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Essential dermatology advice about the use of essential oils

The internet and social media are burgeoning with advocacy of "natural" products to help with various health ailments. Skin care is no exception, and we're not talking about beauty and anti-aging use cases. We're talking about using such products for addressing medical issues affecting the skin.

Essential oils are an increasingly popular category of such "nature-based" products. For the vast majority of consumers, simply trying essential oil products aimed at resolving dermatologic issues has little downside (other than the costs). But for some, the use of essential oils on the skin may result in allergic reactions or a worsening of their condition – either due to natural disease progression if evidence-based treatment is delayed or a product-generated exacerbation of the symptoms.

Essential Oil Cautions for Treating Dermatologic Conditions

Here are some dermatologic conditions claimed to be treated by essential oils and why consumers should be cautious:

  • Acne
    Acne is the result of an over-production of oil and dead skin cells that causes clogged pores. Bacteria may also infect the plugged skin, resulting in inflammation. Essential oils including tea tree oil, frankincense, geranium oil, and those derived from citrus fruits are popular recommendations in alternative medicine. However, some of these oils can also worsen conditions such as rosacea, irritate the skin, and increase skin sensitivity to sunlight, making skin more prone to burn.
  • Eczema
    Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is a chronic skin condition in which patches of skin become rough to the touch, itchy, and inflamed in appearance. This happens because the skin fails to absorb moisture. Several essential oils are claimed to improve eczema and general skin irritations, including geranium oil, myrrh, and patchouli. One clinical study compared massage using essential oils and massage without, and found that both approaches led to improvements in many patients.
  • Psoriasis
    This is a chronic autoimmune skin disease that involves the increased production of skin cells, created skin thickening, flaking, and sometimes arthritic conditions in joints. Here again, many alternative medicine practitioners will recommend the popular tea tree, geranium, and frankincense oils to try, as well as lavender, claiming relief to inflamed skin. Essential oils are not recommended as a primary or first-line treatment option for psoriasis. No clinical research has studied the effectiveness of the approach, so success stories are largely anecdotal.
  • Rashes and Hives
    These skin conditions often emerge as an allergic reaction to either an environmental, topical, or ingested (food, medication) trigger. The essential oils you may see touted to help here due to their "natural antihistamine" properties include peppermint, lavender, lemon, myrrh, the ever-popular tea tree, and German chamomile. Here again, there have been no clinical studies to measure the effectiveness based on dose, product choice, and application method and frequency, so consumers are left to their own guesswork.

Why should consumers be cautious?

Most people can try the use of essential oils without experiencing negative side effects. Essential oils have not been tested in scientific clinical trials and are not regulated by the FDA for medical treatment of skin.

Advice on how much to use and how often vary wildly. Essential oils are highly concentrated and require dilution before application. But there is inconsistent guidance on the level of dilution, and the concentration of these oils can vary significantly across manufacturers. Then there is the question of application. Certain oils are safe to inhale through aromatherapy but can be severely damaging to the skin, such as citrus oils.

The bottom line is that these products are not likely to help treat a true dermatologic ailment – and instead, their use can delay proper treatment of the medical condition. Some products may also directly worsen or exacerbate the condition, even leading to new skin reactions. Non-prescribed products used in combination with other medications, particularly topical medications, can create new issues and/or lessen the effectiveness of prescribed medication.

Pregnant and Breastfeeding Women Should Never Use Essential Oils

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should never use essential oils due to their concentrations and un-researched potential side effects.

The best advice? Always consult with a professional, preferably a dermatologist, when considering a treatment for a skin condition. And if you are using such products already, please be sure to communicate that to your doctor so that they can evaluate your overall treatment plan.