Essential Oils: Separating Fact from Fiction

If you spend a day or two on social media sites, you get the idea that essential oils are a panacea that can replace every modern medicine, both over the counter and prescription. Kid got a fever? Rub a little of this oil on his feet. Big job interview coming up in a few minutes? Inhale a little of this to relax. Fungal infection? Splash some of this on. It’s gotten particularly out of hand on Pinterest, where multi-level marketing schemers attempt to convince everyone they absolutely need to become essential oil wholesalers. Conversely, if you hang around in the online skeptic communities (Science Based Medicine, Quackwatch, etc.), you come away with the impression that essential oils are at best pleasant-smelling placebos and at worst expensive poisons. So – who’s right? Who’s wrong? Are essential oils simply glorified air fresheners without any evidence of efficacy, or does the truth lie somewhere between the two extremes?

Let’s first dig into the common claims and the evidence for some of the most popular essential oils.

Peppermint Oil

Reduces fever when applied to feet.

Any truth? I couldn’t find any published research that supports this claim, unless you’re talking about reducing dengue fever; peppermint oil apparently repels dengue fever-carrying mosquitos.

Stimulates hair growth.

Any truth? A 2014 animal study found that compared to saline, jojoba oil, and minoxidil, topical peppermint oil stimulated the most hair growth with an increase in dermal thickness, follicle number, and follicle depth. Also, there were no “toxic signs,” which is always good.

Relieves and even cures IBS.

Any truth? It’s mixed. Some research shows that peppermint oil can reduce overall IBS symptoms, but a recent placebo-controlled trial found that while peppermint oil relieved transient abdominal pain in IBS, it had no effect on any of the other IBS symptoms. An earlier study supports its use in IBS-related stomach pain, showing that enteric coated peppermint oil capsules improved pain symptoms in kids with IBS.

Rosemary Oil

Prevents and reverses male pattern baldness when applied topically.

Any truth? One recent study compared minoxidil (an over the counter hair loss treatment) to rosemary essential oil. Both were rubbed into the scalp on a daily basis. At six months, both groups had experienced a significant increase in hair growth, with the rosemary group having slightly less itchy scalps.

Energizes, fights fatigue.

Any truth? In twenty healthy volunteers, inhaling rosemary oil increased blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate. Subjective impressions of stimulation increased, with subjects reporting feeling “fresher.” Alpha brain wave activity (as measured by EEG) diminished and beta wave activity increased, indicative of “stimulation.” However, there was no placebo control group.

Improves memory.

Any truth? A 2013 study placed subjects in one of two rooms — one with a diffuser emitting rosemary essential oil and one with no diffuser — and gave both groups memory exercises to complete. Those in the rosemary room performed better and, according to blood tests taken after the exercises, had higher serum levels of a unique rosemary phenolic compound. Since previous animal studies have shown rosemary compounds interact with memory systems in the brain, the relationship may be causal and indicative of rosemary oil’s efficacy.

Lavender Oil

Reduces anxiety.

Any truth? Well, in coronary bypass surgery patients, lavender oil was able to reduce anxiety, but no more than the placebo control. However, in dental patients, lavender oil aromatherapy reduced anxiety, while the placebo did not; other studies confirm this effect in dental patients. Oral lavender oil seems just as effective (without the side effects, like drowsiness and extreme addiction) as xanax at reducing general anxiety. It’s mixed, then, but I think the evidence is fairly strong that lavender oil can reduce anxiety in people. Germany, for example, has deemed oral lavender oil a legitimate treatment for anxiety disorders.

Reduces migraines.

Any truth? There is one study that found lavender oil to be effective against acute migraine, but the control was a plain paraffin wax candle. Paraffin wax is a petroleum byproduct and potential migraine trigger for some people, so this may not have been an inert control.

Increases vasodilation.

Any truth? In human hospital workers, lavender aromatherapy limits the reduction in flow-mediated dilation that normally accompanies a night shift.

Orange Oil

Reduces anxiety.

Any truth? In pediatric dental patients, orange oil aromatherapy lowered cortisol and pulse rate; similar reductions in anxiety were found in adult female patients. And when they were exposed to orange oil aromatherapy, human subjects undergoing experimental stress experienced very few alterations to stress parameters. Tension, tranquility, and systemic anxiety were all relatively unchanged. It works in rats, too.

Treats acne when applied topically.

Any truth? A 2012 trial found that a face gel based on orange oil, sweet basil oil, and acetic acid applied daily for 8 weeks improved acne symptoms.

Tea Tree Oil

Boosts the immune system.

Any truth? “Boosts the immune system” is fairly non-specific and vague, but there may be something. In rats infected with a pathogenic protozoa, oral tea tree oil extended their lives and modified the immune response but did not cure them.

Heals skin cancer.

Any truth? An animal study used topical tea tree oil mixed with DMSO (a solvent that allows anything it’s mixed with to penetrate the skin) to induce cytotoxicity in skin tumors. An earlier study using the same tea tree oil/DMSO solution was able to inhibit the growth of established skin cancer cells.

Kills oral pathogens.

Any truth? In a recent trial, tea tree oil mouthwash performed poorly at reducing plaque compared to cetylpyridinium mouthwash and commercial chlorhexidine. An earlier study found tea tree oil had beneficial effects on gingivitis, but not plaque. Tea tree oil does have significant anti-microbial action against common oral pathogens in an in vitro setting, so the potential is there.

The evidence is mixed, as you can see. Essential oils are just mediums for the essence of the plant, and there are thousands of different plants out there; it really depends on what claim and what plant we’re talking about. The evidence for peppermint oil reducing fever may be nonexistent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean peppermint oil is useless against IBS pain and hair loss. Just because your annoying neighbor keeps harping on you to join her MLM empire selling chakra-triggering oil blends doesn’t preclude those same blends from helping you relax —physiologically — at the end of a long day.

