Essential oils are often used in aromatherapy, a form of alternative medicine that employs plant extracts to support health and well-being.
However, some of the health claims associated with these oils are controversial.
This article explains all you need to know about essential oils and their health effects.
Essential oils are compounds extracted from plants.
The oils capture the plant’s scent and flavor, or “essence.”
Unique aromatic compounds give each essential oil its characteristic essence.
Essential oils are obtained through distillation (via steam and/or water) or mechanical methods, such as cold pressing.
Once the aromatic chemicals have been extracted, they are combined with a carrier oil to create a product that’s ready for use.
The way the oils are made is important, as essential oils obtained through chemical processes are not considered true essential oils.
Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts that retain the natural smell and flavor, or “essence,” of their source.
Essential oils are most commonly used in the practice of aromatherapy, in which they are inhaled through various methods.
The chemicals in essential oils can interact with your body in several ways.
When applied to your skin, some plant chemicals are absorbed.
Inhaling the aromas from essential oils can stimulate areas of your limbic system, which is a part of your brain that plays a role in emotions, behaviors, sense of smell, and long-term memory.
Interestingly, the limbic system is heavily involved in forming memories. This can partly explain why familiar smells can trigger memories or emotions.
The limbic system also plays a role in controlling several unconscious physiological functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. As such, some people claim that essential oils can exert a physical effect on your body.
Essential oils can be inhaled or diluted and applied to the skin. They may stimulate your sense of smell or have medicinal effects when absorbed.
There are more than 90 types of essential oils, each with its own unique smell and potential health benefits.
Here’s a list of 10 popular essential oils and the health claims associated with them:
- Peppermint: used to boost energy and aid digestion
- Lavender: used to relieve stress
- Sandalwood: used to calm nerves and help with focus
- Bergamot: used to reduce stress and improve skin conditions like eczema
- Rose: used to improve mood and reduce anxiety
- Chamomile: used to improve mood and relaxation
- Ylang-Ylang: used to treat headaches, nausea, and skin conditions
- Tea Tree: used to fight infections and boost immunity
- Jasmine: used to help with depression, childbirth, and libido
- Lemon: used to aid digestion, mood, headaches, and more
There are over 90 commonly used essential oils, each associated with certain health claims. Popular oils include peppermint, lavender, and sandalwood.
Here’s a look at the evidence regarding some of the common health problems that essential oils and aromatherapy have been used to treat.
Stress and anxiety
It has been estimated that 43% of people who have stress and anxiety use some form of alternative therapy to help relieve their symptoms.
Regarding aromatherapy, initial studies have been quite positive. Many have shown that the smell of some essential oils can work alongside traditional therapy to treat anxiety and stress.
Interestingly, using essential oils during a massage may help relieve stress, although the effects may only last while the massage is taking place.
Headaches and migraines
In the ’90s, two small studies found that dabbing a peppermint oil and ethanol mixture on participants’ foreheads and temples relieved headache pain.
Recent studies have also observed reduced headache pain after applying peppermint and lavender oil to the skin.
What’s more, it has been suggested that applying a mixture of chamomile and sesame oil to the temples may treat headaches and migraines. This is a traditional Persian headache remedy.
Sleep and insomnia
Smelling lavender oil has been shown to improve the sleep quality of women after childbirth, as well as patients with heart disease.
One review examined 15 studies on essential oils and sleep. The majority of studies showed that smelling the oils — mostly lavender oil — had positive effects on sleep.
It has been suggested that essential oils may help fight inflammatory conditions. Some test-tube studies show that they have anti-inflammatory effects,
One mouse study found that ingesting a combination of thyme and oregano essential oils helped induce the remission of colitis. Two rat studies on caraway and rosemary oils found similar results.
Antibiotic and antimicrobial
The rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has renewed interest in the search for other compounds that can fight bacterial infections.
Test-tube studies have investigated essential oils, such as peppermint and tea tree oil, extensively for their antimicrobial effects, observing some positive results.
Essential oils have many uses outside of aromatherapy.
Many people use them to scent their homes or freshen up things like laundry.
They are also used as a natural scent in homemade cosmetics and high-quality natural products.
What’s more, it has been suggested that essential oils could provide a safe and environmentally friendly alternative to man-made mosquito repellents, such as DEET.
Studies have shown that some oils, such as citronella, may repel certain types of mosquitoes for around 2 hours. Protection time may be extended up to 3 hours when it’s used in combination with vanillin.
Aromatherapy isn’t the only use for essential oils. They can be used in and around the home, as a natural mosquito repellent, or industrially to make cosmetics.
Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe.
Plants and herbal products contain many bioactive compounds that may harm your health, and essential oils are no different.
However, when inhaled or combined with a base oil for use on your skin, most essential oils are considered safe. Be sure to consider others in your environment who might be inhaling the aroma, including pregnant women, children, and pets.
Nevertheless, they may cause some side effects, including
- asthma attacks
- allergic reactions
The oils that have most commonly been associated with adverse reactions are lavender, peppermint, tea tree, and ylang-ylang.
Oils that are high in phenols, such as cinnamon, can cause skin irritation and shouldn’t be used on the skin without being combined with a base oil. Meanwhile, essential oils made from citrus fruits increase the skin’s reaction to sunlight and burns can occur.