Are essential oils your skin's worst nightmare? Laurel Whole Plant Organics weighs in

The response to my rant in Friday’s post has been incredible. Thank you for the feedback on The Hub of Clean Living and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You made it clear that my words echo your convictions as well.

Of course, as with all opinion pieces, there are those who differ. Some of the comments mentioned that I am “demonizing” Drunk Elephant. To clarify, I am not interested in diminishing the company or the founder, Tiffany Masterson, whom I call out in my rant, nor am I apologizing for it.

Masterson commands the attention of the media and tends to feed it a viewpoint that does not accurately reflect the natural world, though it does make ripe click bait. It is to that end that I call her out on spreading misinformation to the press—not on the efficacy of her brand.

I use many products that are formulated without essential oils. Sometimes that is exactly what my skin wants. There is a contrast in the way labels like KYPRIS and Osmia choose to promote their essential oil free products that does not malign essential oils, but rather offers them as an option for skin that can not tolerate them.

The W Magazine interview with Masterson that I quoted in my last post contains flagrant errors not only regarding essential oils, but also regarding natural skincare.  I believe the cumulative effects of erroneous statements, when left unchallenged, can and will damage the industry. The question is, where to begin unpacking the behemoth?

In the name of brevity, let’s set aside the part where Masterson seems to point a finger at natural skincare for causing sensitive skin, as well as numerous other assertions pertaining to “enflamed” skin. I will also not be addressing the fact that she dismisses organic ingredients as not “a priority” for her line, since the term is “overused” and meaningless, although the tangible advantages of organic and pesticide-free ingredients are ignored (and a worthy topic to cover in a future post).

Instead, a good place to start would be to address the confusion over the use of essential oils in skincare. It’s also clear from the following comment that we need to offer a correct definition of the word “volatile” within this context: “Essential oils are volatile,” she told W. “People don’t realize that. With these oils on your skin all day, your skin cannot function the way it should.”

It’s one thing for Masterson to say that her skin had a reaction to essential oils as a reason for launching a brand without them—which is perfectly legitimate—and quite another to repeatedly belittle a therapeutic modality that has been in use for thousands of years.

Interestingly, W Magazine isn’t the only one to publish a comment of hers that raises an eyebrow. In this article on BYRDIE, she says, “When you really think about it, the only reason, in my opinion, that essential oils are included in a formulation is to scent the product.” This time, the article takes her to task and questions her answer. The verdict on essential oil use in skincare, the author concludes, is far from black and white.

As Amy Galper, founder of the New York Institute of Aromatherapy, says here, “Yes, nice aromas have a way of making us feel, but aromatherapy goes beyond fragrance, to a scientific discipline as authentic as any herbal medicine. Based on the molecular properties and behavior of essential oils, it supports our innate ability to heal ourselves—making it a powerful ally in treating mind, body, and emotions.

So, I must beg to differ with Masterson’s opinion yet again. The aroma of essential oils is merely the color of the tapestry, but the cloth is far richer. Even if the benefits of oils were merely distilled to their scent, the fragrance alone would have the capacity to heal on a deeper level. Sadly, this brand founder appears to renounce all of their therapeutic qualities.

Still, Drunk Elephant is not the only line to avoid essential oils, and some people do need to steer clear of them. Does that mean essential oils are to blame for sensitive skin, as Masterson suggests?  Must we abandon them entirely as part of healthier skincare?

Fortunately, Laurel Shaffer, the founder of Laurel Whole Plant Organics and a trained herbalist, botanist, and sommelier, has agreed to help us sort through the dizzying information—and misinformation—that circulates around essential oils. As she says so well:

“For any plant based line to be against essential oils, they must also be against using plants to some degree, since essential oils are found in all plants.”

For the remainder of this post, these are her words illuminating her extensive experience and research. By the end, you will have a better idea of how essential oils work and how to use them wisely.

Laurel Shaffer’s woke talk on essential oils

Laurel WPO gives us the skinny on essential oil use in skincare

Laurel WPO gives us the skinny on essential oil use in skincare

“Plants are medicine.”

As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a whole-hearted plant advocate.  I pretty much think plants are the answer to all the world’s problems.  That said, plants are medicine.  Plants have to be understood and processed in a manner to which they can help solve problems—just like medicine; and it’s very possible for them to get misused and therefore misunderstood. Essential oils fall into this misused category far too often, and that is for several reasons.

How are essential oils misused?

The first reason is that essential oils truly are the most powerful and potent form of plant medicine that I am aware of.  Because essential oils are so incredibly powerful, it only makes sense that some people might be sensitive to their potency, especially if they are being used improperly.  In addition to essential oils being the most potent form of plant medicine, they are also the most popular form of plant medicine—thanks to MLMs (multi-level marketing) they are now present in almost every home in America! I feel very comfortable with essential oils, but that is only because I studied plants extensively prior to using them regularly, and because I am highly intuitive, and I listen to my own body when one might not be right for my body at any given time.

