Essential oils have been a mainstay in natural beauty for many years, and for good reason—it's way easier to make "clean" products from oils of all kinds—nut oils, essential oils, seed oils, and even cold-pressed fruit and vegetable oils. Green beauty is saturated with oil-based products because oils and butters don't require a preservative to stay shelf-stable and bacteria-free for a long time, which significantly simplifies the process of making products.
While there's no doubt that essential oils can be hugely beneficial when used for aromatherapeutics (hello insomnia, allergies, and anxiety), and even in skin care at times, they can be troublesome for people with sensitive skin. Here, we break down the trend and what brands are formulated without essential oils.
Why you should consider essential-oil free skin care.
If you find that essential oils are a necessary part of your skin care routine, or that you don't mind when they are formulated into skin care products, by all means do as you will. But if you're finding that any of the below rings true, we may consider skipping them.
Questionable essential oil quality.
For one, the quality of essential oils isn't monitored by a third party—so the "lavender essential oil" that's listed on the back of your hydrosol may not be the same quality as another lavender essential oil in your face oil. Essential oil concentrations are also often not disclosed on packaging, so it's impossible to tell how potent the product is, not only for each individual oil but for the overall essential oil concentration. These two variables alone could wreak havoc on sensitive skin1.
They can be irritating for those with sensitive skin.
Essential oils are highly concentrated extracts from plants, like rosemary, rose, lavender, lemon myrtle, and so forth. Because of their potency, some can also be irritants, as those with sensitive skin react easier to strong actives. This, of course, is why we are always instructed to dilute the EOs with a carrier oil, which does buffer them enough for some skin types—but for those who become inflamed easier, it may not be enough.
They also contain strong (albeit, natural) scents; so if you are one to react to fragrance of any kind, you may also need to avoid.
Where to find natural & essential-free beauty.
Until recently, the road to a natural beauty and personal care regimen was clearly bifurcated for people with sensitive skin: You'd choose natural products with essential oils and deal with the consequences or you were out of luck. Not anymore. Now there's a small-but-mighty growing category of naturals that are loud and proud about their EO-free status.
Millennial favorite, perennial Sephora best-seller, and beauty-editor-lauded Drunk Elephant is one brand that's leading the charge. "My skin changed when I removed 'sensitizers' from my products, the ones I was using on a daily basis, and gave it room to rebound," said founder Tiffany Masterson. "I call them the suspicious six: essential oils, chemical screens, silicones, fragrance, dyes, and alcohols. In my opinion, essential oils can create sensitized skin. And the effect is cumulative—after using them for a while, people say 'I have sensitive skin.'"
Forward-thinking green beauty vets like Marie Veronique Nadeau, founder of Marie Veronique products, are making EO-free a part of their offering, too. Her collaboration range in partnership with Kristina Holey is entirely free of essential oils and other irritants like "microcidal preservatives" that can be problematic for some.
Peet Rivko has built its entire brand on being essential-oil-free and sensitive-skin-friendly without all of the additives that often come with non-natural drugstore products. "Just because something is fragrance-free doesn't mean it's unscented," said founder Johanna Peet. The products do have smell—Peet explained many brands will add chemicals and additives to neutralize any natural scents—which can take some getting used to.
If you are experiencing irritation of late, you may consider looking into any essential oils present in your skin care routine, as they come up a lot in natural products. However, thanks to plenty of brands adopting the no EO policy, you’ll likely be able to find some easy swaps.
Lindsay Kellner is a freelance writer, editor and content strategist based out of Brooklyn, NY. She received her bachelor’s degree in journalism and psychology at New York University and earned a 200-hour yoga certification from Sky Ting. She is the co-author of “The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide to Ancient Self Care,” along with mbg’s Sustainability Editor, Emma Loewe.