Essential oils are having a major moment. They’re now found in everything from air fresheners to beauty products. Yet aromatherapy (using essential oils to heal the body and mind) isn’t new. It’s been around for centuries throughout Europe and Asia. Oils extracted from plants are popped into products that promise to improve sleep, calm anxiety, soothe digestive distress and promote good skin. But essential oils and some of the products they’re found in aren’t regulated by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), which makes knowing which to buy and how to safely use them confusing. That’s why we asked experts whether and how essential oils might be helpful.
WHAT THEY ARE: Deodorants, shampoos, masks and facial mists with essential oils claim to fight odours and acne, rejuvenate hair and skin, and relieve pain.
WHAT WE KNOW: Tea tree oil is antimicrobial and has long been used to treat acne, rosacea and dandruff. Peppermint oil may help reduce pain due to its menthol content, and oils of eucalyptus and rosemary are believed to have anti-inflammatory properties that may ease pain and soothe eczema.
SHOULD YOU TRY THEM? Sure, but they’re strong, so children, pregnant or nursing women should give them a miss, and mixing with a carrier oil is key. Avoid the sun if using citrus oils – they’re photosensitising, so they could cause burns.
WHAT THEY ARE: Proponents say breathing in essential oils from the bottle or a diffuser (a few drops of oil in water creates a fragrant vapour) elicits desirable feelings like relaxation and alertness via scent molecules that trigger brain regions related to emotion, heart rate, blood pressure and hormones.
WHAT WE KNOW: Research is promising. Hong Kong Polytechnic University found that inhaling oils and using them in massage alleviated stress and anxiety, and depression, while a meta-analysis in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that lavender and chamomile helped sleep.
SHOULD YOU TRY THEM? Yes, but the same exceptions apply as with oils applied to the skin. For therapy on the go, dilute a drop of essential oil in 17 drops of a carrier oil (such as jojoba or coconut oil) and dab it under your nose.
WHAT THEY ARE: Consuming them is said to improve digestion and immunity and support overall metabolic function.
WHAT WE KNOW: Research is scarce. Some may burn the mouth or oesophagus; too much can be toxic.
SHOULD YOU TRY THEM? No. “I don’t recommend it,” says integrative medicine specialist Dr Yufang Lin, except under the care of a trained herbalist or doctor.