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What Are Essential Oils and Are They Legit?

Photo: Madeleine Steinbach / Getty Images

Incorporating essential oils into your health and beauty routines has become trendier than ever. You probably already know that they smell amazing and are said to have a whole host of health benefits, like soothing anxiety, acne, and even menstrual cramps. But you likely have a lot of unanswered questions about EOs. Namely, how effective are they really, and how the heck do you use them to their full potential? We talked to conventional and natural medicine experts to find out.

What Are Essential Oils, Exactly?

First things first: What actually qualifies as an essential oil? "They come from the leaves, flowers, roots, barks, and peels of plants," says certified doctor of natural medicine Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of DrAxe.com, bestselling author of Eat Dirt, and cofounder of Ancient Nutrition. "They are highly concentrated compounds extracted from plant parts using a steam-distillation, cold pressing, or CO2 extraction process." Fancy, right? It can take as much as 500 to 2,000 pounds of a plant to produce just one pound of essential oil, he says, which is why some oils are pricey. Generally, they're applied to the skin, inhaled, or ingested in liquid or capsule form to achieve a specific health result, whether it's calming down after a long day, treating skin inflammation, or quieting nausea. (BTW, you can also use them to clean your home!)

Are They Legit?

One of the biggest questions around EOs is whether or not they actually work, and this is mainly because the research on them is limited. That being said, there are established examples of EOs being used in the medical community that show how helpful they can be in certain situations. "The most familiar use of essential oils that we all know is Vicks VapoRub," says Brenda Powell, M.D., co-medical director of the Center for Integrative & Lifestyle Medicine at Cleveland Clinic's Wellness Institute. "That's an essential oil because it's peppermint, camphor, and eucalyptus. Rubbing it on our chest and inhaling the oil breaks down mucus and suppresses a cough." Within gastroenterology, doctors are now using peppermint oil for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in the form of peppermint oil pills, which helps with the spasms that can be part of the syndrome. "These are two essential oil treatments, one ingested and one on the skin, that are making it into mainstream medicine," Dr. Powell says.

What's more, people are sometimes skeptical about whether applying oil to your skin or inhaling it can really make a difference. But Dr. Powell says that actually can be seen as an argument for the use of EOs instead of against it. "Within medicine, we spray medicine up our nose all the time, and we deliver a lot of medicine through skin patches, so those methods of medicine delivery are not unusual," she says.

The fact of the matter is, though, that there's not as much high-quality research on essential oils as many in the mainstream medical community would require in order to start advocating for them. "The studies are difficult to do, and in Western medicine, we want gold-standard studies, because even though we can put this essential oil in a petri dish and see that it reduces inflammatory markers, or we can do things in animals and see if it changes the autonomic nervous system, we still need to then try out the essential oil on a specific disease process and see if it does something, and that's harder to do," Dr. Powell explains. To get technical about it—that's because double-blind placebo-controlled trials on people are tough to do with something aromatic, since the placebo has to smell the exact same way but not be an essential oil. That way, the participants don't know whether they're using the real thing or not. Plus, the person recording the results also needs to be unaware of the real versus fake EOs to avoid bias, which adds another layer of difficulty. When you think about it that way, it's easy to understand why EOs have been so hard to test.

Still, Dr. Powell says that since some research has shown essential oils can be detected in blood levels after use, she's optimistic that we'll learn more about them and their potential medicinal uses in the coming years. "I think there is information that we can take further," she says. "It's not just a psychological thing that a smell makes you happy and therefore relaxed; there really could be something really physiologic going on." (Related: The Essential Oil Hack to Wake You Up In the Morning)

How to Use Them

If you decide you want to give EOs a go, where you get them from matters. "Quality is incredibly important, as with all supplements and herbs," says Maura Henninger, N.D., a naturopathic doctor and member of the Care/of scientific advisory board. Much like vitamins and supplements, essential oils are unregulated, so it's a good idea to take a close look at what you're buying. "You always want to look for therapeutic-grade essential oils," she advises. Translation: Low-cost oils are probably not your best bet. "Purity can vary and there really isn't any standardization in this regard, so you want to buy oils from suppliers who are very transparent about how they source and extract their plants. It's typically clear which companies have a greater commitment to quality," she adds.

On the label, there are a few specific things you should check for, Dr. Henninger says: That the plant is identified by its scientific name, that the company has done purity testing (like gas chromatography or mass spectrometry), and that it's organic, unsprayed, and wild-crafted, if possible.

Lastly, experts say it's important to be realistic about what they EOs do. "I think they're generally safe and okay to experiment with, but I wouldn't use them exclusively for a treatment, because we really need to know more," Dr. Powell says. That means you might want to try them in conjunction with a more conventional treatment if you have the option. And no, despite what you may have seen on the internet, you should not treat cancer with just EOs, according to Dr. Powell. Of course, you'll also want to watch out for side effects. "The most obvious thing is that you could be allergic to the essential oil or that it could topically cause a rash," she points out. Plus, some oils are not meant to be ingested, so read the label carefully or check in with your health care practitioner before doing so.

Experts' Favorites

Now, the fun part! Here are experts' top picks, what they're best for treating, and how to use them:

Tea Tree: "Tea tree, also known as melaleuca, is a powerful antiseptic oil that has been shown to kill many strains of bacteria, viruses, and fungi," Axe says. "Tea tree oil has been shown in studies to reduce mild to moderate acne and is considered one of the best natural home remedies for acne. You can make your own anti-acne face wash by mixing five drops of tea tree oil with two teaspoons of raw honey." (Or, try this tea tree and peppermint oil face mask.) 

Chamomile: "This is taken as a sedative, but I use it a lot in practice for skin that needs to be calmed: acne, eczema, rosacea; it's a great topical," Dr. Henninger says.

Lavender: "Lavender is very popular with impressive stress-reducing and antibacterial properties. Lavender oil is a therapeutic, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant-rich addition to natural store-bought as well as homemade skin-care products," Axe says. To use on the skin, "combine three to four drops with a half teaspoon of coconut or jojoba oil and massage the mixture into the area of concern. You can also add a few drops of lavender oil to your face wash, shower gel or lotion not only to benefit your skin but also to encourage a relaxed state of mind."

Rosemary: "I have a lot of patients in my practice who suffer from high cortisol and the subsequent health issues that stem from that," Dr. Henninger says. "Diffused rosemary has been shown to dramatically reduce cortisol when inhaled."

Frankincense: "Frankincense oil is well-known for its use in worship, meditation, and spiritual practices," Axe says. Beyond that, "studies have shown that frankincense can be helpful for a variety of inflammatory disorders including asthma, arthritis and psoriasis," he says. "To decrease symptoms of inflammation and pain related to conditions like arthritis and psoriasis, try massaging two to three drops of frankincense essential oil combined with coconut oil to the area of concern." Or, for respiratory conditions like asthma, you can diffuse frankincense oil into the air and breathe in deeply for five minutes, Axe suggests. (FYI, Jenna Dewan-Tatum is also a fan. Scope her essential oil hacks for more ideas.)

 

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