Essential oils are potent, risky and promising. Here’s what you need to know
Essential oils are seemingly everywhere — fitness studios, nail salons, juice bars, home stores, big-box pharmacies and even recipe blogs — promising benefits such as sounder sleep, deeper focus and improved well-being. Is any of it legit?
Even though aromatherapy is an ancient practice, the current craze arrived in a cloud of confusion and controversy. There are the multilevel marketing giants that hire untrained “wellness advocates” to pitch you products. There are megabrands that use synthetic imitations of oils without disclosing the difference.
There’s the Food and Drug Administration, which has been slow to regulate the products (except for its crackdowns on a few MLMs that were making unsubstantiated claims about using oils to combat diseases).
And there are well-meaning aromatherapists who perhaps rely too heavily on small-batch clinical studies and evolving research.
It all adds up to one big head scratch for consumers, who seem to cast essential oils into two categories: At best, they’re a harmless hippie indulgence along the lines of crystals and candles.
At worst, they’re a dangerous marketing scam. Experts say neither is quite right.
Essential oils — concentrated, aromatic, volatile liquids distilled from plants — are highly potent, often risky and full of possibilities.
“The research is quite promising,” said Harpreet Gujral, director of integrative medicine at Sibley Memorial Hospital in the District. She cited ongoing clinical studies that strive to measure the degree to which oils can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and nausea, as well as how they affect mood. “The results are mixed, but the research is there,” she said. “We just need more.”
Of the 100 most common essential oils, about 10 have been researched “in great depth” over the past three decades, said Robert Tisserand, who wrote the widely cited 1995 textbook “Essential Oil Safety,” which received a substantial update in 2013. Those efforts have yielded some concrete evidence (the cooling sensation of peppermint oil, the bacteria-killing power of tea tree oil or the calming effect of lavender, for example) but the results aren’t guaranteed for everyone.
Some researchers believe essential oils could also be key in solving the looming antibiotic-drug-resistance crisis. “Research strongly suggests that bacteria don’t develop resistance to essential oils the way they do to antibiotics,” Tisserand said.
For now, most people encounter essential oils in cosmetic environments such as spas or salons or in health food stores. They make up what has become a multibillion-dollar industry. Revenue in the United States spiked 40 percent from 2014 to 2018 and, according to Grand View Research, is expected to reach more than $5 billion in the next four years.
Although some of that growth is from the food industry, which uses the extracts’ antimicrobial properties to improve shelf life, the rise of plant-based chemicals in personal care is significant.
As consumers search for greener alternatives to synthetic cosmetics and prescription drugs, aromatherapy has crossed over from New Age hobby to mainstream phenomenon and revived the conversation around the natural healing properties of plants.
Skeptics tend to wrestle with the ambiguity of essential oils, which occupy a gray area between perfume and medicine. Plant elixirs are often promoted with lofty promises and fuzzy science and aren’t regulated by the FDA.
That means companies don’t have to prove their products are safe or effective and largely aren’t held accountable for what they put on the label. As a result, shopping for essential oils can be a nightmare.
Consumers face a marketplace that’s littered with deceptive marketing, unsubstantiated claims and conflicting advice.
“There is, unfortunately, a lot of bad information out there,” Tisserand said. “And the way it spreads now, it’s very difficult to navigate.”
Don’t be discouraged. Just because there’s a glut of misinformation doesn’t mean essential oils aren’t worth exploring or can’t help you.
Many researchers think we’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to unearthing their healing properties.
“Essential oils have become mainstream because people are seeing them as an aesthetic; they smell good, they look good.” Gujral said. “They are so much more than that.”
Before you fill your medicine cabinet with these potent potions, arm yourself with as much information as possible. Here are some tips for navigating the marketplace.
Although there are exceptions, products sold at big-box retailers or chain drugstores that boast essential oils are probably not the real deal.
“Many mass-market ‘aromatherapy’ products that list oils on their cosmetic labels actually contain either synthetic fragrances or isolated fragrance chemicals such as linalool and geraniol limonene rather than natural essential oils,” said Annette Davis, a seasoned aromatherapist and the president of the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.
