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Do Essential Oils Really Work?

Lavender—for sleep and relaxation, lemon—for headaches, rose—for reducing anxiety, etc. Essential oils may smell nice, but whether or not they actually work is still being debated.

While their effectiveness in aromatherapy is unclear, essential oils are widely used as antibacterial ingredients in a range of products.

We can date the use of essential oils back to at least the 12th century. Records tell us they were used in the composition of ointments, in perfumes, and even in embalming fluids. Although fragrant oils are no longer used to mummify our deceased, in recent years they have made a big comeback as a natural remedy for many ailments and diseases. Essential oils can be found in cosmetics, in scents, and in household cleaning products.


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What are essential oils?

An essential oil is a liquid that contains aromatic chemical compounds characteristic of a particular plant in concentrated form; these oils are generally obtained by steam distillation— except for citrus essences which are cold extracted. When describing these oils “essential” does not mean indispensable but indicates that the oil contains the “essence” of the plant as characterised by its volatile oils—compounds that evaporate when they come into contact with air allowing us to smell them. Unlike vegetable oils (such as olive, avocado or sesame oil), essential oils do not primarily contain fatty substances; perhaps a better term would be plant essence because once the aromatic chemicals have been extracted, they are combined with a carrier oil to create a product that’s ready for use.

Essential oils are most commonly obtained through steam distillation. Some, such as citrus oils, are obtained through mechanical extraction or cold-pressing. Some delicate floral scents are obtained through solvent extraction; the solvents are then filtered or removed by evaporation, leaving only the pure fragrance.

Unscrupulous manufacturers of essential oils may dilute or adulterate the oils they sell to maximize their profits. Low prices and warning labels such as “for external use only”, “not for internal use”, and “dilute before topical application” should alert you to the possibility of adulteration. However, pure essential oils are strong and not all are safe to ingest. Buy your oils from a reputable producer and use them according to instructions.

Applications of essential oils

Plants produce essential oils for a variety of purposes—to attract pollinators, to deter herbivores, to influence the growth of competing plant species, and to control fungal, bacterial and viral plant diseases. The volatile nature of essential oils and their known action on herbivores make them a strong candidate for a natural substitute to synthetic pesticides. Essential oils have also been used as natural additives for food preservation, for example, to combat bacteria that damage meat.

Most essential oils are used in the manufacture of perfumes and fragrances that are added to cosmetics such as creams and body washes. Sometimes essential oils are added to beauty care products for their natural antioxidant properties and not primarily for their aroma.


Only a relatively small number of essential oils have been shown to be useful for therapeutic purposes. Many natural medicine practitioners and aromatherapists use essential oils. Aromatherapy involves diffusing oils into the air or applying an oil or blend topically —directly on the body, usually diluted in a carrier oil.

Aromatherapists believe that breathing in the beneficial compounds found in certain essential oils allows them to reach the lungs and bloodstream—otherwise largely inaccessible—where they can potentially benefit the body.

Here are some examples of the effects attributed to different essential oils:

  • Rose oil has a sweet floral scent that has been shown to reduce anxiety. Its antioxidant properties have been found to help treat acne and improve complexion.
    Caution: Skin irritation can occur when used topically, so make sure to use more of the carrier oil if you want to reap the skincare benefits of rose oil.
  • Lavender oil has a subtly floral scent that has been known to help people relax and fall asleep. Moreover, breathing it in has been found to alleviate headaches, while the use of the oil topically may help reduce itching and swelling caused by bug bites.
    Caution: There are a few known side effects, including nausea, headaches, chills, and vomiting. It can also irritate the skin if you have an intolerance.
  • Hyssop oil has an earthy, herbal, and sweet scent. It can be applied to the skin to minimize scarring, decrease inflammation, and act as an overall healing agent.
    Caution: Don’t use hyssop if you’re pregnant or have a history of seizures.
  • Myrrh oil is sappy-smelling and is said to relieve acne and cracked skin, and it may even help treat athlete’s foot.
    Caution: Myrrh should never be taken orally. If you’re using it topically, take note that it’s been found to cause dermatitis. More serious side effects include heart irregularities and low blood pressure. It can also increase the risk of miscarriage if taken while pregnant.
  • Basil oil. The essential oil extracted from basil has many topical and internal benefits. Basil has been shown to have both antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties, so it works as a cold and flu remedy and as muscle relaxant. It has also been found to treat acne, to reduce stress, and to reduce product build-up and enhance shine when added to hair care products.
    Caution: If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, speak with your doctor before using basil oil.

While most people enjoy their pleasant aromas, there are strongly conflicting views on the therapeutic effects of essential oils.

For many people, herbal oils such as lavender, mint, or eucalyptus, can be a real miracle remedy. Some claim that essential oils relieve their migraines faster than pharmaceutical drugs. And others say essential oils work to boost the libido when nothing else does.


The aromas contained in essential oils are thought to stimulate the limbic system—the structures in the brain that regulate emotions and long-term memory. The limbic system plays a role in controlling several autonomous physiological functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. Because of this, some people claim that essential oils can exert a physical effect on your body. The limbic system is also strongly involved in the formation of memories. This may explain in part why familiar smells can trigger memories or emotions.

However, there is not a sufficient scientific basis for these claims, and more research must be done before we can say for sure.

Scientists are conducting more studies

While there is continued scepticism about the therapeutic uses of essential oils, these claims have not been wholly disregarded by scientists. Essential oils have been the subject of a series of scientific studies, with a particular emphasis on the biologically active molecules in the oils.

Each essential oil contains 50 to 100 different biochemical molecules. Specific methods make it possible to identify and quantify each of these molecules and thus obtain the precise composition of each oil.

Many of the ingredients in essential oils have been found to have antibacterial properties.

The compounds with the greatest antibacterial effectiveness and the broadest spectrum action are phenols: thymol (found in thyme and oregano oil), carvacrol (found in oregano oil), and eugenol (found in clove oil).

  • Phenols in particular cause irreversible damage to membranes and can be used for bacterial, viral and parasitic infections, no matter their location.
  • Thymol and eugenol are responsible for the fungicidal (inhibiting the growth of fungi) and bactericidal (killing bacteria) activities of the essential oils that contain them.

Additional research on essential oils could aid with the development of new antibiotics to fight resistant strains of various bacteria. The misuse of existing antibiotics—not completing an entire course of antibiotics and overuse of antibiotics—are the main reason for the emergence of strains of bacteria that are resistant to the medications we already have. We must find new ways to fight these bacteria without causing adverse side effects to patients. The lack of such antibiotics has become a global problem.

Essential oils are already used as natural pesticides and food preservatives and could be a useful tool for combating various bacterial infections in the future.

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