What are essential oils, and why are they so popular?
First, essential oils are fragrant liquids extracted from flowers, herbs and trees, and can be inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin. Many cosmetics and household cleaning products include them. Aromatherapists have used them for centuries.
But do essential oils also have medicinal value? They have become a hit with consumers, and it’s worth understanding their merits.
Reasons for the Trend
Many cultures have historically used plant extracts and essential oils for medicinal purposes, including the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. They’re popular in Asian communities as well, but until recently, most Americans knew very little about them.
Now, thousands of blogs and social media groups are dedicated to this topic, while dozens of new companies produce and distribute essential oils both online and through independent consultants.
This trend also comes from people’s increasing interest in natural medicine. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, one third of U.S. adults used some method of alternative health just three years ago, mostly to complement (not replace) traditional medicine.
Even skeptical consumers have been influenced by scientific studies that demonstrate real health benefits. For example:
- Lavender oil can help manage anxiety and depression.
- Peppermint oil can help relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, per the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).
- Oils containing frankincense and myrrh can reduce joint inflammation.
- Tea tree oil, as described by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), can help treat athlete’s foot and other fungal infections.
Although a few studies suggest certain essential oils kill cancer cells, the NIH only recognizes the use of aromatherapy to improve quality of life for cancer patients, not necessarily to treat them.
A Word of Warning
Not all essential oils, or their manufacturers, are created equal. Many oils on the market today are diluted with alcohol and other chemicals that make these products less effective or even hazardous to people with certain conditions.
Even quality items may be harmful when not used as directed. Keep in mind, warns the Mayo Clinic, you can irritate your skin or cause ultraviolet (UV) sensitivity when applying oils directly. We may also need further research to verify their safety for those who are pregnant, nursing or taking other medications along with it.
Advice or recommendations are for informational or educational purposes only, not a substitute for a visit or consultation with your doctor.