Essential Oils For Skin Health

  • Jasmine Abdy Bachelor of Science - BSc, Medical Microbiology with a Year in Industry, University of Bristol

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Understanding our skin

Did you know that the skin is the human’s largest organ, serving as the most important mechanical barrier protecting us from the external environment? Our skin harbours numerous beneficial microbes which protect us from other harmful microorganisms with the potential to invade us. However, in the event of imbalances, stress, or skin trauma, such as a burn or a cut, the skin can become compromised, increasing the risk of unwanted microorganisms entering our body, and causing disease.

Essential oils, what they are, their importance, and uses

Essential oils are directly derived from plant extracts, such as flowers, seeds, and leaves, commonly used in cosmetics, fragrances, and the pharmaceutical industry. They are the most common natural products used medically since the history of man. Using essential oils to help preserve our skin barrier and fight skin infections has become more popular in the US and the UK in recent years over standard treatments, due to cost-effectiveness, lesser side effects and better patient acceptability because of its long history of use. Interestingly, complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) are commonly used in 60-80% of developing countries, being essential oils one of the most popular products used for skin health. On top of this, essential oils are the most popular choice when it comes to treating fungal skin infections!1 But how are essential oils helpful?

Although they all differ in their uses and properties, they are known for their anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and anti-microbial benefits. For this reason, they are vastly used to treat microbial infections caused by bacteria, fungi, and viruses, inflammatory skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis (AD) and psoriasis, and general skin health, like soothing wrinkles and scars.1

In this article, we will explore some skin conditions caused by microbes (like acne), other inflammatory skin conditions (like eczema) and other conditions affecting general skin health (like ageing). We will learn why these occur and the scientific evidence supporting the role of essential oils in fighting these conditions. The most important takeaway points in this article are that essential oils have excellent anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antimicrobial properties which can be as effective at treating skin conditions as some standard treatments, but further research is needed, and their usage should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

The importance of keeping our skin healthy and developing new antibiotics

Some common skin infections caused by invading microorganisms that you’ve probably heard of include cellulitis, impetigo, boils, folliculitis, ringworm, and acne. Many of these conditions are treated with antibiotics and antifungals, which are standard treatments that kill or stop the growth of the bacteria or fungus causing the infection. Nevertheless, in recent years, many microorganisms have learnt these are the treatments we use, and have developed resistance to them, making treatment challenging and often unsuccessful.

For this reason, the UN (United Nations) together with the World Health Organisation (WHO) have warned that antibiotic resistance (bacteria not responding to antibiotics) may cause up to 10 million deaths by 2050.2 Skin diseases are the most common of all human diseases, and affect 30-70% of the world’s population irrespective of age, culture, and region,3 according to WHO, medicinal plants could be the best source of new drugs that may combat antibiotic resistance, highlighting the importance of studying essential oils further.3

Tea tree oil, the star to treat skin microbial infections

Treating acne

Acne is a skin disease affecting 85% of people globally, characterised by skin lesions like blackheads, whiteheads, open and closed comedones, papules and cysts. Acne can have a negative psychological impact on the individual, being often associated with depression and social isolation.3 It is most often caused by bacteria that naturally reside on your skin. Although these bacteria are generally beneficial for you, they feed on the sebum (oil) produced by your skin and when your pores are clogged, they contribute to causing acne. This sebum keeps your skin moisturised and healthy. When your body produces too much sebum, Cutibacterium acnes bacteria feast on it and overproliferate, which results in inflammation and acne lesions (pimples).4

Different studies have shown essential oils applied on your skin can significantly reduce acne when compared to some standard treatments or using nothing at all. The essential oils included in these studies were Tea Tree oil, Ocimum gratissimum (Basil oil) and Copaiba oils. These oils significantly reduced acne severity and inflammation and the number of lesions on facial acne on the patients. This was attributed to the oils’ antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, suggesting they can be used as alternatives or as complementary treatments to reduce acne in some people. However, more studies are needed as these studies had small sample sizes (not tested on many people) and did not follow the same testing strategies, making conclusions and comparisons difficult.5

Decolonisation of methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)

Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a type of harmful bacteria with the potential to cause numerous diseases (for example lung infections or skin diseases) that has developed resistance to some widely used antibiotics (which normally kill bacteria).6 Research has shown that people that applied tea tree oil on their skin seemed to have reduced MRSA on their skin, which translated into these people having less MRSA-related diseases.5 Other studies have found that lavender oil and peppermint oil can be an effective treatment for MRSA and other antibiotic-resistant bacteria like some Enterococcus species.7

Treating topical fungal infections

Similarly, different studies have shown that using tea tree oil to treat skin fungal infections like Pityriasis versicolor, dandruff and athlete’s foot (by Tinea pedis) was as beneficial as using ketoconazole or butanafine (two commonly-used antifungal treatments).5 Other studies have shown that lavender oil, thyme oil and sage oil are also efficient antifungals, highlighting the effectiveness of essential oils at fighting pathogens.7

Essential oils to treat other skin inflammatory conditions

 Eczema or atopic dermatitis (AD)

Eczema or atopic dermatitis (AD) is a chronic inflammatory skin condition that affects 15 to 20% of children and 2.1 to 4.9% of adults worldwide. It is characterised by dry, inflamed skin which translates into visible oozing and weeping. Some oils with a scientifically proven role in reducing atopic dermatitis are Avena sativa (Oat Kernel oil), Aloe vera, Curcuma longa (Turmeric oil) and Matricaria chamomilla (Chamomile oil), which reduce inflammation and improve symptoms in patients with AD.3

 Psoriasis

Psoriasis is another inflammatory skin condition affecting 1-3% of people globally. It is caused by your immune system attacking your own skin by mistake. Most psoriasis patients have silver scales, red patches and itching, and some also have burning sensations.3 Some essential oils that have reported anti-psoriatic effects include Aloe barbadensis (Aloe vera oil), Fucus vesicolosus (Seaweed Absolute Oil), Glycyrrhiza glabra (Liquorice oil), Hypericum perforatum (St. John’s Wort oil) and Azadirachta indica (Neem oil). The underlying mechanisms behind their effectiveness are not entirely known but they are thought to be due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.3 For example, a study found that psoriasis patients who used a skin ointment of Propolis (a resin-like material made by bees) and Aloe vera oils in combination had significantly reduced psoriatic lesions.8

Essential oils for general skin health

Skin ageing

Skin ageing is a natural process characterised by cumulative changes in the structure of the skin, resulting in changes in appearance. Some characteristic changes include loss of skin elasticity, dryness, and wrinkling. Only 3% of skin ageing signs depend on internal factors, while the rest are due to factors like UV radiation, environmental toxins and smoking.3 Essential oils have an important role in preventing and minimising skin ageing, as research has found they stimulate collagen and elastin synthesis, proteins key for a youthful skin appearance. For example, Panax Ginseng essential oil stimulates microcirculation, provides moisturisation, alleviates wrinkles and fights free radicals, which are molecules that accelerate ageing. Other oils preventing skin ageing are Calendula officinalis (Calendula oil), Alpinia zerumbet (Shell Ginger oil) and Crocus sativus (Saffron oil), which stimulate the synthesis of hyaluronidase, key for skin moisture and elasticity.3

Skin cancer

Skin cancer is caused by the abnormal growth of skin cells, often triggered by mutations caused by excessive sun exposure, or UV radiation. Some essential oils that have been proven to contribute to reducing the risk of developing skin cancer as well as fighting it are Turmeric and Sandalwood essential oils. It is thought that they significantly inhibit an enzyme (cytochrome P450) whose overexpression in your skin cells (too much of this enzyme) can contribute to the development of skin cancer.3

How to use essential oils safely

 Although the oils mentioned in this article are generally safe to use, it is important to take some precautions before using them. Some tips are included below:

