Essential oils are an integral part of alternative medicine and have experienced a rise in popularity among consumers over the last decade. Supporters argue that these oils offer extensive health benefits and are a more natural way to treat ailments. On the other hand, critics argue that medical research on essential oils has been inconclusive and at times controversial. So do essential oils work? We’ve put together this guide to the basics of essential oils including their benefits, uses, and side effects. Read on to find out what exactly is an essential oil and get some tips for using them properly.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are highly concentrated forms of plant material. The oils are made up of a variety of chemical compounds that have been shown to have varying degrees of health benefits. Most essential oils are extracted from plant parts through two methods: cold compressing or steam distillation. Steam distillation uses temperature to separate the oils from water in the plant compounds while cold pressing is a mechanical method that extracts the oils using force.
Essential oils are popularly used in alternative medicine to promote overall well being. There are hundreds of essential oils ranging from floral oils like lavender essential oil, chamomile oil, and rose oil to spiced oils like clove, ginger and frankincense oil. Other popular essential oils include invigorating oils like peppermint oil and tea tree oil as well as citrus oils like bergamot orange oil, grapefruit oil, and lemongrass oil. Additionally, sandalwood essential oil is popular as a stress reliever while ylang-ylang oil is frequently used to treat nausea.
How Are Essential Oils Used?
Essential oils are used in holistic aromatherapy, generally to alter mood or state of mind. The oils are typically added to a diffuser and slowly release the fragrance. The oils may help to stimulate brain function including triggering memories and uplifting the spirit (1).
Essential oils can be applied to the skin when diluted in a carrier oil such as fractionated coconut oil. Topical application is popular for general skincare as well as treating wounds. Other topical applications include adding the oils to bath water or when using them in a gentle massage.
Some essential oil users advocate ingesting essential oils to balance digestion and improve overall health. We don’t recommend taking essential oils orally since they may cause unforeseen side effects. If you absolutely insist on taking oils orally, do so only under the careful supervision of a doctor or qualified aromatherapist.
Health Benefits of Essential Oils
Essential oils are commonly used to help alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety (2) (3). The oils may help to lower heart rate and trigger the release of brain chemicals that calm and soothe. Most research shows that the stress-reducing effects of the oils only work when they are actively being used (4). That means you may feel more relaxed while inhaling essential oils from a diffuser or during a massage, but the effects won’t last all day.
Other research shows that oils like Lavandula oil target the nervous system to increase GABA production and directly affect the message sent by neurotransmitters (5). While the research is positive, it’s difficult to rule out other contributing factors — like simply taking a few moments to breathe and relax — that may be assisting in reducing stress levels.
Essential oils boast compounds that offer anti-inflammatory properties that can help to promote overall health. Chronic inflammation is a hallmark of serious ailments including heart disease and certain types of cancer. By regulating inflammation, essential oils may help the body fend off long-term disease.
The anti-inflammatory benefits may help to prevent oxidative stress caused by free radicals. This type of stress has been linked to premature aging and serious health conditions (6). By lowering inflammation, essential oils may also help to lower blood pressure, which is linked to heart disease. It’s important to note that most research on the inflammation benefits of essential oils has been limited to laboratory studies and animal studies. More human trials are needed to confirm these potential health benefits.
Essential oils are commonly used to treat pain whether it’s a migraine or pain caused by a recent wound. Research shows that essential oils — particularly peppermint oil and lavender oil — may help to reduce the pain caused by chronic headaches and migraines (7) (8).
The benefits were shown when the oils were inhaled as well as when they were applied topically. These studies have been conducted on small portions of the population and larger-scale studies are needed for more conclusive results.
Antifungal and Antiviral Properties
Laboratory studies show that many essential oils boast antibacterial and antifungal properties that may help to fend off pathogens that make humans sick (9) (10) (11). That’s why many of these oils are used in conjunction with modern medical tools to treat the common cold and flu. While these results are promising, comparing results in test tubes to the way essential oils work in the complicated biome of the human body is like comparing apples to oranges. As with most of these potential health benefits, human research is needed to prove these benefits for the larger population.
Essential oils can be used around the home to add natural fragrance to cleaning products as well as skincare regimens. The oils are often found in homemade shampoo bars as well as DIY cosmetics. They are the perfect solution for freshening up most aspects of the home, though any purported benefits past that are yet to be proven.
Tips For Using Essential Oils
Use Carrier Oil
Essential oils may cause skin irritation or allergic reactions if they are applied undiluted directly to the skin. To minimize the risk of skin irritation, dilute essential oils with a carrier oil like coconut oil, jojoba oil, or olive oil.
Consult the Professionals
The FDA does not approve essential oils for use in the treatment of diseases or health conditions. Before using the oils, it’s always a good idea to seek medical advice from a qualified healthcare professional. A doctor can help you understand any potential side effects or medication interactions the volatile oils may cause.
An aromatherapist is another great resource if you’re looking to learn more about incorporating essential oils into your life. These experts can introduce you to new oils that are suited for your situation and desired uses.
Finding the Right Essential Oils
If you’re looking to incorporate essential oils into your life, there is a scent or essence for everyone. From the musty fragrance of patchouli to the tingling sensation of wintergreen, you’re sure to find an essential oil your senses love. Try the ever-popular eucalyptus oil if you enjoy bright, crisp notes or opt for clary sage oil if you prefer something a little more understated.
Choosing oils will also depend on what you want to use the essential oils for. Citronella oil and lemon of eucalyptus oil are popular choices for warding off mosquitoes while lavender oil may help to improve sleep. Whatever oil you choose, make sure to use it appropriately and keep in mind that medical research is still guarded about the efficacy of essential oils.