Essentially

My skin care routine was changed forever about a year and a half ago, when I started using this one product. It’s customized to my skin, provides everything from acne prevention to moisturization to makeup removal, and I’m the only person who has a bottle. That’s because it’s homemade by my mom. It’s a face oil, a concoction of essential oils blended with a base oil that makes my skin look and smell amazing. My mom became really interested in essential oils back in 2012, when I was a junior in high school. She started using them for aromatherapy purposes, offering a cotton ball doused with a few drops of peppermint essential oil instead of the usual Vicks chest rub for clogged sinuses. Today, she has a drawer full with dozens of essential oils, and she makes everything from hand salve to lip balm.

The popularity of essential oils has surged in recent years. According to a 2016 report by Grand View Research, the trend will continue: the global essential oil market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 8.6 percent from 2015 to 2022.

Emily Kanter, 31, is the co-owner of Cambridge Naturals, one of Boston’s primary spots to shop for essential oils. Though the store, which opened in 1974, has been selling essential oils for decades, they haven’t always sold so well. “It was a small percentage of the population that knew what they were and how to use them,” says Kanter, “and we’re seeing much more interest now.”

Margaret Clark is the founder and president of Nature’s Gift, a company that has been selling essential oils online since 1995, and an expert who has been formally studying the uses of essential oils for years, though it began as a hobby for her.

Clark’s highest-selling oil is the Bulgarian Lavender, while Kanter’s is the Cambridge Naturals brand French Lavender. “It’s extremely versatile,” say Kanter. “It’s excellent especially for stress and for relaxation, for sleep. It has benefits for skin and hair. So it’s a very frequently used essential oil.” In addition to smelling amazing, lavender oil can even help with migraines and menstrual cramps.

Other top sellers are tea tree oil, peppermint oil, lemon oil, and rosemary oil. For every ailment, there are essential oils that can be beneficial, according to Clark and Kanter. Here’s a quick starter’s guide:

  • Skin balancing: Rose, Frankincense, Chamomile, Lavender, and Helichrysum.
  • Acne: Tea Tree, Lavender, Chamomile
  • Stress relief: Lavender, Citrus, Petitgrain, Peppermint
  • Injuries: Kunzea ambigua, Tea Tree
  • Antimicrobial: Thyme, Eucalyptus, Peppermint

These oils overlap, with multiple benefits, so it’s also important to consider what works for you. “I think a lot of people get really hung up on what the specific medicinal or studied purpose of an essential oil is,” says Kanter, “and I think there’s some value in choosing essential oils based on what smells really good to you.” Depending on the purpose you’re using an essential oil for, you will have likely have to smell it all day, so it’s a good idea to use one which makes that a pleasant experience.

The other important way to ensure a pleasant experience with essential oils is to make sure you dilute them. Although some companies capitalizing off the current trend claim that their oils don’t need to be diluted, it’s unlikely that that’s true. “We have learned that any oil used undiluted can cause lifelong sensitization, a type of allergy,” says Clark.  Although some are lucky and have used undiluted oils directly without problems, “You do not know which time you use it will trigger a sensitization reaction.  Once that happens, you will never be able to use that oil, or oils with similar constituents again.”

According to Clark, it was common teaching that tea tree and lavender oil were fine to use undiluted, but today’s research suggests otherwise. Generally, essential oils should be diluted with a base carrier oil - a vegetable oil derived from the fatty portion of a plant. That sounds a little gross, but carrier oils can be beneficial to skin as well. For example, Clark suggests hazelnut oil as a base for oily skin.

“Jojoba oil is a really nice, neutral, and relatively cost-effective oil to dilute them in,” says Kanter. “And it’s actually excellent for skin as well, so it makes a nice body oil, massage oil, et cetera.” Jojoba is one of the most popular carrier oils, but if you are creating a blend it’s a good idea to look into the carrier oil that would work best for what you’re making.

And as Kanter suggests, it’s important to do research when shopping for essential oils, as well. Before buying, look into the company and their practices. But don’t believe everything you read on the internet - some companies are spreading misinformation. “A lot of brands say that you can take essential oils internally,” says Kanter, “but to the best of our research, that’s actually not true by and large, and I caution people in doing that. That’s something we never recommend to our customers.”

Both Kanter and Clark caution against multi-level marketing companies, many of which have made quite a name for themselves in the industry. “There are companies who have jumped into ‘the essential oil craze’ looking for a quick profit,” says Clark, “and there are suppliers who have been doing this for years because it is their passion. I try to find out how long the company has been in business, the background and training.  If they are not willing to share that information, I move on.”

When shopping, Clark says there are basics which should always be on the label: common name, Latin name, country of origin, part of plant used, and how it was grown (organic, wild harvested, conventional). She says oils should be packaged in colored glass with safety caps and orifice reducers. “And beware of prices that are too good to be true,” says Clark. “Rose Oil and Sandalwood can not sell for the same price as Tea Tree or Orange.

That said, there are cost-effective companies which sell good quality products. Kanter recommends Aura Cacia and Vitruvi when shopping with cost and quality in mind, as well as the Cambridge Naturals brand, which partners with a company called Vitality Works to produce its own essential oils. “We’ve been to some of the farms that they work with, the biodynamic and organic farms in New Mexico. We trust them implicitly for their quality and the creativity and expertise they put into making their products in general,” says Kanter. “It makes it affordable for our customers, and it’s nice because it has our label on it.” As for higher end labels, Cambridge Naturals also carries products from Snow Lotus and Simpler’s Botanical. These companies, like Nature’s Gift, offer more unique and less-known oils like holy basil, bergamot, and blue tansy. “If you’re really excited about essential oils, it might be worth it and you might find some great uses for them,” says Kanter.

Photo by: Soleil Hyland