Do Essential Oils Live Up to Their Promise?

Illustration by Darren Gygi

One recent Friday night, I gathered with a group of women around a friend’s kitchen table, which was crowded with enough small bottles of essential oils to make the room smell like a perfume counter had merged with a farmers’ market. As we mixed the oils into body sprays, face scrubs, and lotions, it felt like a grown-up version of craft time. 

Once relegated to co-ops and natural health stores, essential oils have hit the mainstream, being marketed via “make-and-take” parties. Direct-sales companies offer single oils such as lemon, wintergreen, and ginger, as well as blends with titles that market their transformative effects: “Acceptance,” “EN-R-GEE,” and “Highest Potential.” They’re being touted as beneficial to your overall mental and physical health—consider it Mary Kay for the modern era. 

Essential oils are most commonly extracted from plants by steam distillation, resulting in a highly concentrated liquid that contains therapeutic and antimicrobial properties. The oil is then applied on the skin or used in aromatherapy by inhaling. Essential oils offer a natural alternative to conventional products produced with possibly harmful chemicals such as perfumes, cleaning products, lotions, air fresheners, and other bath and beauty and household products.

No matter the ailment—headaches, fatigue, allergies, anxiety, bruises, dry skin—someone at the party had a suggestion for an essential oil that could ease its symptoms. According to one recent study, more than one-third of Americans use some form of alternative medicine. And while essential oils have been used for centuries, they’ve only recently become a common health resource in our culture. “When pharmaceutical and antibiotics came into play, there was a wholesale rejection of plant-based therapeutics in favor of what was perceived as more modern treatments,” says retired U of M professor Linda Halcón, “Now we’re seeing more of a balance.” 

Halcón has had an interest in plants and medicines since the late ’60s and has taught clinical aromatherapy at the U of M. She also works with healthcare facilities to develop policies and procedures on using essential oils. The Twin Cities have been the vanguard of plant-based therapies, she says, citing several local hospitals and long-term care facilities offering aromatherapy programs and essential oils, usually as part of a nursing protocol for hospital patients—to improve sleep, relieve pain and anxiety, and boost immune systems. “The last couple of years it’s really exploded,” she notes.

I took home lavender lotion from the make-and-take party, and found it puts me at ease right before bedtime, leaving me among the ranks of those who say they have seen essential oils improve their mood or physical state. There’s not much research in the area, but a small number of studies have indicated that some essential oils may have beneficial properties: lavender for calming, and peppermint oil to treat nausea and bladder conditions, for example. 

Though she’s a proponent of essential oils, Halcón is concerned about aggressive marketing leading some consumers to overuse them. “I think the public is being hoodwinked by companies that want to increase products and sales,” she says. One friend at the party I attended admitted to owning at least 100 small bottles of oils. And the direct-marketing company’s representative seemed to exaggerate the oils’ promise: Is your child out of control? Catch them (if you can) and apply orange oil on their feet for serenity. Got the hiccups? Put a drop of peppermint on the roof of your mouth and they’ll disappear. 

Such extraneous uses give Halcón pause: “There’s a widespread belief that because a product is natural that it’s healthy, but essential oils are more concentrated than the plants they come from. It’s rare in most cases, but if applied the wrong way, they can be carcinogenic or be toxic to the liver,” she says. “Essential oils are wonderful substances. I would hate to see them not be as useful as they could be, because they’re not being used safely.”