There’s a lot of things that are essential in our lives. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat.
Food provides us with essential vitamins and minerals – nutrients that we need, but can’t make ourselves. It also provides us with essential amino acids – building blocks for proteins that our bodies can’t synthesise.
There’s plenty of things that are essential in life. But, despite their name, essential oils aren’t one of them.
Essential oils are solutions of concentrated volatile compounds extracted from plants. Volatile means they evaporate easily – so steam is often used to distil these compounds from the flowers, leaves, roots or seeds of plants. The resulting products contains the “essence” of the plant – hence the name.
The process isn’t new – essential oils have been extracted and used by many ancient civilizations, including Chinese, Egyptians, Romans and Greeks. Most commonly, they’re used in aromatherapy, where these oils are inhaled, or mixed with oils or lotions and applied to the skin. Supposedly, these treatments will improve both your psychological and physical well-being.
Essential oils have really taken off in recent years, thanks to the rise of multi-level marketing companies. They promise that there is an oil to treat just about anything that ails you – whether its skin problems, stress, digestive issues, insomnia or even the common cold. These oils are going to make us look good, feel good, and make sure we’re all out there living our best lives.
Research into whether essential oils really work or not is still pretty thin on the ground. We do have good evidence, for example, that tea tree oil has antimicrobial properties – lab testing has demonstrated that it can kill bacteria and some fungi. But when it comes to most claims around essential oils, the evidence simply isn’t there.
You can find some studies that have explored essential oils in reducing stress and nausea, and for pain management in hospitals. Most of these have been unable to find any real evidence that essential oils are effective. Some have suggested that the oils seem to improve patients moods, but found no evidence that they do anything else.
Although most people see essential oils as being pretty harmless, there are some serious safety issues associated with their use, particularly as distributors are often claiming that they’re same to consume. Many oils are toxic (to humans and animals) and cause severe poisoning even at low doses. Undiluted oils applied to skin can cause allergic reactions and rashes, while inhaling them can cause breathing issues. They can also have negative interactions with other medications you might be taking. These might sound like isolated or extreme cases, but the problem is big enough that government health departments have issued health warnings around essential oil use.
There’s no doubt essential oils smell lovely – if you’re looking to add some fragrance to your home, go nuts. But if you’re experiencing some sort of health issues, physical or mental, maybe ditch the oils and go see your doctor instead.
This story was first published online in the Armidale Express, July 26 2019