Why Cleansers With Essential Oils Don't Work on Combination Skin

Updated 07/20/18
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Not going to name names, but for so long I was relying on a generous blend of essential oil–based cleansers for my skin. Interestingly enough, a few days would pass by, and I'd be left with unwanted pimples. I completely overhauled my skincare routine, replaced and swapped products with others that I knew for sure weren't the culprits, and everything boiled down to my cleanser. Aren't botanic essential oils supposed to be healthy for my skin? I thought. I was perplexed that my skin had such an immediate reaction to these earth-friendly ingredients.

The New York Times was spot-on with the cause of this problem: "Found in an array of farm-to-bottle, natural lines, [essential oils] are often touted as being pure and beneficial for one's complexion," The New York Times states. "[Skincare specialist Kristina Holey] found the opposite to be true. … Some constituents of certain essential oils, like those in bergamot, are transformed into chemicals and enzymes when exposed to sunlight, which can induce a photo-allergic response," Holey tells The New York Times.

Moreover, she says the volatile compounds in essential oils often disrupt the microbiome, or healthy flora, of the skin—weakening its protective abilities. Among sensitive types, this can be enough to trigger flare-ups and, as Holey witnessed, "an exponentially rising rate" of reactions. All in all, not all essential oils are created equal.

To delve into this even further, I reached out to skincare specialist Suzanne LeRoux, who also happens to be the founder of One Love Organics, along with Cindy Bae, MD, of Laser Skin Surgery to explain what exactly is it in essential oils that could harm the skin. Read on for a comprehensive analysis. 

Essential Oils Can Clog Your Pores

According to LeRoux, there are three main reasons essential oils can clog your pores: "One, you might have a skin allergy or sensitivity to a common essential oil," explains LeRoux. "Two, the company's cleanser might contain essential oils that are not particularly good for the skin. Not all essential oils are ideal for topical facial applications. Third, the essential oils used could potentially be oxidized, which will cause peroxides to develop by-products that can cause disintegration and irritation.

Essential oils have to be fresh, properly preserved against oxidation and used correctly during manufacturing processes to protect them from oxidation."

Bae points out an extra step you can take if you are using an essential oil–based cleanser to lower the chances of breaking out. "Sometimes using oils on the face can cause breakouts in some patients," explains Bae. "Furthermore, if you are acne-prone and not exfoliating, that can also contribute to the problem, so in that case, it would be user error. I employ a double-cleansing method in which I follow my oil cleanser with another cleanser to ensure any residual product is removed."

Particular Essential Oils Are More Pore-Clogging Than Others

"Generally, mineral oil is not recommended for acne-prone skin," explains Bae. "Residual vitamin E and coconut oil can also lead to breakouts, as coconut oil may be comedogenic." 

LeRoux reiterates the importance of essential oil and its quality. "If an essential oil is rancid, diluted, or of very poor quality, that could potentially breakouts."

How Much Is Too Much Essential Oil in a Cleanser?

"I typically include no more than 0.03% to 0.15% of essentials oils in any one product," says LeRoux. "It really depends on if it is a face or body product. Your body skin is a little bit thicker and needs more concentration sometimes. But a little goes a very long way with a powerful ingredient like essential oils." 

"It depends on the formulation," explains Bae. "Some people use tea tree oil to treat acne, and while it's a small percentage, some people have a sensitivity to it and it can manifest skin lesions that appear like acne. Also, if you're overusing certain oils without fully understanding their properties, you can upset your skin barrier and lead to inflammation and acne. Try one product at a time. If you react, eliminate all the new products and use gentle products like Cetaphil and add back one product one week at a time to ensure your skin can tolerate it.

More isn't always necessarily better."

Expert-Recommended Gentle Cleansers, Plus a Few Byrdie Favorites

Vitamin B Enzyme Cleansing Oil
One Love Organics Vitamin B Enzyme Cleansing Oil $42
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"It cleanses without stripping, leaves your skin soft and glowy, and has wonderful aromatherapy benefits that will have you looking forward to washing your face" explains LeRoux. 

Gentle Skin Cleanser
Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser $9
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"[Cetpahil] is a brand known for being hypoallergenic. Many of its products are fragrance-free and gentle enough to use for all skin types without stripping the skin of its natural oils," recommends Bae. 

Purity Made Simple Cleanser 8 oz
Philosophy Purity Made Simple Cleanser $24
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This gentle blend of hydrating ingredients will cleanse and tone your skin in one simple step. 

Green Clean Makeup Meltaway Cleansing Balm with Echinacea GreenEnvy(TM) 1.7 oz/ 50 mL
Farmacy Green Clean Makeup Meltaway Cleansing Balm $34
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This cleansing balm from Farmacy will thoroughly remove makeup from the most sensitive areas of your face, like your eyes, with no irritation because it's formulated with the cleanest ingredients. 

Cleanser 0.7 oz/ 20 mL
Eve Lom Cleanser $80
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Loved by Byrdie's senior editor, Hallie Gould, Eve Lom's hardworking balm cleanses, exfoliates, and simultaneously smoothes your skin. 

Beste(TM) No. 9 Jelly Cleanser 5 oz/ 150 mL
Drunk Elephant Beste Jelly Cleanser $32
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Free of all essential oils, this jelly-textured cleanser is blended with makeup-removing emollients that'll take away every trace of makeup and nourish the skin.

Coconut Cleansing Oil 5.1 oz/ 150 mL
Kopari Coconut Cleansing Oil $32
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This vegan, coconut oil–infused cleanser has the power to cleanse and soften your skin without clogging your pores or stripping away too much of your natural oils. 

You can depend on these to do the job done without any adverse effects.

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