Essential Oils and Aromatherapy: Worth the Hype?

Gayle Nicholas Scott, PharmD

Disclosures

September 15, 2015

In This Article

Question

What is the evidence for essential oils and aromatherapy? Do they really work?

Response from Gayle Nicholas Scott
Assistant Professor, Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk, Virginia

Essential Oils

All plants contain oils (eg, corn oil, peanut oil, coconut oil), but only about 3000 contain essential oils, also called "volatile oils" or "aromatic oils," in their flowers, leaves, bark, wood, fruit, or peel. Essential oils probably developed in flowers to attract insects for pollination and in other plant parts as deterrents to predators.

The term "essential" refers to the essence or fragrance of a plant rather than a necessary component of the oil or something biologically vital. Essential oils are usually extracted by distillation and typically contain such chemicals as terpenes, quinines, benzene compounds, and aromatic/aliphatic esters and alcohols. Oils produced with the aid of chemical solvents are not considered true essential oils.[1,2,3]

In theory, chemical components of essential oils may bind to receptors in the olfactory bulb and have an effect on the limbic system, which governs emotions.

Topical application of some aromatic oils may exert antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic effects.[1] Essential oils are found commercially as odorants in cosmetics, perfumes, soaps, detergents, and various other products ranging from insecticides to paints.

Essential oils are used in dental products and occasionally as flavoring in medicine.[2,3] Some well-known nonprescription products contain essential oils; for example, Vicks® VapoRub™ contains camphor, eucalyptus, and menthol.

Penetration enhancers, often an oil (sometimes termed "carrier oil"), are mixed with essential oils to enhance absorption through the skin. Some essential oils, alone or with a penetration enhancer, can increase drug absorption through the skin. Commonly used carrier oils include grapeseed, sweet almond, and sesame oils.[3]

Essential oils also have been used as flavoring in food products. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates essential oils in food and pharmaceutical products.

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