Essential oils often do work and actually can improve certain conditions, but they’re victims of their promoters. The testimonials are too breathless to be believed. The evidence they submit is too anecdotal. If they refer to a study when making a claim, it’s usually misrepresented or includes a half dozen oils that make analysis of the specific oil impossible. Plus, the arguments or recommendations they offer often contradict each other. The evangelists ruin it for the science-minded health explorers who might actually benefit from essential oils.

Essential oils as a whole do have evidence of efficacy in a few key areas:

Anxiety and stress: Aromatherapy is quite effective at reducing stress and anxiety. I already mentioned the ability of lavender and orange oils to reduce anxiety, but plenty of other oils have shown efficacy as well. In healthy females, bergamot essential oil increased parasympathetic activity and lowered salivary cortisol. Bergamot works in anxious rats, too. Transdermal application absent aroma detection may also be effective against anxiety and stress, as one study using topical rose oil showed. Most of the citrus oils (PDF), like the aforementioned orange and bergamot as well as lemon and bitter orange all show anxiolytic effects, probably due to limonene, an anxiolytic compound found in all of them.

Antibiotic activity: As a whole, essential oils tend be potent antimicrobial agents. The parent plants have a vested interest in repelling bugs, fungus, bacteria, and other tiny critters with designs on them, and this motivation manifests in their essential oils. In addition, they usually have the ability to break down and disrupt microbial biofilms, those stubborn microbe matrices that can resist many standard antibiotics. Clearly, more research is needed before essential oils can replace antibiotics, but it’s a conversation that we desperately need to pursue given the current state of antibiotic resistance and antibiotic overuse in human medicine and agriculture.

Dental health: Given their antibacterial activity, many essential oils have potential in dental health. Tea tree oil, manuka oil, and eucalyptus oil all displayed antibacterial effects against common oral pathogens in one study, while other research has shown that thyme and oregano essential oils also show efficacy.

Nausea: Lemon essential oil inhalation can reduce pregnancy-associated nausea and vomiting, and a 2012 review found that both ginger and peppermint essential oils were also effective (though they did identify some methodological concerns). For post-operative nausea, both ginger oil and a blend of ginger, cardamom, spearmint, and peppermint oils may help.

So, what’s the final verdict on essential oils? Bunk or boon?

It’s complicated. It’s tough to give a single opinion that applies to dozens upon dozens of unique essential oils. But we can say a few things that apply to all of them.

Essential oils are not inert placebos. They’re not expensive air fresheners. They are pharmacological agents with bioactive compounds, many of which are powerful enough to rival prescription drugs. But with this power comes randomness. As much as we harp on pharmaceuticals for the unwanted side effects we often counter using another prescription, at least the dosages of the active ingredients are stable and constant. Essential oils? Not so much. There’s no real way of knowing the “dosage” of the bioactive compound, or even whether we’ve successfully uncovered every possible compound present in the plants, herbs, and spices used to make the oil.

Essential oils are also not harmless. For example, topical essential oils can be quite harsh and even toxic. When exposed to air, lavender oil forms strong contact allergens, and compounds in lavender oil have cytotoxic effects on human skin cells. Topical orange oil is a “very weak” promoter of skin cancers.

It’s clear that some essential oils work for some things, while others don’t. And the ones that don’t work for one claim might very well work for another. As I said: it’s complicated.

What about you, folks? Any essential oil users out there? What do you swear by? What do you recommend? Or are you totally convinced that there’s nothing going on here?

Let’s hear about it in the comment section!

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

102 thoughts on “Essential Oils: Separating Fact from Fiction”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    1. Same here. That’s actually one of the things I’ve come to love most about this site, having beliefs challenged.

    2. Does anyone have experience using essential oils to help heal ligament injuries ?

  1. My estimate is that about 1% of the population is inherently allergic to tea tree oil, and another 1% will become so if they overuse it (I did, from using deodorant containing it). I still use it for minor injuries, and would use it on any topical fungus.

    It’s probably worth looking for a claim that the oil meets ISO 4730. Skip the aromatherapy oils. Taking TTO internally may not be the best idea.

    1. I had a horrific reaction to tea tree oil when I tried using it to dry up a severe case of poison ivy– I think the amount of skin treated was the issue, since it was over much of my arms & legs. But instead of helping, the tea tree caused even the non-ivy-exposed skin to break out in itchy bumps! I ended up having to do a course of steroids, which was NOT what I was after with my “benign natural remedy”!

      However, I still dared to try 1 drop on a Q-tip recently when I had an itchy ear & suspected fungus. Solved the problem quickly, with no reaction. So as in many cases, it appears the dose is critical!

      1. I once used a lotion containing tea tree oil and broke out in itchy bumps. It might work for some people, but I can’t use it in any form.

      2. Oh dear. I have a violent allergy to poison ivy and skin allergies in general… I think I’ll stay away from any topical applications.

  2. Thanks Mark. I absolutely hate the way MLMs can ruin things. This article was well thought out and I really enjoy it. I have found that the scent of fresh basil growing by my doorway “seems to make me feel better.”

    1. The only “essential” oils around here are olive oil, coconut oil, and macadamia oil. I consider them essential.

      1. +1!

        I use coconut oil for everything imaginable. For oil pulling, as a moisturiser, on my hair, on scars/burns/cracked skin, to cook with, in my baking, etc. Can’t get enough of the stuff!

  3. I’ve always believed that medicines are derived from natural, and not so natural, sources. Just because a remedy was used a hundred years ago doesn’t mean it is useless or a joke. Essential oils, just like any other remedy, should be treated as medicine, to be handled with care. I use a tea tree oil and arnica gel that works wonderfully for several topical applications such as cuts, bruises and fungal infections but too much is toxic so I use it very sparingly.

