Do Essential Oils Work?
Can you really expect medicinal effects from aromatherapy?
Essential oils are recognized as one of the fastest growing segments of the natural health industry. You can find these oils at neighborhood sales parties, your corner drugstore, specialty health food shops, and countless online retailers.
But as we all learned in middle school, popularity is fickle and has nothing to do with effectiveness. Which means this growing trend begs the question: Do essential oils work? Or are they just another passing fad.
Who better to address this question than a team of clinical researchers who specialize in integrative health? As some of the most widely published researchers in the world on essential oil's effects on the human body, our research team can help you sort fact from fiction.
Is there scientific research on essential oils?
From a scientific point of view, to answer the question "does it work" requires some context. Does it work at what? When most people ask "do essential oils work?" what they really mean is: are all of the claims about essential oils accurate?
The quick answer to that is: of course not. Social media is chock full of claims about essential oil efficacy and if you read long enough, you'll find that it can cure everything from cancer to HIV/AIDS to the common cold. Obviously nothing can achieve that.
But before we get carried away, there are many health conditions which are successfully treated with essential oils, and many more which are being evaluated scientifically.
For example, our team has studied the beneficial effects of aromatherapy for treating fatigue, reducing morning sickness, and addressing stress-induced feelings of anxiety. Other teams have also found that essential oils can increase endurance, treat pain, help wounds heal faster, and even treat generalized anxiety disorders.
At a Glance
Unlike most conventional drugs or botanically based remedies, essential oils work through one (or both) of two distinct mechanisms of action. Essential oils have a physical effect on the mind and body through sensory memory. Essential oils also produce physical effects on the body through chemical actions, just like other drugs and botanical products.
How do essential oils work?
Unlike most conventional drugs or botanically based remedies, essential oils work through one (or both) of two distinct mechanisms of action. Essential oils have a physical effect on the mind and body through sensory memory. This is a psychological effect that refers to the way the body responds to certain triggers.
For example, if you hear the song that was played on your wedding day, your emotional state is likely to change. If your marriage is a happy one, this auditory input is likely to trigger joyful feelings. If the marriage ended poorly, the same sensory input may negatively affect your emotional state. The sense of smell is the earliest to develop and recalls memories from earlier in our lives than other sensory memories. This means that essential oils can play a psychological role on wellness by modifying how the body responds to subjective outcomes such as pain, anxiety, and fatigue (1,2).
The other way essential oils have physical effects on the body is through chemical actions, just like other drugs and botanical products. Many of these chemicals are able to produce medicinal effects when applied to the body through the correct application and in the correct dose. Chemicals such as menthol, eucalyptol, and limonene are responsible for many of the medicinal effects of aromatherapy (3,4,5).
So how do you use essential oils?
This is the million dollar question. It's also where most social media/blogger essential oil recommendations go off the rails. Just like any medicinal substance, essential oils can only achieve beneficial effects if applied using the correct application and at the correct dose. They aren't magical substances capable of curing what ails you just by being in the same room (or in a diffuser. ahem).
As a general rule, if you are using the essential oil for housekeeping purposes (i.e. to kill germs in a bathroom or as a natural air freshener), treat the oil like you would any other household product. Don't use without ample ventilation, keep away from young children, etc. If you are using the oils for medicinal effects, you'll want to be sure you have the same info you would expect from any OTC drug.
This includes: uses for the oil/product (i.e. what effects you expect to occur), the correct way to prepare the essential oil, precautions and warnings, side effects, directions. Directions should include the amount taken at a time for each age/weight group as well as the frequency and total duration the preparation can be taken safely. For example, if treating a rash on a 12 year old, you would need to know that an essential oil is diluted to a 10% preparation in a topical application, and that 1/2tsp is applied to the affected area up to 3x per day in children ages 10-15.
A reputable essential oil brand should provide the majority of this information. The rest may need to be sourced directly from reputable sources. Our website provides information on herbal and essential oil safe dosing. You may also want to consider becoming a professional aromatherapist so that you can help others use essential oils safely.
- Aromatherapy Certification Program
- Essential Oils for Beginners FREE course
- FREE Aromatherapy Science Webinars
- McGann, J. P. (2017). Poor human olfaction is a 19th-century myth. Science, 356(6338), eaam7263.
- Reid, C. A., Green, J. D., Wildschut, T., & Sedikides, C. (2015). Scent-evoked nostalgia. Memory, 23(2), 157-166.
- A Farco, J., & Grundmann, O. (2013). Menthol-pharmacology of an important naturally medicinal “cool”. Mini reviews in medicinal chemistry, 13(1), 124-131.
- Seol, G. H., & Kim, K. Y. (2016). Eucalyptol and its role in chronic diseases. In Drug Discovery from Mother Nature (pp. 389-398). Springer, Cham.
- Sun, J. (2007). D-Limonene: safety and clinical applications. Alternative Medicine Review, 12(3), 259.
Meet Dr Hawkins
Dr. Hawkins brings 20 years of expertise in the integrative health field to her role as Executive Director of the Franklin School of Integrative Health Sciences and the leader of our clinical research team.
She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Health from Union Institute and University, a Master’s Degree in Health Education & Promotion from the University of Alabama, a post-graduate certificate in epidemiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a PhD in Health Research from Middle Tennessee State University, and is completing the post-doctoral Global Scholars Research Training Program at Harvard Medical School. She also holds certifications in numerous natural health fields including aromatherapy, aromatic medicine, herbalism, childbirth education, and labor support.