Are Essential Oils Safe for Skin?

We've noticed over the past few years a growing concern for the safety of essential oils in skincare.  When properly formulated using high quality oils, essential oils offer a plethora of benefits, not to mention beautiful natural aromas!

Proper formulation is key to product efficacy and safety, and we can’t forget to mention adequate training in the usage of the potent medicine that is/are essential oils. We sat down with Dominique Caron, founder, formulator and certified aromatherapist at Apoterra, to clear up some common misconceptions and questions about essential oils for skincare. We also dive into our sourcing process as well as how Dominique formulates products with essential oils for skin. If you’ve ever found yourself asking “should I be using essential oils in my skincare routine?” or “am I allergic to essential oil in skincare products?” we’re providing some helpful insight into these questions to help you make an informed decision for yourself (and your skin!). 


First, the basics! Simply put, essential oils are volatile oils, which are produced by plants for various reasons - from protection from disease and insects to communication and attracting pollinators. A “volatile” oil means that the oil evaporates easily on exposure to air and contains odorous constituents (aka they contribute to the plant’s aroma). Essential oils are made from a single species of plant and can include its leaves, stem, flowers, bark, root, fruit and seeds.



Essential oils are extracted using three main methods, each resulting in three very different products: distillation, expression, and supercritical C02 extraction.

1. Steam Distillation

This process results in the products you’re likely the most familiar with: steam distilled essential oils and hydrosols. During this process, low-pressure steam passes through all of the plant material and the lightest chemical compounds are vaporized (i.e. the plant’s volatile compounds). A cooling process condenses the steam back to water, leaving the final products. The steam that turns into water is a hydrosol (floral water) and the essential oil floats at the top of the water and is separated. 

2. Cold Pressed (also known as expressions)

This process extracts the complete essential oil from citrus fruits and is the process of “expressing” the fruit’s natural oils from its peel. This process does not involve heat, meaning the chemistry of the plant oil remains intact and the final result is a fresh citrus scent that smells nearly identical to the fruit from which it comes. 

3. C02 Extraction

This method of extraction incorporates carbon dioxide that produces a high-grade extract that’s close in composition to that of the raw plant materials. In this process, CO2 is used as a solvent to extract pigment, oils, and resin. What you’re left with is called a C02 extract, also known as an absolute. Absolutes cannot technically be called essential oils commercially. They differ from steam distilled essential oils in that they tend to be more similar to the complete essential oil found in the plant material and tend to have an aroma closer to the one found in the fresh plant.


are essential oils safe for skin

It’s important to note that essential oils for skincare are potent medicine. With potency comes the important responsibility of learning the ins and outs of using oils for their intended purpose and understanding how to harness their powerful healing abilities safely. If not properly formulated, or when using oxidized, adulterated or poor quality essential oils, skincare products containing essential oils can cause irritation and damage to the skin. That is why it’s important to hold the skincare companies you buy from to a high standard to ensure their formulations are safe and effective. 

When used properly, fresh, high-grade, non-oxidized essential oils offer us an array of healing powers including, but not limited to, antibacterial, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and skin-healing benefits. On top of all of that, essential oils offer beautiful, healing aromas. 

Dominique’s formulations are rooted in her studies and learnings from the Aromahead Institute where she earned her aromatherapy certification. “I love working with essential oils because they are a great tool when formulating - they offer so many benefits to the skin for almost every skin concern I can think of. Essential oils also have the added benefit of beautiful aromas that can have emotionally supportive benefits as well,” Dominique explains. 

So how can you tell if a product or oil is safe to use?  Read more below as we answer some common questions and mistakes we see pop up with essential oils for skin care. 


are essential oils safe for skin

Natural does not equal safe

We’ve found that many people assume that because essential oils are natural that they are both safe and simple to use. On the contrary, essential oils are some of nature’s most potent healers and need to be handled by trained aromatherapists that understand dosages, application and potential cumulative toxicity. “Essential oils are a little bit like salt.  A little bit is good for your health, too much can have negative effects on your health, and very large doses can kill you.” explains Dominique. 

“If you’ve ever used a product containing essential oils and developed a reaction, it’s probable that the product may have been formulated with too high a dosage of essential oils not recommended for topical application on your skin, specifically, the delicate skin on your face”.

Can Essential Oils be Toxic?

Apoterra’s natural facial care products contain 1% essential oils or less in our formulations, a percentage that, for certain oils, is safe and nourishing for topical application on a daily basis,” Dominique explains. “There are some oils that should not be used topically, because of phototoxicity, irritation, overstimulation and toxicity concerns,” she advises. Phototoxicity can occur when natural chemicals found in specific essential oils react when exposed to ultraviolet light, causing inflammation, blistering and reddening and/or burning of the skin. Examples of essential oils that are phototoxic are bergamot, grapefruit and lemon. Other essential oils for skin (specifically on your face) to be avoided are those that are warming or overly stimulating like clove, cinnamon, or peppermint. 