  4. While actually selling them is virtually impossible unless you have a large base of contacts, I use them now for just personal use. Peppermint is great for headaches, and has worked for a few of my 2 year old’s fevers when I can’t get medicine in him. Serenity Blend has lavender in it, and works great for anxiety. Lavender also works for soothing bites and cuts and stuff, and Frankincense and Melaleuca are great for antibiotic uses. And On Guard is an immunity blend that appears to help shorten colds. (All in my personal experience). I can’t speak for most other oils, but these are the ones I use regularly. As for the science, I have no idea, but they are gaining popularity.

  5. In my personal experience lavender oil has definitely helped my anxiety. I was diagnosed with GAD in middle school and have been dealing with it, unmedicated, for 20 years. Exercise, eating well, lavender oil and magnesium have all helped significantly.

    I do feel like gouging my eyes out when someone talks to me about Young Living Oils or DoTerra.

    1. Can you take oral Lavendar oil long term for anxiety? I am finding it very helpful, but cannot find out if it is ok to take for longer than a few weeks

  6. Hi Mark, love your site…o.k. with that out of the way…
    I will preface by saying I am not an aromatherapist. I took a class in it some years ago.
    The most important thing about essential oils that never seems to float around in this world of misinformation is that essential oils are some of the most potent medicines around. That being said, the lack of education about how to use them makes them incredibly dangerous. Essential oils should only be used by someone who has been educated enough to understand their use and danger. Our culture loves things that smell nice, and we tend to have a mentality of more is better. One of the first things we learned in class was that understanding the power of the oils is key to their safety…people think oh it smells good I’ll add more, or, two drops that can’t be right it must be more, and they are then giving themselves the medicinal equivalent of fifty aspirin.
    Essential oils can and have been deadly.
    They can also cure an amazing amount of ailments when used properly. I think it’s hard for the average person to understand how a smell could heal you, but that’s not quite the science of it.
    A good example of this is wintergreen…it smells great and it’s great for a headache, so the more the better right? Wrong… so hey let’s put about thirty drops on a tissue and inhale it…you’ve just given yourself 11 aspirin…
    I guess what I’m trying to say is…Aromatherapy is extremely effective, and should only be practiced by people who have been educated at least enough to understand it’s dangers and uses.
    so the next time you clean your house with half of bottle of lavender oil and then can’t figure out why you have diarrhea for the rest of the day remember…a miniscule amount of essential oil is potent! and also there’s not a germ left alive!

  7. I use tea tree oil for acne, grapefruit oil for a mood lifter, and I drink peppermint tea (probably doesn’t count). I’m highly allergic to lavender, so I avoid that one. And I put orange extract in my hot cocoa, because I like it.

    1. Homeopathy is not the same as essential oils. Homeopathy is diluting something to the point of not a single molecule remaining and claiming the resultant water magically retains some memory of it. Essential oils are concentrated distillation of herbal oils. Pretty much opposites.

      1. Your explanation of homeopathy is both simplistic and scathing. (Geez, there’s always someone who thinks they know everything about homeopathy when in fact they know very little and have never tried it.) Also, there’s nothing “magical” about it. Here’s a far better explanation:

        1. Actually, that link says precisely what Mary said: That mathematically there is no chance that the product has any of the named substance, and that it works anyway. They do not use the word “magically,” but they do not impute any plausible, proven, physiological mechanism by which something would get “stronger” as it became more dilute, which is one of the mystical dogmas of homeopathy.

      2. Homeopathy has a completely “scientific” basis. It is just not accepted by conventional science, just as the paleo diet is apparently counter to conventional wisdom. Water is an incredibly dynamic substance. The universe (that is everything including me and the chair I am sitting on) is electro-magnetic. The essential message/power of the substance is energetically retained in the dynamic energy of the water and transmits the message to the water in all living tissues. I and my family and friends have had experience of dramatic healings with homoeopathy once the correct remedy is identified. Don’t knock it – it is effective and very cheap which is why the medical establishment and big pharma want to get rid of it.
        Many people use it very casually, which is why it often does not seem to work on conditions more complex than a bruise. Finding the correct remedy is skilled work especially in societies where we are overlaid with all sorts of miasms caused by years of allopathic medicines, environmental pollutants and so on. It is much more straightforward in so-called “developing” societies.

    2. You may be confusing the word Homeopathy with Holistic or Naturopathy – very common. (Although Naturopaths use homeopathic products).

  8. I use them, and some work quite well. Some did absolutely nothing.

    I think it’s better not to group oils as good or bad together as one, as there are many brands and the quality varies wildly from brand to brand. I use a brand that is NOT a MLM company called Native American Nutritionals. They merged wit Rocky Mountain Oils.) I find their oils to be excellent quality. They have two kinds, a “neat” oil, which is full-strength, and an oil diluted with fractionated coconut oil. I use the diluted oils and they work just fine.

  9. Here’s my anecdote regarding rosemary and memory. I attended law school 16 years ago. I treated it like a job; I attended class, did the required reading, studied a bit, but ended my day around 5pm so I could have a life. During reading days before exams, I read my notes three times and sniffed rosemary essential oil during the reading. (I mean, I would consciously pick up a towel infused with rosemary and sniff it every 15 minutes or so.) I brought my rosemary EO into the exam room, and sniffed it during the exam. Did it do anything? Well, I graduated with honors and managed to have a life during law school. It worked for me then.

    Rosemary for remembrance!

    1. How do you know you wouldn’t have graduated with honors without sniffing rosemary? Seems to me you’re giving the EO more credit than you’re giving yourself.

    2. This makes since due to training yourself to remember what you read to what you did. Studies show that people who chew gum, (or sniff oil like you) or form another ‘study habit’ associate the two function as one.

  10. When I had surgery last year they didn’t put me all the way out. I had never been under anesthesia before and though they put me under low anesthesia the nausea I had was insane. They gave me three different anti nausea drugs and none of them worked. Finally, a nurse gave me an essential oil mix to smell and it stopped the nausea completely so I could go home. I had been there three times as long as most out patients. That stuff saved me from a lot more vomiting that pharmaceuticals couldn’t stop.

