The Science Behind Essential Oils

What are essential oils? Essential oils are pure, concentrated and volatile oils that are carefully extracted from flowers, trees or resins. There are various extraction methods such as steam distillation, solvent extraction, CO2 extraction, cold press extraction, water distillation, maceration and enfleurage. Steam distillation is the most popular method.

To date, there are over 100 types of essential oils with varying constituents, benefits and uses. Essential oils have been used as folk medicine for centuries to treat various ailments such as colds, fever, insomnia, rashes, wound healing and more. In this current day and age, they are commonly found in aromatherapy, cosmetics, cleaning products, oral care products, perfumery and more.

There are several studies that have proven that essential oils, when inhaled or applied topically with carrier, do help in terms of:

  • Facilitating relaxation to calm the senses
    (Various essential oils, especially floral and citrus)
  • Improving overall mental health by reducing feelings of anxiety, depression, stress and etc.
    (Various essential oils, especially floral and citrus)
  • Improving mood by reducing feelings of irritability
    (Various essential oils, especially floral and citrus)
  • Helping with sleep and insomnia
    (Carrot seed, chamomile, lavender, mandarin, patchouli etc.)
  • Combating and reducing fatigue and lethargy
    (Black pepper, pine, thyme, ylang ylang, yuzu etc.)
  • Improving cognitive function by clearing the mind and boosting concentration
    (Clove, geranium, rosemary, sage, sandalwood etc.)
  • Facilitating easier and clearer breathing by cleansing airborne bacteria and clearing the respiratory tract
    (Cinnamon bark, cypress, peppermint, ravintsara, tea tree etc.)
  • Providing relief for colds, coughs and allergies
    (Douglas fir, eucalyptus, helichrysum, orange, oregano etc.)
  • Providing pain relief for headaches, muscle aches, aching joints and etc.
    (Basil, cedarwood, Clary sage, fir needle, lemongrass etc.)
  • Combating and reducing nausea
    (Citrus, Dill/dill weed, fennel, ginger, spearmint etc.)

However, there are disadvantages, contradictions and precautions to be aware of. Due to the potency of the essential oils, they must never be directly applied onto the skin without prior patch testing and strong dilution (practice a 2% dilution rate). Direct application can cause burning and itching sensation. Never use essential oils on broken skin, even if diluted. Never use them liberally either as long term usage may do more harm than good such as causing permanent skin sensitization.

Many essential oils are also phototoxic (especially citrus), using phototoxic essential oils topically and being exposed to direct sunlight causes the skin to darken and/or burn quicker. It’s best to use these oils at night. Pregnant women and individuals with bleeding disorders are strongly advised to avoid frankincense, as it contains blood thinning effects and may cause irregular bleeding.

The misuse of essential oils can have harmful side effects. Studies have linked the frequent use of lavender and tea tree causes abnormal breast tissue growth in pubescent boys. Essential oils should never be ingested unless instructed by a qualified medical or aromatherapy practitioner. Side effects can include hallucinations, heartburn, seizures, tremors, vomiting and more.

In conclusion, essential oils do work to some degree when practiced with precaution. They should be not regarded as a medicine or a drug. They are not a permanent or alternate solution to certain conditions such as cancer, chronic pain or serious skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, urticaria (hives) and so on. Essential oils should be used in moderation as a form of self care instead of treatment.

Everyone, particularly pregnant women, families with young children and/or pets, elderly individuals, individuals with medical condition, should practice with precaution and care. It’s best to consult a medical professional, a qualified aromatherapy practitioner and/or veterinarian (for pet owners) before using essential oils.