“I listen to my own body when one [essential oil] might not be right for my body at any given time.”

Essential oils: plant medicine or skin's worst nightmare? The founder of Laurel Whole Plant Organics weighs in

Do essential oils irritate the skin?

To say that all essential oils cause inflammation and irritation is absolutely silly.  To give a very specific example, our line has a .25% reported reaction rate, and we rely on essential oils in every product that we make.  The key is that we utilize them at incredibly low percentages, often lower than what they are found at in whole raw plants themselves. We stay away from essential oils that are common heat inducers, intensely drying, or intense circulatory stimulants; and we take every precaution to ensure that our essential oils are incredibly high quality.

Essential oils: plant medicine or skin's worst nightmare? The founder of Laurel Whole Plant Organics weighs in

Many essential oils are adulterated

High quality essential oils are extremely difficult to come by, which to many should come as a surprise.  Thanks to my background as a sommelier, I have a powerful nose for detecting any level of oxidation, specific farming techniques, seasonal and harvest specifics, and most importantly ANY trace of synthetic compounds.  Unfortunately, synthetic compounds are far too common. Not only do I detect them in essential oils regularly, but I also detect them in other products constantly, and I don’t think the brand owner has any idea.

Brand owners may have no idea that the essential oils they are using contain synthetic compounds.

Two ways that I detect synthetic adulteration are: 1) a sharp shooting pain in my head when I take the first whiff and 2) staying power.  Real essential oils do not have a lot of staying power, with the exception of a few resinous plants.  They absorb quickly into our skin, and shouldn’t smell for longer than an hour or so.  Evaluating the source and purity of an essential oil is incredibly important to reducing reactivity.

[For further reference, check out my post about GC/MS testing.]

Essential oils: plant medicine or skin's worst nightmare? The founder of Laurel Whole Plant Organics weighs in

What does volatile mean when referring to essential oils? (It’s not what you think!)

In terms of the chemistry of essential oils and what they actually are: to make essential oils you simply need fresh plants and boiling water.  That fact alone is enough to tell me this is a natural, simple, and ancient process that feels safe and authentic to my heart.  Essential oils are made up of hundreds of different constituents or compounds, all found within whole raw plants themselves.  These compounds are “volatile,” which simply means they evaporate easily, almost more like an alcohol would than a fatty oil.  All whole plants contain essential oils within them in varying percentages, because they are a part of the plant itself.

“All whole plants contain essential oils within them in varying percentages, because they are a part of the plant itself.”

When you rub a mint leaf between your fingers, and then your hands smell like mint—that is the essential oil on your hands. Often those percentages that the essential oils are found in the plant itself are higher than what a formulator would use to make a product. When a product contains whole plants, that means it also contains essential oils in small amounts. Therefore, for any plant based line to be against essential oils, they must also be against using plants to some degree, since again essential oils are found in all plants.

What are essential oil isolates and how are they different from essential oils?

In the BYRDIE article, Masterson indicates she was sensitive to essential oil isolates. [From the article:”‘When I tried to introduce other products in my routine, like serums, oils, or sunscreens, my skin would react negatively immediately. I started paying attention to the ingredients in these products, and I figured out that there were a few names I was seeing over and over again: limonene, linalool, geraniol, and more.’ What were those ingredients? Essential oils—yes, the same essential oils you’ve been holding in such high regard…”]

There is a big difference between essential oils and isolates; the biggest one being that isolates are typically synthetic, and they are just one chemical compound as opposed to a complex and balanced whole plant.  The owner and lead chemist of Pacific Institute of Aromatherapy shared with me that it wasn’t even possible to create a pure isolated compound from essential oils that does not contain synthetics.  That said, a consumer has no way of knowing whether or not a brand is adding synthetic isolates to their products or if they are just communicating about potential allergens like the EU suggests. [THE HUB: The EU requires them to be labeled separately when in higher concentrations.]  Janny Organically’s recent article on greenwashing discusses Isolates in more detail.


Essential oils: plant medicine or skin's worst nightmare? The founder of Laurel Whole Plant Organics weighs in

Thank you, Laurel, for sharing your extensive background with essential oils to further this discussion. My takeaway from this post is that the quality and percentage of essential oils vary in every product line and not every brand knows how to distinguish their purity. That could indeed contribute to someone having issues with a particular brand. Nonetheless, there are safe ways to employ these essences that do not disrupt skin, but in fact support and heal it. Once again, the conclusion is not black and white—and it’s essential to question anyone who says that it is.

Let us know in the comments, what is your biggest takeaway from what Laurel shared?