  11. There is an interesting article in the Atlantic (16-01-2015) about the potential use of oregano essential oil as antibiotic for cattle. It has strong antibiotic properties and it’s less likely to cause resistance as the natural compounds of the plant are much more complex than those of synthetic antibiotics.
    The claim that orange oil might increase the risk of skin cancer, well, it’s well known that many citrus oils increase photo sensitivity (the more you sunburn the higher the cancer risk). So if you make your cosmetics ( I do) you can: a) avoid using citrus oil in cosmetics applied on body parts not covered by clothing, b) usecitrus oils that have been treated to remove the molecules responsible for photo sensitivity, c) use alternative oils with similar scents, like may chang instead of lemon.

  12. Essential oils can be used in wonderful ways, but you must remember they are like medicine. You must use carefully and responsibly. The best website/source for information is David Crow has been studying and procuring responsibly-harvested oils for years. Study before you buy or use and don’t fall for exaggerated claims by big oil distributors.

  13. Old wives tales oft have some truth in them:

    “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray you, love, remember. And there is pansies, that’s for thoughts.”

    -William Shakespeare, via Ophelia in Hamlet

    1. YES! I love this guy’s perfume but I stopped buying it because it’s not in my budget….otherwise I would buy every scent. I wish he had reasonably priced samples, I’d try them all.

      My favorites are Black March and the Cedarwood. In the library was also good. Did not like November or Burning leaves (it did smell like burning leaves but with something extra that didn’t appeal to me).

  14. I have used peppermint oil for headaches. Whether it works or “works” as a placebo doesn’t really matter to me as long as I’m getting relief.
    I’m always a little suspicious when the claims are too good to be true. I’ve actually read the following:
    • One application stopped TMJ symptoms that had been going on for years.
    • One application took care of grandma’s knee joint pain.
    I guess maybe I’m just waiting for the claims I want to believe: woman cures acne & increases breast size after applying ______ oil twice!
    Sign me up! ????

    1. Ha! I just had a gal share a story about how her husband said he’d become a believer in essential oils if she could increase her breast size. So she accepted the challenge and has been using geranium topically on a daily basis. She said it has made her chest fuller but if she stops using it on a consistent basis she loses the fullness. Plus there is a potential side effect that she could start lactating. EO’s are definitely potent and should be used judiciously.

    2. What you need is Bust Must Plus. You can pick some up from Uncle Rico.

  15. The first thing that has to be talked about with oils is the QUALITY. It is like beef – beef from feed lots is NOT the same as free range beef. Most oil companies adulterate the oils and greatly diminish their therapeutic value. I am not an expert – but from what I know there are only a few super high quality oil companies out there – and I use Rocky Mountain Oils. You can not buy oils from Whole Foods and expect them to work miracles for you – but they might smell nice. Do your homework about oil companies and how they are processed. I started using oils about 6 months ago – just experimenting – I was curious – and some have had significant results for me – and some not so much. I will give you one example – I had a 3 hour dentist appointment the other day for a crown – and my jaw was a mess – swollen, sore, inflamed you name it – I got home and rubbed in an oil blend called Sports Pro – and took a hot shower to get it absorbed even deeper and within 20 minutes my face was noticeably better and felt almost normal. Would that have happened just with the hot shower? Maybe, but I don’t think so……..and I have had other noticeably positive affects as well. My limited experience with high quality therapeutic oils does prove to me they have some value!

    1. You are correct. I use Native American Nutritionals, which recently merged with Rocky Mountain.

      They are the BEST, IMO.

  16. It seems that essential oils have a legitimate place in natural “medicine”. I am convinced that cymbopogon, aka lemongrass, is the most effective combatant to influenza.
    I attribute my affinity for Thai cooking and the lemongrass plant in my back yard, as the reason why I have not experience cold/flu symptoms for years. I certainly trust this approach to paying some recent pharmaceutical school graduate to stick a needle in my arm and inject some unknown liquid, down a CVS. Perhaps a primal friendly personality, skilled in the science of botanical defense chemistry will rise through the MLM noise and emerge as a legitimate spokesperson for the primal community.

  17. I’ve always been skeptical about the “healing properties” of oils. I do know some aromatherapy is credible, as Mark has pointed out, with anxiety, stress and nausea, as I’ve seen it used successfully in a pediatric hospital I worked at in the cancer department. My experience with oils has been with organic gardening. Rosemary oil is a big one for insect control and there are peppermint oil-based fungicides that work really, really well on mildew and other types of fungus. I also use orange oil for a myriad of household and garden tasks. Anyone tried rosemary oil for bald spots? 😛

  18. Good article. My experience with EO is limited to a small bottle of lavender I bought from a reputable company (I think it was Rocky Mountain Oils, but don’t remember). Other than having a pleasant smell, it did nothing to calm a period of anxiety I was going through. I find that an appropriate homeopathic remedy (from an experienced homeopath) works far better with zero danger of being toxic.

  19. I bought peppermint oil in hope of relief for headaches and menstrual cramps but it doesn’t really work for me. But, the thing is, I found an awesome use for it. Mosquito bites! I used to itch for a week for each bite but now I put a little bit of diluted peppermint oil and it stops the itching instantly and it never comes back again!! I haven’t try it with fly bites yet though.

    1. I use frankincense for period pain (plus heat, of course). Works a treat. Helps me trance out and relax. I use In Essence brand, which is about $55 AU per 9mL bottle, but hey, it works, and i can’t handle opioids.

      Lavender works well on burns.

      1. I checked their website but they don’t seem to be shipping to Canada even though they say they do. I’ll try a North American company instead I think. Right now, I take NSAID and I know that it’s not helping my gut issues at all but I just can’t suffer for 3 days each 21 days.

