Do essential oils actually work?

Written by Sophie Barrow

Do essential oils actually work?

This title is a million dollar question. If you could cure illness using natural methods, wouldn't you? There are many benefits to using essential oils as a cure for not only ailments, but also inconveniences like lack of concentration and pain. 

Here's the low-down on how essential oils can work for you and the scientific research to support. 

What are essential oils?

Since ancient times, essential oils have been used in folk medicine. Their effectiveness makes sense seeing as EOs play an important role in the protection of plants. They also might help disperse pollens and seeds, while also keeping undesirable insects away. If Eos can be effective at mediating the interactions of plants with the environment, what can they do for humankind? 

EOs are produced by aromatic plants as secondary metabolites (i.e. not required for a plant's growth, but needed for it to survive). They are liquid and coloured, and also soluble in organic solvents that have a lower density than water. EOs are natural products with strong smells.

EOs can be present in all plant organs. This includes buds, flowers leaves, seeds, twigs, stems... and the list continues! 
Interestingly, many of the plants that EOs are extracted for, are known for their antioxidant effects as well as their antiseptic and medicinal properties. 


Active compounds in Essential Oils

A biologically active compound exerts a direct physiological effect on a living organism. Essential oils contain many terpenes (hydrocarbons) which are predominantly found in plants. Terpenes are largely responsible for the medicinal effects that essential oils are claimed to have. In fact, studies show that terpenes protect slow tumour growth, lower bad cholesterol, reduce blood pressure and kill germs (1).


Do they work?

There is no easy answer - just like many pharmaceuticals. Different oils work for different issues. While some merely smell nice, others are very powerful. Here's some research about the effects of EOs.


To Kill Bacteria 

There have been a whole host of studies proving that essential oils do work against bacteria. Nonetheless, this depends on the strain of bacteria and the type of EO. Not every bacteria can be killed by EOs, and not all EOs kill every strain of bacteria. Instead, studies have shown that certain oils can be effective against certain bacteria. 

Studies have shown that several essential oils have antibacterial properties. Oils such as rosemary*2, lavender, melaleuca (tea tree), cinnamon, oregano, lemongrass, have all showed promising results when tested for killing bacteria (*22, 3*3, 4).

However, each oil is responsible for killing a different bacteria. Melaleuca is great for oral and acne causing bacteria (5, 6). Grapefruit oil is effective at killing bacteria such as common staphylococcus aureus, salmonella and E. coli (7).
Thyme oil is also known for killing off some of our most frustrating bacterial infections ladies! Bacterial vaginosis and vaginal candidiasis can be cured by topical use of thyme. Its use described here was found to be an effective prescription drug in minor recurrent vaginal infectious episodes and can reduce the repeated exposure to antibiotics!
One of the best aspects of using essential oils to kill bacteria as they are natural and definitely are not harsh chemicals. While it's important to use EOs safely (don't use too much or in too high concentrations), they don't have the side effects that some conventional cleaning products have or that antibiotics have. Side effects of these synthetic products could be respiratory problems, cancer, hormonal problems, imbalanced bacteria, yeast infections and more!
There is a long list of essential oils which can kill bacteria, but the ones described above are our favourites. Lets look at some of the other ways essential oils can help us!


To Focus

There are a wide variety of essential oils that claim to help you focus. Some of these are lavender, cedarwood, cypress and lemon oil. In one placebo-controlled study, participants were found to have increased levels of alertness and memory after being given a dose of sage oil (8).
Also known to improve your cognitive performance is rosemary oil. A study which saw subjects perform serial subtraction and visual information processing tasks in a cubicle diffused with the aroma of rosemary improved their concentration levels. These effects were found for speed and accuracy outcomes which shows that despite working quicker, their levels of accuracy were not compromised (9). 


Pain killers 

Essential oils are getting a name for themselves as natural pain killers, and with good reason. Inhalation of lavender oil reduced pain after an operation in children who had their tonsils removed (10). Another very interesting study showed that the topical application of lavender before the insertion of haemodialysis needles reduced the pain of it (11).



Lemon and peppermint oils are the two go-to's for nausea. Various studies have shown that ingestion and inhalation of both these oils can reduce and even eliminate symptoms of nausea (12, 13).


With so many oils to cover and so many ways they can help in our day-to-day lives, we haven't been able to write about them all. Stay tuned for further posts this month on the power of essential oils! Don't forget to comment below if you'd like to read about any other essential oil topics. 

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