Essential oils — the facts

8th October, 2020 • 7 min read

Essential oils have been marketed as relievers of everything from stress and anxiety to headaches and sore throats.

But are these health claims accurate and are essential oils safe to use? Here’s what the evidence says.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are plant extracts. The oil is extracted through a process of pressing or steaming and it's these compounds that carry the plant’s scent.

Essential oils are commonly used in aromatherapy, a form of complementary therapy that uses these oils to improve wellbeing.

In aromatherapy, the oils can be used in different ways. They can be:

  • inhaled directly — for example, by adding a few drops of essential oil to a warm bath or into a bowl of hot water and inhaling it through the nose
  • inhaled indirectly — for example, using a diffuser or aroma stick
  • applied to the skin — for example, during a massage

When essential oils are applied to the skin, they are usually diluted with carrier oils, such as vegetable oil, which makes them less likely to react with your skin.

You can also buy sprays, candles, bath salts and creams containing essential oils in many health and beauty shops and pharmacies.

What essential oils are available?

Over 90 forms of essential oil are available on the market. Some of the more popular options include peppermint, tea tree, lavender, jasmine, rosemary and chamomile.

Each oil is often known for having particular health benefits. For example, lavender oil is used to help with anxiety and poor sleep, while peppermint oil is used to help improve digestive disorders, such as

irritable bowel syndrome

Do essential oils work?

Many claims have been made about the health benefits of essential oils, but there’s currently not enough scientific research to back up most of them.

However, given the rise in popularity of essential oils, the number of studies assessing how effective they are in treating different health conditions is increasing.

Studies to date have looked at how effective essential oils are at improving symptoms for conditions such as anxiety, stress,

and dementia. More specifically, studies have explored whether an essential oil like lavender or chamomile can help relieve
in pregnancy and pain during childbirth.

In most studies, results were mixed and a scientific review of the existing evidence concluded that further research is needed.

Some studies found that essential oils, in particular lavender, may be beneficial for sleep and relieving anxiety in adults. For example, a 2017 study looked at sleep quality in people with heart disease and found that inhaled lavender oil improved sleep and reduced anxiety.

A 2019 review also found that lavender oil helped lower anxiety in women during the first stage of labour in childbirth. But the study’s authors recommended that more research be done in this area.

When applied to the skin, there’s also some evidence that tea tree oil may be beneficial in easing symptoms of

Athlete’s foot
(tinea pedis).

Some essential oils, including tea tree and eucalyptus, may also offer a small amount of protection against bacteria and viruses, studies suggest. Both oils show a small effect when used in dental products, such as mouthwash, but more research is needed.

Are essential oils safe to use?

Essential oils are generally considered safe to use if applied correctly. Some of the safest ways to apply them include the use of scented sticks and body oils.

However, a lack of proper regulation around the marketing and selling of essential oils means that you may not always buy a ‘pure’ product, so the quality can vary.

Even though essential oils come from plants, the ingredients shouldn’t automatically be viewed as natural or organic, and therefore good for your health.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), many plant ingredients can be toxic and harmful to your health. Cumin oil, for example, can be used safely in cooking but if applied to the skin it can cause a reaction.

Essential oils have also been known to cause skin irritation or a rash in some people, especially those with the skin condition

, while allergic reactions may occur in some people who apply essential oils to the skin.

Some ingredients may also be harmful to the health of someone around you. For example, a diffuser containing essential oils may be safe for adults, but not for young babies who may be exposed to the vapour.

How to buy essential oils safely

If you're thinking of buying an essential oil, it's worth taking the following steps.

Choose products in a glass bottle

Look for a product in a glass bottle — a purer essential oil product will usually be sold in a glass bottle as this packaging helps to preserve it.

Check the label

The label should have the plant’s latin name written on it and details about its purity and other ingredients.

Fragrance and perfume oils may contain more chemicals than essential oils.

Think about the people you live with

Buying a diffuser may not be safe if you install it in a place where other people live. Even if you’re not affected by essential oil vapour, it could, for example, irritate the skin of a baby or young child.

Before buying essential oils, consider if there’s anyone in your household who may be at risk from the vapour.

How to use essential oils safely

If you’re thinking of trying essential oils, find a regulated aromatherapist and follow their advice on how to use essential oils.

An aromatherapist can’t provide a medical diagnosis, but they can guide you in how to use essential oils safely and how to reduce your risk of side effects from using them.

Possible side effects of using essential oils include:

  • headache
  • feeling sick
  • a skin reaction, such as a rash

Never add essential oils to food or drinks as they can be poisonous if consumed, even in small quantities.

Instead, follow the instructions on the bottle and dilute them to minimise the risk of any oil you use causing a rash or irritation on your skin. If you do have an allergic reaction or any other reactions to an essential oil, see a doctor.

You should also see a doctor before using an essential oil if you’re taking any type of medication, as some oils may interfere with certain drugs.

And make sure any bottles of essential oil are kept away from young children.

Key points

  • essential oils are concentrated plant extracts, made through a process of pressing or steaming
  • essential oils are widely used but tend to be associated with aromatherapy, an alternative treatment that uses these oils to help improve wellbeing
  • more research is needed to see whether essential oils are effective in treating health conditions
  • essential oils are generally considered safe but it’s important they’re used correctly
  • if you take medication and want to try essential oils, speak with a doctor first

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.