Somewhere down the line, people began fearing ingredients in their cosmetics. It became a common rule of thumb to not use a product if you can’t identify all of the ingredients on the label. This has led to more and more people turning toward plant-based products in an attempt to use more “natural” ingredients, but not everything that comes from the ground is good for your body, and not everything made in a lab is bad for your body.
Don’t get it twisted, plants are great, and some plant ingredients do have benefits for your skin, but simply put, they’re not always the best choice for topical applications. These trending plant ingredients may work great for some individuals, and be detrimental to others, so let’s weigh the pros and cons of some of the most commonly used plant extracts in skin care.
Caution for Plant Ingredients
Generally speaking, there are some complications associated with using plant based ingredients on your skin.
Go outside and take a breath of fresh air, and you'll also get a lung full of pollen. If you’re prone to allergies you’ll likely sneeze uncontrollably or get itchy, red eyes. This is a plant allergy in action. If you go out for a picnic in a field without a blanket, and your legs start to itch and redden when they come in contact with the grass, that’s another plant allergy at work. Camping and hiking enthusiasts have all heard the mantra “if it’s three let it be” to avoid the blistering rash that results after touching poison ivy. Yep, also a plant allergy.
If we accept pollen allergies, itchiness from grass, and poison ivy rashes as negative plant interactions, we have to also consider the risks of using any plant extracts in skin and hair care products.
More than 50 million Americans struggle with allergies each year. Whether it’s an allergy to pollen that results in sneezing and watery eyes, a skin allergy that leads to outbreaks of rashes, or a food allergy that can cause anaphylaxis, plants are a common culprit.
You can also become sensitized to an ingredient over time which means your body becomes sensitive to a particular substance due to overexposure. As a result, you can develop symptoms of an allergy each time you come into contact with that same allergen.
The problem is that many of these plant allergies may go undiagnosed if they are not severe. When a rash or breakout comes along after trying a new product or ingredient, you may not be quick to attribute it to an allergic reaction and blame it on your skin itself. So the problem never gets solved, as you continue to use something you are allergic or sensitive to.
Being able to confidently shop for personal care products becomes difficult when multiple plant extracts are packed into one bottle, and you can't quite narrow down what is causing your allergy symptoms without seeking care from an allergist or dermatologist. Taking plant ingredients out of the equation can help limit the chance of a reaction.
Salicylates are a group of chemicals derived from salicylic acid which are found naturally in certain plants. If you have a salicylate intolerance, or you are abiding by Dr. St. Amand’s Guaifenesin Protocol, it’s necessary to avoid salicylates, and therefore a majority of plant extracts.
Essential oils have been used medicinally for centuries, and as the hype around natural, holistic living grows, they’re commonly being added to skin care, hair care, and toothpaste even though essential oils have shown to be damaging to the skin, especially sensitive skin, and they’re common allergens.
Many essential oils carry serious warnings due to their potency. Here are some examples of how much plant life you need to make a small standard 15 ml bottle of essential oil:
- 315 pounds of rose petals
- 30 pounds of lavender flowers
- 75 lemons
- 1 pound of peppermint plant
Essential oils are clearly very concentrated, so if you have any type of sensitivity to these plants, applying this much of it can be detrimental to your skin, especially when left undiluted. Since there aren’t FDA guidelines, essential oils do not always have instructions on how to properly dilute them for topical application, so misuse is common which puts people at even more of a risk for irritation and sensitization.
If you’re not careful in choosing your essential oil products, they could be less natural than you think. Essential oils have to be preserved to prevent oxidization, and many are distilled with harmful chemicals including acetone and formaldehyde, and essential oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so there’s no way of being sure that what you see is what you get.
Dermatologists tend to advise against essential oil usage in skin care products.
Pros and Cons of Common Plant Extract Ingredients
Not all plant ingredients are created equal. So let’s break down the individual pros and cons of some of the most commonly used plant extracts in health and beauty products.
Commonly used in aftersun products due to its anti-inflammatory, soothing, and refreshing properties, this cactus-like plant is generally accepted as safe for the skin. There are numerous purported benefits attributed to using aloe vera on the skin like acne relief, wound healing, and moisturizing.
There isn’t any conclusive research on the supposed benefits of aloe, and if you have a salicylate sensitivity, aloe contains salicylic acid so it’s best avoided.
Full of nutrients like fatty acids, beta carotene, and Vitamins A, B1, B2, D, and E. The combination of these nutrients makes avocado oil an antioxidant that helps prevent free radical damage, signs of aging, and sun damage. It’s also hydrating and easily absorbed, anti-inflammatory, and boosts collagen production and skin renewal.
Side effects from avocado oil are rare, but like with all plant extracts, avocado oil can cause allergic reactions and irritation in some people.
Anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties which can be beneficial for soothing symptoms of eczema and rashes, decreasing swelling, preventing stretch marks, reducing acne, and healing small wounds.
Once again, an allergy to calendula is possible, and its usage is advised against if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Antibacterial, astringent, and antioxidant properties can help reduce oil and acne.
In addition to sensitizing the skin, citrus oils, especially bergamot oil, may make skin more photosensitive (sensitive to the sun), and if not diluted properly they can cause chemical burns.
Because of its fat content, coconut oil is able to create a barrier to hold in hydration, making it an intense moisturizer, but it's best used on thicker areas of skin like your elbows, knees, and feet.
