Essential Oils – An Overview

Over the years, the popularity of essential oils has soared with some people claiming essential oils have curative properties and could be used as an alternative to prescription medications. In this post, we’ll cover the basics of essential oils.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are compounds extracted from various plant parts, including flowers, leaves, bark, seeds, roots, twigs, and more.
Extracting these oils requires a manufacturer to use one of three standard techniques: distill the plant part using water or steam, implement a mechanical process to get the oil, or use a dry distillation process (1,2).
Manufacturers typically use essential oils as flavor or aroma enhancers in cosmetics, food additives, soaps, plastic resins, perfumes, and more.
Note, there is a difference between essential oils and crude plant extracts that includes purity, composition, and the acquisition process. Oils produced by adding chemical solvents to the plant parts are not typically considered essential oils.

What are essential oils used for?

When looking at products, manufacturers use essential oils to enhance the flavor or aroma of many cosmetics, food additives, soaps, plastic resins, perfumes, and more.
There is research underway to use essential oils in innovative ways such as in food preservation and packaging and even as medications to treat specific mental and physical health conditions (1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8).
Many people use essential oils in aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is a non-regulated health care practice, often referred to as holistic medicine, that incorporates essential oils into a variety of activities such as massage, baths, meditation, and more to promote and improve human health.
An aromatherapist may recommend a specific essential oil and activity to help a person with a particular physical symptom they may be experiencing. For example, an aromatherapist may recommend someone suffering from poor sleep quality to incorporate lavender oil into a nightly bath to help ease tension and improve sleep quality.

Do essential oils cure or prevent diseases, are they medications?

Commercially available essential oils are not pharmaceuticals that fall under the purview of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), this means commercially available essential oils are not known to treat, cure, or prevent diseases (1). However, the FDA can and will enforce laws that prohibit companies from selling products such as essentials oils as medications with curative properties (1).  
While essential oils are not pharmaceutical drugs, there is ongoing, preliminary research investigating the potential therapeutic effects of specific essential oils (1,2,3,4,5).

It’s important to keep in mind that the essential oils used for research can vary dramatically in purity, potency, dosage, and more when compared to the essential oils available commercially.
You should not use essential oils instead of visiting a state-licensed and credentialed medical doctor to treat ailments.

What do I need to know about essential oil use?

It’s important to pay attention to the instructions that come with essential oils. Often, users need to add essentials oils to a carrier medium such as coconut or jojoba oil before applying them to their skin. The carrier medium dilutes the essential oil, which helps prevent the concentrated essential oil from harming the skin.
People often put essential oils into a diffuser that emits a scented mist into the air, or they add a few drops of essential oils to bath water or to laundry to enhance the smell. Some people believe the scent can help alleviate physical symptoms of specific conditions like sleeplessness due to anxiety. While there are limited studies supporting this notion, the research in the field is still in its early stage and needs more large scale studies (1,2,3).

How do I find quality essential oils?

Currently, no U.S. regulatory agency certifies or approves essential oils for their quality and purity.
Manufacturers use many marketing terms, such as “therapeutic grade” or “pure” to sell products. However, those terms do not reflect the product’s quality.
It’s important to look at the manufacturer and read the ingredient labels before purchasing an essential oil to understand what the product contains. While there is no certificate for essential oils, reputable companies will identify the plant ingredient, typically by the formal Latin name, as well as the extraction process used to produce the essential oil.

A word of caution.

Aromatherapists and many holistic medical practitioners are not credentialed medical doctors and are unable to provide the same level of care as a state-licensed and credentialed medical doctor.
Essential oils are not regulated pharmaceuticals like prescription drugs, which means they haven’t undergone the intensive research required for FDA-regulated medications.
While essential oils are not regulated drugs, they are not harmless. If misused, they can cause harm and should only be used responsibly and kept out of the reach of children.
Additionally, using essential oils, especially ingesting oils, in an attempt to treat medical conditions can cause serious bodily harm. It’s important to talk with a state licensed and credentialed medical expert before beginning treatment, holistic or otherwise, for any medical ailment.

The good news.

We are continuing to learn more about essential oils and the many ways we can incorporate these potent products in innovative ways. While we don’t have all the answers yet, ongoing rigorous research can help us learn and know more about the safety and uses of these ingredients


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