  20. I use EO everyday! They are amazing! It all depends on the company you buy from. Not all oils are 100% pure..we use them for anything from infections to anxiety…

  21. There are definitely some oils that I really enjoy using. Lavender, peppermint, lemon, and some blends. Ditched the MLM scams though. I read a blog post a while back that de-bunked Young Living and DoTerra for bad practices on how they source their oils. Kinda like the difference buying a local free range chicken or a commercially raised chicken. I found an Essential Oils company that I really like called Rocking Mountain Oils. I highly recommend them if anyone is interested in trying some oils. NO MLM at all with them!!

  22. With a history of asthma I avoid anything with a scent whether it is man made or natural. It is not worth the risk of triggering an attack. I also find it unclear which essential oils are for external use and which are for internal consumption. So I have basically avoided them, except for peppermint tea (but that is with leaves and not oil so I don’t think that is considered an EO?).

    1. Hello,

      Many of the oils mentioned are high in salicylates. You may be reacting to them.

    2. Most people experienced with essential oils that aren’t affiliated with the MLMs will tell you that none of them are for internal consumption, or at the most liberal, only used internally when diluted quite a bit.

      The thing to remember about EOs is that they are *very* concentrated. A single drop of peppermint oil, for example, has the potency of something like 25 cups of peppermint tea. This is why it’s advised to use all essential oils in a diluted state.

  23. I was hoping you’d address the use of essential oils to lessen muscle soreness. Any merit to that?

  24. I like to make my own air freshener with EOs. I mix about 20-30 drops of EO (more if I’m using multiple oils) in a little spray bottle with about 1/8 cup of rubbing alcohol and a splash of which hazel and let it sit over night. Then I add some water to that. It works very well, and no scary or stinky fake chemicals to breathe. It can be a little pricy, but I feel its money well spent.

  25. Mark, great blog on ‘essential’ oils. I have always loved rosemary, orange, and tea tree oil as well as peppermint/spearmint. I also used to love the smell of pachouli oil, one it seems, like you either love or hate. Thanks for the research as well. Jacks

  26. I just have to add if you have IBS-D and take peppermint oil and find it to be ineffective… let’s just say it’s not a pleasant experience.

  27. Rant alert!

    I have used EO’s for over 40 years. I’m personally a big fan of EO’s, used intelligently. They’re like any other treatment modality…they have advantages and limitations, appropriate uses and contraindications, and the woo-woo hype and oversimplifications drive me wild.

    EO’s are best for their anti-bacterial/anti-fungal/anti-viral properties, for their psychoactive effects, and for pest repellents. They work.

    Yet I’m shocked and amazed…often…at what users/”practitioners” don’t know. “Oooh, lavender is for anxiety. We’ll use it and everything will be OK.” It’s not the only, or the best, for that. Have any of these people ever heard of using Roman chamomile? And do they know the difference from German chamomile? Or “blue” chamomile? Because they’re not interchangeable, at all. This holds true for many, many oils. And yet I’ve heard sellers recommend the wrong ones. If they do get results…can you say “placebo?”

    EO’s from reputable companies are well characterized with constituent contents (linolool, thymol, phenol, sequiterpenes, coumarols, etc) and source information for their raw materials. (English or French lavender? France or Comoros? Cultivated or wild? Steam distilled, hexane extracted, or effleurage?) These details are important, and the science IS there. Does the lady selling “EO”‘s, or her supplier, or even the manufacturer, know this? Most often, the answer is “no.”

    Quality EO’s are EXPENSIVE precisely because they are analyzed and characterized. If you want results you’d best not go on the cheap. They are insanely concentrated as well. If you’re not diluting them yourself, you’ve really got no idea of concentration or quality. You have to know your carrier oils. Use the wrong one, or the wrong concentration, and you’ve wasted your time and money, and possibly set yourself up for a reaction.

    It is good to have Mark address the issue. Although this article is severely limited in scope, its conclusions are valid. I totally agree that there’s a ton of misinformation out there. As someone who has experience and considerable success with EO’s, it is frustrating and embarrassing. Aromatherapy is not a panacea. But it’s just like medicine, exercise, and diet: if used intelligently as a part of the whole, it works.

    1. I am curious about your experience with chamomile. Have always sipped chamomile tea for anxiety, but have not heard of a particular type being more effective. would love to know if I should be looking for something special.

    2. Agree! I use EOs largely in place of over the counter meds. But, purity and source matter! The best thing we can do is educate ourselves.

  28. I acquired a staph infection, I think while visiting NYC, that resulted in me breaking out in pimple like spots all over my chest. I had no idea what it was until a GP doctor took a sample to be analyzed. She gave me antibiotics to get rid of it which it did not.

    I then went to a dermatologist who said antibiotics were not the right thing to do. She said the staph originated in the nose and prescribed a cream to apply to the inside of my nose. I read the directions on the insert and realized she prescribed the wrong cream. It said specifically to not apply to mucus membranes.

    At that point I decided to wash my nose with Dr Bronner’s liquid soap that has tea tree oil in it. I did this for three months about every other day and the staph infection went away. I think that was about 5 years ago. Was it the tree tea oil? Hard to say but that was my experience. I only write this in case it could help someone else.

  29. I have terrible and scary reactions to NSAIDS so I am left with little in regular FDA tested medicine. I use Frankincense (boswellia) essential oil as a topical rub to pretty good effect. I also take it internally along with tumeric, ginger, bromelain. I successfully treated a recent resurgence of rotator cuff syndrome and found it also dampened my allergies. So yes I use some of them as medicine. I also use a bit of lavender to help relax me to sleep.

    MLM is just a scam to convince you to pay 3 to 4 times. So no to doterra. All the oils can be bought in health food stores, so no need for the MLMs.

    1. Mints are methyl salicylate derivatives as are NSAIDS. Please check which oils are on the salycilate sensitivity lists if you are sensitive to NSAIDS. I react to Chamomile as a salicylate ,too. Probably why many of these herbs reduce anxiety and soreness, it’s like taking asprin.

