bergamot peel, lemon peel and grapefruit peel. Be alert to all of the ingredients used in essential oil products marketed for hair health.
4 Essential oils can cause breathing problems and swelling of the tongue or narrowing of the throat in those with a severe reaction to an essential oil.
5 Essential oils can cause prepubertal gynecomastia. Regular exposure to lavender or tea tree oil has been linked to abnormal breast growth in young boys — called prepubertal gynecomastia.
The results of study presented at the Endocrine Society annual meeting in March 2018 revealed that key chemicals in these common plant-derived oils act as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (19).
How to use essential oils depends on the skin condition being treated. Due to the risk of skin reactions, irritations and other problematic skin side effects, it is best to speak to a medical professional for the proper usage.
What are essential oils? Essential oils are natural compounds extracted from various parts of plants via distillation or mechanical expression.
What is the best essential oil for the skin? This depends on many factors, including the type of skin condition being treated, as well as the concentration, quality and formulation of the essential oil.
What works for one individual may not work for another. Seek the advice of a medical professional to steer you in the right direction.
What essential oils are good for dry skin? There are several options when it comes to soothing dry skin, including helichrysum, chamomile, frankincense and lavender essential oil.
What essential oil is good for itchy skin? This depends on the underlying cause of itchy skin.
Peppermint oil’s cooling properties can help sooth itching caused by insect bites; chamomile can be used topically to reduce itching caused by eczema or dry skin; and tea tree oil is effective for treating itching due to athlete’s foot.
What essential oil is good for skin discoloration? Licorice root extract is an ingredient commonly found in products marketed for improving hyperpigmentation, or dark spots.
This essential oil has been shown in studies to be effective in reducing the appearance of dark spots and imparting a brightening effect on the skin.
What essential oil is good for skin cancer? While pomegranate essential oil and sandalwood essential oil have shown promise in some animal studies in preventing skin cancer, human studies are lacking.
The only proven way to prevent skin cancer is using a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen daily and covering up with clothing.
What essential oil is good for acne prone skin? Studies show that topical 5 percent tea tree oil is an effective treatment for mild to moderate acne. Other contenders include thyme, rosemary and cinnamon.
What essential oil is good for sensitive skin? People with sensitive skin should always be extra careful about the products they put on their skin. While some essential oils such as chamomile are considered soothing, they still may be problematic for sensitive skin — even when properly diluted.
What essential oil is good for removing skin tags? While there is some anecdotal evidence that tea tree oil can help remove these painless, noncancerous growths on the skin, dermatologists recommend leaving the task of removing them to the experts.
Are essential oils safe? Keep in mind that not all essential oils are beneficial or safe. When used properly, some essential oils can be safe. The most common side effects are skin irritations or allergic reactions.
Risks vary depending on several factors, including how the oils are used, whether or not they are properly diluted and personal body chemistry.
Essential oils should never be applied directly to the skin without a carrier oil. Using undiluted essential oils on the skin can lead to reactions ranging from mild contact dermatitis to blistering rashes and burns.
As with any new product, you should do a skin patch test first and discontinue use if any skin reactions or allergies occur.
What is photosensitivity? Some essential oils are photosensitive, which means they can cause a serious reaction if you apply them to the skin and then expose your skin to the sun’s UV rays. Reactions include skin redness and discoloration, burning, itching and blistering burns.
Some photosensitive essential oils include bergamot, bitter orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime, verbena, and several others.
If you choose to use a photosensitive essential oil, avoid exposing your skin to UV rays for at least 12 hours.
What essential oils are bad for the skin? While all essential oils carry the risk of being irritating to the skin, some are more problematic than others.
All of the citrus oils, including lemon, lime, tangerine, grapefruit, mandarin, and bergamot are a problem for all skin types as they can cause photosensitivity.
Mint oils such as peppermint, wintergreen, pennyroyal and balm mint are also problematic.
Can essential oils interact with prescription medications? Yes. There is concern that their use can create new issues and/or lessen the effectiveness of prescribed medication.
Seek the advice of the prescribing physician or a pharmacist about potential interactions between any medication and essential oils.
What is a carrier oil? Essential oils are highly concentrated and should never be applied directly to the skin. Doing so can cause troublesome skin irritations, burns and other skin reactions.
Carrier oils are oils with little to no scent that are used to dilute essential oils prior to application. Examples of carrier oils include: jojoba oil, olive oil, coconut oil, grapeseed oil and avocado oil.
As a general rule, you should keep concentration levels of essential oils below 5 percent.
How do you choose the best essential oil? It is important to do your research and to carefully read labels, especially the list of ingredients. Is it a concentrate? Is it diluted? Look for high quality options that are free of additives and solvents, and buy organic whenever you can.
It is also important to learn whether or not the manufacturer regularly tests oils for purity and protects them from oxidation, which can change their composition and make them irritating to the skin.
Keep in mind that essential oils are also not regulated by the FDA for medical treatment of skin.
Where can essential oils for the skin be bought? Essential oils are available at health food and natural food stores, vitamin shops and other stores.
Medical experts warn, however, that not all essential oil companies test their oils for quality. Only purchase essential oils from reputable manufacturers.
Where can carrier oils be bought? They can be bought at health food and natural food stores and vitamin shops.
How long do essential oils last? This varies, depending on the essential oil, temperature they are stored and their exposure to light and oxygen. In general, essential oils last 2 to 3 years.
To recognize if oils have broken down, look for changes in color, scent and appearance.
How should you store essential oils? They should be stored in a cool, dark place (ideally in the refrigerator) in a dark glass bottle with a tight-fitting lid.
Also follow storage recommendations on the manufacturer’s label.
Essential oils have long been used in complementary medicine for their numerous health benefits, including benefits to the skin.
Although no conclusive scientific data exists currently, some essential oils may help treat common skin conditions, including acne, dry skin, oily skin, scars and athlete’s foot.
Most of the existing evidence is on animals and further studies are needed before they can be considered for clinical use.
Essential oils are extracted from the flowers, stem, leaves, seeds and roots of some plants. Because essential oils are concentrated plant chemicals, they can be very strong. They should always be diluted in a carrier oil to help prevent skin irritations and allergic reactions.
Dermatologists note that everyone’s reactions to essential oils will be different, so their use cannot be ruled out altogether. They stress the importance, however, of performing a patch test before using on larger areas of the skin.
Individuals interested in trying essential oils to treat their specific skin concerns, should consult with a dermatologist about options, usage and safety.