Do Essential Oils Work?

Essential Oils For Colds and Common Illnesses

How effective are essential oils?. Jessica Boone/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Essential oils are all the rage these days. If you don't use them yourself, you likely know someone that does and you probably have multiple "friends" on social media that boast about the amazing benefits and try to sell them to you fairly regularly. 

People that love them claim they have helped clear up nearly every ailment - from the common cold to chronic conditions like fibromyalgia. But is there any real evidence to back up these claims?

 

What the Research Shows

In the scientific and medical world, we rely on studies and research to show us when things have proven benefits. Just because you use something and see a certain result doesn't mean the product was the cause of that result. And unless we can reproduce those results on a large scale, then it generally won't be accepted as having any true benefit for the masses. 

When it comes to essential oils, a major problem I have run into is lack of true studies and data. I have seen some small studies showing limited success when oils have been used directly on cells in a petri dish. But that does not equate to results for a human rubbing oil on their skin or simply breathing in the scent when the oil is diffused in a room. 

Most studies involving humans have looked at how aromatherapy can provide supportive care for people with cancer or how it may help healthy and hospitalized people reduce stress and anxiety.

According to the National Cancer Institute, "A leading theory is that smell receptors in the nose may respond to the smells of essential oils by sending chemical messages along nerve pathways to the brain's limbic system, which affects moods and emotions. Imaging studies in humans help show the effects of smells on the limbic system and its emotional pathways."

Although results from these studies have not been overwhelmingly conclusive, there is some evidence that using essential oils for aromatherapy could be beneficial as supportive care for those experiencing stress or anxiety due to long term illness. 

What the Research Doesn't Show

The research showing that essential oils can provide stress relief for people with stress and anxiety is great but what it doesn't prove is what so many people that use them claim - that they can treat or prevent other illnesses. 

There have been no large (or small) scale studies showing any benefit of essential oils for common illnesses such as colds, the flu or other common infections. Although some studies have shown that the oils have antiviral and antibacterial properties when applied to the skin or in labs, this doesn't necessarily equate to any kind of benefit when you have one of these illnesses. 

The Bottom Line

Plenty of people swear by essential oils and their benefits for a long list of ailments. But just like everything else, if you are considering using them yourself, realize that you may not see the same (perceived) benefits as someone else.

Many of these oils can be very expensive. Although there is little risk to trying them other than being out some money, understand that they may do nothing for you. You should also use with caution if you have allergies.

Any claims you see that they can prevent or treat any illness should not be believed. The oils are not regulated by the FDA and are not approved to treat or prevent an illness or condition.

Another word of caution: do not ingest essential oils as they can be toxic. They should be used for aromatherapy - either diffused or applied on the skin with a carrier oil. 

Be sure to read our Alternative Medicine Expert's Guide to Using Essential Oils Safely.

Sources:

"Aromatherapy and Essential Oils (PDQ)". Health Professional Version 30 Dec 14. PDQ Cancer Information Summaries. PubMed Health. US National Library of Medicine. 27 Apr 15. 

"Questions and Answers About Aromatherapy". Aromatherapy and Essential Oils (PDQ) 17 Dec 14. National Cancer Institutes. National Institutes of Health. US Department of Health and Human Services. 27 Apr 15. 

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