As I shuffled through my nighttime skincare regimen the other night I was struck by a thought: how much of this is actually working? How much of it is just good branding and marketing?
Dana and I have a lot of fun finding out what works and what doesn’t, it’s part of why we created this site. There are a lot of things we’re dying to get our paws on because of the potential benefits (see: blue tansy) and a lot of stuff we’re not so sure about.
I’ve historically been skeptical of essential oils. I’ve always been kind of “what’s the point” about them in a very eye-rolly way.
I think it’s the whole multi-level marketing thing. Whenever I see people peddling them on social media or at yoga studios, I always wonder, how certain of those are you, really? Do you truly believe they work?
Essential oils are highly concentrated organic compounds that have been extracted from a plant – usually the bark, flower, leaf or root. They’re very fragrant (they give plants their smell), and extremely potent. They can actually be highly toxic if used incorrectly. Yikes.
And with product names that double as abstract nouns, like “Clarity” or “Vitality” or even “Acceptance,” it’s hard to get behind the hype. And even though they’ve supposedly been used since ancient times for medicinal purposes, most of these histories are reported by the big MLM companies that sell them.
That said, I’ve been curious to give them a shot, and they’re a relatively low investment unless you’re buying like a billion of them. When one of my fave skin care brands S.W. Basics released their line of essential oils (sans pyramid scheme), I thought well, why not try them?
I popped a few best sellers into my cart, particularly the ones that sounded appealing (why yes I would like sharper focus and better sleep thank you). Below I’ve outlined the claims, what I’ve been using, and the results.
As with everything else in this wacked out world of wellness, take what works for you. Leave what doesn’t. But the big question with essential oils remains…
Medicine or marketing?
There’s certainly a lot of marketing, we know that much.
Are they going to cure cancer, or save you mid Zombie Apocalypse? No, no I don’t think so.
But can they spot treat a zit? Sorta. Help with sleep? Potentially.
And while there is not much science-based evidence behind the use of essential oils, the research is mounting. Particularly for treatment of pain and anxiety. They may be helpful for certain situations, which we’ll get into. If anything, most of them smell real nice and can infuse a little dose of joy into your day. Who doesn’t like a nice little pick me up right?
What I’m saying is, there’s reason to believe there MAY be some benefits and they can definitely compliment beauty products and even many recipes. But I’m not about to drop a ton of dough on them, you know what I mean?
As for labeling them “medicine” most experts would agree that aromatherapy doesn’t truly replace modern treatment. But then again, the U.S. healthcare system has failed a lot of women. It’s not surprising that people are turning to alternative methods, things the wellness movement has given rise to, like sound baths, juice cleanses, and yep, essential oils.
What Are the Health Claims?
According to some, there’s an oil for everything. There’s a slew of t-shirts with the same sentiment. Some of the most common are:
Lavender: Relaxing, calms mood, helps with sleep
Peppermint: Boosts energy levels and has antimicrobial and antiviral activities and is used for digestive issues, seasonal allergies and muscle aches.
Eucalyptus: Improves respiratory issues like bronchitis and allergies
Frankincense: Builds immunity, reduces inflammation, heals age spots, supports brain function
Tea Tree: Natural anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, used in acne products. Also just smells real nice
Lemon: Antibacterial, used in homemade cleaning products
Oregano: Antimicrobial properties, can kill fungus and help you kick a cold
Rose: Often used in skincare products, reduces inflammation
Rosemary: Improves brain function and memory, and also randomly said to thicken hair?
The Essential Oils I’ve Been Using
Here’s what I’ve been using and for what, which is by no means extensive, in terms of what’s available out there. But perhaps you’re looking to dip your toes in too and aren’t sure where to start.
Oregano Oil: I’ve actually been using this one for years. At the half corporate half hippy office I used to work in, they kept this stuff stocked and many people would use it whenever they felt a sore throat or a cold coming on. It have to say, it usually knocks it right out.
Tea Tree and Clary Sage: I use these together as acne spot treatment if I break out. This pair is the most effective thing I’ve ever used in terms of reducing the size of a zit. Doesn’t make it disappear, but it truly helps.
Lavender: I use this roller on my wrists and neck before bed, and have a spray bottle full of water and a few drops of lavender I picked up at an amazing local shop here in Portsmouth, Jane Gee. Not sure if it’s the lavender or all my other efforts (sleepy time tea, the f.lux app, reading, etc.) that is improving my sleep quality as of late, but I’ll take it.
Rosemary: I haven’t used this roller much, to be honest. It does provide a little boost of energy but other than that I haven’t seen much of a result here.
DIY beauty products: The folks over at Simply Earth kindly sent over an essential oil recipe box, which is available as a subscription to receive monthly or quarterly. The box comes with four essential oils, recipe cards, extras like beeswax to actually make the recipes, plus you receive a big bonus box when you sign up that’s full of tons of accessories like spray bottles, coconut oil, almond oil and containers. The idea is to make your own natural soaps, fragrances, roller balls, body scrubs, etc. My box came with sage, ylang ylang, mandarin and camphor, all of which except mandarin were new to me so those were fun to experiment with. I even made a natural bug spray!
What to Look For in an Essential Oil Brand
Simply Earth provides a great overview of what to look for in terms of purity. As with other things in this industry where things aren’t super regulated, quality is important. According to their site, the steps to pure oils are:
- Right Plant in the Right Location: The plants must be grown where they will best thrive
- Farmed Responsibly: Workers are treated fairly and the land and the oil both flourish.
- Oils are Extracted: Check out the process for how they’re made here.
- Packaged and Stored: In dark aluminum containers or amber glass bottles (as oils are light sensitive) in temperature-controlled environments.
- Tested for Purity: A process called gas chromatography and mass spectrometry- GC/MS for short.
When looking for the purest essential oil brands, they should have this info on their website or the product packaging (including ingredients), or someone you can speak to about how they’re made. They should be 100% pure and therapeutic grade.
The founder of S.W. Basics, Adina Grigore also wrote a book, Just the Essentials, which tackles lots of questions and dives into all the research surrounding Essential Oils, which you can grab here if you’re interested in learning more.
How to Use Them
If you’re not buying a product that is ready to use like a roller, there are a few ways to use essential oils:
- Spray bottle: Water + essential oil (I spray lavender and water on my pillow before bed). Also great for homemade cleaning products.
- Diffuser: I haven’t used one yet but I have my eye on this one.
- DIY beauty products: using a box like Simply Earth, or by mixing up a homemade mask or scrub. Rose and tea tree oils are great for this.
IMPORTANT: Always use a carrier oil or water when using essential oils. That means something like coconut oil, jojoba oil or almond oil, in order to dilute them. Dilution increases the surface area of absorption, and can prevent sensitivities if you’re using on the skin. Simply Earth has a handy little dilution chart you can grab here. Typically it’s around 5 drops of oil per ½ teaspoon of the carrier.
Oh and another super important thing to note, is that essential oils are not recommended for pregnant women (not all of them, but to be safe I would say avoid them), or for people on heart medications (blood thinners).
How do you feel about essential oils? Into ‘em? Skeptical? Let’s discuss, meet me in the comments.