Do essential oils work? An evidence-based analysis.

An objective, evidence-based look at the purported health benefits of essential oils.

Essential oils are incredibly popular right now. By some online accounts, it seems like these oils are miracle workers in a bottle that can fight off all health conditions.

But wait, before you shell out $60 for a 10mL bottle of the currently trending essential oil, you might want to give this article a read. It’s an objective, evidence-based look at some of the purported health benefits of essential oils.

What are essential oils?

If you’ve ever taken in the enchanting smell of a fresh bouquet of roses or immersed yourself in the woody fragrance of fir trees in winter, then you’ve been exposed to essential oils.

You see, essential oils are natural oils that exist in plants as minuscule droplets and are responsible for giving a plant its unique scent and chemical makeup. You can think of these oils as concentrated ‘plant extracts’ that retain the natural flavor and smell — or ‘essence’ — of their source.

Common uses of essential oils

Many people use essential oils for a myriad of purposes. Typically, they’re used as an anti-inflammatory, stimulating, or relaxing substance. But others also believe that these oils can cure more severe health issues, such as cancer and mental disorders.

Do essential oils work?

So, do essential oils work? It’s a tough question to answer because there are so many natural oils available and they each have their own claimed health benefits. To cover them all would require a book, so for brevity’s sake, I’ll cover the ones that have gotten most of the attention in recent years.

#1 — Improves sleep quality

Think of lavender essential oil: what’s the first thing that comes into your mind? I’m willing to bet that it has something to do with sleep, or with relaxation. It’s a common belief that essential oils can facilitate improvement in sleep, and current scientific research supports this theory.

A systematic review published the European Journal of Integrative Medicine found, “lavender oil may be of small to moderate benefit” to sleep initiation, maintenance, and quality.

#2 — Curbs nausea

Another well-documented benefit of essential oils is their ability to curb nausea.

A 2013 randomized trial that recruited over 1000 participants showed that a blend of four essential oils — ginger, peppermint, spearmint, and cardamom — significantly reduced nausea in comparison to the non-intervention group.

This finding is also in line with several smaller studies that have demonstrated the efficacy of essential oils in treating adult post-operative nausea and vomiting.

#3 — Helps with psychiatric conditions

Many people use essential oils to experience their psychological effects, such as the reduction of stress and anxiety, and the alleviation of depression.

But a review conducted in 2012 found that there is currently insufficient evidence to suggest that the usage of essential oils is an effective therapy for any psychological condition.

#4 — Acts as an anticarcinogen

Some essential oils have shown potential anti-cancer activity. Specifically, a study published in 2017 found that three essential oils — frankincense, pine needle, and geranium essential oils have an antitumor effect and could, therefore, be a promising treatment for breast cancer. But it’s critical to note that this study was performed on mice. And as you know, our biological makeup is significantly different from that of mice.

In general, the anti-cancer studies — such as this study on prostate cancer — are still in the infancy stages (experimentations on human cells in a petri dish, or in-vivo in an animal model). It is not possible to draw conclusive evidence on essential oils’ anti-cancer properties in humans yet.

Here’s why you should be skeptical

As is the case with many ‘health’ supplements and foods, current research suggests that essential oils are not entirely useless. But — and here’s the crucial part — their effects are incredibly overrated.

And have you noticed that essential oils are typically (not all, I admit) sold through multi-level marketing (MLM) companies? Rather than creating a product and selling it wholesale to retailers, such MLM companies choose to sell through independent distributors — individuals like you and me, who earn a cut on the sale prices.

As a sales channel, MLM allows distributors to make claims the company itself can’t legally make in its advertising, such as:

“It cured my son’s ADHD,”

and

“It cured my husband’s skin cancer!”

Well, you get the point.

As a discerning consumer, you should always think critically about how extreme health claims are. Deep-dive into the available scientific literature yourself, rather than believe the various anecdotes provided by pushy essential oil distributors (even if they are your colleagues, friends or relatives).

The importance of scientific rigor

And it’s not just scientific studies. Specifically, you need to keep a lookout for credible sources that demonstrate scientific rigor — the strict application of the scientific method to ensure the robust and unbiased detailing of experiment design, methodology, analysis, and interpretation and reporting of results.

Scientific rigor is all about discovering the truth; it’s about conducting research that has a good chance of being replicated in other studies, and therefore, hold up over the test of time.

Without scientifically rigorous, credible scientific research sources, we’d be forced to rely on our intuition, hearsay, and blind luck. And various times in history have shown us just how wrong we can be when we fail to take evidence into account.

For example, we once thought the earth was flat, potatoes caused leprosy, and that possession caused mental illness. Crazy times!

Bottom line

Many varieties of essential oils are likely to prevent nausea and improve sleep quality; that’s for sure. But once we venture into more serious health benefits such as cancer therapy, anxiety alleviation, or pain relief, the proof starts to fall short. Always think critically about extreme health claims. If they sound too good to be true, unfortunately, they likely are.

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