Essential Oils: Healthy fact or marketing fiction?

Essential oils are controversial. But, they’re also all the rage!

While some people say such holistic approaches to health are nonsense or too “woo-woo”, others have plenty of essential oil-based hacks that they swear by. So, are these products legit?

Well, it turns out, there actually might be something to the craze!

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are basically highly concentrated forms of the chemicals produced by the metabolism of aromatic plants. They’re said to be “essential” because they contain the plants “essence,” or the good stuff, which can come from the seeds, bark, stems, roots, flowers or many other parts of plant.

Peppermint, tea tree, lavender, lemon, chamomile and eucalyptus are among the most commonly used essential oils in the United States. And they all have a very different chemical composition. This affects not only how the compound smells, but also how the compound is absorbed and how it affects us.

Commonly, essential oils are used as lotions and oils.  These oils are often diluted in what is called a “carrier oil,” such as canola, sunflower, or sweet almond oil. The chemical components of these essential oils can cross the skin, moving into the bloodstream where they then target the specific organs and systems they affect.

Essential oils can also be inhaled using baths, diffusers, or by direct inhalation. When the oil is inhaled, the odor is recognized by a specific site in the nose called an olfactory receptor, which signals to our brain telling it how to respond.

THAT’S ALL GREAT. BUT, Is there any science behind essential oils?

Actually, yes! And lots of it!

One of the most accepted and well-researched uses of essential oils is in mental health. Citrus oil decreases anxiety, increases mood and calms women undergoing dental procedures. Chamomile extract reduces symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, while drinking chamomile tea decreases symptoms of depression in postpartum women. Inhalation of lavender, as well, reduces agitation in elderly dementia patients.

Essential oils have also been effectively used in pain management. Application of lavender oil on the skin decreases pain during the insertion of dialysis needles, while another study found that multiple essential oils reduce nerve and acute pain. Peppermint oil has also been used to treat migraines!

Essential oils have also been used to treat chronic diseases. Fennel was shown to relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, while both ginger and turmeric oils have been used to successfully treat rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.

They’ve even been shown to kill bacteria and viruses! Cinnamon, geranium and lavender essential oils have been used to kill important, antibiotic-resistant bacteria. There is actually so much scientific evidence on the ability of essential oils to kill bacteria that some are hailing them as replacements for antibiotics, though that might be jumping the gun. A number essential oils are great add-ins to your health regiment to help you beat flu season, too.

There are tons of studies supporting the use of essential oils! These are just the tip of the iceberg.

But, are essential oils safe?

Well, yes and no.

Most essential oils only have some very mild side effects, such as skin irritation, especially if you put undiluted essential oils on your skin. Seriously, though, never do this! It’s a recipe for disaster.

There has also been some research that has suggested that gynecomastia, or “man boobs,” can result from long-term exposure to lavender oil. It’s safe to say though that this has been debunked by Dr. Trevor Cates. For all you guys out there, there’s no need to fear lavender! Promise.

However, more serious side effects, such as seizures, have been reported in known epileptics and children with certain essential oils, such as fennel oil, thuja oil and ingested sage.

Essential oils have also been shown to affect hormone balance, with geranium and rose oil increasing estrogen in perimenopausal women and chasteberry extracts leading to overactive thyroids.

There has also been some evidence that essential oils may produce reactive oxygen species, which have the potential to damage our cells. However, that’s only at high concentrations and lower levels have been deemed perfectly safe.

So, what’s the verdict on essential oils?

The bottom line is this.

The hype behind essential oils is really not all woo-woo. There are a lot of benefits! That being said, though, there are many aspects of essential oils that we don’t fully understand.

But, just because we don’t’ fully understand something doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Regardless, we have to proceed with caution.

One of the biggest issues with essential oils is that some of these studies have been done in animals, while other studies were done in very specific populations of people, meaning the safety and efficacy of all essential in all populations is not 100% clear.  Can we apply all these conclusions to the entire human population? Honestly, we don’t know!

There is a lot of science that supports using essential oils, but, in some instances, it’s difficult for us to weigh if the potential risks outweigh the benefits. If anything, doctors should help their patients navigate if an essential oil is the best option for them.

If you’re interested in testing out some essential oils for yourself, it’s easy enough to give them a try! Check out some of the resources below and see for yourself if an essential oil is something you might want to try.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Stick to topical or inhalational essential oils. The data on the safety of ingestion is the flimsiest, by far.
  • Avoid long-term use. There just isn’t enough evidence yet to know if long-term use of some of the more exotic essential oils is safe as most studies are very short-term.
  • Make sure you’re using high-quality essential oils. Oils can definitely be impure or contaminated, so make sure you’re buying yours from a reputable source.
  • Use an appropriate dose. Less is definitely more with essential oils! Seriously, never use undiluted essential oils on your skin. Ever.
  • Stick to the staples. If there are any essential oils that seem to have solid science with minimal to no side effects, it’s these:

Additional Resources:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=12465213
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=14603559
  3. http://www.ajhp.org.proxy.lib.umich.edu/content/74/9/e153
  4. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2648.2004.03172.x/full
  5. http://www.mdpi.com/1420-3049/22/1/70
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28438819
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20377818/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=28449595
  9. http://naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/about-aromatherapy/most-commonly-used-essential-oils/