Tisserand sympathizes with confused consumers. “Sometimes, it’s even difficult for a specialist lab technician to tell whether or not an essential oil has been adulterated,” he said. Synthetic chemicals may not sound the worst thing, especially if the real oil hasn’t yet proved to be effective, but Davis says the issue is transparency.
Consumers of essential oils are typically looking for a natural alternative to commercial products, as well as a specific effect (calming, anti-inflammatory, etc.). Knowing the source, authenticity and exact concentration is preferable to buying a mysterious blend.
One way to separate real oils from synthetics is price. Essential oils are difficult and expensive to produce and often require large amounts of plants. “It takes almost 2,000 lavender blossoms to give us just a few drops of essential oil,” Gujral said. “So when I see it being sold for $5 on Amazon, I know something isn’t right.”
All the earthy nomenclature around essential oils — even the term itself — can be confusing. Essential oils aren’t called that because they’re vital for a healthy life but because they contain a plant’s fragrance, or “essence.
” Similarly, don’t take much stock in terms such as “therapeutic grade,” “pharmaceutical grade” and “medical grade” when it comes to oils.
the term “natural,” these labels aren’t regulated by the FDA and are relatively meaningless, Davis said.
What you want to see, Gujral said, are botanical names. “If a company does not list the plant’s scientific or botanical name as well as where they sourced it from, it’s ly not a good product,” she said. “Take lavender, for example.
It should say lavender lavandula [under ingredients], as well as the state or country of origin. Did it come from Arizona? Puerto Rico? That information should be included.
” The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy also recommends looking for labels that include required warnings against toxic oils (such as wintergreen), any specific growing methods (such as “organic” or “wild”) and special extraction methods.
Most essential oils are distilled, Davis said. If the extraction method is anything other than distilled (cold-pressed or via CO2, for example), it should be listed. Some include a chemical process that could be toxic.
When Gujral was a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, she took a class in aromatherapy that she hoped would deliver “the magic recipes,” or special blends for curing ailments and alleviating pain.
Instead, she said, “the lesson was, these are volatile, potent chemicals,” she said. “They should only been used when necessary, as indicated. We have to be reasonable. Of course they aren’t a magic fix.
Of course you don’t use them every day.”
There’s a reason aromatherapists are so quick to talk about safety. Essential oils are often highly potent and, as a result, risky. Bottled oils are 50 to 100 times more concentrated than the oils in the plant itself. Although many sites will encourage you to absorb and even ingest essential oils, experts strongly advise against it.
Generally, it’s best to avoid applying pure essential oils directly onto the skin, because their high concentration can cause chemical burns or irritation. Instead, they should be diluted into a blending oil or lotion.
“Don’t ingest oils unless you absolutely know what you’re doing,” Tisserand cautions, “and definitely don’t put essential oils in water and drink them. That is terrible advice.”
One popular way to use the oils is with a diffuser — but not all are created equal. Beginners should look for ultrasonic diffusers, which mist a mixture of water and oils into the air. Those with more experience may want to consider nebulizing diffusers, which distribute pure, undiluted oil via pumps of air.
Because the oil is undiluted, you’ll want to have a solid understanding of what oils you’re using. A tip: Don’t leave it on all day.
A quality diffuser should be able to fill the room in about 30 minutes, and overexposure to certain oils, particularly from inhalation, can cause side effects such as headaches and spikes in heart rate.
Oils should be kept away from children and babies, who are more susceptible to potential toxicity, and pregnant women should take caution with certain compounds. Peppermint oil is so powerful that it can prematurely induce labor, Gujral said.
If you’re interested in experimenting with essential oils, consider consulting a certified aromatherapist. Most have had to complete about 200 hours of coursework and will be able to offer more informed guidance your medical history and the nuances of the plant.
