Health Benefits of Essential Oils

Essential oils smell great, reduce stress, treat fungal infections, and help you sleep. They are concentrated extractions from plants. A process called distillation turns the “essence” of a plant into a liquefied form for many medicinal and recreational uses. 

There’s a wide variety of essential oils available. Some are valued for their pleasing aroma. Others claim to have powerful healing properties. But their potency can have side effects you must be aware of. 

Health Benefits

Essential oils hold a prominent place in traditional and folk medicine around the world. But modern medicine supports many of the ancient claims made about them, including: 

Stress Reduction

Many essential oils are used in aromatherapy to manage stress and anxiety. For example, scientists found that orange oil had an anxiety-reducing effect on male volunteers who inhaled 2.5, 5, or 10 drops. More research is needed, but initial results were promising.

Fungal Infections

Early tea tree oil studies have had promising results regarding antimicrobial qualities long touted in traditional medicine. The oil has been used for athlete’s foot, oral thrush, and fungal infections like candida. Again more research is needed.

Sleep Aid

Lavender oil’s relaxing fragrance is thought to improve sleep quality. Scientists tested this claim on older adults living with dementia. They found that sprinkling the essential oil on towels around their pillows significantly increased their sleep time, helping them slumber longer in the mornings.

Disease Prevent

Many essential oils have antioxidant properties. Antioxidants help prevent damage to cells caused by free radicals. This damage can lead to serious diseases such as cancer. Researchers are interested in how adding essential oils to food can increase our consumption of antioxidants and prolong shelf life.

Health Risks

Although essential oils come from nature and have been used for centuries, they’re not without risk. Improper use can cause serious adverse reactions or even poisoning, so they must be used and stored according to manufacturers’ specifications. 

Essential oils should be kept away from children and pets, whose bodies often can’t tolerate the same dosages as an adult. In addition, anyone who is pregnant should consult a doctor before using essential oils. 

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A few of the documented side effects of essential oils include: 

Skin Rashes

Many widely used essential oils, like orange, must be well diluted to avoid side effects. Undiluted essential oils are very potent, and direct skin contact with certain oils can cause inflammation and a bad rash needing medical intervention. 

Digestive Health

Care must be taken to avoid accidentally ingesting essential oils. For instance, ingesting even a relatively small amount of tea tree oil can cause serious side effects, including loss of muscle control and even coma

Hormone Imbalance

Lavender oil applied directly to the skin might affect the endocrine system. In one case, prepubescent boys using it developed gynecomastia, a swelling of breast tissue. The condition went away after the essential oil was discontinued. 

Amounts and Dosage

Recommended dosages for essential oils vary greatly depending on the plant being used. It’s important to follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. If making your own oil, you should thoroughly research safe dosages for your specific variety. 

In general, essential oils should be diluted in another substance (water or oil) at a concentration of no more than 3-5%. In other words, you would add three drops of an essential oil to one teaspoon of water. 

Many essential oil manufacturers recommend a patch test to determine a dosage that’s right for you. This involves applying a drop of oil to an innocuous part of your body — often the inner forearm — and covering it with a bandage for up to 24 hours. If any irritation occurs, remove the bandage and wash the affected area thoroughly.  

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 17, 2020

Sources

Sources: 

Clinical Microbiology Reviews: “Melaleuca Alternifolia (Tea Tree) Oil: A Review of Antimicrobial and Other Medicinal Properties.”

Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: “Effects of Inhalation Aromatherapy on Symptoms of Sleep Disturbance in the Elderly with Dementia.”

International Journal of Molecular Sciences: “Biological Activities and Safety of Citrus Spp. Essential Oils.”

Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine: “Effect of Sweet Orange Aroma on Experimental Anxiety in Humans.”

Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry: “Antioxidant Activity of Essential Oils.”

Lawless, J. THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ESSENTIAL OILS.

National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy: “Safety Information.”

National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Tea Tree Oil.”

National Capital Poison Center Poison Control: “Essential Oils: Poisonous When Misused.”

New England Journal of Medicine: “Prepubertal Gynecomastia Linked to Lavender and Tea Tree Oils.”

University of Minnesota: “How Do I Choose and Use Essential Oils?”

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