Essential oils are all the rage. You know the ones I’m talking about. In fact, you’ve probably been invited to a product party where little vials with expensive price tags promise a wide range of health benefits. You’ve also heard the stories. Essential oils cure warts and ear infections. They soothe rashes and bellyaches. They reduce fever and fight the common cold. Virtually any ailment you suffer has a corresponding dose of liquid magic.
You’ve probably also wondered if essential oils really work. Are they safe? And is buying into the movement a waste of money or an effective use of a natural remedy?
What are Essential Oils?
Essential oils aren’t really oils in the true sense of the word. They are complex mixtures of aromatic compounds extracted from plant material. They have distinct odors, poor solubility in water (a trait they share with true oils), and are extracted from plants by distillation and cold pressing. Common examples include lavender, peppermint, tea tree and eucalyptus, but you’ll find hundreds more.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies essential oils as food supplements, not drugs. This means producers of essential oils are not allowed to market the compounds as medicine. In fact, they must clearly state the product is “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” According to the Dietary Supplemental Health and Education Act of 1994, this classification also means the FDA is not allowed to regulate the sale or use of essential oils unless they can prove a particular product poses a serious threat.
The Mind-Body Connection
The brain plays an important role in the modulation of many symptoms and side effects, such as nausea, pain and stress. Aromatherapy can help patients cope with these problems. In fact, the Massage Therapy team at Nationwide Children’s Hospital uses several essential oils, including lavender, sweet orange, peppermint and lemon/lime to support the well-being of patients. I’m taking advantage of the mind-body connection right now, diffusing a mixture of spearmint and a proprietary blend called “Breathe” as I write this post. I’m not sure it’s really keeping me on task, but I sure do enjoy the smell.
What About the Treatment of Medical Conditions?
There is no evidence to suggest essential oils are effective (or safe) as the primary treatment of diseases and symptoms that fall outside the mind-body connection. Remember, when you use an essential oil and expect a specific outcome, you are relying on the biochemical activity of the compound in question. Many plants are biochemically active in humans and classified as drugs. These “natural” products have undergone rigorous scientific study to prove they work and determine what dangers they pose.
Essential oils have not been subject to these same methods of study for most medical conditions, so we don’t have reliable and reproducible evidence of their usefulness or safety. Some distributors of essential oils are quick to show “studies” demonstrating a compound’s effectiveness, but this data is unlikely to stand up to scientific scrutiny.
At the end of the day, essential oils (like all medication) are chemical compounds. This begs the question: which do you trust more… compounds proven to work with known side effects (so you can make an informed decision with regard to benefit and risk) or compounds whose usefulness and safety aren’t really known?
Nothing New Under the Sun
The notion of using essential oils as a replacement for standard medical therapy is not new. Today’s essential oils are yesterday’s herbal remedies. They’re your grandmother’s swamp root, your great-grandmother’s liver pills and your great-great-grandmother’s snake oil (hey, at least we made it back to oil). And as in those days, somebody’s getting rich selling their wares. Why? Because there will always be folks who claim they work and others who buy into the claim looking for a quick fix. My question for believers in the crowd: how do you know the remedy really did the job? Runny noses get better. Coughs and bellyaches go away. Rashes clear up, skin heals and behavior fluctuates.
As an aromatic food supplement, essential oils are a playground for the nose and probably safe in small quantities. They may be useful in modulating the mind-body connection, but as primary medical treatment for most disease conditions, there is no evidence to suggest they work. I’d recommend spending your hard-earned money on chemical compounds that do.
Originally Published: June 4, 2015
Revised: September 19, 2017
Dr Mike Patrick is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and Medical Director of Interactive Media for Nationwide Children's Hospital. Since 2006, he has hosted the award-winning PediaCast, a pediatric podcast for parents. Dr Mike also produces a national podcast for healthcare providers—PediaCast CME, which explores general pediatric and faculty development topics and offers free AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™ to listeners.
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