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.
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 how essential 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.
An essential oil’s power to kill germs is a result of its intrinsic toxic potential. “Toxicity in essential oils is an attribute we welcome when we want them to kill viruses, bacteria, fungi, or lice,” writes Robert Tisserand, an aromatherapy educator, and Rodney Young, PhD, a lecturer in plant chemistry and pharmacology at the University of East London in the United Kingdom. “And human cells share some characteristics with these very small organisms.” In other words, essential oils have the power to destroy other organisms, whether they are dangerous pathogens or delicate human skin. The oils don’t discriminate.
So when it comes to essential-oil use, knowledge is key. “Essential oils are complex chemical components that we can use to our benefit, provided we are using proper caution and we know a little bit about what we are doing,” says Kaufmann.
In general, essential-oil use is considered very safe. There hasn’t been a single reported case of poisoning from ingesting one (when administered by a practitioner). But with all the social-media buzz around essential oils, more people are adopting a DIY approach — and practitioners see their share of overexposure, toxicity, and allergic reactions.
“We’re seeing more reports of injuries because more people are using essential oils. Poison centers are reporting an increase in ingestion,” says Carol Scheidel, RN, BSN, CCAP, and CEO of R.J. Buckle Associates, a leading provider of courses in clinical aromatherapy to licensed health professionals in the United States.
Scheidel opposes any internal ingestion without the guidance of a trained aromatic-medicine aromatherapist. That’s because oil and water don’t mix, so adding essential oils to water-based liquid doesn’t dilute them. It simply allows them to come into contact with sensitive internal tissue at their full, undiluted strength. “Adding essential oils to drinking water can be dangerous. Your esophagus is made of very delicate tissue, and essential oils can damage it.”
Essential oils also trigger different responses in different people. A scent that relaxes one person might trigger a migraine in another, which is one reason that following suggestions you read online can backfire. “I don’t recommend using social media to get your recipe,” says Kaufmann. “One scent in that blend might not be a match for you, and it can create more harm than good.”
A similar problem can happen in children, says Amy Kreydin, board-certified reflexologist and certified clinical aromatherapy practitioner in Austin, Texas. Kreydin points out that young children are thought to have overlapping sensory reactions to smells. An adult who is exposed to lavender might feel a sense of calm — and that’s it — but a child might experience a cacophony of overwhelming sensations in response to the same scent, including sounds and swirling colors.
“Someone might think, ‘This lavender will really help calm down my 10-year-old at night,’ but what they’ve really just done is bring the marching band into the room.”
Most overexposure injuries also happen with children, for whom a lower dose can trigger an adverse reaction. Overexposure taxes the liver, which processes all the volatile oils we come in contact with. “The liver doesn’t mature until the teen years,” Kreydin explains. “So you cannot give an adult dose to a child and expect that they can metabolize it in the way an adult could.”
But overexposure can be a problem for adults, too. The olfactory systems get fatigued after about 30 minutes, so we stop smelling even the most obvious aromas around us — risking overexposure and eventually sensitization — the term aromatherapists use to describe essential-oil intolerance.
“In the case of sensitization, the kidneys and liver cannot metabolize that oil anymore,” says Kaufmann. “Before I learned about essential oils . . . I wore this one oil all the time. Now I have this spot on my wrist that will break out even if I just smell it!”
To safely incorporate essential oils into your daily life, consider these top tips from the experts:
This article has been updated. It was originally published on October 10, 2018.