I love using essential oils in my home. I use them in cleaning products, beauty products and in my diffuser to boost mood. But can just a few drops of plant-derived oils really kill germs, fight acne and reduce stress? It seems a little pseudo-sciencey, too good to be true.
So, I decided to do my research. Am I throwing good money after bad when I use my essential oils? Is it all just a big waste of time and effort?
The scientific answer is not clearcut.
Some studies have shown that certain essential oils have the powerful properties that aromatherapists claim. Others have been inconclusive, still more studies have shown that certain oils definitely don't have magic healing powers.
I am neither a scientist nor an aromatherapy expert, so muddling through the articles on both sides of the argument quickly became overwhelming.
The conclusion that I came to was that - as most studies state - more research needs to be done. What we can say for sure, is that essential oils are not miracle workers. They will not fix your depression, cure your cancer or give you the perfect night's sleep in one go. But many of them will help with certain, specific issues.
How does diffusing essential oils work?
Smell is one of our major senses, yet we often overlook the importance it has in our lives. Our senses all feed information to our mitochondria which is responsible for instructing our bodies on how to react to the world around us.
When we inhale essential oils they stimulate the limbic system (a major centre of our brains which responsible for our emotions, behaviour, memory formation and more). Some scientists have suggested (although, again always with the caveat that more research is needed) that certain essential oils can therefore promote certain reactions.
It may be that essential oils only provide a placebo effect or that the ritual around their use has more impact in calming or mood boosting than the oils themselves.
Are essential oils safe?
Yes, in general essential oils are safe to use. However, they should always be diluted in either water or a carrier oil - never apply directly to your skin or orally. A ratio of approximately 2ml (a couple of drops at most) of essential oil in 98ml of water or carrier oil works well.
Some essential oils may trigger allergic reactions or sensitivities, although this is rare. Test out each new essential oil in small amounts.
Small children and pregnant women should always be cautious when using new essential oils. If you have any worries or doubts, check with your doctor first.
Essential oils should never be ingested, unless they are certified food grade. Some oils (e.g. oregano oil) contain ingredients that are toxic to humans when ingested orally. Just because you would eat something in plant form, does not mean that it is therefore safe to consume in oil form.
Which essential oils really work?
There are literally hundreds of different essential oils and thousands of blends available to buy. Working out what to use and when can be a real headache. The following essential oils have been shown in serious scientific studies to have the following results:
Lavender - improved sleep quality
Tea tree - acne reduction
Peppermint - headache reduction
Rose - anxiety reduction
Clary sage - depression reduction
Eucalyptus - respiration
Cinnamon - period pain reduction
It should be noted that using tea tree oil won't cure acne, clary sage isn't a serious alternative to treatment for depression and your periods won't be a walk in the park because you've used a little cinnamon essential oil. Rather, inhaling peppermint essential oil may help reduce symptoms of a headache, not cure it.
Essential oils are not magic potions. Evidence does seem to demonstrate that at least some essential oils are effective, but they are by no means a complete replacement for traditional Western medicine and should not be relied upon to treat serious illness. Using essential oils as a complimentary treatment may have some benefits but it should not be used as a standalone treatment for serious physical or mental illnesses.
Until scientists rigorously test all essential oils, it is best to assume that their effect is mostly a placebo. But there is nothing wrong with that!
If using essential oils in your diffuser makes you happier and calmer, like it does for me, then there is certainly no harm in that - and it may turn out that there are actually serious benefits.