Essential Oils: What are They? And Do They Work?
What Are Essential Oils?
Basically, essential oils are what make plants smell the way they do. They are aromatic, volatile compounds that get extracted from plants, put into bottles, and used by people for various cosmetic, therapeutic, cleaning, or other purposes.
They are called “essential” simply because they are meant to capture the smell or “essence” of the plant in question.
Do They Work?
That depends on which oil, application method, and desired result you’re talking about.
Published studies show some promise (especially with more popular oils like lavender, peppermint, eucalyptus, and tea tree). But for most oils, there is very little quality research on their benefits.
As a result, essential oils mainly live in the realm of traditional, alternative, or complementary medicine, supported by a small body of research, passionate anecdotal evidence, and claims of herbalists old and new.
How They Work
There are three main ways essential oils deliver their benefits:
- Diluted external application - many essential oils have antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, or other properties that people find useful for treating their skin (for example, diluted tea tree oil, is very popular for combating acne)
- Bloodstream - when inhaled or absorbed through the skin, essential oils can get into your bloodstream. The bloodstream carries the chemical constituents to various, cells, organs, and major bodily systems, where they are suspected to provide certain benefits (for example, reduce blood pressure, arouse or sedate the central nervous system, fight respiratory inflammation, etc)
- Brain signaling - essential oils trigger the olfactory nerve, which in turn affects the parts of your brain that control emotion and memory. Many use aromatherapy with essential oils to support their mental and emotional health (lavender aromatherapy, for example, has been studied for anxiolytic and antidepressant effects).
Types of Essential Oils
Historic and modern herbal medicine have no shortage of plant candidates for essential oil distillation, but the following are some of the most popular essential oils:
Tea tree oil
Ylang ylang oil
Benefits of Essential Oils
As we said before, high-quality evidence for the effectiveness of essential oils is limited (though the research has been hastened somewhat in recent decades, likely due to the growing popularity of essential oils).
What are the most substantiated benefits? What research is there for the most popular uses?
Check out our review below.
Can essential oils help reduce stress, anxiety, or depression?
Perhaps. Lavender essential oil has a few clinical studies behind it in this regard.
But most other essential oils, like orange oil, basil oil, and rose oil (as well as common essential oil constituents like limonene and alpha-pinene) only have animal studies behind them, if anything.
And as the research stands, it is sometimes difficult to determine if the anxiolytic effect is due to the chemical nature of the oils or if it is simply due to the perceived pleasantness of the smell [Hoenen 2016].
Can essential oils help reduce headaches and migraines?
Perhaps. Peppermint oil, lavender oil, and basil oil have all shown some promise when tested with humans, but more research is needed.
Can essential oils improve sleep?
Maybe. Lavender oil and rose oil each have some studies done with human participants to support this claim. But, again, more research is needed.
Can essential oils reduce inflammation?
Well...yes, it’s likely, but hold on a second. A good number of essential oils have shown anti-inflammatory properties in pre-clinical studies. But if applied incorrectly, essential oils can agitate the skin and cause inflammation.
Make sure to 1) research the oil you plan to use, 2) make sure you dilute it properly, and 3) do a patch test.
Can essential oils help against bacteria and fungi?
Perhaps. In vitro studies with peppermint, tea tree, eucalyptus, and other oils show antimicrobial effects, but how a substance works in a petri dish can be quite distinct from how it works in other places.
Again, it is important to know what you are about, which oil you intend to use, and the research behind that particular oil.
Tips for Choosing
As the essential oil industry is largely unregulated, it’s important that customers know how to choose high-quality oils—especially if they plan to use them therapeutically.
Consider these questions as you decide where to buy your favorite essential oils: What do they say about their sourcing? Do they use chemicals in their oil extraction process? Are their oils tested for quality by a 3rd party? Does the company have a good reputation for ethical sourcing and high quality?
Essential oils can be harmful if used incorrectly.
Even though essential oils originate from nature, the process of distillation concentrates the oils far beyond what is found in a handful or even a bucket load of raw plant material. and potentially dangerous.
It’s generally safe to inhale essential oils and if you dilute them with a base oil, most of them are safe for topical application. But keep an eye out for allergic or other adverse reactions such as rashes, headaches, or respiratory problems, just in case. Stop using any oil that appears to bring on such symptoms.
Also, take extra caution and do extra research before using essential oils while you are pregnant, taking medications, or dealing with a serious health condition.
Essential oils show intriguing potential for use in complementary therapy.
They are generally considered safe for inhalation or topical application when diluted correctly, but those who use them should do so responsibly, knowing that research is still lacking.
We look forward to the future years of research that will illuminate exactly what essential oils can and can’t do. But until then, we’ll just let these incredible smells and the humming of our diffusers keep us company.