Essential oils are safe for soap, as long as you respect maximum quantities for each essential oil. Their main risks are regarding allergen substances, dermal sensitization and photoxicity. IFRA regulations, even if not legal binding, are the main standard for the fragrance industry at global level, so it is a good guideline to follow. Most soap calculators and soap making websites indicate a maximum level of 3% of oil weight – and follow IFRA standards.
Been making soap at home for personal usage since 2019. I’ve used most of the time essential oils and even fragrance oils. They all have skin allergens, but I’ve never had an issue with any soap giving me allergies, except once, using cinnamon bark essential oil.
All essential oils contain allergen compounds. But they are the very same compounds responsible for scent. Most people have no allergic reaction to them, if a maximum dosage is respected. However, in doubt, you should make a skin test, or simply avoid the usage of essential oils. Keep reading to find out more.
Table of Contents
- Are Essential Oils Safe For Soap?
- International Regulation
- If You Have Sensitive Skin, Don’t Use Them
- How Much Essential Oil Do You Put In Soap?
- Mild Essential Oils That Are Usually Skin Tolerated
- What Essential Oils Are Good For Soap?
Are Essential Oils Safe For Soap?
Essential oils are basically plant extracts, most commonly obtained by steam distillation of raw material plant – leaves, flowers, wood, bark, roots, seeds. Other methods of essential oil extraction are expression or cold pressing (for citrus plants), and solvent extraction (mostly for flowers).
The way the oils are made is important, as essential oils obtained through chemical processes are not considered true essential oils. With chemical processes, your “essential oil” will be adulterated and might get additional allergens.
However, just because something is natural doesn’t mean automatically it’s safe. Plants and herbal products contain many bioactive compounds that may harm your health. Essential oils are no different, as they are highly concentrated in these compounds. Therefore, essential oils should be used carefully, especially regarding dosage for skincare products.
If you know to have skin allergies, you should avoid fragrances in wash-off products like soap and leave-on products like lotions. If you don’t have skin allergies but your soap is causing you any sort of skin irritation, stop using the soap, and try an unscented version.
Still, essential oils are the most natural, harmless and effective way to scent your soap. Other natural ways to give aroma, like using infused oils or herbal waters, even if heavily aromatic, won’t keep their scent through saponification. On the other hand, essential oils are milder than fragrance oils, less prone to cause skin irritations in comparison.
As a wash-off product, the essential oils present in soap have only a limited contact with your skin. But for leave-on products, you should pay extra attention in essential oils usage.
Some international standards to find out information about essential oils and fragrances are:
- IFRA Fragrance Standards (with IFRA Categories explanation – for soap it’s Category 9)
- The EU Cosmetic Regulation for Cosmetics Nr 1223/2009
- Guidance on Essential Oils in Cosmetic Products – EDQM
- Small Businesses & Homemade Cosmetics – FDA
Unfortunately, due to the need to cover several considerations and possibilites, these international standards are everything but easy to consult. They do not state a clear value you may follow in general. The restrictions are mostly about allergens maximum quantities, and the need to label them.
However, if you need to consult the effect or maximum percentage of a given substance, these sources will provide you with detailed information.
Here is a list of most common allergens listed in labels, most of them coming from plants. This list doesn’t mean that if you use a product containing one of these substance, you will have an allergy for sure. If below certain percentages, most won’t do any harm. However, know them and avoid them if you choose to or have to. This list was taken from this source:
|Benzyl alcohol||Benzyl benzoate||Benzyl salicylate|
|Linalool||Oak moss extract||Tree moss extract|
If You Have Sensitive Skin, Don’t Use Them
Some essential oils, namely the spicy ones, are prone to be skin irritants and dermal sensitizers, just like the spices themselves are responsible for allergic reactions. Be very careful with those essential oils and perform a skin test before using them on your soap:
The only allergy occurrence I had with essential oils was about the usage of cinnamon bark essential oil on a liquid soap with a family member. Even respecting the maximum quantity allowed (2%), cinnamon bark caused an allergic reaction when the soap was used to wash the face. But it was ok as a hand soap. It’s too bad, cinnamon bark is such a nice scent.
Some essential oils cause phototoxicity, namely, citrusy ones, so it’s better to avoid them especially in leave-on products. Phototoxicity means that your skin is extra sensitive to sun and light exposure and might suffer sunburn easily. This post from Herbal Academy gives more insight and some guidelines from IFRA on how to deal with phototoxic essential oils:
|Angelica Root Essential |
|Bergamot Essential Oil (Cold Pressed)||Bitter Orange Essential Oil (Cold Pressed)|
|Cumin Essential Oil||Fig Leaf Absolute||Grapefruit Essential Oil (Cold Pressed)|
|Lemon Essential Oil (Cold Pressed)||Lime Essential Oil (Cold Pressed||Mandarin Leaf Essential Oil|
|Opopanax Essential Oil||Rue Essential Oil||Tagetes Essential Oil|
How Much Essential Oil Do You Put In Soap?
