By Sophya Yeoh
In recent years, alternative medicine has been gaining widespread popularity as a plethora of wellness blogs and magazines praises its effectiveness. One of the most prominent forms of alternative medicine is the use of essential oils for aromatherapy and the claims about their ‘magical’ properties range from bringing mild stress relief to an omnipotent panacea. Nowadays essential oils are the focus of products such as shampoos, candles, hand creams, and more; there are even diffusers designed specifically to mist a room with their scent.
The extraction of essential oils from aromatic plants for therapeutic, spiritual, and medicinal purposes has existed for millennia, with its roots stemming from ancient civilisations such as Egypt, China, Greece and Rome (Koo, 2017). They are most commonly used in aromatherapy where the concentrated oils can be directly inhaled, aerially diffused or topically applied (Koo, 2017). However, does this billion-dollar industry truly live up to the lofty claims, or are essential oils nothing more than a pleasant smell at best?
Lavender oil (LO) is arguably the most famous essential oil and is derived from the flower spikes of certain lavender species. It is allegedly able to treat anxiety, eczema, hair loss, depression, allergies, and more (Nordqvist, 2019). While some of these benefits are unfounded, some have been scientifically and clinically proven. A clinical trial demonstrated that the use of LO reduced anxiety in women prior to breast surgery (US National Library of Medicine, 2017). A further meta-analysis compared the results of 80 different trials and studies and most of these support the notion that LO has anxiolytic qualities (Donelli et al., 2019). However, the claims on its ability to restore hair growth has no scientific evidence, with its most promising support coming from a study on mice, although no human trials have taken place so far (Lee, Lee & Kim, 2016). Despite the potential medicinal properties of LO and in contrast to the plant itself, it is toxic to ingest LO (Nordqvist, 2019).
Peppermint oil (PO) is another wildly popular essential oil, easily being the top choice of flavour in toothpastes and mouthwashes. It is commonly associated with being fresh and clean and is supposedly able to relieve itching, indigestion and pain, ease nausea, treat symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), have antibiotic properties, and more (Dresden, 2020). Recent studies on the effect of PO on nausea come to opposite conclusions, with one study suggesting the inhalation of it to ease post-operational vomiting (Maghami, Afazel, Azizi-Fini and Maghami, 2020; Joulaeerad et al., 2018). Although, another study evaluated the reduction of nausea in pregnant women and discovered PO produced no significant difference (Joulaeerad et al., 2018). Therefore, the use of PO for nausea can be chalked down to being subjectively effective, but is not likely to be of help to everyone. In terms of the ingestion of PO capsules for relief of IBS symptoms, a meta-analysis vouches that it is indeed a safe and effective treatment (Alammar et al., 2019).
Ylang Ylang is an essential oil derived from the flower of the same name, and its exotic and floral scent make it a popular ingredient in perfumes and for aromatherapy (Tan et al., 2015). It has traditionally been used in countries around the Indian Ocean to treat malaria, asthma, gout, headaches, stomach ailments, and rheumatism (Tan et al., 2015; Whelan, 2020). Moreover, it has been said to be able to reduce anxiety, heighten sexual pleasure, reduce blood pressure, and more. A review comparing multiple studies on the properties of ylang ylang deduced that it does have “antioxidant, antidiabetic, antifertility, antimelanogenesis, insect-repellent, antihyperglycemic, sedative, and relaxing properties”, making it a very promising therapeutic drug (Tan et al., 2015). On the other hand, the beneficial effect it has on a person’s mood has yet to be fully substantiated and its supposed capability to increase libido seems to be completely anecdotal.
A trend that has been gaining traction lately is the concept of “essential oil blends”, where essential oils are combined together and marketed as the ultimate cocktail for vague concepts like “wellness”, “mood brightening”, “solace”, and so forth. The safety of these blends are questionable as there has been limited research into how the oils react with one another. Additionally, it brings to light a glaring issue in the essential oil industry – the market is not tightly regulated, meaning that different companies may sell what seems like the same product, but their constituents are inconsistent. Companies are allowed to sell essential oils as long as they abide to General Products Safety Regulation, or cosmetic or medicinal regulations depending on the product, but there is no legislation to standardise the contents of pure essential oils (Aromatherapy Trade Council, 2021; International Federation of Aromatherapists, 2021). This in turn makes research on essential oils difficult as they are not standardised across studies, resulting in varying results as a specific component in an oil might be the causative factor in its therapeutic abilities. In studies where this component is in lower concentrations, it will be concluded the essential oil does not have this property, but other studies using an oil with a higher percentage of this component will say otherwise.
To conclude, the therapeutic potential that essential oils possess can no longer be ignored. As society moves towards a mindset where natural and organic products trump anything manufactured, it can safely be said that essential oils are here to stay. As such, more research needs to be done to investigate their value as natural remedies and the safety of their use. Future studies should focus not only on the possible effects but how these vary when administered via different routes (e.g. orally, intranasally, intravenously) as well as their efficacy. A consistent issue surrounding current available studies on essential oils is that the sample sizes are often too small to produce a result significant enough to be acknowledged and should be addressed. For the time being, there is no solid evidence confirming what essential oils can do but if this one day changes, a lavender-scented world does sound quite lovely.
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