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What Lurks Beneath Essential Oils: Skin Irritation

By Guan Tan

Felicia Yap

One Thursday evening this month, I sat down with an ex-colleague as she shared with me her journey with essential oils. She brandished a grey toiletry bag. In there was a mix of used and new glass bottles with white plastic caps, neatly arranged in sequence. She speaks of the oils in endearing terms, like they were prized possessions. Of course, these oils do not come cheap. They cost anywhere between S$18 and S$404 for a 5ml or 15ml bottle. To her, these can be applied to the skin, like a topical ointment. It's almost an alternative to western medicine. "Main thing is to avoid modern medication. Instead of taking panadol, you use the organic alternative. 'Thieves' is my panadol – makes my sinus problem better," she shyly laughs. 'Thieves' is one of the American company, Young Living's signature essential oils. 

She quickly directed me to the person who introduced her to the world of essential oils. From what she knows, her referee used to be an active member of the local Young Living distribution network. When new users buy the oils from this referee, she earns a small cut of the price. 

Her name is Maisyruah and she's a mother of two. She came to use essential oils  "through my friend... when I struggled with my first child". 

Maisyruah "used oils on my babies as little as they were just born... I apply the oil on them, massage them," she continues. The use of essential oils extends to her domestic life. "We use oils every day in our life, from applying [to] our body, to brushing our teeth and even household cleaning." 

Maisyurah says she is a "big believer [and] user in natural remedies... Natural remedy has been something that I go to and preferred since young. I don't like the smell of western medicinal drugs and preferred anything that's herb-y, even Chinese Sinseh and Malay Jamu tastes and smells better to me." 

In fact, what Maisyurah said outlines the foundations of the meteoric rise of essential oils in Singapore. Young Living launched in Singapore in 2011. Since then, they have grown by 100 to 150 percent in revenue. 

"The opportunity was great... In Singapore, probably people are very knowledgeable about natural remedies. You have the Chinese medicine and traditional Indian herbs and other alternatives," an olive-skinned lady by the name of Karen Cornejo, country manager of Young Living Singapore chirps.

Asian societies like Singapore are fertile ground for companies that propose alternative remedies. Take the three major races of Singapore's population for instance – Traditional Chinese Medicine and herbology dates back to "more than 2,500 years"; Jamu, or herbal medicine from indigenous Indonesia reaches back to the 1600s; Indian Ayurveda traces back to the "2nd Century BC". Alternative medicine is a deep-seated value in these communities. When essential oils penetrated the local market, marketed as alternative medicine, consumers hopped on board readily, like the ex-colleague and Maisyurah.

Now that essential oils are widely used by local consumers – many of them applying it topically for health and wellness purposes – are there possible ramifications to the skin? Is it advisable to apply it to the skin, to children, or to consume it with water and food? Yes, of course the company and its independent distributors will say. Yet, what consumers have been hearing are but marketing content. 

In a short interview with dermatologist Dr Wong Su-Ni, she explained what essential oils are. "Essential oils are highly concentrated aromatic oils. Natural essential oils are extracted from plants, while synthetic essential oils are a mixture of aromatic chemicals, usually byproducts of petroleum."

Even with the supposedly "better" and "safer" natural essential oils – not referring to any brand  – Wong stands by discerning consumption. "Natural essential oils are often marketed as being safer than synthetic oils. However, allergy, irritation and burns can still occur with natural essential oils," she adds.

Felicia Yap

In Wong's practice, she's observed a trend. Patients are coming to her with essential oils related skin conditions. "As more people read about the benefits of essentials and products containing essential oils, [and as] essential oils themselves become widely available in stores or online, it is inevitable that exposure and allergic sensitisation increases in the population." 

What Wong observed are both visible skin reactions and non-visible skin conditions. "It may be obvious such as a localised rash after direct application of essential oil on the skin, or insidious such as chronic eyelid eczema from allergy to hydroxycitronellal present in eye creams and facial products." Hydroxycitronellal, Wong explains, is a compound present in Ylang Ylang, Lemongrass and Lavender oils. By chronic eczema, it refers to long-term, recurring inflammation, blisters and itching of the eyelid.

With babies, toddlers and children, Wong does not recommend topical application of essential oils, "as their skin is thinner and the essential oils may penetrate more easily, resulting in higher risk of irritation or allergy." 

She went on to explain that users may dilute their oils prior to direct application on the skin – a common practice. "However, allergic sensitisation can still occur at low concentrations, especially when used regularly over long periods of time, and particularly if the skin is more permeable than usual, for example, thin skin, dry cracked skin, after a bath, [and] under occlusion." She then stresses, "One thing to note is that fragrance allergy, once sensitised, is lifelong."

On the internet is a wealth of testimonies from consumers who've had essential oils-induced skin irritation and reactions. In May, Elise Nguyen posted graphic images of her blisters and skin burns – a result of topical essential oils application. She was using an oil from an American company, doTerra. Later in November, a similar series of images surfaced on Facebook. Emily Smith's face was severely burnt by the patchouli oil she diffused at home. 

On cosmetics e-commerce websites like iHerb.com, sharp users will spot accounts of skin reactions such as this, "I used this one on my face and my skin broke out in dermatitis. Now let me say, it may not be the product/ brands' fault, as I read that your skin can suddenly have a reaction to tea tree oil even after using it for years." 

It is exactly like what doctor Wong explained earlier, that even when applied in lower dosages, essential oils may culminate in skin sensitisation and allergies in the long-run. 

Back in the Young Living Singapore office, I asked Cornejo, the country manager, for a comment regarding these essential oils-induced irritations and burns. She leaned forward and tilted her head curiously. I quoted an article titled "Skin Care's Backlash Against Essential Oils" and explained the contents to her – that essential oils may cause skin irritations to some extent. 

"I have not heard of that backlash," Cornejo snaps. Yet, on her company's website, products are listed with health warnings that go, "Possible skin sensitivity". Surely, the company must be aware of the potential skin irritations and reactions that will occur with use. How does this add up? 

There is a gap between marketing and the scientific. The truth is, essential oil companies like Young Living and doTerra – both active in Singapore – partially operate on multi-level marketing schemes. Like Cornejo said, these independent distributors are often consumers. They are marketing products from their little knowledge. There lurks a health risk when cosmetic, health and wellness or alternative medicine products are retailed by untrained consumers. Why not leave it to the professionals?