They may have been used for centuries because of their ‘healing powers’ but what evidence is there that essential oils can truly help? Dr A. Bolin takes a look.
With so many claims to fame for natural essential oils, how many are really true? Will they do miraculous feats of transformation to make you achieve eternal youth? All hype and no science? Does the truth lie somewhere in between?
Plant essential oils: what properties do they really have?
Plant essential oils do actually have properties that range from being anti-bacterial (anti-microbial), antifungal, antiviral, antiparasitic, insecticidal and fungicidal. They also have antioxidant properties.
But, when you hear someone say that it’s ‘natural’ and therefore better than a medication from the doctor, proceed with caution. Although herbal medicine and plant-derived treatments are natural, don’t forget that penicillin is a natural mould and many other medications are derived from plants. So, just like their pharmaceutical counterparts, ‘natural’ plant-derived preparations can be potent medications, may have toxic side effects, may have undesired side effects and may have interactions with other medications – or, they may do nothing at all.
Finding out exactly what they can and can’t do is an area of research that’s keeping bodies like the World Health Organisation (WHO) busy as large numbers of people around the world still rely on them as part of their primary healthcare, especially in areas where access to doctors is limited. The WHO trying to assess their safety and efficacy and and how and when to apply herbal preparations based on local indigenous practices into mainstream healthcare.
So, what can they be good for?
1.Antibacterial properties – Can essential oils help me decrease the level of bacteria (Propionibacterium acnes) associated with acne?
So many different factors are responsible for acne, including your genes, hormones, bacteria (such as Propionibacterium acnes or P. acnes), emotions and environmental factors. The usual protocol for treating acne with topical applications – that is, things that are applied to the skin – normally includes an antibacterial component plus benzoyl peroxide or retinoids (vitamin A). With increasing antibiotic resistance being an issue, it is important that researchers continue to look for safe and effective therapeutic alternatives, and some essential oils may fit the bill.
Scientists researched ten essential oils specifically with acne in mind, documenting their antibacterial properties against P. acnes. Four oils – cinnamon, rose, thyme and lavender – were found to have the most effective bactericidal activity (killing the bacteria). The other 6 essential oils looked at in the study were mint, lemon, jasmine, chamomile, ginger and grapefruit, but they were not as effective.
Does that mean I can swap a prescribed treatment for essential oils? No, that’s not a great idea. What is effective in a dish in a laboratory may not transfer to a real life situation. Also, always consult your doctor as some essential oils may not do any harm but others may irritate the skin and/or make the condition worse.
2. Essential oils are often in sunscreens. Does that mean they protect the skin and help reverse aging?
Some essential oils have been found to have an antioxidant effect which helps combat free radical damage – cells that are involved in premature skin aging. Many contain either resveratrol, phenols or isoflavones (phytoestrogens) which may play a role in protecting the skin from the aging effects of the sun and keeping its elasticity and smoothness.
Because of this oils like lavender, primrose or rose are sometimes added into anti-aging creams and sunscreen, but they aren’t always stable on their own so need extra additives like propolis (known as ‘bee glue’) to keep them stable and effective. Even extracts from the humble coffee and soy beans may play a role in reversing sun damage and ultimately anti-aging.
Does that mean I don’t need sunscreen? No, you will still need to apply sunscreen if you want to avoid sunburn and the aging skin damage that results from it. What it means is that the antioxidants in some essential oils work well with sunscreens to help protect your skin and repair sun damage.
Does that mean I can swap my skin care creams for essential oils? Probably not. While these may be useful, their effectiveness isn’t well established. The antioxidants with the best evidence supporting them are the vitamins A, C, E and B3.
It’s worth noting again that a lot of the studies on essential oils have been done in labs – either on cell lines in dishes or on animals – not on humans – and what’s effective in the lab may not always transfer to real life, so more research is needed.
3.Can essential oils help repair wounds and scars?
When your skin is damaged, there can be swelling, ulceration and inflammation that will eventually lead to scar formation. Some oils, like clove oil, have been found to help decrease inflammation and ulceration, promoting healing and collagen formation, but further research is needed to give specific recommendations of which oils and dosages. Myrrh is another that’s been used for centuries as a topical treatment for wound healing and one study on mice found that it speed up healing time, repaired a type of cell called epithelial cells, and increased the strength of the skin overall.
Does this mean I can throw my antiseptic creams away? No, always consult your doctor or pharmacist before applying essential oils to wounds. Applying essential oils to an open would or cut could burn or irritate the skin and increase the infection risk. And, as above, more research is needed to see if the result transfers from mice to men.
Remember that essential oils can irritate the skin. Some people have allergic reactions to them or develop contact dermatitis, so it is very important to do a patch test before using topical essential oils and always follow instructions about dilution and concentration.
Despite being used for centuries, more research is needed to give clear recommendations regarding which oils do what, their effectiveness, and the right dosage and concentration.
If you are not certain about the dose or effects of essential oils, make sure to discuss the matter with your doctor or pharmacist.
If you have an infection always consult your doctor.