  • Always dilute essential oils with other oils before skin application. Applying pure essential oils on your skin can be irritating and cause skin damage. Always add a few drops (1 to 3 drops) of the essential oil to a carrier oil, like a nut oil (for example almond oil or coconut oil) and then apply on your skin. Some oils can clog pores and cause acne. Consider a light, non-comedogenic oil if you have acne-prone skin, like jojoba oil
  • Don’t dilute them with water. Water and oil don’t mix so you won’t be able to dilute them well together
  • Some oils come with associated risks. For example, bergamot and other citrus oils can make your skin more sensitive to the sun and therefore increase the chances of being sunburnt, while others may cause circulation problems if used too much, like anise oil. Always do your research or consult a healthcare professional before using them to treat any skin conditions
  • Always do a patch test. Try a small amount of the essential oil first (for example on your forearm) and let it sit for 24 hours to see if it causes any burning, irritation, or allergic reaction. For example, lavender oil contains common allergens that can cause rashes and irritation in some people. If you can’t see any redness, burn or irritation after 24 hours, you are not allergic, and that oil is safe to use9

 

Summary

Essential oils are aromatic, natural extracts coming from medicinal plant flowers, seeds, or leaves. Due to their anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, they have been used to treat disease for thousands of years. However, it is important to note their use is not commonly accepted by clinicians, and despite being generally safe to use, they may cause allergic reactions and toxicity. Topical applications of essential oils can however bring a multitude of benefits for skin health, as essential oils carry plant constituents that work together promoting skin barrier balance, fighting free radicals, reducing skin inflammation, killing pathogens, promoting wound healing and in general, slowing down aging and reducing the risk of developing cancer. Nevertheless, there is not strong evidence on their effectiveness treating or preventing disease over standard treatments. Although many studies have shown they help fight fungal infections and reduce acne and psoriatic lesions, further research is needed testing with more oils and more people. However, it is certain that they’re a great complement to standard treatments and are becoming more appealing for the general population due to their natural origin. In conclusion, although they can be highly beneficial, their use must be individually examined and consulted with a healthcare professional if used alongside other treatments to treat skin conditions.

References

  • Commercial Essential Oils as Potential Antimicrobials to Treat Skin Diseases [Internet]. [cited 2024 Feb 15]. Available from: https://www.hindawi.com/journals/ecam/2017/4517971/#acknowledgments
  • New report calls for urgent action to avert antimicrobial resistance crisis [Internet]. [cited 2024 Feb 15]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news/item/29-04-2019-new-report-calls-for-urgent-action-to-avert-antimicrobial-resistance-crisis
  • Maddheshiya S, Ahmad A, Ahmad W, Zakir F, Aggarwal G. Essential oils for the treatment of skin anomalies: Scope and potential. South African Journal of Botany. 2022 Dec 1;151:187–97.
  • Branch NSC and O. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. NIAMS; 2016 [cited 2024 Feb 16]. Acne. Available from: https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/acne
  • Deyno S, Mtewa AG, Abebe A, Hymete A, Makonnen E, Bazira J, et al. Essential oils as topical anti-infective agents: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 2019 Dec 1;47:102224.
  • General Information | MRSA | CDC [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2024 Feb 16]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/mrsa/community/index.html
  • Wińska K, Mączka W, Łyczko J, Grabarczyk M, Czubaszek A, Szumny A. Essential Oils as Antimicrobial Agents—Myth or Real Alternative? Molecules. 2019 Jun 5;24(11):2130.
  • El-Gammal A, Nardo VD, Daaboul F, Tchernev G, Wollina U, Lotti J, et al. Is There a Place for Local Natural Treatment of Psoriasis? Open Access Maced J Med Sci. 2018 May 18;6(5):839–42.
  • Sindle A, Martin K. Art of Prevention: Essential Oils - Natural Products Not Necessarily Safe. International Journal of Women’s Dermatology. 2021 Jun 1;7(3):304–8.

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Gabriel Aurelio Ortega Toledo

Immunology degree - Bsc (Hons), Immunology, Biology, The University of Edinburgh

Gabriel is a recent graduate with a BSc in Immunology from the University of Edinburgh. While his academic foundation lies in immunology, his professional focus has expanded into the domains of education, media, and science communications. Gabriel has actively participated in various facets of medical research, contributes to a biology podcast, and collaborates with an autoimmune disease charity as a patient interviewer. His enthusiasm for medical writing stems from a profound interest in healthcare science, a commitment to simplifying complex data, and a genuine passion for connecting with people.

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