About two years ago, the San Francisco skin-care specialist Kristina Holey noticed a dramatic spike in patients all suffering from red, inflamed skin. Sensing a pattern, Holey — who studied cosmetic chemistry and plant science — delved into their beauty routines and found that many reactions could be traced back to one type of ingredient: essential oils. While these potent, highly active oils — found in an array of farm-to-bottle, natural lines — are often touted as being pure and beneficial for one’s complexion, 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,” she explains. Moreover, Holey 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.
Inspired to find a solution, Holey teamed up with the veteran chemist Marie-Veronique Nadeau last year to create a line of reparative serums that’s now being expanded in October to include a purifying cleanser, a balancing tonic, a moisturizing complex and a nourishing mask, all completely free of essential oils. Instead, the duo selects biomimetic ingredients, or those organically found in skin, to promote healing. The process is, according to Holey, “based on the assumption that it’s their lack that’s the source of the imbalance.”
It’s a radical idea that’s catching on among other natural beauty advocates, and giving rise to an “anti” or “alternative” essential oil movement. Peet Rivko, a fledgling “zero irritant” plant-based line, for example, eschews essential oils (along with nut oils, floral extracts and other sensitizing ingredients) in everything from the company’s gentle cleanser to daily moisturizer. Hamburg, Germany-based Less, meanwhile, offers hyper-edited, e.o.-free basics including a washing clay cleanser and two facial oils (for dry or oily skin) made with only five ingredients to minimize irritation. Also launching this month: Dara’s Oil, a no-essential-oil remedy that Nadeau mixed up for Dara Kennedy, the founder of Ayla, a nontoxic beauty shop in San Francisco, to calm her reactive skin. It worked so well that Kennedy decided to make it a permanent addition to her boutique.
Still, not everyone considers essential oils the root of all skin-care evil. With their small molecule size, these oils quickly penetrate, delivering high levels of nutrients. But in order to reap the benefits without the risk, Holey says any product should be “formulated by someone with a working understanding of essential oil chemistry.” Kirsten King, founder of Oille, is one such expert setting a new standard.
“At least 95 percent of essential oils are adulterated with cheaper, oxidized oils or mixed with alcohol or turpentine to increase volume for profit,” King notes, which could impact a product’s performance and lead to reactions. A certified clinical aromatherapist, she utilizes the same kind of technology normally used in forensic toxicology, to test the base essential oils in her grooming range for 100-percent purity. After debuting this summer, the brand quickly sold out of its watermelon and sea salt organic facial milk. Up next month: a collection of three dry clay masques that, when activated with water, help to reset and balance your skin.
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