What science says about the potential healing benefits of essential oils (2023)

This article was originally published on February 18, 2020.

Since the dawn of civilization, people have turned to the power of plants for healing purposes. But one folk medicine in particular seems to be more popular than ever: essential oils.

Today, there is renewed interest in using essential oils to improve physical or mental well-being.a surveyfound that one-third of Americans believe in the health benefits of essential oils and aromatherapy. These little vials of plant essences are no longer a niche, but a multi-billion dollar industry.preferred by Gwyneth Paltrowand grandmothers alike.

with around90 essential oilsThere is a supposed "cure" for practically everything on the market, each with its supposed healing properties. Lavender, sandalwood and bergamot arepopular essential oilsfor stress relief. Varieties such as ylang-ylang and jasmine are said to increase libido. Some, like lemon oil, are believed to treat a long list of conditions: morning sickness, aches and pains, and acne, to name a few. But there's a problem with claims about essential oils: Science hasn't caught up with their popularity.There just haven't been enough large-scale, peer-reviewed human studies to show whether essential oils can actually improve health or mood, or support other essential oil health benefits that are widely touted.

With that in mind, let's clarify what essential oils are, how they're supposed to work, and what the research says about them.

What's in Your Oils: Are Essential Oils Safe?

Essential oils are highly concentrated extracts from plant material such as seeds, flowers, stems or roots.

But it can often be difficult for consumers to know what they are actually buying. The market is not regulated, so there are usually big differences between essential oils, even between those from the same brand.

"The makeup of essential oils varies from batch to batch because they're extracted from plants that vary from country to country, field to field, and even from dawn to dusk in the same plant," says Mark Moss, a psychologist who studies essential oils at Northumbria University in the UK, in an email toDiscover. "The main components will always be there, but the relative concentration will vary."

Another important thing to note is that essential oils have not undergone rigorous testing and FDA approvals like the over-the-counter medications available at your local drugstore. So what, if anything, essential oils do for health is still pretty unclear.

"Essential oils are neither medicines nor drugs because the effects have not yet been fully evaluated scientifically," Hideki Kashiwadani, a physiology researcher at Kagoshima University in Japan, said in an emailDiscover.

Still, essential oils have a lot of appeal, especially among people who have done sogrew up dissatisfied with modern western medicine. And this alternative therapy shows no signs of slowing down.

How are essential oils used?

Most essential oils are inhaled by diffusion or applied topically to the skin after mixing with a carrier oil. However, other essential oils should be takenmedical professionalsjhealth authoritiesthey generally warn against the safety of this method.

When essential oils are inhaled through aromatherapy, the compounds are absorbedvia receptors in our nose, which send messages to our olfactory system, the part of the brain responsible for our sense of smell. Eventually, these messages reach other areas of the brain, such as the limbic system, which plays a role in our emotions.

Continue reading:Human sense of smell is stronger than we think

If essential oils areapplied topicallyFor cosmetic reasons or to treat pain, the compounds are absorbed into the skin and eventually enter the bloodstream before being metabolized by the liver.

But beyond that, even scientists have a hard time figuring out what Essential oils really do. Because there are no recognized standards for essential oils, Kashiwadani explains that scientists often have a hard time replicating another scientist's experiment.

"One of the problems with essential oils and the lack of standardization is that you can't tell if two researchers are really testing the same essential oil," says Moss.

But other problems, surprisingly common in scientific research, complicate matters further. For example, there are few human studies on essential oils. Of the research that has been done on humans, many studies have included small numbers of participants, which may be the casebiased results.In general, reviews or meta-reviews that draw conclusions from a multitude of similar studies tend to be the most reliable and comprehensive.

We must also remember that correlation does not equal causation. In other words, a mere association between two things is not enough to prove a direct cause and effect relationship. So even if one study found that people smelling the scent of lavender felt less anxious, something else might be responsible for the effect (like controlled breathing).

In addition, the results of scientific studies are sometimes misinterpreted or exaggerated. When scientists study treatments, they look for changes that are "statistically significant." All of this means that the results cannot be explained by chance alone. So the effects of an essential oil may be scientifically significant, but it's far from what we would consider significant.