It's important to note that essential oils, when used on a regular basis or in large doses, can accumulate in your system and create health concerns. Young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with health concerns are especially vulnerable. Essential oils can also interact with prescription medicine so it is important to check for any contraindications if you take prescription medication before using skin care products that contain essential oils.  


are essential oils safe for skin

Like every ingredient used within the Apoterra line, the essential oils for skin that we use are carefully vetted and sourced from trusted producers. It’s not only important but crucial that our essential oil suppliers provide specific information and testing such as GC/MS reports to ensure that the essential oils we use to craft our skincare products are fresh, the correct species and chemotype, but also have the correct chemical profile to achieve the results we are looking for.

What’s in a name?

When shopping for essential oils, the first detail I recommend looking for is the latin name of the oil. This is extremely important,” explains Dominique. “For example, if the bottle just says “lavender,” it could mean one of a dozen different plants. There are about 45 different species of lavender and over 450 varieties - all with slightly different properties.  Some are even stimulating (versus calming). It’s crucial to know the species because each has different therapeutic or aromatic affects. 

Chemical Composition

One essential oil can contain hundreds of different chemicals. And one species of plant, depending on growing factors such as weather and soil composition, can create essential oils that are completely different and have very different chemical profiles and therefore properties.  For instance Thymus vulgaris has several chemotypes, including ct Thymol and ct Linalool.  Thyme ct linalool is a great choice for skincare, while Thyme ct Thymol could cause some serious damage to the skin. Thyme ct thymol offers stronger antibacterial properties than Thyme ct linalool, so would be better suited to treat an acute bacterial infection or in cleaning products.

That is why we always require that our oils be Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry or GC/MS tested. This complex name essentially means that the oils are tested to determine their chemical composition. Why is this important? “GC/MS testing confirms that the essential oils are exactly what we want to be using in our formulations. For example, Immortelle (Helichrysum), depending on where it’s grown, has a different chemical composition and therefore a different effect on the skin,” explains Dominique. “We want to be sure the oil we are using has the right chemical composition for its intended purpose. One batch might be completely different from the next and have a different effect on the skin and that is why just going off the essential oil latin name is not enough for accuracy and consistent effectiveness of skin care products.”

Freshness and Oxidation

Lastly, we check the date of production to ensure the essential oils we’re using are fresh and potent. Essential oils can not only lose potency over time, meaning they are less effective in their healing abilities, but can also oxidize. If an essential oil is oxidized, it can create irritation and cause reactions. If you have had a bad reaction to an essential oil containing product before, it is possible that the oils in the product were oxidized. 


At Apoterra, it’s important to us that the distillers we source our essential oils from have eco-friendly farming practices. For this reason, most of our essential oils (and most of our ingredients!) are certified organic. But having said this, we recognize that “Certified Organic” is an expensive certification that oftentimes many local, small farmers can’t afford. So when working with smaller distillers, we look for sustainable farming practices instead.

Does organic certification make the oils safer to use?  It's difficult to say, but we don’t believe so. We choose to buy organic to support sustainable farming practices.


A Guide to Essential Oils in Apoterra Skincare

When properly applied and dosed, essential oils for skin can truly enhance the efficacy of the skincare products you use in your daily or weekly routine. Below we’ve highlighted a few of our products that contain some of the most popular essential oils for skincare & dive into one essential oil each to explain their benefits a bit further. 

Herbal Clarifying Facial Oil
with blue chamomile

Blue Chamomile essential oil benefits for skin: Also known as German chamomile, this blue essential oil is one of the most powerful healing oils for the skin. Close in kin to blue tansy, or Moroccan chamomile, this version is high in flavonoids, terpenoids, oxides, and azulenes (chamazulene is what gives the essential oil its beautiful blue color). It has antioxidant, antimicrobial and antibacterial properties to help get rid of bad bacteria, it’s an anti-inflammatory and has powerful skin healing effects that work wonders on problematic skin. 


Vitamin C Regenerative Balm
with immortelle

Immortelle essential oil benefits for skin: Helichrysum has cell regenerative properties, and, when used in synergy with blue chamomile, creates a powerhouse skin healing combo, great for diminishing redness and speeding the healing of blemishes. 

    Sea Berry Balancing Facial Oil

    Frankincense essential oil benefits for skin: Frankincense strengthens skin & improves its tone and elasticity, helping to prevent the signs of aging. Its cell regenerative ability helps to give skin a lifted, more youthful look. It can also help reduce blemishes as well as the appearance of scars and acne marks. 

    Aloe + Rose Clay Soap
    with rose geranium 

    Rose Geranium essential oil benefits for skin: Geranium is one of the few essential oils, which, according to Chinese medicine, is considered cool and moist in energy. This means this oil is great for calming redness, while also balancing and soothing dry skin.


    Charcoal + Dead Sea Salt Soap
    with tea tree

    Tea tree essential oil benefits for skin: Tea tree essential oil is shown to have antibacterial, antimicrobial, anti-fungal, and immune stimulating properties. Studies have shown that topical application of this essential oil can help alleviate acne by killing the bacteria that causes breakouts.




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