Dear Dr. Walt,
I love the various scents of essential oils and aromatherapy, and all of the girls I run around with are using them for themselves, their kids, and their homes. Are there any dangers I should know about?
—Fragrance Lover in Ohio
Dear Aromatherapy Aficionado,
The concept behind aromatherapy dates back thousands of years. Everyone knows the experience of encountering the aroma of a favorite food as it is being cooked for dinner, only to suddenly become hungry. We instantly remember the pleasure we experienced. We are anxious to repeat those feelings and look forward to when the food will be ready.
Perfume companies spend exorbitant amounts of money as they experiment with myriad scents to find ways to sell fragrances that will revive personal aromatic pleasures of long ago—not to mention romance and romantic memories.
Aromatherapy is the use of volatile (essential) oils. Plants contain many constituents that can be extracted by pressing the plants or distilling their oils. Many of the oils produced in this manner have pleasant aromas. They are then diluted with other oils, such as sunflower oil or sweet almond oil to be rubbed onto the skin or to be heated or vaporized to give a room a pleasant scent. Oils may also be added to baths.
An extremely wide variety of specific claims are made for this or that particular essential oil or aromatherapy for literally hundreds of various purposes. But, although aromatherapy and essential oils are, in general, not harmful, the question we doctors ask is do these often-expensive oils actually work for anything?
According to the experts at the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, who extensively evaluate such things, there is “insufficient evidence to rate aromatherapy for almost all of the medical uses for which it is commonly recommended or used,” including anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia, headache, insomnia, pain relief, promoting feelings of well being, stress relief, or to improve sexual appetite (libido).
There is some evidence that one essential oil mixture may be effective for hair loss. In one study, when applied to the scalp, rosemary oil in combination with the essential oils from thyme, lavender, and cedarwood seemed to improve hair growth by forty-four percent after seven months of treatment.
As far as safety, when used as recommended, aromatherapy and essential oils are generally safe for most people; however, these are plant products, and some people may be allergic to them.
Other potential hazards may arise because these oils are very concentrated extracts of plants. They should never be taken internally. Some ingredients are absorbed through the skin during proper use so large amounts could lead to potentially troublesome side effects. Children should be massaged with only small quantities of oils that have already been well diluted, and they should be kept out of the reach of children.
A number of oils (particularly from pennyroyal, parsley seed, and juniper) have reputations for causing abortions and thus should not be used during pregnancy. In fact, according to the NMCD, “for pregnancy and breast-feeding: Not enough is known about the use of essential oils or aromatherapy during pregnancy and breast-feeding. Stay on the safe side and avoid use.”
Aromatherapy and essential oils may provide a pleasant (though not always inexpensive) means of relaxing. No evidence supports claims that the oils prevent or cure any illnesses. And, as with all forms of natural products, care should be taken to use reputable brands. Higher price tags do not necessarily mean higher quality. Some products have been adulterated with cheaper, synthetic oils.
This Q&A was originally published in the March 2015 edition of Today’s Christian Living.
© Copyright WLL, INC. 2016. This blog provides a wide variety of general health information only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from your regular physician. If you are concerned about your health, take what you learn from this blog and meet with your personal doctor to discuss your concerns.