Most of us have a friend or two who swear by essential oils. You may have been offered some essential oils by a multilevel marketing company. But are they being honest about what their products do? Do essential oils really work?

Pharmacist Kim DeRhodes

We spoke with pharmacist Kim DeRhodes at Novant Health Integrative Medicine in Charlotte to get the lowdown.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are  aromatic compounds found in plants. They contain the essence of that plant’s scent (hence the name). Some of us have commercial air fresheners in our homes, but those are different. Instead of manufactured chemicals, essential oils come directly from the plant and can be found in the roots, leaves, stems or other plant parts.

Think of olive oil. In much the same way that olives are pressed to make the delicious addition to our meals, plants can be pressed to release their own oils. Other essential oils, such as lavender, can be distilled or steam-extracted.

How are essential oils used?

There are several ways to use essential oils. Much of the time, they are diffused into the air using a water diffuser and subsequently inhaled. Sometimes, a few drops of essential oils can be dripped onto a cotton ball and held under the nose. Other oils are ingested, while still others can be applied topically. Several hospitals, including some at Novant Health, are starting to offer essential oil patches that attach to hospital gowns so that the aroma lingers with the patient.

Regardless of the essential oil you use, make sure to use it properly, DeRhodes said. You may want to consult a clinical aromatherapist to ensure that you are using the essential oil in a safe way.

Are there health hazards associated with essential oils?

Most essential oils are safe. However, it is important to recognize certain hazards that can arise when a person misuses them, DeRhodes said. For starters, there is little research into the practice of ingesting some essential oils, so most in the medical community do not recommend the internal use of many of these products. There is a possibility that the oils could interact  with your medication, or cause injury to your liver if not used properly. Talk to your doctor before ingesting any essential oils.

Also, a few essential oils may cause skin irritation or sun-sensitivity if they are applied topically. Of course, if you are allergic to certain plants, those essential oils can cause a negative reaction. This is why you should educate yourself regarding the proper use of essential oils.

Do essential oils really work?

Whether or not essential oils “work” depends on the claims you’ve heard. There is absolutely no evidence that these compounds cure diseases like cancer. Be highly skeptical of any claims of essential oils curing medical conditions.

However, they can be effective  at relieving certain symptoms. For example, lavender has been shown to aid in insomnia. Peppermint can alleviate some of the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in certain patients.

Smell is one of the strongest senses and is closely linked with memory in the brain. By using aromas, clinics and hospitals can create a more pleasant environment for patients, relieving stress and anxiety about upcoming medical procedures, DeRhodes said

The science behind just why essential oils work is relatively unexplored, but the use of aromatherapy is growing. Some medical facilities have even begun coating bandages in essential oils to aid in wound care. Still, their purpose is to alleviate symptoms and not to cure the problem. It is important to consult your doctor about the underlying issue even if you use essential oils to help, DeRhodes said.

Who can I trust about essential oils?

Mutlilevel marketing companies make many dubious claims about products. Their purpose is not to inform you, but to sell as many of their products as possible. “Any company that tells you their product is better than anyone else’s, I’d be very wary of,” DeRhodes said. So who can you trust?

The best options are to do your own further research on essential oils using a reputable source (such as those listed below) or to consult your local clinical aromatherapists, who receive certification in the safe use of these products. For your own at-home research, check out these two websites from nationally respected voices in the aromatherapy community:

Integrative medicine is an evidence-based treatment that can be combined with traditional therapies to improve health and support healing through treatment and beyond. In Charlotte, pharmacist Kim DeRhodes is available for appointments.    

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