Essential oils have recently become a beauty buzzword, but in reality, they’ve been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years. But in regards to your skin, some essential oils—when used correctly, which usually involves diluting them with a carrier oil—may have a multitude of benefits like soothing eczema and fading dark spots. When applied with the correct carriers, these oils might be more a natural way to decrease the appearance of stubborn hyperpigmentation through cellular regeneration without the chronic dryness, irritation, and sun sensitivity potentially caused by harsh chemicals.
"Many essential oils behave in similar ways in treating dark spots; they act as a gentle acid in removing the buildup of dead cells, which allows a fresh new layer of cells to take its place," explains Nava Greenfield, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City. "This results in the appearance of brighter and healthier skin."
There are purportedly over 90 essential oils with supreme health benefits in the world of aromatherapy. So, where do we start? To find out which ones work best on fading scars and discoloration, we reached out to Shrankhla Holecek, founder of Uma Oils, a luxe collection of organic face oils and wellness oils steeped in Ayurvedic tradition. She claims that these aromatic solutions can actually improve communication between your cells, which help strengthen and restore damaged skin, rather than simply treating symptoms or bleaching the spot like pharmaceutical drugs do.
Although, board-certified dermatologist and a member of Byrdie's Beauty & Wellness Review Board Morgan Rabach, MD, notes that there are no significant scientific trials that support the efficacy of treating dark spots with essential oils. However, she adds, "Individual people may find that these may be of benefit to them for healing hyperpigmentation."
Keep scrolling to learn the best essential oils to treat and diminish dark spots.
Tea Tree Oil
“Tea tree oil's fading superpowers come more from its ability to prevent and rapidly heal a blemish or wound, rather than a scar fading itself (although it does have minor resurfacing properties like a gentle acid)," Holecek explains. "It banishes bacteria associated with a blemish or skin tear, leading to faster healing. When you heal faster, you're less likely to develop a dark spot."
Howard Sobel, MD, founder of Sobel Skin, and attending dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York recommends swiping on tea tree oil with a cotton pad after cleansing and before heavy serums or moisturizers to "help eliminate dark spots and remove bacteria that cause breakouts."
Greenfield notes the role of a carrier oil goes beyond dilution. "The other way these treatments can work is through their carrier oils, which can function as both emollients and exfoliators on their own." Holecek suggests grapeseed as a carrier oil for blemish-prone skin.
Always patch test any new essential oils for skin irritations on your inner elbow 24 hours before intended use.
"Essential oils also have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, both of which will help the skin improve its pigmentation by encouraging the cells that drop the pigment to 'relax' and keep their pigment intact," explains Greenfield.
Calming lavender essential oil works to combat irritation and inflammation, according to Holecek, who says it helps settle the raised part of a blemish and speeds up the skin's repairing process. "The linalyl acetate, an ester naturally found in lavender, is anti-inflammatory and has a history in wound healing, leading to less scarring," she explains. "When it comes to carriers for lavender oil, I love pomegranate best because of its ultra-small molecules that penetrate the skin quickly, delivering potent nutrients. It feels and absorbs like a serum, but does everything (and more!) that a great oil would do.”
Treat very dry skin with lavender oil. Rabach suggests the oil for its conditioning properties.
Rabach suggests that geranium oil may work to heal damaged skin as a natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, while Holecek praises the oil for its host of other beneficial properties, “Geranium wields a natural astringent action, which calms redness, and is also deeply soothing and toning in nature," she says. "It also helps with better hydration retention in the skin, which always leads to an improved natural appearance of any scarring or hyperpigmentation. Pomegranate oil is a suitable carrier oil for geranium.”
Sobel suggests geranium oils for acne-prone and winter skin. "Best paired with other botanical oils, geranium helps to reduce the appearance of wrinkles while calming irritated spots and boosting naturally glowing skin," he says.
"Once known as 'liquid gold', frankincense oil works best for those with oily skin," Sobel explains. "Additionally, the oil has been known to prevent signs of aging, fade scars, and control acne."
Holecek also praises its ability to speed up cell turnover and strengthen the skin's elasticity, "Think of frankincense’s cellular regeneration properties like the qualities of traditional retinol, but without the drying, sun-sensitivity, or thinning of the skin many retinols cause.”
Dilute essential oils about six to 30 drops per ounce of carrier.
Citrus-derived essential oils like neroli (which comes from the flower of the orange tree), help aid in the absorption of vitamin C even though they don't actually contain any, says Holecek. "Vitamin C is one of those substances that, while widely regarded for its healing and scar-fading properties, is notoriously poorly absorbed," she adds. "So, to double up the action of your vitamin C serums, add neroli or juniper berry oil. Added bonus: the smell of neroli.” Rabach also notes the antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties of neroli, which may aid in the healing and protection of the skin.
Vitamin C is an essential nutrient required for the growth and repair of tissues in all parts of the body, including the skin, but we cannot produce it on our own. In skincare, it helps to boost collagen, lighten discoloration, and fight free radicals.
“Chamomile oil has a fantastic naturally-occurring ingredient called Azulene (also in Blue Tansy), which is highly reparative; it's calming and cell-renewing, so it helps fight damage," explains Holecek. "Azulene is a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, so it will prevent degradation of skin in times of stress, keeping it blemish and scar-free.” Azulene oil is also incredibly soothing and suitable for sensitive skin—which are likely the properties that come to mind with chamomile (think chamomile tea).
Clary Sage Oil
"Clary sage essential oil is an excellent option for oily skin because it has the unique properties of working with skin cells at the subdermal layer to regulate sebum production naturally," says Holecek. "Clary sage is a very elegant and deeply therapeutic solution to oily skin because of its unique moderation properties. Since blemish-prone skin tends to develop more scarring, this is a wonderful preventative essential oil to add to your skincare routine.”
Curcumin, the main active in turmeric, is a powerful anti-inflammatory. "Ayurvedic practitioners have used it [turmeric] in skincare for evening out the complexion, preventing acne and blemishes, as well as hyperpigmentation," Holecek says. "It is believed to moderate the excess melanin production that often is the cause for dark spots.” Turmeric is also known to work well as an antibacterial, anti-parasitic, and antifungal.
According to Holecek, rosemary essential oil enhances circulation. "It is also a disinfectant, so it will help prevent bacterial growth that can lead to scar-creating blemishes," she continues. "Its phytonutrients are believed to also fight free radical-related damage and hyperpigmentation.”
Sobel praises rosemary oil for its pore-clearing and acne-reducing abilities in oily skin as well as its reinvigorating, anti-aging properties that give the skin a "youthful glow."
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