With essential oils becoming increasingly popular and commonplace, you may be wondering, like me, if essential oils actually work and if they are safe to use.
Some people swear by them and claim all sorts of health benefits.
Others warn that they are not good for you and should be avoided.
Let’s take a look at the science to see if essential oils work, and if they can safely be used to achieve certain health outcomes.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are natural oils extracted from plants. Each oil contains the concentrated fragrance, flavour, and natural chemicals of the plant.
Essential oils are used in alternative medicine practices such as aromatherapy. They are typically diffused into the air and inhaled, or applied topically to the skin.
Each oil has unique properties, and certain health uses and outcomes associated with it.
Do Essential Oils Work?
Despite claims of all the different ailments that essential oils can fix, the efficacy of essential oils as natural, alternative medicine is not yet well studied.
However, there is still quite a bit of evidence that shows a number of positive effects of certain essential oils.
Here are some examples:
- Chamomile is well-known for its calming effects, and has been shown to help reduce anxiety (1). A study reported decreased anxiety, improved symptoms, and improved quality of life in cancer patients receiving aromatherapy massages with chamomile essential oil (2).
- Inhaled essential oils, especially lavender, may improve quality of sleep (3).
- Peppermint is commonly used to soothe stomach pains and tension headaches. Studies suggest that peppermint oil is safe and effective as a short-term treatment for IBS, as it improves IBS symptoms such as abdominal pain (4).
- A randomized controlled trial showed that diluted tea tree essential oil was an effective treatment for mild to moderate acne vulgaris when applied topically (5). In addition to acne, tea tree oil is also commonly used for athlete’s foot and insect bites.
- Thyme, rosemary, lavender, and cedarwood essential oils was shown to be a safe and effective treatment for alopecia areata (a condition that causes patchy hair loss) when these diluted oils were massaged into the scalp daily (6).
- Citrus essential oils, especially bergamot, were shown to be effective at inhibiting the growth of several bacteria species that are common causes of food poisoning (7).
- A randomized controlled trial found lemon balm oil to be a safe and effective treatment for managing agitation in patients with severe dementia (8).
While evidence suggests there are many potential health benefits of essential oils, further clinical research is still needed to determine if essential oils are effective and safe to be actually prescribed as a treatment for certain health conditions.
So watch out for any miraculous health claims – they are probably not true, not tested, and potentially dangerous.
Are Essential Oils Safe?
It is often assumed that if something is “natural”, that means it is safe.
However, this is not necessarily the case – plenty of the most potent and harmful chemicals are found naturally in plants. Plant-derived compounds can have toxic effects and potentially do some serious damage.
First of all, as with any concentrated plant product, essential oils can be irritants.
For some people, diffused or topically-applied essential oils can cause allergy symptoms such as itchiness, hives, swelling, runny nose, congestion, coughing, sneezing, watery eyes, etc.
A patch test can be used to test for allergy symptoms before applying an oil topically. (Apply a diluted drop of oil to a small patch of your skin and watch for any reactions).
Different people can have different reactions to essential oils. Some reactions are definitely more serious than others.
Here are a few examples of potential negative effects of essential oils:
- Some essential oils, especially citrus oils, increase sun sensitivity and can cause chemical burns on the skin when exposed to the sun.
- Chamomile can cause serious allergic reactions, especially for people with allergies to similar plants such as ragweed, marigold, or daisy.
- Peppermint essential oil can have various side effects including skin irritation, rashes, and heart burn.
- Some essential oils can interfere with hormones. Research suggests that continuous exposure to lavender and tea tree essential oils can have estrogen-like effects associated with pre-pubescent growth in girls and boys (9, 10).
- There is potential for drug interaction. For example, anise essential oil has been found to alter the effects of certain drugs that act on the central nervous system. Results include reduced antidepressant effects and increased painkilling effects of certain medications (11).
These are some factors to consider when assessing if essential oils are safe for you:
- Application. The application method is important – some oils are okay to be applied to skin, or inhaled, others are not. How often you are exposed to an oil is also important.
- Dosage. As with any substance, the danger lies in the dose – anything is poisonous at too high a dose. When applied liberally or improperly, essential oils can cause severe toxic reactions. Essential oils are highly concentrated and must be diluted before any use.
- Quality. The purity of the oil should be taken into account. Different manufacturers sell different quality oils. Oils are often sold diluted with added ingredients, and can contain hidden ingredients and/or contamination from processing. Essential oil safety regulations are not well established (there is no grading system or safety approval before they are sold), so it is important to pay attention to what and where you are buying. 100% essential oil with no fillers is best.
Important note: Because of the high concentration, and lack of regulation, it is recommended to never ingest essential oils.
Certain populations should avoid or be extremely careful with essential oil use:
- Children: children have weaker and less developed body systems and are at much higher risk of experiencing toxic effects. Many essential oils, such as eucalyptus and camphor, can be extremely dangerous and even life-threatening if ingested by children (12).
- Pregnant women: essential oils can pass the placental barrier and reach the fetus, which can be potentially harmful.
Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts commonly used in alternative medicine. Certain essential oils have shown positive health outcomes such as decreased anxiety, reduced pain and digestive issues, improved acne, and antibacterial properties. However, clinical research on the safety and effectiveness of essential oils is still limited. Essential oils can cause adverse effects such as skin reactions, hormone interference, drug interference, and toxic effects. Children and pregnant women should take extra precaution with essential oils.
That’s all for now on essential oils uses and risks. If you liked this article or have any questions, please leave a comment down below!