Tisserand, who runs an online education portal called the Tisserand Institute that prioritizes clinical research over folklore and word of mouth, says he marvels at how many people still turn to for answers. “I’ve been saying this for 40 years: You need to read a book, follow the guidelines, talk to an expert.
” Otherwise, the risk is not dissimilar to blindly experimenting with prescription drugs, he said. “Sometimes you’re playing with fire, and sometimes you’re buying things that are not going to work.”
If you’re keen to do your own research, there are several reputable organizations with materials that might help serve as a guide.
The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy has safety guidelines, approved schools and reputable brands on its website, and the American Botanical Council has a newsletter called HerbalEGram that Gujral recommends. The National Cancer Institute also has information about current clinical trials.
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What’s the Deal With Essential Oils?
Photo: Time & Life Pictures
If you’ve read about essential oils recently and wondered to yourself, “Is this for real?” you’re not alone.
Call it a by-product of the green-juice-drinking, crystal-collecting movement, but essential oils (we’re talking about the kind you smell rather than the topical treatments) have become the latest wellness treatment adopted by activated-charcoal drinkers evangelizing about “gut health.
” Various oils have been said to do everything from relieve stress and increase libido to restore energy and lower blood pressure.
I for one am a recent convert to inhaling serums and scent treatments, but can smelling something really transform the body and mind? Is it all just bullshit? In an attempt to find out (and God knows I could use some relief from the stress induced by the current news cycle), I decided to investigate.
I talked to Dr. Pamela Dalton, an olfactory-research scientist at the Monell Center in Philadelphia, and asked her point-blank whether essential oils work as aromatherapy. She was measured in her response.
“The good studies are difficult, maybe impossible to do,” she says, “and I don’t know that the direct pharmacological effect of these materials are ever more important than the psychological effect.
” With essential oils, it may be a case of mind over matter.
The olfactory bulb, Dr. Dalton notes, is connected to the amygdala (responsible for emotional reactions) and to the hippocampus, which stores memories (a fact Old Spice mined to great effect years ago with those “Scent is the strongest sense tied to memory” commercials).
That also makes the olfactory bulb very susceptible to outside influences. “Smell is an extremely malleable sense,” says Dalton, “We are very easily primed by our expectations by how an aroma is supposed to make us feel.
” There are plenty of psychological studies in which subjects learn to associate foreign smells positively or negatively. In one study, a drama student and subject were given the same odors to smell, and the subject mimicked the actor’s (positive or negative) reaction almost every time.
So, if someone (or something , say, a bottle’s label) tells you to feel a certain way, you might just.
As someone who’s mindful of what goes into my body, though, my real question was whether the stuff can be harmful. Dalton actually encourages their use, and in my own research (I actually own a dusty copy of The Encyclopedia of Aromatherapy), I discovered that reactions to essential oils are extremely rare.
Unless you have chemical sensitivities or acute allergies, you should be fine. If you’re unsure, do a patch test — use a dropper to place a drop on a cotton pad and lightly sniff. Some oils — tea tree, ginger, nutmeg, and pine — are more ly to trigger reactions in sensitive individuals, though your own mileage may vary.
With essential oils (as with yoga or massages or elevator music), they work if they work for you.
Certain smells relax you because they bring up positive associations (grandma, gardens, that really hot yoga teacher), and not necessarily because they have discrete prescriptive benefits — as long as you them, there’s no need to overthink it.
“If you what you smell, you take deeper, slower breaths,” says Dalton. “Just the act of doing that has a calming, beneficial effect. Aromatherapy works, but maybe not for the reason people think it’s working.
” It’s not that aromatherapy is a sham — it just may be that the simple act of smelling something nice creates pleasure (or calm or sleepiness). That was all the answer I needed. Placebo effect or not, I, for one, will continue to enjoy essential oils guilt-free.
The new MONQ pens marry two trends (essential oils and vaping), and I became curious after reading about them in a Wall Street Journal story — I found them to be an absolute pleasure to use. With cinnamon, turmeric, and marjoram, the Healthy MONQ hits the trifecta of anti-inflammatory ingredients, though I wouldn’t venture to say they undo a Lohan-esque lifestyle.