Many websites use as essential oils / fragrances rates in general to be between 2% and 4%. I’ve followed the recommendation from Lovely Greens website and soap calculators for a maximum usage of 3% of essential oils. But I really could’t pinpoint so far where this rate comes from. Probably from empirical observation about maximum allergen rating values in most essential oils, user or crafting experience.
Find below some websites, as well as my own post about how to use essential oils for soap making. They provide detailed information about specific essential oils usage rates:
- Best Essential Oils for Soap Making – HerbAlcochete
- Essential Oils for Soap Making – Lovely Greens
- How To Stop Guessing at Essential Oil Usage Rate – Modern Soapmaking
- How To Blend Essential Oils Safely – BrambleBerry
Anyway, like I’ve said before, the 3% rating is the “rule” I have adopted so far for most of my recipes and formulas. And I have no issues with my soap made at home. It’s softer to skin, that is, generaly, much more hydrated than before. I don’t know about long-term exposure to essential oils, but it can’t be worse than long-term exposure to strong synthetic perfumes, found “all over” every single commercial skincare.
How Do I Measure Essential Oils
This is important: 3% is a MAXIMUM level, not the required quantity, whether it’s a single essential oil, a single fragrance, or a blend of them. For soap, the percentage is calculated based on oils weight. For example, for 450g of oils, you use a MAXIMUM of 13g, but you can use less.
I use mililiters (ml) instead of grams (g) to measure essential oils. It is easier to measure a liquid in ml or fluid oz. So, for example, I use 13ml for 450g of oils. If you weight 13ml of essential oils or fragrances, you will realize that they are around 10g, which means they are below the maximum rate.
That’s because they have a density (ml/g) below 1: they are lighter than water. That’s the rationale I use in all my recipes. I never reach the maximum essential oil weight, and I spare a bit of essential oil each time. You can of course weight the essential oils in grams, you will be simply using a bit more than I use.
Is it a crude way to measure essential oils? Probably, but it’s safe and very practical, and it totally works for me.
Mild Essential Oils That Are Usually Skin Tolerated
If you have sensitive skin, definitely avoid citrus or spicy essential oils. But there are some essential oils that are mild enough for sensitive skin. This information was taken from this post from Healthline.
Lavender Essential Oil
Lavender essential oil is generally well tolerated by skin. The list of lavender benefits is big, but let’s stick to the fact that this is probably a #1 essential oil for most people. I would dare any soap maker to say they never used lavender or lavender essential oil in their soap.
This essential oil is calming, and helps with anxiety and insomnia, stated by scientific studies. That may be a contributor of why this essential oil is calming, even soothing for skin. Some sites go as far as to state that you can use this essential oil directly on your skin, but don’t do that, please. Either use it diluted in a carrier oil or in soap or skincare product.
Frankincense Essential Oil
Frankincense is a spiritual scent obtained from the resin of the Boswellia tree. I’ve read somewhere that frankincense essential oil was a good anti-wrinkle, and I’ve used it in my eye serum. This is actually not proven and might be simply anedoctal evidence.
Fact is that my undereye skin never suffered a bad reaction with it. And this is a rather sensitive skin area. My skin is sensitive in general and reacts strongly to certain substances. Tea tree essential oil is one of them. But with Frankincense, I am good. Actually, it’s the same with lavender essential oil in facial lotions.
Sandalwood Essential Oil
Sandalwood essential oil is one of the expensive ones. I have only used Amyris essential oil, not quite the same, but it is used as a substitute for sandalwood.
Research about sandalwood claims that it has some nice medicinal properties that might contribute to be a skin-friendly essential oil. Properties such as being anti-inflammartory, support wound healing and fighting bacteria might keep your skin soothed.
Again, if you have really sensitive skin or experience skin irritation or itching, stop using the product containing essential oils. Even if it is one of this list.
Essential oils are safe as long as you respect maximum dosage for each oil. Some essential oils are skin sensitizers, causing skin irritation, and some other are phototoxic, meaning they can indirectly cause sunburn. Know these essential oils and learn to avoid them, or use them very wisely.
For soap making, being a wash-off product, and due to saponification, essential oils are only present for scent. Quality and medicinal properties are not as important as it is for leave-on products. Some essential oils are mild enough that they can be used in sensitive skin.
But beware, if you have skin conditions, or you are experiencing skin rashes or intching, do not use essential oils on your skin and follow your doctor’s directions.
What Essential Oils Are Good For Soap?
In Best Essential Oils for Soap Making you will find a list of essential oils that are good for soap making. Find more information about essential oils to purchase them, to use them in homemade skincare and haircare in the following posts:
- Best Essential Oils for Soap Making: Tips to purchase essential oils and a chart of the best essential oils that can be used in soap making
- Essential Oils For Skincare Products: A chart of my choice of essential oils for homemade skincare
- Essential Oils for Haircare Recipes: : A chart of my choice of essential oils for homemade haircare