If there’s a “cool kid” in the social-media wellness world, it’s essential oils. In recent years, these plant-derived extracts have been celebrated on Pinterest boards and Instagram feeds for their ability to do just about everything, be it elevating mood, lowering anxiety, easing heartburn, or cleaning grimy floors.
Indeed, essential oils can play a powerful role in promoting wellness. And research suggests that they have some hard-hitting pharmacological functions. But the online fervor raised by enthusiastic advertising campaigns and multilevel marketing strategies has made it more challenging to decipher when essential oils make a great choice for enhanced health and wellness — and when another treatment might make more sense.
Using oils safely and effectively requires basic knowledge about what they are, how they work, and how they can be safely incorporated into daily life. That’s because essential oils can be powerful medicine — and irresponsible use means risking overexposure, toxicity, and allergic reactions. Here’s what you need to know to enjoy the benefits of aromatherapy while sidestepping potential dangers.
How Do Essential Oils Work?
As active botanical compounds that give certain plants their signature aroma, essential oils are substances “that we respond to biologically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually,” writes certified aromatherapist and licensed massage therapist Cher Kaufmann in Nature’s Essential Oils: Aromatic Alchemy for Well-Being. “Essential oils have the power to change our relationship with our environment and ourselves,” Kaufmann explains.
How exactly do essential oils support psychological well-being? It’s likely via your olfactory senses. “We know that smell is connected to the limbic system, which is an area in the brain that deals with emotions and memories,” says Sarah Villafranco, MD, an emergency-medicine doctor originally from Washington, D.C., who left medicine to create the essential-oil-based skincare line Osmia Organics in Carbondale, Colo.
This is the neurological theory behind aromatherapy: Because your sense of smell is so uniquely connected to emotion and memory, aromas have the power to transport you back to a particular moment — and feeling — in time. It’s why the scent of homemade chocolate-chip cookies can make you feel like you’re 8 years old again, licking the wooden spoon in your grandmother’s kitchen.
Or, as Kaufmann sums it up in her book: “Smelling things you like will reduce stress.”
Then there is the pharmacological potential of essential oils. Tea-tree oil, for example, can be used topically to combat the fungus behind athlete’s foot. Other oils have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, and a meta-analysis of 16 studies found that peppermint oil — rather than commonly prescribed pharmaceutical drugs — might be “the drug of first choice” in patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Peppermint oil is believed to work by reducing muscle contractions in the GI tract, which is similar to how IBS pharmaceuticals work to reduce symptoms. A 2010 data review found that lavender-oil capsules taken orally can be as effective as lorazepam (Ativan) in reducing symptoms of anxiety. Essential oils are also being used as low-risk pesticides in some agricultural practices.
But what really excites experts is essential oils’ potential role in combating the antibiotic-resistance epidemic. Experimental research suggests that essential oils may have the power not just to kill otherwise resistant bugs, but to actually reverse resistance to conventional antibiotics. Most of the researchers haven’t delved into the question of howessential oils might reverse resistance, but they have some theories. One is that when essential oils are used in combination with conventional antibiotics, the duo has a synergistic effect that enhances antimicrobial activity. Some suspect that essential oils, either alone or together with conventional antibiotics, may work by a different mechanism all together. Whatever the case, the early research is considered promising and experts are calling for more work to be done in the field.