  30. I tried some Tea Tree shampoo a while back and my libido mysteriously disappeared during the time I used it….yeah, it was really weird. After chucking it, things went back to normal…phew!

  31. I’ve always found tee tree oil beneficial for abrasions and cuts

  32. I’ve used EOs for years, all different brands. Some were good, others not so much. I happen to also like some blends from MLM. I’ve done my homework, continue to study and educate myself, and choose how and where I spend my money. It should be of no consequence to anyone else.

    People need to take responsibility for their health and their own choices.

    Regarding irresponsible uniformed “reps”, there are just as many bloggers and other “experts” who fall into the same category. Many times right after they bash an oil brand, they roll out their own dog & pony show peddling their own wares.

    Same thing going on here.

  33. I’ve purchased about 10 oils and am waiting for them to be delivered as we speak. I’m very interested to see how I’ll go with them – stress, anxiety, nausea and headaches are big problems of mine, which it seems are actually the things that EOs are most beneficial for.

    That said, I don’t think they’re the cure-all many people make them out to be. Making your children behave? Getting rid of menstrual cramps? Memory? For me, a healthy diet, regularly being active and sleeping enough impact me in the biggest way. If I’m not sleeping, stray from primal eating or stop exercising, there’s no way I think oils are going to help with fatigue/lethargy/depression.

    But using them in conjunction with my regular routine, I hope they’ll be an extra piece to the puzzle that promote holistic health.

  34. These essential oils have their own usage and can deliver better results when use correctly. But, I really think we should stop calling it oil because it doesn’t have fatty acid that constitutes oil.

  35. I use them to make my own household cleaner. A tsp castille soap, 15 or so drops of oil, hot water. That’s what I mop with. We had a brown recluse infestation and I found lemon + lavender to be a quality repellant.

  36. I use a large variety of essential oils usually in a diffuser and enjoy the aroma. I will testify to having great success with an EO called PanAway. I’ve had a torn meniscus for a few months and don’t want to continue taking Advil (I’m trying to preserve my liver for wine) I rub diluted PanAway on my knee and it helps the discomfort for about 4 hours.

  37. I’m also surprised that no mention was made of EO of wild oregano. When properly prepared it is an extremely powerful antibacterial/disinfectant, and has been recognized since the Ancient Greeks and Romans as among the strongest antibiotics in existence, and still is today if Big Pharma would give it its proper due, but we all know you can’t patent a (non-GMO) plant. It is still used as a natural preservative/cleaner for meat products in parts of Europe. Above all, it acts selectively, unlike the pharmaceuticals which are the equivalent of thermonuclear weapons.

  38. I adore you Mark and love your site and your products. That being said, EO’s are getting a bad rap because people aren’t educating themselves AND MOST balk at the fact that the 2 really amazing lines stem from the MLM/ relationship/direct sales structure. Who cares how you purchase your as long as you do your research. If you don’t want to sell, you don’t have to. You can buy directly from the company. You can buy through a friend (and get their wholesale cost). Sales is sales. It is no different than buying Marks amazing products and referring your friends to his website based on your experience with them. Mark profits. Its a business structure. Nothing more, nothing less. There is no scheme in place.
    Also – word of caution. Many people will go to Amazon to get “cheaper” products that look identical. That is where the scams can come in. There is no product or quality control on a lot of these. You can buy empty labeled bottles with fully intact lids and put whatever you want it them. Personally, and especially since I add oils to my water (Thieves) to keep my immune system up (I’m the only one in my work environment who hasn’t been sick in 5 months from adding 2 drops to my water each morning- everyone else has missed 5+ days of work in the last 2 months alone) buy through the company. I’d rather pay $3 more to know my bottle is seed to seal controlled.
    And don’t think MD’s aren’t getting cuts of the profit when they push meds on their patients. My mom works in the medical field and sees first hand what happens. I would be much more skeptical of pharmaceuticals than I would be of oils but again, I have done my research. There is a time and place for both.
    I mean, everyone needs to be accountable for themselves, do their research, try quality products that are truly natural and medically therapeutic quality. But to say all MLMs are scams and w/o good products and/or results is just ignorant.
    Oils are another tool to add to your tool kit of wellness and radiant health. Just like adding Mark’s supplements to your diet and exercise routine.

    1. Exactly! I was just talking to a friend about this, how MLM and direct marketing can promote feelings of distrust. My feeling is that the tide is turning, that direct marketing is going to take over because we are finding that we can no longer trust the big companies. Small business and network marketing is going to be where people turn because that’s where the personal relationships are!

  39. I use essentials oils daily and I have them to be beneficial for me. Like all things each person has their own acceptance and tolerance to any oil. And everything should be used in moderation until you find what works best for you…and all brands are formulated differently and not all from the same source. If you believe it will work for you, it just might! If you “know” it won’t work, then it never will.

  40. Good article Mark. The MLMs are going to ruin it for anyone who loves using essential oils for their smell or their medicinal values. The issue isn’t really whether or not peppermint oil reduces fever. If you want to use it and you find it helps, then it helps. The brain is a very powerful mechanism. The problem is that the MLMs advocate theirs are the purest (random tests of MLM oils have consistently shown they are chemically diluted and some don’t even contain any of the oil it purports to contain), they have the highest “certification”, theirs are grown and produced by their own company to ensure purity, etc. It’s all hogwash. The real experts are Robert Tisserand and Dr Pappas as well as others who have years of aromatherapy experience. There is no certification of essential oils, that’s a marketing scam by YLEO and doTerra. They also advocate a very dangerous practice of placing essential oils directly on your skin, undiluted. That’s a huge problem, and mainly the reason the FDA is looking to regulate essential oils. Don’t let anyone convince you that a certain essential oil is ok to apply neat/undiluted! It’s dangerous and could be deadly.

