Essential oils have been used for centuries to treat anxiety and bodily aches. The jury is still out on whether or not they actually work. However, if used incorrectly, essentials oils can be bad for you.
Within the past five years, essential oils have re-gained notable popularity. The practice of using essential oils for health and wellness actually dates back centuries; the Egyptians used them regularly to treat anxiety, aches, pains and even acne. However, social media networks like Facebook and Instagram have brought the ancient practice to light once more—and helped essential oils companies profit heftily. Young Living, just one of many essentials oils companies who use social media to boost sales, reported $1 billion in sales for 2015 alone.
What are they exactly? An essential oil comes from plant compounds in the form of a concentrated hydrophobic liquid. The word “essential” does not mean that it is fundamental, as with essential fatty or amino acids. Rather, these oils are called "essential" in that they carry the essence of plant fragrance.
So... do they work? This is less clear and depends mostly on the study you read. In 2016, Time released an investigative report on the effectiveness of essential oils. They included recent research findings. For example, lavender oil was shown to boost pain tolerance while ginger oil was shown to reduce nausea post-surgery. Another interesting study found that lemon scent helped ease agitation in those suffering from severe dementia.
However, most experts Time interviewed refuted these findings. They believe there is not a strong enough correlation between the oil and the outcome. Placebo “expectation” effects could possibly be the cause, as could a number of other factors. For instance, in the dementia study, the sheer act of applying the lemon-scented balm required increased social and physical contact—which could be the real reason dementia sufferers showed an improvement in mood.
And just because essential oils are perceived as “natural” does not mean they are 100 percent safe. Before beginning a regimen, you should first speak with your physician. And if they clear you to proceed with use, there are a few other safety precautions you can take in order to minimize your risk of serious damage to your skin or body.
First, know that essential oils are incredibly potent. They have been known to cause skin irritation, especially if you used improperly. For this reason, you should always dilute your oil with a “carrier” like jojoba, coconut or almond oil. Without proper dilution, essential oils can cause mild irritation, serious rash or even permanent skin discoloration.
Secondly, understand that different oils have different effects. Some increase your photo-sensitivity—which can result in a severe burn and serious skin damage. Others may interact with certain medications. Persons with an unstable immune system, liver or renal disease, or taking numerous medications are at increased risk for this.
Finally, there are some instances where essentials oils are always unsafe. They are not for internal use: swallowing essential oils can result in serious illness or death. They are also not recommended for use by pregnant women, babies or small children.
Possible short-term side effects
- skin irritation, itching and discoloration
- increased photo-sensitivity
- interaction with medications/pre-existing conditions
Possible long-term side effects
- serious illness or death (when swallowed)
- treats skin problems/acne
- promotes relaxation
- boosts immune system/pain tolerance
- reduces nausea