Essential oils, and their questionable benefits, are storming the beauty department

This February, the direct-to-consumer startup Vitruvi will be the first essential oils brand to roll out in Sephora. The news marks a larger shift toward the beauty department for a product that was once relegated to crunchy health food stores.

While the research into essential oils’ actual effectiveness for various ailments like dry skin or stress is still slim — and largely put forth by the food, flavoring and cosmetics industries — consumer partiality to the broader, often vague concept of “wellness” (a reported $3.7 trillion dollar industry) appears to cancel out any hesitancy that might cause. The growing widespread concern regarding the myriad very-real chemicals in some of our most beloved products, including makeup and fragrance, no doubt helps.

“As we learn more and more about the irritants and ingredients in synthetic fragrances and various toxic chemicals found in our beauty products, many people are turning to the plants we’ve always used to enhance our wellbeing and our beauty,” said Susan Griffin-Black, the co-founder of EO Products, the first company to bring its line of oils to Target’s beauty section last year.

Indeed, as far as the cosmetics and skin-care categories go, 40 percent of consumers reported in May of this year that they prefer to buy natural or organic products.

As a result, these oils are now being branded as both wellness cure-alls and all-natural fragrance and skin-care options, selling everywhere from big box chains to luxury websites like Net-a-Porter.

“More and more, people know what [essential oils] are and that they can be used for so many things,” said Griffin-Black.

Historically, the space has been dominated by two multi-level marketing companies: Young Living (founded in 1994) and doTerra (founded in 2008). But younger brands like Vitruvi, Votary, Aromatherapy Associates, Dr. Jackson’s and Kahina Giving Beauty are increasing competition in the space with essential oil lines that utilize streamlined (read: less nature-oriented) packaging and a different approach to marketing to attract the modern consumer.

In the past, companies have relied on a very prescriptive model, according to Sara Panton, who co-founded Vitruvi with her brother three years ago. “They might say, ‘Take x, and your headache will go away,’” she offered as an example.

Vitruvi’s approach is the “polar opposite,” she said, focusing on the specific properties of each oil and the multiple ways to use each one, be it to ward off aging or to increase your energy. A bottle of grapefruit oil, for instance, is said to help “brighten your current moisturizer or freshen up your homemade cleaning products.”

The majority of the oils, however, are supposed to create an experience through scent when inhaled, said Panton: “They allow you to breathe a bit deeper and take you to a different space.”

It’s a lofty goal for a bottle of concentrated oil, but the Sephora partnership and Target’s interest prove that both customers and national chains are buying in.

Lower pricing than that of the multi-level marketing companies helps too, argued Panton.

Personal care products from her brand, Vitruvi, retail between $9-$38, while those from Young Living and doTerra range from $20-$180. Panton attributes that to the many-layered sales structure of the older companies, which operate along the lines of an Almay or Mary Kay. “We’re trying to educate customers that they can have the same, or sometimes better, product for less,” she said.

Goop’s vice president of beauty, Erin Cotter, said oils are a top seller for the wellness-centric website. “Our readers and women in general are very interested in their overall wellbeing,” said Cotter. However, despite Goop’s similarly-minded product rollouts this year in the vitamin and fragrance categories, the company has no plans to expand in the space.

Adina Grigore, the founder of the beauty line S.W. Basics, which sells its own range of the oils, argued that the oils’ popularity is more than just magical thinking. “When you use them, you feel better,” she said. “There is a real response in your body.”

According to Griffin-Black, for instance, smelling a bit of lavender on a particular stressful day can help the muscles in your face relax, while tea tree oil can be used to target acne.

However, as The Insider pointed out last year, many much-lauded natural ingredients, including the aforementioned tea tree oil and select citrus-derived ingredients, can actually be irritating for your skin. Compared to the aforementioned chemical-concerns, these potential setbacks to an all-natural routine have yet to garner much attention.

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