Essential oils are highly concentrated plant extracts distilled into oil. Popular in complementary and alternative medicine, these oils, derived from flowers, leaves, roots, and other parts of plants, have been used for medicinal purposes in some cultures for centuries. Continuing scientific research has found that certain essential oils do indeed have health benefits; in fact, many modern medications are derived from essential oils.
However, while some oils are beneficial in small doses, others can be dangerous. And because essential oils are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), most should be used with caution, ideally with the guidance of a certified holistic practitioner.
Essential oils are often used to ease stress, boost mood, relieve pain from headaches and migraines, get a better night’s sleep, quell nausea, and even repel insects. Most essential oils have antiseptic properties as well. The beneficial compounds in oils often are delivered in three ways: inhalation, topical application to the skin, and oral ingestion.
Essential oils typically are extracted using steam distillation, a process that involves applying steam to a plant until only oil remains. Essential oils contain volatile compounds, which make up the strong characteristic scent of a plant and give them their therapeutic effects.
In aromatherapy, these volatile compounds are inhaled using either a drop of oil on a piece of cloth, jewelry, or other item, or diffused into the air with an aromatherapy diffuser. Inhalation is the safest method for using essential oils.
When inhaled, molecules in essential oils are believed to influence the nervous system and the limbic area of the brain, as well as hormones, brain chemicals, and metabolism.
Essential oils sometimes are applied directly to the skin to treat pain in a specific body part—to relieve backache, for example, or to ease sore muscles, or to relieve sinus pain—and some may be used topically for their antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, such as for acne or fungal infections. However, many essential oils can be irritating and so should not be applied full-strength to the skin but rather diluted in a carrier oil (such as almond, apricot kernel, or avocado oil) first.
Essential Oils That Irritate Skin
These should never be applied directly to skin unless properly diluted.
Always test essential oils on a small patch of skin before applying to a larger area.
Essential oils also sometimes are added to soap, lotion, shampoo, bath salts, and other products, and used during massage and spa treatments.
Some essential oils can be used in cooking or even swallowed in small doses as medication, but this should be done with great caution: While many are safe in small doses, others are inherently poisonous and should never be ingested.
The potential risk of ingesting essential oils is heightened by the fact that they are not regulated by the FDA and there are no universal standards for ensuring the quality of the oil. The National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) recommends purchasing oils from a reputable supplier who analyzes its products and tests them for purity using gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS).1
Essential oils should only be ingested with the guidance of a qualified essential oil therapist, and dosed and diluted appropriately for safety. Because essential oils are fat-soluble, it’s important to eat some sort of dietary fat at the same time they’re taken.
Essential oils can be used to treat many physical and emotional health issues. At the molecular level, these oils contain beneficial compounds like antioxidants, terpenes, and esters that may help to boost wellness.
Although the body of research showing potential health benefits of essential oils is growing, many studies are limited to testing on animals and cell cultures. Large-scale human clinical trials looking at the effects of individual oils on specific health conditions are lacking but at least one study published in the Journal of Dietary Supplements was promising. It evaluated the general health effects of supplements, herbs, and essential oils and found oils are as effective as other supplements in improving health.
In particular, study participants reported improved immunity, reduced pain and anxiety, and enhanced energy and mental clarity. Laboratory tests also found improved blood markers associated with cholesterol, diabetes, and heart disease.
There are dozens of essential oils, each with a unique scent and potential healing properties.
Basil: Distilled from the popular cooking herb, basil oil is believed to ease coughs and congestion, enhance mood, improve digestion, increase alertness, and soothe muscle aches.
Bergamot: This citrus oil gives Earl Grey tea its distinctive flavor and is used to relieve anxiety. Bergamot also is being studied for its potential to lower cholesterol.
Calendula: A relative of the marigold, calendula may soothe rashes, wounds, yeast infections, and other skin irritations.
Carrot Seed: Used in cosmetics, this oil has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Cedarwood: Used to treat hair loss, cedar or cedarwood oil may also ease stress and improve sleep.
Cinnamon: Research suggests the oil in this popular spice may improve circulation, relieve stress, ease pain, fight off infections, and improve digestion.
Citronella: A natural insect repellant, citronella also may relieve stress and fatigue.
Clove: Spicy clove oil can be used to treat toothaches and other types of pain.
Eucalyptus: The active ingredient in VapoRub, eucalyptus is commonly used to treat colds, congestion, and coughs, and is being studied for antibacterial benefits.
Frankincense: This Biblical oil can help treat dry skin and reduce the appearance of wrinkles, age spots, scars, and stretch marks. It is also being investigated as an anti-cancer agent.
Geranium: Commonly used in skincare, research shows this floral oil has antimicrobial properties.
Grapefruit: This citrus oil is said to relieve hangovers and jet lag and is used to reduce stress, stimulate circulation, increase energy, enhance mood, and improve digestion.
Helichrysum: This oil has a medicinal scent and is often used to reduce inflammation, promote healing of wounds and burns, stimulate digestion, boost the immune system, and soothe body and mind.
Jasmine: A sweet-smelling floral oil, jasmine is touted as a stress-reliever with the potential to help treat dry skin and signs of aging, inflammation, and psoriasis.11
Lavender: One of the most widely used essential oils, lavender is used for relaxation and to relieve insomnia.
Lemon: Said to boost mood and energy, this citrus oil relieves anxiety and may help promote weight loss.
Lemongrass: Used for stress-relief and to help boost immunity, studies suggest this oil can treat dandruff and fungal infections, and ease anxiety, headaches, and upset stomach.