The first record of plant and flower extract usage dates back to ancient Persia, Egypt, and India for commercial trade. Since then, the essential oil trade has grown to be a whopping billion-dollar industry and refined the techniques of harnessing the compounds in roots, flowers, and leaves to promote health and well-being.
Over the last decade, there's been a lot of buzz about essential oils due to the rise of the self-care movement and rigorous push by stakeholders to promote them as an alternative medicine for various conditions such as pain, anxiety, gut issues, and many more.
You might have heard a friend, family member, or colleague talking about them, but with all the claims out there, you have to ask the right questions. Do essential oils really work? Are they safe for long-term use? Or are they just another snake oil?
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are made by distilling or cold pressing flowers, barks, leaves, or fruits to capture the compounds that produce fragrance and other benefits.
It takes massive amounts of plant matter to produce essential oils, making some quite expensive for average buyers. For example, to put things in perspective, 1 pound of lavender oil is equivalent to 220 - 250 pounds of lavender flower.
Essential oils are mixed with a based oil or alcohol and applied to the skin, sprayed in the air, or inhaled. You can also put them in a diffuser without mixing them with any other oil and then inhale them in the room.
The theory behind aromatherapy
The primary use of essential oil as a therapeutic tool is through aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is a complementary medicine that uses scents to affect the body and mind. 
The olfactory nerve, the nerve responsible for our sense of smell, has a long connection between the brain and the nose. The part of the brain connected to the olfactory is the temporal lobe which has the amygdala and hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a role in the memory of past experiences, and the amygdala is the brain's emotional center.
Hence, inhaling volatile organic compounds in essential oils can affect the brain. By inhaling these compounds either by applying them to the skin or diffusing them, you send them directly to the emotional part of the brain.
A direct pathway from your nose to your brain provides a faster route than eating something. This bypasses your digestion and the bloodstream giving you a direct shot to your brain.
The brain is a powerful organ. Any compound that alters or affects the brain can induce temporary or lasting changes in both the body and mind.
Little evidence supports the use of essential oils to treat health conditions. However, here's what the research has to say about its benefits.
Anxiety and stress
Aromatherapy has been shown to relieve symptoms of anxiety and stress by inducing relaxation effects and relieving tension. Many of the users report that they feel relaxed and calm when diffusing or applying essential oils. [2,3]
However, most of the studies have been inconclusive and have some forms of biases. For example, it maybe impossible to test whether a particular essential oil caused the positive changes without the participant knowing what product is being tested due to its unique aroma. [4,5]
Research shows that massaging 10% peppermint in ethanol solution across the forehead and temples every 15 and 30 minutes can relieve tension-type headaches producing a comparable effect to paracetamol. 
This effect is replicated through the inhalation of lavender oil for 15 minutes. A study by the Department of Neurology at Mashhad University of Medical Sciences suggests that lavender oil can be a safe alternative or complementary treatment to migraine attacks. 
Anti-inflammatory and Anti-microbial
Test-tube studies and animal models have shown that several essential oils such as oregano, thyme, and rosemary oils have anti-inflammatory properties and can help reduce inflammation. However, these effects are not seen in human studies, and their effectiveness and safety are still unknown. [10,11]
In addition, there's also a growing interest in finding other compounds that could fight off bacterial infection due to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria or bugs.
This prompts researchers to revisit plant extracts' role, as some exhibit anti-microbial effects in test-tube studies. However, it is still unknown how these oils will interact with the body, and there's no proof that they could treat an actual bacterial infection in humans.
People with dementia can have management problems and cognitive impairment, which could be difficult for both the patient and caregivers.
According to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, lemon balm oil can effectively reduce agitation in patients with dementia. This study includes 72 people in National Health Service care facilities who have significant agitation. They found out that lotion infused with lemon balm oil applied to the face and arms can reduce levels of agitation by at least 30-35%. 
Tea tree oil is also used to promote healthy skin. One study on 60 patients with mild to moderate acne found that tea tree oil application on the face improved acne by 3-5 times better than placebo treatment. 
Many proponents of essential oils celebrate them as an all-natural solution. Some would even claim they can treat diseases such as cancer, infection, and a range of other dieases.
Currently, no science-backed evidence can prove that essential oils can cure any illness. Most studies are still inconclusive and need more extensive scale trials to ensure their safety and effectiveness. For example, even lavender and tea tree oils are linked to the enlargement of breasts in males.
A lot of essential oil companies use the terms "pure," "organic," and "therapeutic grade," etc., making you think that they have some form of certification or approval. However, these are only clever marketing tactics, and the FDA does not regulate these products.