Given the shortcomings of essential oil studies, much information about the health benefits of essential oils tends to be anecdotal or rooted in folklore. And its security has not been fully verified. Therefore, it is important for people to remember that natural or organic cannot be directly translated as "safe" or "beneficial". plant substances, especially in high doses,may be toxic, irritating or cause an allergic reactionor drug interactions.

What are the health benefits of essential oils?

But essential oils may not be entirely useless. Based on his own work, Moss said rosemary, sage, and peppermint oils may improve memory and cognition to some extent. he says tooLavender has been linked to better sleep.Just don't expect essential oils to be magical elixirs. Far from being medicines, they are not intended to replace standard medical care.

“The effect of essential oils is small. They are not a panacea. They can bring small benefits to people, and I think they should be viewed as self-care enhancements rather than treatments," Moss said.

In any case, many essential oils smell good. So if spraying your pillow with lavender oil also provides pleasure and relaxation through the placebo effect, is there really anything wrong with that?

“Don't look for solutions to problems. Consider the potential to enjoy the experience. That's an advantage in itself," Moss said.

Continue reading:The power of the placebo

Essential oils as “medicine”

Are Essential Oils Safe and Effective Treatments for Certain Medical Conditions? The jury is still out, howeverDiscoverbrought together some of the published work examining the effects of some popular essential oils on animals and humans. If you're thinking about trying essential oils, consult your doctor first.

rosemary oil

(Image credit: Oksana_Slepko/Shutterstock)

The woody aroma of rosemary can liven up more than just a roast chicken. A small study by 20 people from Moss's research team at Northumbria University linkedRosemary to improve memory and cognition, especially in older adults.

Another small study by Moss' team found that rosemary could improve test scores in school-age children.Children conducting tests in rosemary-scented roomsThey received higher scores than children in odorless rooms.

Despite his work researching rosemary, Moss isn't necessarily a proponent of promoting the use of essential oils, but he believes consumers should be able to make their own choices.

lavender oil

(Image credit: Olga Miltsova/Shutterstock)

Lavender is one of the most popular scents in aromatherapy. studiesin both micejhorsesI found the scent of lavender to be soothing. In humans, small studies found that it may have a modest effect on anxiety.

This was the result of a study with 100 peopleLavender slightly improved anxietybefore the operation. However, the researchers cautioned that additional research is needed before any conclusions can be drawn about lavender scent and anxiety.

Taking lavender oil capsules orally might also have some effect on anxiety. This is the result of a meta-analysis byfive studies involving more than 500 peoplewho looked at how lavender capsules compare to a placebo and some anti-anxiety medications. Although lavender capsules (also known as Silexan) helped with anxiety, they also caused uncomfortable side effects like nausea, belching, and diarrhea in some people.

Lavender is also a common sleep aid. A review of studies completedwhich may offer some small to moderate benefits in promoting sleep. However, the review called for larger, more rigorous studies examining lavender and sleep.

Over and beyond,Lavender may have some prosocial benefits. A study of 90 people found that the scent of lavender was more effective than a control at promoting trust among strangers.

But lavender oil might not be a good idea for everyone. It can be a hormone disruptor, and studies have linked regular exposure to lavender oil to abnormal breast growthGirl. Lavender (and tea tree oil) have also been found to causeabnormal growth of breast tissue in boys.

Peppermint oil

(Credit: Tatevosian Yana/Shutterstock)

Peppermint oil, which may have pain-relieving properties, has been used for centuriestreat gastrointestinal problems. But unlike other essential oils, there is pretty strong evidence to support these claims. Reviews of studies have shown that taking peppermint oil capsules is possibleRelieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome such as gastrointestinal pain.

A small pilot study also found that peppermint oil capsules can do thisbe useful for people with swallowing difficultiesduring meals or suffer from non-cardiac chest pain. Taking peppermint tablets helped relieve discomfort in these patients, likely because the compounds helped relax the smooth muscles of the lower esophagus.


(Image credit: VIRTEXIE/Shutterstock)

Tea tree oil is commonly found in cosmetic products due to its purported antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. When applied to the skin, tea tree oil can be an effective treatmentmild to moderate acne.

A review studyfound that tea tree oil was better than placebos and as effective as benzoyl peroxide at stopping pimples. In addition to acne, several previous studies suggest tea tree oil may be helpfulnail fungusjathlete's foot.

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