Article by: Perry Romanowski

Here was a question sent in by our readers about formulating with essential oils.

I’m not a chemist but I have been formulating cosmetic products for my wife for a short time and have been getting a lot of information from Paula Begoun. I recently ran across some critiques of Paula and wondered if you could shed some light on her opinions from a Chemists point of view.  Paula is very much against using most essential oils in cosmetic products and she cites various studies to back up her opinion. My question is, regarding essential oils, is Paula interpreting the evidence correctly?

I’ve looked very hard to find a Chemists point of view on her opinions but all i can find are people who sell essential oils complaining about her. Is there a consensus view in the scientific community on Paula Begoun?

Here is a link to her websites article on Lavender oil.

Your website looks to be a great source of information and Im very glad i found it. I’ve just started exploring it and so far it’s already been a great help.

Thank you for the service you are providing.


Your question is a little bit complicated to answer directly because I don’t exactly know what you are really asking. If you want to know whether essential oils safe to use in cosmetics? The answer is yes. They are safe to use. Paula seems to suggest they aren’t or perhaps that they shouldn’t be used because of what they can do to skin.

There are certainly reasons for concern. The primary problem is that essential oils contain ingredients to which some people will experience allergic reactions. If you are a person who reacts to those ingredients then you should avoid those essential oils in your products. However, only about 4% of the population show any allergic reaction to ingredients in essential oils so most people don’t have to worry about it.

Benefits of essential oils

But the more important question is whether essential oils have any added benefit in cosmetic. They are used to create fragrances and they are good for that. But for skin, essential oils do not provide a superior moisturizing benefit than standard ingredients like mineral oil or petrolatum. From a formulation standpoint the only reason to put essential oils into a formula (if not for fragrance reasons) is for marketing reasons. To do this, you create a standard skin lotion then put a tiny amount of the essential oils in the formula so you can call it out on the package. It will have no effect on the formula but is compelling to consumers. Essential oils used in this way are perfectly safe.

So, I don’t know if I answered your question but hopefully, you found the opinions of a formulator useful.

Perry, 44



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    Hi Perry… how many percents of essential oils do you recommend?

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      Perry Romanowski

      That depends on the type of product you are trying to make. What are you using the essential oil for?

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        for lubricant gels that essential oils like black pepper (power max) and clove flavor (for numbing) are active ingredients…

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    Hi Perry,
    Thanks for an interesting and informative discussion.

    “Unfortunately, essential oils which often contain these same allergens are not required to list according to these regulations.”

    I live in Sweden and I have been in contact with swedish regulatory to ask how to label products with essential oils. Please correct me if I understood it wrongly. As far as I understood, if essential oils were used in a product they have to be in the label. Furthermore, the 26 allergens should be specified in the label if they exceed certain concentration in a product (0.01% in wash-off and 0.001% leave on products). Sweden follows EU regulations which says that these allergens have to be mentioned in the label above these concentrations. Furthermore, some essential oils (e.g. cedarwood oil) are also listed as ingredients that has to be in the label above a certain concentration.

    How would that be any different from labelling fragrance mixtures which are only labeled: Fragrance (Parfum) and specifying the potenial allergen content?

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      Perry Romanowski

      I am not an expert on EU labeling regulations so I don’t really know. But if your description is correct, there is no difference between labeling of fragrances and essential oils. Both would require you to label what it is (essential oil or fragrance) and any allergens they might contain.

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    Giovanna Dal Bom

    So adding essential oils to formulations won’t bring any benefits other than fragrance ?
    What about products that use tea tree oil to dry pimples, Camomile oil to soothe, etc. Is it all marketing game or EOs can bring effects/benefits to the skin?

    Thank you for your work with this site, it’s my absolute necessary daily read. I bought your book for the series you are running on becoming a better Cosmetic Chemist and I’m loving it.


    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      “So adding essential oils to formulations won’t bring any benefits other than fragrance ?” – Probably not. It would be very difficult to demonstrate a difference.

      Tea tree oil has been demonstrated to be an antimicrobial compound but it hasn’t been proven to effectively treat acne. The word “soothe” is vague and has so many meanings it would be difficult to answer whether camomile “soothes”. If you mean moisturize skin, camomile may have a small effect but not nearly as effective as other moisturizers like glycerin, petrolatum or mineral oil.

      EO’s and other natural ingredients in cosmetics are nearly all part of the marketing game.

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    Danai Anto

    Hello everyone,i just found your website and im really excited!
    I’m studing chemistry in Greece and im currenty doing my final paper in lavender ess.oil for my degree.I have some questions for the extraction of the ess.oil.
    According to europeian pharmacopeia the proper way to extract the ess.oil is by a clevenger type apparatus or steam distillation.In the lab we don’t have either of these types and i did a sipmle distillation(water-lavender) and then fractional distillation.Do you believe that i would experience any problem with the extracted ess oil? The purpose of my paper is to compare the quality/quantity and authenticity of the ess,oil to those that are availiable in the market (both expensive and cheap ones).
    I hope that someone can give an answer to my problem.thank you.

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    I’ve been very interested in formulating natural cosmetics, and I am “extremely grateful” of your website. Thank you very much for sharing your experience.


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    Hi Perry,

    I’d be super interested to hear your thoughts! For me when I formulate, I like to leave additives that aren’t designed for the absolute benefit of skin, out. That includes EO’s, fragrance, colorants etc. EO’s being a natural mix, have so many different components to them, is it not about isolating the ‘active’ part? For example Chamomile EO, Bisabolol is that active and you can purchase this as an ingredient without the risk of fragrance irritation or allergic reactions. Also similar for Rosemary EO, I read there is evidence for anti-oxidant & anti-bacterial effect, killing bacteria by defeating their cell way (would this also not kill good flora?), but you can now purchase an antioxidant version with the beneficial antioxidant phenolic compounds to limit irritancy and allergenic potential…

    I also have a little part of me inside that feels uncomfortable with EO’s and fragrance as they are mostly ‘solvent’ like in nature. Meaning they will penetrate through/defeat/alter skins protective sebum layer. Especially a concern for people with dry skin… penetration enhancers like oleic acid etc feel much more comfortable because they work with the skins natural oily structure…

    Would love to hear your thoughts!