  41. I have used a number of essential oils over the years with mixed results. I currently use lavender and orange to relieve stress associated with a chronic pain condition. However, I recently picked up some tee tree oil to use topically for a skin issue. Before I used it I did a quick search online to make sure I used it properly. I discovered from multiple sources that it can be really toxic to pets. Though a very diluted form, usually one to two percent, may be used in products for pets, the 100 percent product that I was about to apply to myself can cause severe reactions and may even be life-threatening. I chose not to use the oil rather than taking a chance on transferring any of the oil onto my very small dog.

  42. I have put lavendar oil to the test, I burned my hand severely picking up a skillet that had been left in my oven after I turned it on. I used lavendar oil immediately on my hand multiple times in a 1 1/2 hour period, it was like a miracle, the next morning there was very little evidence that I had experienced such a burn!!

  43. In 2006 I shattered my elbow, falling on a ceramic tile floor. I was on Lortabs for three weeks, around the clock, and was still having quite a bit of pain. (Also I was stretching my arm so that I wouldn’t lose range of motion.) A friend gave me the pain blend from one of the multi-level marketing companies, and I never took another pain pill. It really worked for me. I went through withdrawal for three or four days because you do get adapted to the narcotic. But the pain blend worked for me. I’ve had mixed results with the other oils.

  44. Lavender oil also has mild anaesthetic and antibacterial properties that make it great for relieving pain in burns and stings. Good for moisturizing and protecting burned skin, too.

  45. My wife and I use EOs and I wholeheartedly think SOME work. Yes we use one of those large companies but do not sell the stuff. Here is what i have tried and what i feel about it:

    Peppermint – this one is my favorite oil by far. Here in TX allergies tend to get out of hand when spring first comes and Peppermint oil rubbed on the back of the neck tends to work faster and as well (for me) than claritin. It was accidentally found as I spilled some and got it on my neck and my allergies were magically gone.

    Lavender – this seems to be some sort of miracle oil for bites and itchies. We have 2 toddler children and anytime they get a bite lavender almost always helps the bite stop itching and disappear quicker. With the tea tree oil she was able to get rid of one of the childs ringworm.
    It also works as a sedation for the crazies 🙂

    Tea tree oil – my wife uses this for minor scrapes and other things. She also swears that it works for acne.

    Citrus oils – other than Lemon anything citrus hasnt worked up to the claims. Wild Orange, grapefruit and lime all gave us headaches and seem to make us lethargic which is completely contrary to the claims.

    Oregano – i did witness a child who had a minor throat infection get completely well by using oregano on the feet and some other herbs. It may have been the herbs or a combination of the two.

    Frankincense and Melissa oil are the most expensive ones we have but i can honestly say both work well for rage induced anxiety. I use 1 drop of each internally (use under toungue ) it almost instantly allows me to calm down. This could be from placebo effect but if it does the job without any medication, i am all game for it.

    I also tend to fall under the “probably in the middle” category of claims on the oils. I have seen how some work and some don’t.

  46. I have been an operating room nurse for a very long time and appreciate the need for good science with regards to our health. There are numerous accounts of success with using essential oils for various aliments, at least with my family and friends. You cannot discount EO use just because you can’t currently find enough studies to support it. It is similar to the pursuit of a Paleo lifestyle….if it works, it works. Kinda like the famous “study of one” anecdotal reports you gather, Mark. I do have to ask, because some companies chose to bring their products to market using a word of mouth, teaching format, AKA MLM, is this format somehow inferior? Using EO’s for health and well-being concerns requires information and teaching for safe usage. These oils are potent and should be used intelligently. The question is, who is doing the teaching, and are they informed enough? I personally have had tremendous success using the Doterra brand, sent to me by my 80 year mother. Many of the oils have some 150 substances, or more, in them that can have medicinal effects on the body. Quality information on usage is vital, but the bottom line is you have to research for yourself and your family. No need to DIS any company for the way they chose to market their product…MLM (network marketing) may be a good idea in this instance, but only if the “teachers” are informed enough.

  47. Aroma is so keyed in to emotion and memory that I roll my eyes at these charts of X essential oil has Y emotional effect. Lavender is “relaxing.” Orange is “energizing.” It’s an “automatic involuntary response” because of blah blah brain cells blah.

    If the month you spent every summer at your grandmother’s house was the only time in your childhood that you felt truly safe, and she reeked of oranges, then orange oil will calm you like nothing else in the world.

    If the month you spent every summer at your grandmother’s house was the most inner ring of hell you hope to ever experience, and she reeked of lavender, lavender is going to make you feel like the walls are closing in.

    By all means take those charts as a starting point, but sniff them for yourself and see how you respond. You’re a person, not a theory.

  48. I have used EOs with success to treat/manage chronic Lyme disease that left me so mentally impaired I was unable to function (at the age of 25). I never wanted to walk a road this controversial ( my dad is an MD) but my husband and I agree it is by far our best option at this point. My first naturopathic doctor used herbal extracts, colloidal silver, supplements, etc and we had initial success with that, but a year later I relapsed and thousands of dollars worth of extracts and silver didn’t change a thing. I turned to a different naturopath who uses EOs to treat and within a week of her treatment plan, I was functional again. A person has to do what’s best for him/her, regardless of the hype. No business, government or bureaucratic entity cares about my health and my ability to live my life like I do.

  49. One of my pet peeves is the topic of relative risk. For example, people above talking about all the dangers of essential oils. Everything in our lives is toxic at certain doses, even water. Common sense and caution are imperative with anything we use. So the more important question is, what are the dangers of EOs relative to the medications that they can potentially replace? Why do we blindly trust the dosages and drug mixtures from the pharmaceutical industry when history and research tells us they can’t be trusted? People die from improper use of medications all the time. No, I don’t have a source for that, but we all know it to be true. Can the same be said of essential oils? Of herbs and herbal tinctures in general? I don’t think so. We need to reevaluate where we place our trust. And we need to reaccumulate the knowledge of nature and it’s uses that our ancestors had before drugs and grocery stores came into existence.

