Everywhere you turn there seems to be a new essential oil company. While this may be the latest craze in the past few years, not everyone is convinced that they are effective at doing what companies claim. What are essential oils? What are they used for? Do they provide any health benefits? Is one type better than another?

Essential oils are highly concentrated liquids that are derived from plants. They are hydrophobic (don’t mix with water) and contain volatile (the tendency of something to vaporize) aroma compounds from plants. This is why sometimes they are called volatile oils.

The reason that the oils are considered “essential” is that they contain the “essence of” a plant’s fragrance. It doesn’t mean that it’s essential to the health of your body, like amino acids or fatty acids.

They have been used in folk medicine throughout history. The earliest recorded use of them was in the area of what is now Spain during 1188-1248 by Ibn al-Baitar, who was a physician, pharmacist, and chemist.

Usually, the oil is extracted from plants by distillation, especially with steam. Other ways to extract the oil are through expression, solvent extraction, absolute oil extraction, resin tapping, or cold press. The oil comes from leaves, flowers, roots, bark, and peels of plants. Due to it being highly concentrated, it can take 500-2000 pounds of a plant to produce one pound of essential oil.

The oils are used in perfumes, cosmetics, soaps, flavoring for foods/drinks, and adding scents to incense and household cleaning products. The most recent drive in popularity resides in the use of oils for aromatherapy. In 2015, consumers in the United States spent over $1 billion on essential oils. With over 90 different kinds, it is easy to see why people would be interested in trying them when many are claimed to have health benefits.

Some of the most common oils are peppermint (boosts energy and helps with digestion), lavender (stress relief), frankincense (reduces inflammation for arthritis, psoriasis, and asthma), rosemary (reduces cortisol levels), sandalwood (calms nerves and helps with focus), and bergamot (reduces stress and improves skin conditions). Others are rose (improves mood and reduces anxiety), chamomile (improves mood and relaxation), ylang-ylang: (treats headaches, nausea, and skin conditions), and tea tree (fights infections and boosts immunity). Two further popular ones are jasmine (helps with depression, childbirth, and libido) and lemon (aids digestion, mood, and headaches).

It’s important to be aware of the fact that any health claims are derived from historical accounts of essential oils providing a specific benefit rather than current scientific testing. Why isn’t there more data on the benefit, or lack thereof, regarding essential oils?

There are currently several healthcare products on the market that are based on essential oils. One of the most common ones is Vicks Vaporub. It has three essential oils in it—peppermint, camphor, and eucalyptus. Together they provide the relief you need when you have sinus congestion and coughing. While most of us are aware of the benefits stemming from the use of Vicks, it is a little harder to pinpoint the actual benefit of all essential oils. The reason for this is the challenge of doing studies where the product being tested is aromatic.

Most scientific testing is done via double-blind, placebo-controlled products. This is where one group takes the product being tested and the other takes something that looks similar but isn’t the product and neither group (and the researchers that interact with the patients) knows which one they are taking. Usually, once the period of the study has elapsed, the main researchers (who knew which group was which) compare all of the data. This way, the reporting researchers don’t look for specific symptoms during the study period because they truly don’t know if they are working with the product test group or the placebo group.

The problem with essential oils is that they have a certain scent, so how do you replicate the scent without actually using the essential oil since the point of the study is to see if the essential oil actually provides the benefit that is claimed. The other challenge with this is that people expect a certain reaction to occur, so most of the time, it does. The reasoning behind this is that when we expect something to happen, our brain can provide a placebo effect, and this leads us to believe that the thing that is supposed to be the cause is working.

In this case, if we expect an essential oil to relax us, our brain can send signals for this to happen, causing us to believe that the essential oil did what we thought it was going to do when it was really our brain providing us with a sense of relaxation. Due to the challenges of testing essential oils, there currently isn’t a significant amount of research about them in mainstream medicine to advocate for them.

If you do want to use essential oils, there are several things to remember. Quality is essential when purchasing because not all of them are made the same and there is no regulation, so it’s important to read the label. Some things to check on the label include the plant being identified by its scientific name, purity testing being completed via gas chromatography or mass spectrometry, and whether the plant was organic/unsprayed/wild-crafted.

It’s also a good idea to read the label before ingesting an essential oil because not all of them are made to be consumed. If you want to use essential oils to treat certain conditions, that’s fine, but don’t make them the sole form of treatment. Until more data can be provided, essential oils have not been proven to cure cancer or other serious diseases. While they may provide relief of some symptoms, they cannot get rid of a disease, which is why they shouldn’t be used alone to treat anything.

Essential oils have been around for thousands of years and definitely deserve to have research done to see if they truly provide health benefits. In the meantime, we need to remember that just because they claim to do something, doesn’t mean that it has been proven. We also need to remember to use them safely by reading the label and using them as directed in order to prevent any harmful reactions. Essential oils may provide alternatives to medications in the future, we just need more information!