October 3, 2019
The squeaky wheel—or painful joint—gets the oil: In fact, many people think that the “essential oils” sold by a range of businesses, from apothecaries to drug stores to Walmart, are magical healing potions that also relieve pain.
But according to an October 2 report by The Huffington Post, these great-smelling elixirs do not live up to their health claims—and are actually no more effective than snake oil.
What exactly are they? According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, they are highly volatile substance isolated by a physical process from an odoriferous plant of a single botanical species. The oil bears the name of the plant from which it is derived; for example, rose oil or peppermint oil.
Such oils originally were called “essential” because they were thought to represent the very essence of odor and flavor. And when we say originally, we are referring to the fact that essential oils can be traced back to ancient times, when people used them to make medicinal ointments, perfumes and, possibly, embalming fluids.
While we may no longer use them to mummify loved ones, essential oils have made a major comeback in recent years as a popular and powerful natural-healing solution for various ailments and conditions, the HuffPost says.
Many people say the plant-based oils—like lavender, mint and eucalyptus—relieve their migraines more swiftly than over-the-counter drugs. Some people say oils boosted their libido when nothing else seemed to do the trick.
The oils can be applied to the skin, topically, or inhaled. And each plant is tied to a specific health benefit: Peppermint is believed to increase your energy, lavender may help you calm you down, jasmine is understood to lift your mood. Some scents are even touted as able to fight cancer symptoms, heart disease, infections and diabetes.
Of course, it’s hard to invalidate any one person’s personal experience if they say something personally helped them. However, the HufffPost reports, despite the widespread claims made for essential oils, there is little science actually backing up the testimonials and not much is known about how safe and effective these products are.
Sure, the oils may smell delicious―and the occasional whiff won’t do you any harm and may even help certain issues in the moment―but many experts say they don’t live up to all the health claims.
“So many people are ill, and are looking for something to help them feel better, it’s hard for them to walk away from a simple and natural therapy such as essential oils,” Felice Gersh, an ob/gyn and founder of the Integrative Medicine Group of Irvine, California, told HuffPost.
Essential oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration—and the research we do have on the oils is often based on very small or poorly designed studies, Gary Soffer, the acting director of the integrative medicine program at the Yale Cancer Center in New Haven, Connecticut, told the news outlet.
“The widespread use of essential oils without a substantial body of evidence to support it is certainly concerning,” Soffer said. “While they are generally safe, it can be shortsighted to simply see them as completely risk free.”
Still, those who swear by the oils include health professionals. Some experts suspect this is because of a very convincing placebo effect.
“Across many conditions—including anxiety, depression, and pain—when people believe something is helpful, they sometimes experience benefit,” Keith Humphreys, a psychiatrist at Stanford Health Care in Stanford, California, told the HuffPost during an interview. “Any claims of healing power beyond the placebo effect should be regarded with extreme skepticism.”
Research contact: @HuffPost