What are the health benefits and risks of essential oils?

Published 19 Apr 2021 • By Candice Salomé

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils from plants (flowers, herbs, or trees) as a complementary health approach to improve physical, mental and spiritual well-being. It is a rather recent term, having been coined at the beginning of the 20th century by the French researcher René-Maurice Gattefossé.

But what are essential oils? What are the real health benefits of essential oils? Are there any risks to their use? 

We tell you everything in our article!

What are the health benefits and risks of essential oils?

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are obtained by steaming or pressing various parts of a plant (leaves, stems, flowers, fruit, etc.). There are about 4000 species of plants from which essential oils can be extracted for use in aromatherapy.

Depending on the plants concerned and the condition targeted, essential oils can be used in different ways: orally, through the skin (during a massage, for example) or via the respiratory route (diffusion, inhalation, olfaction).

The Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) defines aromatherapy as the "...systematic use of essential oils and absolutes in holistic treatments to improve physical and emotional well-being" and states that there is no industry nor product-specific harmonised regulations in place that define aromatherapy products. Regulation of essential oils is tricky as, aromatherapy products such as essential oils are not considered to be medicinal products, but as they are intended to be inhaled or ingested, they are also not considered to be cosmetics. Therefore they tend to fall into a regulation grey area.

There are few legal obligations regarding the quality of the product but if you're interested in trying them, it is nevertheless important to choose 100% natural and 100% pure essential oils. Make sure to look for a certification on the bottle, such as the "Ecocert" label, which certifies the quality and that the raw material is pesticide-free.

Essential oils can be purchased over the counter in pharmacies, specialised shops, on the Internet, in supermarkets or directly from the producer.

What are the health benefits of essential oils?

The lack of scientific studies does not yet allow us to prove the benefits of essential oils. However, a great number of benefits have been widely accepted. The use of essential oils is spreading in the medical world with the opening of university diplomas specialising in aromatherapy and reserved for health professionals.

Aromatherapy therefore benefits from sufficient hindsight and numerous scientific publications that health organisations such as the French ANSM (National Agency for the Safety of Medicines and Health Products) consider reassuring.

Essential oils each have their own property(ies) and health benefits:

Essential oils to soothe pain

Lavender essential oil has many virtues. Indeed, it is known for its wound healing, antiseptic and antispasmodic properties. It acts on the skin to soothe burns, sunburn and eczema for example, but also helps to reduce high blood pressure, heart palpitations, muscle pain and abdominal cramps. It can also relieve painful periods.

It should be diluted in a carrier oil (coconut oil, jojoba oil, olive oil, etc.) and massaged into the affected area.

Essential oils for physical fatigue

To boost your system or to assist in recovery, there is nothing better than black spruce, lemon and frankincense essential oils to be inhaled or massaged (diluted in a carrier oil) above the kidneys or along the spine.

Essential oils for nervous fatigue

To fight against stress or overwork, marjoram, sweet orange or bitter orange essential oils can help you feel better. These can be used as a vapour, as a scent or as a massage on the solar plexus - under the sternum and the ribs (diluted with a carrier oil).

To improve attention and concentration, peppermint, lemon and Scots pine essential oils are can assist.

Essential oils to maintain hormonal balance

Certain essential oils, such as basil, liquorice and lemon, can be effective in relieving hot flashes, insomnia and weight gain associated with menopause

These essential oils can be diffused or inhaled directly.

Can essential oils be dangerous?

The fact that essential oils are of natural and vegetable origin may lead us to believe that they are harmless. However, essential oils are highly concentrated preparations and can cause poisoning if used incorrectly or in excess.

The symptoms and severity of poisoning vary according to the type of exposure (ingestion, eye contact, etc.), the type of essential oil involved and the concentration of the product.

Exposure by ingestion

Various symptoms may occur after ingesting an essential oil:

  • Irritation of the mucous membranes of the mouth, 
  • Nausea,
  • Vomiting,
  • Diarrhoea.

Depending on the essential oil ingested, other symptoms may occur such as loss of consciousness or convulsions, respiratory problems or, more rarely, liver or kidney damage.

These symptoms typically occur within the half hour to first few hours after ingestion.

Skin contact

If the essential oil has been used undiluted, skin irritations such as redness or burning may occur. Essential oils can also trigger allergic reactions in some people.

Eye contact

In case of eye contact, vision problems and damage to the cornea are possible. These injuries are usually reversible.

Contact via the respiratory tract

The inhalation of fumes can sometimes cause irritation of the upper respiratory tract.

In case of an accident with an essential oil, make sure to:

  • If you or another person are showing signs of being serious ill, dial 999 to request an ambulance or take them to your local A&E department.
  • Call NHS 111 for advice if you or the person who has been poisoned does not appear to be seriously ill.

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Scotty 2
on 24/04/2021

I have used essential oils for years, find them therapeutic. My favourite is to put about an inch of Himalayan salt crystals in a small wide necked jar add 5 drops of frankincense and 5 drops of blue chamomile. I have this on my bedside table to help my breathing at night and during the day I cover it. After about five days I need to add more drops. I feel it helps with my COPD.

on 16/05/2021

I started using Essential oils/ aromatherapy about 24 years ago when I worked for a children's cancer charity, the staff were invited to use an aromatherapist (paid for by the charity) to help with the stresses of the job, although I also found it to be really good for the neuropathic pain and fatigue caused by my MS.

Shortly after starting these treatments we were on holiday in Scotland and on a day trip to the Isle of Aran, my 9yr old was helping me to get my 2yr old off a bus and tripped, causing bumps to both their heads. The little one screamed and screamed for almost 30 minutes as the bump grew to the size of half a boiled egg, nothing would soothe him.

We were closer to a gift shop and I left the boys with my partner and went in search of some lovely Scottish lavender oil. I put a single drop on my finger and smoothed it over the bump on each boy's forehead, within 5 minutes the little one had calmed down and fallen asleep. He slept for the ferry ride back to the mainland and for 2hours after that. When we got back to our holiday campsite I had the doctor look him over just in case but he was fine, the doctor himself agreed that the lavender had been beneficial, both in taking away his pain and helping him to sleep. 

I've since bought books on the subject and made sure that I know what I'm doing with essential oils because it is possible to get it horribly wrong if you don't know what you're doing but I now always keep a selection of oils available at home for health, (household) cleaning and relaxation, I wouldn't be without them. 

My favourite/most useful oils are neroli, lavender, sweet orange, tea tree, lemongrass and eucalyptus. 

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