Supposedly helps you achieve a higher state of being, though I just inhaling the scent of frankincense, orange, and ylang-ylang.
I certainly feel happier thanks to the vanilla and thyme, though the addition of anise-scented fennel may throw some licorice haters off.
This may be the closest MONQ can come to actually claiming medicinal properties, as lavender, lemongrass, and (especially) valerian have been known to induce sleep.
Origins Peace of Mind On-the-Spot Relief
Un MONQ, a more traditional form of aromatherapy to be dabbed on pulse points. If odors are deeply entwined with psychology, then that would explain why I still enjoy this. The peppermint zing reminds me of my lovely mom (an early adopter of Origins way back in the ’80s) and the heady optimism I had at my first magazine job in the 2000s.
Lotus Wei Inner Peace Serum
A more-current favorite essential-oil aromatherapy I’ve tried is Inner Peace, created by the flower-essence brand Lotus Wei. The collection is all great, but I to squirt the serum on the palms, rub them together, breathe in, and imagine I’m in a tropical, fruity, serene headspace — the best hotel room on Kauai, or maybe what Moana’s hair smells .
Designed for new mothers and handcrafted in small batches in a “high vibrational environment,” apply this blend (bergamot with neroli and jasmine in a jojoba and coconut-oil base) to pulse points and inhale.
Scents lemongrass, orange, and grapefruit allow you to make your own concoctions, while prescriptive oils “Wind Down” or “Be Centered” are meant to be used alone. If you have a diffuser, place five to seven drops in it — if not, mix the concentrate in with carrier oil jojoba.
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The Best Essential Oil Scents for Every Room in Your House
In the entrance of your home, alongside your welcome mat, a fragrant essential oil can encourage visitors to enter with calm and ease. For this area, experts recommend opting for an essential oil that's been shown to reduce anxiety, such as orange or cinnamon.
“Orange essential oil is an emotionally uplifting oil,” says Maat van Uitert, essential oil expert and founder of FrugalChicken. “The major chemical constituent is limonene, which has been shown to reduce anxiety, lower heart rate, and ease stress.
” Another favorite fragrance to use in the home is cinnamon, a classic scent that recalls memories of baking and childhood.
“Cinnamon signals 'fun' to our memory centers and is a great way to welcome a guest,” says Kac Young, PhD, doctor of naturopathy and clinical hypnotherapy and author of The Healing Art of Essential Oils. Find out other essential oils that ease anxiety.
For a clean, crisp scent for a room in your home you most ly prefer to keep spick and span, opt for lemon essential oil. “Lemon is antibacterial and a stimulant so it has natural purification properties built in,” says Dr. Young.
“It's also a sense awakener—it clarifies the mind, dispels anger and provides a sense of new energy. It's a breath of fresh air in a stuffy room.” If you want your kitchen to feel cozy, cinnamon essential oil is a must.
“Cinnamon elicits feelings of warmth and comfort, and since cinnamon is so prevalent in baked goods, many people associate cinnamon with warm memories of baking, sipping hot apple cider, and spending time with family as a child,” says van Uitert.
“More than other scents, cinnamon evokes a sense of security and well being.” Since cinnamon can be quite powerful, she suggests diffusing it heavily. You'll also love these seven homemade kitchen air fresheners.
According to experts, the best essential oils for your living room depend on the activities you enjoy doing in that room the most. If you want to relax after a long day and forget about stressful events, van Uitert recommends fir needle oil. “It's sweet, relaxing and connects us with nature.
” That last part is important, as scents that remind us of nature have been linked to lower blood pressure. She recommends adding one to two drops to your favorite potpourri mix or diffusing up to ten drops in a diffuser.
“Fir oil has a powerful and sweet scent when inhaled directly from the bottle, so if you're stressed and need a quick pick me up, carry some in your pocket.” If use your living room as an office or spot to catch up on work, van Uitert suggests rosemary essential oil. “It stimulates creativity and activates our memory,” she says.