    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      You’re right to be concerned about EO’s as you never know what is the exact composition and you would be better off using the isolated, effective ingredients. I wouldn’t worry so much about the problem of penetration. EO’s and fragrances still mostly do not penetrate skin.

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    I’ve been making CP soap and cosmetics for a couple years now and prefer EOs, but you are correct, they don’t add moisturising properties to a cream. They are more used to treat certain skin ailments like rashes, dry patches etc (being a direct from nature pharmaceutical). I wouldn’t use them in makeup. EO useage rates are very low and even without reactions they are just a bit – how do I say – not right on the face. There is a definite trend towards lipbalms with EOs – I don’t agree on the safety aspect there – the skin is too delicate. Plus I don’t know if you have noticed but EOs taste pretty vile! Best to mix for perfumes – but even saying that there are contra-indications with some.

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      Perry Romanowski

      Thanks for your comments. I would only add that if EO’s actually were able to treat skin ailments like rashes they would be considered drug actives and be illegal to use in cosmetics.

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        Leigh Sawicki

        I think the fine line here is whether or not you are using EO’s as a natural/organic scent or as a therapeutic value (To treat any kind of condition). I use organic essential oils for a scent in my body washes and body butter at 2% or less, thereby adding the value of an organic scent.

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    As a formulator who uses both essential oils and fragrance oils in my products, I’d like to address this question from a fragrance standpoint, and respond to Paula’s article using lavender as an example.

    First, I’d like to point out that there is potential for allergic reaction to fragrance oils also. They may contain allergens of many sorts. Plus essential oils or their components are often used as ingredients in fragrance oils. For example, linalool and linalyl acetate are isolated from essential oil in a lab and used in various fragrance oils. Those constituents are very commonly used in high grade perfumes. And lavender is not the only essential oil that contains linalool and linalyl.

    Fragrance oil producers are not required to disclose the ingredients of their fragrance oils. This further complicates things. There may be more dangerous ingredients, or higher concentrations of linalool and linalyl in fragrance oils than there are in essential oil. We just don’t know and they don’t have to tell us.

    The species and cultivar of lavender used to make the essential oil also affects the amount of linalyl and linalool contained in the oil. There are more species of lavender than Paula mentions in her article. Some cultivars (considered more desirable) contain upwards of 15% linalyl and linalool in their essential oil, most are under 10%. Either way, by the time the eo is used at +/- 1% in a formula – it’s extremely diluted.

    Knowing that and using that information are two different things as most lavender essential oil does not disclose species or cultivar. And I have never seen it come with testing paperwork that identifies % of constituents. Testing is expensive and most producers don’t test very often, if at all. Even if they do test a batch, the next batch would be different. There are factors besides cultivar that effect the constituents, like weather, ripeness, amount of debris in the still (stems/leaves etc), right down to the time of day it was harvested. I learned what I know from extensive research and testing at my own expense.

    Another complication is that many essential oils are adulterated. Some producers in France are known to add linalyl and linalool to their essential oil in order to garner a higher price. Some imported oil from other parts of the world, like China and Bulgaria, are known to dilute their essential oil with a small percentage of carrier oil to stretch it. Then you have resellers who sell products as essential oil that have been diluted in a carrier oil by up to half or more. Still smells great but is not suitable for formulation. They also are known to blend oils. Because there is no regulation, you can legally call all of those variations essential oil. Technically I think you could call a synthetic fragrance essential oil – but I don’t think there are many taking it that far. I would not be surprised if some are blending some fo in their eo though.

    Paula lumps “oil” and “extract” in the same article, but they are two very different things. For “oil” I assume she is referring to essential oil, not an infused oil. For lavender, the extraction of essential oil is a steam distillation process that extracts the essential oil from the plant material. Extract is an infusion of plant material in alcohol and primarily used for flavor, not fragrance. The extract would likely contain very little, if any, linalool and linalyl. It is kind of confusing, as both are processes of extraction, but the end result is not the same product.

    Bottom line is that there are many, many opinions out there. Personally, I’m more concerned about what might be in a fragrance oil than I am about what I’m pretty sure is in an essential oil. That is after I’ve vetted my source for essential oil as legit. We actually distill some essential oil ourselves, including lavender. I find that most of my customers feel the same way and that most of the custom products we formulate specify essential oil for fragrance.

    Good luck to you as you continue with your formulation decisions.

    1. Avatar
      Perry Romanowski

      Thanks for your comments. I don’t really see how the labeling requirements for fragrance is any different than those for essential oils. Essential oil producers are also not required to list all of their ingredients. For example, as you say lavendar oil contains linalool and linalyl but they aren’t required to list those on the ingredient list. Fragrances however, are required (at list in the EU & most US companies do it) to list any of the 26 known allergens. So if the fragrance has linalool in it, you will find that listed on the ingredient list. This number of compounds is actually going up to over 90 in the coming years so ingredient lists may start to get much longer. Unfortunately, essential oils which often contain these same allergens are not required to list according to these regulations.

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        Leigh Sawicki

        Great response Marilyn, and as a personal therapeutic user of essential oils, I completely agree with you regarding the essential oil. I use them therapeutically personally from a highly reputable company. For the body butters and body washes that I hand-craft, I will only use organic sources for scents.

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