Then, in 2007, two fledgling American beauty companies made oil their focus. In Los Angeles, the then-29-year-old model Josie Maran developed a namesake line of cosmetics around argan oil, which was still a relatively obscure ingredient in the United States. At the same time, in New York, the fashion stylist Linda Rodin, then in her late 50s, was tinkering at home with neroli, jasmine and other oils bought from a health food store, and sharing the resultant elixir with models and fashion editors. Whereas Maran positioned her products as eco-friendly, socially conscious and accessible, Rodin’s compound, Rodin Olio Lusso, had little back story beyond the kooky-cool charisma of its creator, with her tousled silver chignon. It was a fashion insider’s exclusive accessory, and Rodin personally attended to every batch. (Estée Lauder acquired Rodin Olio Lusso in 2014, but will cease production of it later this year.)
Up to that point, botanical oils had gone fairly unheralded in mainstream Western beauty products, tucked into the small print of ingredient lists if used at all, and otherwise remained the stock of food co-ops and alternative medicine clinics, as aids in therapeutic massage and palliative care, their scents inhaled to ease anxiety and pain. They were treated as remedies, not fancy commodities, which made them prime for a resurgence as the border between health and beauty blurred. With rates of chronic illness rising in the United States — driven in part by a diet newly dependent on high-fructose corn syrup, introduced in 1967 and ubiquitous by the 1980s — and access to health care precarious and increasingly cost prohibitive, the idea of wellness entered the American vernacular: a desire to achieve not just physical but mental and spiritual health, beyond narrow medical definitions. In this holistic approach, the external was inseparable from the internal, and so the beauty industry began to crib from the New Age lexicon, shifting its pitch from warfare to self-care, from concealing imperfections to healing and nourishment. (Meanwhile, wellness has grown into its own industry, estimated to be worth around $4.5 trillion globally.)
Oils fit the message. Derived from plants via labor-intensive methods that have gone largely unchanged for centuries, they are totems of a time when life unfolded more slowly and products were singular in character, not mass-produced. The strongest of them are called essential oils, after the medieval alchemist’s notion of quinta essentia, a fifth essence of heavenly origin — a life force — to be extracted from terrestrial materials. “You’re capturing all this plant intelligence,” says April Gargiulo, 47, a former winemaker who launched Vintner’s Daughter in California’s Napa Valley in 2014 with a lone product, a face serum that fuses the potencies of 22 plants, including frankincense, hazelnut, cypress and turmeric, coaxed out over three weeks of steeping and brewing.
She adds wryly, “That might sound a little woo-woo.” But scientific studies attest to the antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties of certain essential oils, which are derived from biologically active chemical components of a plant. The molecules in a single drop can number in the quintillions, and their small mass makes the oils volatile, quick to evaporate at room temperature. Highly powerful, the essential oils are often mixed with mellower carrier oils like coconut or avocado, or jojoba, a liquid wax from a shrub indigenous to the American Southwest, long used by Native American tribes but rediscovered in the late 20th century as an additive for automatic car transmission fluid.
Today, an oil might be offered solo in a stand-alone bottle, for D.I.Y. experimentation, or swirled into golden formulas that smell of flowers. New companies are giving these Old World botanicals a high-tech spin, like the Silicon Valley start-up Symbiome, which ferments vitamin-rich buriti oil from an Amazonian palm to recalibrate imbalances in the human microbiome. Even the luxury brand La Mer — whose name is nearly synonymous with its heavy, kelp-packed cream — released a face oil in 2015, followed by a corresponding body oil balm.
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