  50. My best friend started selling doterra and her enthusiasm for them caused me to buy a few oils and I do love them. I diffuse in the house and apply topically.

    I can’t claim they’ve cured anything, but I wouldn’t think badly about someone trying them to supplement EO along with their physician’s advice, or experimenting for an ailment. If it turns out that homeopathy and EO only work because of the placebo effect, IT STILL WORKED. The power of the mind can be just as effective as prescription medication.

  51. I know from personal experience that lavender oil helps with migraines. I havent taken a pill for my migraines in years. I just pop the top off the oil and inhale.

  52. Does anyone know a trustworthy Canadian company or retailer of a trustworthy brand? I tried looking around but there is not many testimonial/reviews around that talk about the therapeutic effects and not just the “good scent”.

  53. I use essential oils for my own use, for my husband and my farm animals… (I also use salts, clay…) and I find them very effective if well cosen and well used. Chemical drugs have been extracted mostly from natural coumpound (and then they make money because you have to “create” them in a lab) Essential oils are just “plant extracts”… if you don’t know how t use them, have them interact, sure it won’t work.
    I’ve treated wounds, infections, a very painful renal infection… all only with natural products including essential oils.
    Fun thing: most chemical drugs drive me into “renal insuffisance” mode (which isn’t nice!) Essential oils don’t.

  54. Whoa!Peppermint oil is more effective regrowing hair than minoxidil (rogaine)!!!??? I’ve never heard of this,very interesting.

  55. I find it very interesting how having a different business model, different marketing strategy, different sales and distribution channel, and different customer care methods automatically makes certain EO companies a “scam.”

    But other companies who do have more traditional wholesale/retail business models, who very rarely have any kind of personal info/relationship ongoing connection with their end users for ongoing, personal training, support, continuing education, etc, whose distribution channels (websites/stores) may or may not even use essential oils or care to, but rather simply work with the EO company for the potential profit they may make by selling the oils, are considered much more “legit.”

  56. Essential oils are powerful medicines, with highly active properties. I’ve used various EOs over the years to provide relief of various ailments. A bath with drops of thyme, lavender and tea tree oil will instantly relieve a urinary tract infection for me. Other girls know of the pain associated with UTIs, so instant relief not to be taken lightly. I also use lavender and oregano for sore throats, in steam inhalations. They are also great expectorants helping to break up sticky mucus that come along with viruses. Many essential oils can help break up biofilms, especially oral plaque biofilms. A mouthwash made with citrus essential oils is more efficient at plaque removal and prevention than other standard chemical substances. Clove essential oil is also wonderful for toothaches, numbing the nerve temporarily. The effects are wide and varied and useful for many ailments. More research needs to be done. Some essential oils can be quite poisonous and care should always be taken to determine a reputable source and distillation method, as well as dose.

  57. So what’s the upshot?
    That some have merit and some don’t?
    You started out with that in the 1st place!

    But more important – your “study” was
    merely an internet perusal, so you had
    better keep up your long study ahead.

    Instead of rats, though, I’d stick strictly
    to humans. As for essential oils cytotoxicity,
    stop fretting over that tiny issue. Even
    anecdotal human evidence is extremely
    valuable for someone suffering a malady,
    and certainly worth millions more than
    these stupid rat studies that purposely
    indulge in rat studies – to keep the damn
    stuff away from humans. As long as you
    have BigPharma prevailing, you’ll have
    rat studies up to your nose.

  58. I wanted to talk about their experiences of using essential oils this year. I have great help here this recipe:
    • 8 drops of jojoba oil
    • 4 drops of ginger essential oil
    • 4 drops of lemon essential oil
    Directions: In a clean, dark-colored glass bottle, blend the aromatic oils with jojoba oil. Then add a few drops of the mixture to your aromatherapy diffuser, and mist the atmosphere of your room (source)
    Be sure to try this recipe – it is safe and effective

  59. Yah, so occasionally some one will be allergic or it doesn’t work perfectly. How many times does medical science promise things that go completely out of whack, or give extremely horrible side effects, or even kill the patient? Our bodies are organic. Our bodies are like a car: it only runs correctly on gasoline. Yes, you can put water into the tank, you can put soda into the tank, but it is not going to run properly, or even at all. We have our own sickness fighter: our immune system. And just like the car, if we do not put the correct things into our bodies, it will not work properly, to the best it can work. Essential oils do not cure things. Instead, they go into your body and balance out you body so that your immune system can do its job.

  60. although I have friends and family that seem to promote emphatically using oils, I’d rather increase collagen and bioten and then eat some good old fashion whole orange for my hair and nails and eat more fish and veggies for omega -3 do more walking, even 20 min. for joints and not wrap my head in stress

  61. Love the work you do and appreciate you laying out the information in an easy to read fashion. I use EOs sparingly because I have not found many uses for them other than mosquito repellant (not even sure if that is effective here in Texas where they are as big as dinosaurs) and fragrancing a room.

    On another note, I have several friends (as many do) who sell EO from network marketing companies. I appreciate their feedback, and many have had personal success with the oils. I am surprised that as a small business spend yourself, it seemed as if you paint the MLM people as sketchy and only out for a sale. While I may not buy from every friend or use every product from a MLM, it’s a solid business plan and is a legitimate business.

  62. Some essentilal oils are amazing yet some people are using them for deodorants and perfumes.. However, many of us are very sensitive to these oils such a cedar, patchouli or lavender. Someone close to me cannot be around lpatchouli as it makes the throat burn and start to close. I love to clean with lemongrass yet my husband cannot be around it… The oils are powerful and many..

  63. Hi Mark!
    I think you fall short here. Essential oils work because of frequencies. Everything runs on a frequency. IBS, viruses, bacteria, cancers etc. Essential oils all have frequencies as well. So the idea is to change the pathogen’s frequency. Continued use and sometimes blending essential oils to change their frequencies helps. You might want to investigate that idea.
    But thank you for your article.