The great divide on whether essential oils actually provide some effect on your health is an ongoing debate. There have been a plethora of trends supporting the notion that essential oils actually provide some type of benefits for your health. Whether you believe in its potential health benefits or not here’s everything you need to know about essential oils.
Essential oils are compounds extracted from plants. Those oils capture the plant’s scent or “essence”. Essential oils are created through distillation (a steam/water process) or through some mechanical methods such as cool pressing. Once the aroma is captured it’s mixed with a carrier oil and creates the typical essential oil products.
The actual use of essential oils is varied. The most common practice with the oils is through aromatherapy which is inhaled in different methods. The idea behind this is when inhaling these oils it can stimulate your limbic system which is the part of the brain that contributes to emotions, behaviors, sense of smell, and long-term memories. In recent studies, there seems to be a correlation between scent and forming memories. This could possibly explain why certain smells can trigger familiarity in emotions or memories. The limbic system is also associated with unconscious behaviors such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, etc. Some people claim that essential oils can ‘exert’ a physical effect on your body however, these results are inconclusive.
The other common use is by applying it to the surface of the body, not ingesting it. When applied to the skin, your body can absorb the plant chemicals within the oil. Some people tend to associate plant extracts and anything containing a plant to be safe. More often than not plants tend to contain harmful materials for human skin. Some of these materials can be toxic, irritating, or cause an allergic reaction when applied to the skin. For example, some oils such as, such as cinnamon, which is high in phenols could cause skin irritation and shouldn’t be used on the skin without being combined with a base oil. At the same time essential oils made from citrus fruits increase the skin’s reaction to sunlight and burns can occur.
When looking at the actual FDA regulation of essential oils it seems to be a bit inconclusive. Like anything regulated by the FDA the ‘intended use’ is the end-all. If the essential oil is supposed to affect someone’s complexion or cleanse the body it would be regulated as a cosmetic. As of right now, the law does not require any cosmetic to receive FDA approval prior to hitting the market. If the essential oil is supposed to provide some therapeutic use such as treating or preventing a disease or to affect the structure or function of the body it is regulated as a drug. The only time an essential oil would be regulated as a drug is if the oil is included in some type of lotion with the promise of relieving colic and at that point, it would be seen as a cosmetic too.
A big misconception with essential oils is the idea of just because something is labeled natural doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe. Most plant and herbal products tend to contain bioactive compounds that could potentially pose a threat to your health and essential oils aren’t unique. When inhaled or when it is properly combined with a base oil for your skin, essential oils can be safe. When it comes to physical health essential oils are commonly linked to rashes, asthma attacks, headaches, and allergic reactions.
Overall, essential oils tend to be safe to inhale or apply to the skin when properly combined with an oil base. In reality, there isn’t enough scientific evidence about most of the health benefits people tend to claim to essential oils’ effectiveness. For minor health difficulties, essential oils may provide some minor relief while for more serious health issues you should probably consult a practitioner.