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Are Essential Oils Worth the Hype?

05 December 2017

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You’ve seen them in the news and on your Facebook feed. Celebrities sing their praises and your friends are distributors. But are essential oils as beneficial as people say? Are they worth the hype?

History of essential oils

While essential oils have seen recent popularity with the rise of holistic wellness across America, they have been in use for centuries as a component of aromatherapy treatments. Ancient Egyptians used a variety of oils and herbal blends in their everyday activities. Later, Hippocrates was known to have researched the medicinal properties of plants and was an advocate for the aromatic benefits of plant essences.

René-Maurice Gattefossé, a French chemist in the early 1900s, is considered the father of aromatherapy and was one of the first to research essential oils and their proficiencies. Today, medical aromatherapy is used in Europe and Japan to treat diabetes and other medical conditions, while in the United States it is most commonly used in spas and as a combatant of stress.

Do essential oils work?

Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine the efficacy of essential oils. Many studies have been conducted to discover the effectiveness of oils against a variety of health conditions, but the scientific evidence collected has been underwhelming.

While hundreds of studies have been performed throughout the years, most of them were not tested on humans or in large enough pools and lacked adequate peer-review. Conditioning can also hinder results. When testing the effects of aromatherapy, researchers found that while many enjoy a scent that has been claimed to be beneficial, several patients associate the smell with a past traumatic encounter and display a negative reaction. Are these results derived from the essential oil or the patient’s brain?

The quality of the oil is also a key factor in efficacy. The FDA does not regulate the contents of essential oil products. They do, on the other hand, regulate the language used in their branding, preventing companies from claiming their product cures or prevents certain diseases without proper testing. This means that while a company can’t say its essential oils cure diabetes, it is able to claim that its product is 100% pure essential oil even if it is not. Many companies add synthetic properties into their oils, which can alter the chemical balance of the oil and render it unsafe for multiple purposes. Manufacturers aren’t required to test for oxidation and purity, which affect an oil’s shelf life and effectiveness.

While there is not strong proof of the success of essential oils for physical and psychological benefits, there is also not concrete evidence of harmful results. If the quality of the oil is safe (devoid of synthetic properties, properly tested and adequately bottled), there is little harm in trying out an essential oil to see if the oil’s effects are beneficial for you. Prior to use of essential oils, it is important to speak with your doctor to discuss precautions you should take.

How to use essential oils

Many distributers promote three methods of using essential oils: aromatically, topically and (controversially) through ingestion.

The most common use is through aromatherapy, where the oils are diffused through the air. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, who is one of the most well-known Integrative Medicine experts in the world, “Aromatherapy’s effects may stem from the response to scents of smell receptors in the nose that send chemical messages through nerves to the brain’s limbic system. This, according to practitioners, can lead to emotional and physiological effects, which in turn can influence the body’s immune, circulatory, respiratory and other systems.”

Topical methods are also widely used. Massage therapists dilute essential oils with carrier oils (such as fractionated coconut oil) to use on the skin during massages. Many essential oils are highly concentrated and potent, requiring them to be diluted before skin contact to prevent irritation. It has been claimed that rubbing certain oils on the temple, spine or soles of the feet can relieve pain or stress.

Ingestion of essential oils is less common. With the high concentration of most oils, just a few drops in a cup of water can cause damage to a plastic container. Many experts say ingesting essential oils is not recommended.

What to be aware of when using essential oils

Essential oils are highly concentrated compounds. While there is minimal concrete research to determine their success or failure, there are still precautions to take when using essential oils.

  • The strong potency of many essential oils can be harmful for children or pregnant women. Before use of essential oils when pregnant or with a young child, it is important to contact your physician.
  • The topical use of many citrus oils can lead to photosensitivity, where the area in contact with the essential oil becomes more prone to sunburns.
  • One size does not fit all. It is important to speak to a licensed professional before using essential oils as oils can have differing effects between patients. For example, some essential oils can interfere with certain medications.

If you’ve used essential oils with proper precautions and safety awareness, and have noticed positive effects, they could be worth the hype for you, although scientific research does not prove the health benefits. Speak to your doctor before using essential oils. If you would like to explore the topic further, the website Mind Body Green provides a list of some essential oils their practitioners use.