“Inhale directly from the bottle to experience the scent or diffuse one to two drops as you work.” Don't miss these 11 extraordinary olive oil benefits that can revamp your home, skin, health, and more!
This is probably not be the room of your home where you sit down for every meal, but rather where you dine for special occasions—all the more reason to make sure it smells appetizing! In addition to choosing an essential oil that's welcoming, you'll want to select one that revs up your appetite, such as bergamot.
Do avoid strong scents that may distract you from eating or suppress your appetite such as peppermint or ginger. Van Uitert recommends copaiba, an essential oil derived from the trunk of a South American tree.
“Copaiba has a low-key but refreshing, woody scent that will enhance the space and create a calm, peaceful atmosphere without overwhelming you.”
This is the room of your home you're ly to spend the most time in. Not only will you want to choose an essential oil fragrance that you enjoy, but you'll also want to opt for one that's calming, relaxing and can help you get ready to fall asleep.
The rich, floral scent of jasmine can do just that, as well as evoke feelings of intimacy. But the scent is powerful, so van Uitert recommends diffusing just one to three drops in water for the best results.
“You can also place a single drop in candles as they burn to enjoy the scent.” If you want to start your day feeling empowered, she recommends keeping a bottle of frankincense essential oil nearby or on your night stand.
“The earthy scent of the resin reconnects you with nature and will help you feel more grounded.” Find out other essential oils that aid in sleep.
“The laundry room is an often forgotten about part of the home, and one that can trigger stress because it reminds us of household chores,” notes van Uitert. For this reason, she recommends selecting a relaxing scent that will leave your clothes smelling even nicer than your detergent.
Try a combination of lemon and copaiba essential oils. “The bright, cheerful scent of lemon will inspire you to feel happy and refreshed and, if you dread doing laundry, the warm, woodsy scent of copaiba will relax and ease your worried mind.
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It's inevitable that your bathroom won't always smell as fresh and clean as you'd , so to keep it light and airy, choose an essential oil lemon, eucalyptus, or tea tree.
Not only do they possess antibacterial properties, but they are associated with stimulating the mind. If you enjoy a nice, long bath after a hectic and hard-won work day, you'll want to choose an essential oil that induces feelings of relief and relaxation, lavender.
“The linalool chemical constituents in lavender oil help you relax because they signal your brain's temporal lobe, where you'll be reminded of past positive experiences,” says van Uitert.
Just one drop of lavender essential oil in a bubble bath is all you need to fill your bathroom with a relaxing, floral scent. Here's why a warm bath is the stress reliever you need right now.
This might not be an area of your home you think to freshen up, but you probably spend more time going in and out than you realize.
Why not keep it smelling nice with some peppermint essential oil? “The menthol and limonene chemical constituents found in peppermint essential oils stimulate the emotional centers of your brain, which motivate and uplift you—a perfect pick-me-up before work or for when you just arrive home,” says van Uitert.
“The menthol constituents also give peppermint oil its characteristic strong scent, so it'll mask any off odors in your garage.” For an immediate benefit, invest in a personal diffuser for your car.
If you're lucky enough to have a deck or patio, you might as well put it to good use—and ensure that it has a pleasant, fragrant scent. Two essential oils that van Uitert recommends for either area are citronella and fir needle. “Citronella does double duty outside.
The bright scent caused by the limonene constituents uplifts your mood while keeping bugs away, which lets you enjoy the space even more.” Fir needle, she says, is especially ideal if you live in an urban area, because the scent connects you to nature and help you relax.
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If you use your basement and attic to store belongings, van Uitert recommends diffusing with cedarwood. “It has a warm, uplifting scent that can elicit feelings of nostalgia and coziness,” she says.
“From a practical standpoint cedarwood will also keep insects away from your possessions and keep the space clean.
” Place two to three drops on a cotton ball and store inside boxes you've filled with your belongings to keep them smelling fresh.