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After increasingly growing in popularity over the last few years, you’ve likely heard about essential oils. You may even be thinking about trying them out for yourself.

They’re marketed as a natural and safe way to reduce or eliminate some medical concerns, such as migraines or nausea, and treat other issues like anxiety, high blood pressure, depression and inflammation. But do they work? And are they safe to use?

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are extracted from leaves, roots, bark, herbs or flowers and mixed with oil or alcohol. They can be applied directly to the skin, either on an abnormality or at the site of pain, for example, or on the bottoms of feet or the chest. Some people ingest them. They may also be diffused and inhaled — this is called aromatherapy.

Common essential oils such as lavender, tea tree, peppermint and rosemary are used by many hoping to treat their ailments the natural way.

Do essential oils work?

In studies where essential oils were found to provide a medical benefit, researchers note the medical benefit could be attributed to several factors, not just essential oils. Most studies conclude that more research is needed.

“There isn’t a lot of conclusive research that shows that using essential oils — such as using lavender oil to relax — work from a medical perspective,” says Susan Werner, MD, family medicine physician at Geisinger Nanticoke.

The act of massaging oil into your skin can be relaxing, and the fragrance can be pleasant, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re curing a medical problem or treating an ailment. “You might feel better because the massage relaxes you and you expect to feel better — this is a placebo effect,” says Dr. Werner.

“If you’re thinking about using essential oils or aromatherapy to treat a medical condition, you should definitely talk to your doctor first,” adds Dr. Werner. While most people don’t have an adverse reaction to essential oils, they’re not for everyone.

Are essential oils safe?

Just because essential oils are considered natural, it doesn’t mean they’re always safe. “Essential oils can include volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can irritate your skin, eyes, throat or lungs,” says Dr. Werner.

In general, aromatherapy diffusers and humidifiers are safe when used properly — experts suggest up to 30 minutes at a time, 3 times per day.

“Applying essential oils to your skin is also generally safe, but avoid applying them to your eyes, ears and mouth,” says Dr. Werner. “You should also avoid applying them over broken or irritated skin.”

Essential oils can cause skin rashes, inflammation and other allergic reactions for some people. If you’re interested in applying one topically, be sure it’s diluted with a carrier oil (such as coconut oil) and try a patch test first. “Place a small amount on your skin and monitor for any skin irritation before using the oil regularly,” says Dr. Werner.

And when it comes to using essential oils, you should avoid ingesting them. “There is no research to support taking them orally,” says Dr. Werner. “In fact, they’re so potent that they can cause other medical concerns, like headaches, rashes and throat swelling.”

Who shouldn’t use essential oils?

Children shouldn’t use essential oils, and people with chronic medical conditions should talk to their doctor before trying an alternative treatment. People with asthma, skin conditions or particularly sensitive skin, and pregnant or breastfeeding women should also avoid using essential oils without first talking to a doctor.

And if you have pets, you may want to talk with your veterinarian before using essential oils as some can be dangerous (and even deadly) for animals.

Next steps:

Learn more about Susan Werner, MD
Learn about primary care at Geisinger
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Dried lavender around essential oil bottles.

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