Plant Oils vs. Plant Extracts — What's the Difference and Why Does It Matter In Skincare?

This might save you from potential irritation.

Photo: Getty Images/InStyle

When you look at the packaging of your skincare products, and you see the addition of plant extracts or plant oils in its formula, it doesn't usually raise questions for concern. The aloe extract in your moisturizer must be great for soothing stressed skin, and the lavender oil in your bath soak naturally offers maximum benefits, right?

Well, not entirely. The truth is, however, plant extracts and oils in your skincare formulas can cause more harm than good if you don't know the difference between the two.

"Oils are often produced through steam distillation while extracts, often derived from infusion techniques, can be steeped in a liquid to obtain a certain component," says Dr. Marisa Garshick, board-certified dermatologist of MDCS Dermatology.

The variations in obtaining these ingredients make a difference in how it impacts your skin. So, paying attention to these tiny details and knowing which one is in your skincare formulas can help you discover why your skin may not like a product.

Ahead, learn why it's important to learn the difference between plant oils and extracts and which one is better for you.

What's the Difference Between Plant Oils and Plant Extracts?

"Oils are concentrated compounds derived from the aromatic parts of plants, such as the roots, leaves, and flowers, using a steam distillation process," says Dr. Snehal Amin, board-certified dermatologist, co-founder, and surgical director of MDCS Dermatology.

Plant extracts are less concentrated than oils because they are obtained by placing parts of the plant in a liquid solution, which dilutes it. "We are mainly familiar with plant extracts in cooking and their uses in perfumes, but they also have an important role in skincare," says Dr. Amin.

What Are the Benefits and Potential Side Effects of Plant Oils?

"Oils, in general, can be considered more potent than extracts, which can deliver more results when compared to the same ingredient in an extract form," says Dr. Garshick.

According to Joshua Ross, a celebrity esthetician and founder of SkinLab, oils can treat a variety of concerns because they mimic the skin's natural oils. Some of the benefits of plant oils are they can help reduce dryness, redness, eczema, psoriasis, scalp issues, and improve the skin's lipid barrier. "In general, most oils are safe on the skin and all skin types," he says.

However, because of its high concentration, Dr. Amin says there's a chance of irritation and burning. "This is especially common with cinnamon, peppermint, and jasmine oils," he says.

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What Are the Benefits and Potential Side Effects of Plant Extracts?

On the other hand, plant-derived extracts are primarily used in skincare for their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties, explains Dr. Amin. "Plant extracts have the additional benefit of smelling great and feeling good on the skin, he adds. "For example, aloe extract is soothing when applied to irritated or abraded skin, and other extracts such as green tea, chamomile, and soy extracts are popular ingredients in many major brands because they may have medicinal effects."

Some extracts are known to be more volatile on certain skin types, like citrus, which is why Ross says, "when looking for a product with plant extracts, you need to be extremely cautious as a lot of plant extracts can be irritants on the skin."

So, Which One Should I Use?

"Unfortunately, there's no easy way to know which extracts or oils can be irritants and which aren't," says Ross. "When purchasing a product that touts the benefits of plant extracts, take the time to research to see if those extracts are known as irritants to the skin."

That said, Dr. Amin says as a general rule of thumb, know that oils are typically more concentrated than extracts, so if you have sensitive skin, you might want to stick to a less potent version of plant-derived ingredients.

"As with any ingredient, there is always a chance of sensitivity or irritation, but generally, since extracts are diluted, they are often safer to use in greater amounts without causing problems on the skin," says Garshick.

From non-toxic makeup and skincare to sustainability practices, Clean Slate is an exploration of all things in the green beauty space. Find out what's really in your products — and what's being left out.

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