While it’s high in vitamin E and lauric acid, a fatty acid that has been shown to be anti-inflammatory, coconut oil is not an adequate solution for acne. Coconut oil is highly comedogenic which means it sits on top of the skin and clogs pores, which will lead to even more breakouts. The skin on your face is thinner and more prone to clogged pores and acne so save the coconut oil for baked goods.
Most studies on eucalyptus oil have been performed in lab settings and not on humans, but potentially, eucalyptus oil can help heal wounds and increase ceramide production to moisturize skin.
Few studies on eucalyptus oil have been done on humans so it’s potential benefits are purely anecdotal, but like with most essential oils, contact dermatitis, allergies, and sensitization (this basically means your skin will become increasingly sensitive and reactive to it over time) are all common.
Antioxidant content can help fade scars, has de-puffing abilities, and rejuvenates skin.
There are few known side effects of ginger unless an allergy is present.
Antioxidant that protects against environmental aggressors, reduces excess oil production, soothes the skin, and fights free radical damage which can help prevent signs of aging.
Suitable for most skin types including sensitive skin, unless you have a known allergy or sensitivity to it.
Rich in Vitamin E, antioxidants, and fatty acids, and easily absorbed, jojoba oil is one of the more suitable plant extracts for skin. It provides hydration, protection from free radicals, and may also help with acne.
There are not many side effects of jojoba oil usage unless a jojoba allergy is present.
Many people spritz lavender oil on their pillow before bed since it's been shown to improve sleep quality, it’s also anti-inflammatory and antibacterial making it an ingredient additive in acne products.
While it smells lovely, lulls you to sleep, and makes for a unique flavoring in artisanal lattes and ice cream, lavender should be kept far away from your skin. Typically used in skin care products as a natural fragrance or soothing anti-inflammatory ingredient, lavender can be detrimental to the skin because it contains geraniol, linalool, and linalyl acetate which are all common contact allergens and sensitizers.
Oats (Avena Sativa)
Oats are not only a healthy dietary staple, but they have been used topically for centuries to soothe skin conditions like eczema and provide antioxidants.
Read more about the benefits of oats in skin care products here.
There aren’t many risks or side effects associated with using oats in skin care, and oat allergies are not common.
One of the most popular plant extracts in skin care, rose oil is used in rosewater face sprays and toners to hydrate the skin, reduce acne and signs of aging, minimize scarring, and for its pleasant scent.
Rose oil is generally safe for the skin, but allergic reaction is not uncommon.
Can potentially calm inflammatory skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and acne.
Taking large amounts of rosemary (like that in undiluted essential oil) can cause vomiting, uterine bleeding, kidney irritation, increased sun sensitivity, skin redness, and allergic reactions.
Shea butter is moisturizing, easily absorbed, non-comedogenic, anti-inflammatory, and soothing for the skin, lips, and hair.
Those with tree nut allergies may be wary to use shea butter, but shea allergies are very rare so a trigger is unlikely.
Topical application of soybean oil has been used for moisturizing, anti-aging, and reducing hyperpigmentation, scars, and discoloration.
Soybean oil is generally rated safe, however, soybeans are often genetically modified so be on the lookout for non-GMO and/or organic sources of soybean oil.
It is also a common allergen so make sure to consult a doctor or conduct a patch test before using any product containing soybean oil.
Sunflower seed oil
Small studies have shown it improves skin barrier function and hydrates, and it’s lipid (Linoleic Acid) content may help replenish skin that’s irritated by SLS.
Those with seed and nut allergies should probably avoid sunflower oil.
Tea tree oil
One of the most popular essential oils used in skin care, tea tree oil is utilized for its anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties for acne treatments. If you’re going to use tea tree oil on your skin, it’s recommended you dilute it with another oil (a concentration of 2.5-10% is recommended) and use it sparingly as a spot treatment for breakouts.
Tea tree oil is a common cause of contact dermatitis, and it can be overly drying and sensitizing.
This bright yellow spice has been used in cuisine and herbal medicine for centuries. It contains curcumin which is an antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties, so it can help limit inflammation from eczema, psoriasis, and acne, and add a natural glow to the skin.
Other than the typical allergy warning with plant extracts, turmeric doesn’t have many risks. Except for the fact that it stains. Everything. So be careful not to overdo it on your DIY turmeric face mask, you could end up tinted yellow.
Witch hazel has become a cult favorite toner used for controlling oil, treating acne, and tightening pores amongst other things. It has high levels of the potent antioxidant, tannin, which compress the proteins in skin, which is what leads to the reduction of moisture and tightening of pores.
Alcohol is frequently added to witch hazel during the distillation process so it poses the risk of completely stripping natural oils and drying out the skin. Even if you opt for a non-alcohol witch hazel, using any type of drying product can cause your skin to overcompensate and actually produce even more oil.
On top of that, its high tannin content can make it sensitizing, so a sensitivity can develop overtime even if the results seemed great at first.
There are far more plant extracts that can be found in skin care, hair care, and even oral care products nowadays. The appeal of “natural” ingredients has led to plant based ingredients being commonplace in personal care, but it’s important not to assume that these ingredients are inherently better than synthetic ingredients that have been researched and formulated by dermatologists and cosmetic chemists.
If you have sensitive skin, it’s best to avoid plant ingredients all together unless you are willing to invest in new products and can patch test every new product you try. Instead of focusing on where the ingredients in your cosmetic products come from, focus on the research, testing, and dermatologist recommendations that make for safe, effective skin care.