Essential oils are concentrated extracts of various plants. Practitioners use them in natural and alternative health practices, such as aromatherapy and naturopathy.
Many plants contain some potentially helpful compounds. However, in many cases, there is not enough evidence to suggest their use as a treatment or cure for ailments.
In this article, learn more about the uses, benefits, and potential side effects of essential oils.
Essential oils are liquid extracts of various potentially beneficial plants. Manufacturing processes can extract the useful compounds from these plants.
Essential oils often have a much stronger smell than the plants they come from and contain higher levels of active ingredients. This has to do with the amount of plant matter required to make essential oil.
There are different ways that manufacturers extract the essential oils, including:
- Steam or water distillation. This process passes water or hot steam through the plants, pulling the essential compounds away from the plant matter.
- Cold pressing. This process works by mechanically pressing or squeezing plant matter to cause it to release essential juices or oils. A simple example of this would be smelling the fresh scent of lemon after squeezing or zesting a lemon peel.
After extracting the active compounds from the plant matter, some manufacturers may add them to a carrier oil to get more product from the same amount of essential oil. These products would no longer be pure essential oils, but a mixture.
Manufacturers use essential oils to create a range of products. The cosmetic and makeup industry use essential oils to create perfumes, add fragrance to creams and body washes, and even as sources of natural antioxidants in some beauty care products.
Many natural medicine practitioners, such as aromatherapists, use essential oils. Aromatherapy involves diffusing these essential oils into the air.
Aromatherapists believe that breathing in essential oils might allow them to enter the lungs and bloodstream, where some of the potentially helpful compounds may benefit the body.
Anyone who has used a mentholated vapor rub to help clear their sinuses has used a form of aromatherapy. As the authors of a 2013 study note, inhaling menthol in this way can reduce feelings of congestion and shortness of breath.
As well as inhaling them, adding essential oils to a carrier oil and massaging them into the skin may also deliver the active compounds to the body.
People should never apply essential oils directly to the skin without diluting them, unless under the direct guidance of a healthcare professional.
It is also dangerous to swallow essential oils. Not only are essential oils extremely concentrated, but they can also irritate the sensitive cells inside the body.
In rare cases, some people might take oral capsules containing essential oils. However, people should only do this under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
Typically, however, a person should not put regular commercial essential oils anywhere near their mouth or other places where it may enter the body, such as the eyes, ear, anus, or vagina.
Some essential oils can be effective, depending on what a person uses them for.
There is a range of plants that contain potentially active compounds. Manufacturers have turned dozens of these plant oils into essential oil products. Some of the most popular essential oils include:
- tea tree
- sweet orange
The compounds in these oils may have some health effects on the human body. The following articles provide more information on which common health conditions may benefit from the use of essential oils:
Many people think that because essential oils are natural products, they will not cause side effects. This is not true. The potential side effects of essential oils include:
- Irritation and burning: Always dilute oils with a carrier oil before applying it to the skin. Apply a small amount to a small area of skin first to test for any reactions.
- Asthma attacks: While essential oils may be safe for most people to inhale, some people with asthma may react to breathing in the fumes.
- Headaches: Inhaling essential oils may help some people with their headaches, but inhaling too much may lead to a headache in others.
Accidentally ingesting essential oils can be dangerous and potentially life-threatening.
A 2012 case study looked at a near-fatal case of someone who ingested peppermint oil. While most people do not experience such severe reactions, many oils can act as toxins inside the body.
Anyone who has accidentally ingested essential oils should call poison control. Those in the United States should call 1-800-222-1222.
Keep the bottle on hand to describe it to them.
Getting essential oils into the eyes or mucous membranes may also cause burning and damage in the area. If essential oils come into contact with the eyes, rinse them thoroughly with water and contact a doctor.
Store essential oils out of reach of children and keep them apart from other products. Some essential oils can be deadly to pets, even if a person only uses them in a diffuser. Always research which oils are safe to use around pets, or ask a veterinarian.
It is still unclear what effect essential oils have on pregnant or breastfeeding women and their children. While some consider them safe to use, many doctors advise pregnant women to avoid essential oils.
Essential oils are the liquid extracts of potentially beneficial plants. People are beginning to use essential oils widely for a variety of common conditions, and some research shows they may help relieve symptoms in some cases.
Essential oils are generally safe when a person uses them correctly. Always dilute essential oils before applying them to the skin and never ingest them.