In general, essential oils aren't legally held to the same standard as pharmaceutical products, meaning there's no mandated routine for testing them that safeguards the users.
Any company advertising that they can treat illnesses with essential oils may be causing more harm than good. Ultimately, there's still a lot of work before essential oils can be considered and prescribed as a medical treatment.
Essential oils are not for internal use; you should not drink them or use them outside their intended use.
Just because something is natural doesn't mean they are safe. They may contain bioactive compounds that may harm your health.
The recommended dosage for essential oil vary, and it is best to research thoroughly before using them. An essential oil should be concentrated at no more than 3-5% and diluted in another substance such as water or oil.
Lower concentrations of essential oils are recommended for pregnant women, children, and people with a severe conditions that may be at risk of adverse effects.
Most essential oils are considered safe if combined with a base oil. They are used for aromatherapy and are usually applied by diffusing, inhaling, or applying directly to the skin.
Although these products have many reported positive effects, more intensive research is needed to ensure their long-term safety and effectiveness in humans.
- Brennan, S. E., McDonald, S., Murano, M., & McKenzie, J. E. (2022). Effectiveness of aromatherapy for prevention or treatment of disease, medical or preclinical conditions, and injury: protocol for a systematic review and meta-analysis. Systematic reviews, 11(1), 148. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13643-022-02015-1
- Lee, Y. L., Wu, Y., Tsang, H. W., Leung, A. Y., & Cheung, W. M. (2011). A systematic review on the anxiolytic effects of aromatherapy in people with anxiety symptoms. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), 17(2), 101–108. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2009.0277
- Goes, T. C., Antunes, F. D., Alves, P. B., & Teixeira-Silva, F. (2012). Effect of sweet orange aroma on experimental anxiety in humans. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), 18(8), 798–804. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2011.0551
- Cooke, B., & Ernst, E. (2000). Aromatherapy: a systematic review. The British journal of general practice : the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, 50(455), 493–496.
- Tsang, H. W., & Ho, T. Y. (2010). A systematic review on the anxiolytic effects of aromatherapy on rodents under experimentally induced anxiety models. Reviews in the neurosciences, 21(2), 141–152.
- Göbel, H., Fresenius, J., Heinze, A., Dworschak, M., & Soyka, D. (1996). Effektivität von Oleum menthae piperitae und von Paracetamol in der Therapie des Kopfschmerzes vom Spannungstyp [Effectiveness of Oleum menthae piperitae and paracetamol in therapy of headache of the tension type]. Der Nervenarzt, 67(8), 672–681. https://doi.org/10.1007/s001150050040
- Sasannejad, P., Saeedi, M., Shoeibi, A., Gorji, A., Abbasi, M., & Foroughipour, M. (2012). Lavender essential oil in the treatment of migraine headache: a placebo-controlled clinical trial. European neurology, 67(5), 288–291. https://doi.org/10.1159/000335249
- Lillehei, A. S., & Halcon, L. L. (2014). A systematic review of the effect of inhaled essential oils on sleep. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), 20(6), 441–451. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2013.0311
- Karadag, E., Samancioglu, S., Ozden, D., & Bakir, E. (2017). Effects of aromatherapy on sleep quality and anxiety of patients. Nursing in critical care, 22(2), 105–112. https://doi.org/10.1111/nicc.12198
- Triantafyllidi, A., Xanthos, T., Papalois, A., & Triantafillidis, J. K. (2015). Herbal and plant therapy in patients with inflammatory bowel disease. Annals of gastroenterology, 28(2), 210–220.
- Saxena, A., Kaur, K., Hegde, S., Kalekhan, F. M., Baliga, M. S., & Fayad, R. (2014). Dietary agents and phytochemicals in the prevention and treatment of experimental ulcerative colitis. Journal of traditional and complementary medicine, 4(4), 203–217. https://doi.org/10.4103/2225-4110.139111
- Ballard, C. G., O'Brien, J. T., Reichelt, K., & Perry, E. K. (2002). Aromatherapy as a safe and effective treatment for the management of agitation in severe dementia: the results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial with Melissa. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 63(7), 553–558. https://doi.org/10.4088/jcp.v63n0703
- Enshaieh, S., Jooya, A., Siadat, A. H., & Iraji, F. (2007). The efficacy of 5% topical tea tree oil gel in mild to moderate acne vulgaris: a randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled study. Indian journal of dermatology, venereology and leprology, 73(1), 22–25. https://doi.org/10.4103/0378-6323.30646
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