Essential Oils and Science

Since the dawn of time, man has spent countless millennia finding things in the great outdoors, smelling them and rubbing them on his skin. The reasons behind this behavior were obvious— he wanted to know what would happen and he wanted to live as long as possible with most of his limbs intact.

The world was a scarier place back then. We knew very little about the microorganisms that spoiled food, infected wounds or poisoned the water, but since the very beginning, plants and their extracts have paved the way for modern medicine.

Also, this is basically what your best friend will tell you as she dumps zip-top bags full of tiny vials out on your kitchen table.

She has discovered the magic of essential oils, she claims. If you are somewhat skeptical, then you are not alone. It turns out that science was too! We have put together a review of the facts and lies about what essential oils can do for you, before you spend your entire paycheck on mysterious amber-colored bottles.

Arborvitae or Western Red Cedar – Thuja Plicata


The Good: This lovely oil is a potent anti-microbial agent. It works against both bacteria and certain strains of fungal spores. It is being developed commercially for treatment of “sick-building syndrome” and the best news is that human lungs aren’t damaged by continuous exposure.

The Bad: This oil is particularly allergenic, so keep in mind if you are allergic to cedar, you will be allergic to this. The typical complaints are respiratory symptoms and contact dermatitis. Also, there were a few documented cases of the oil causing seizures in high doses in small children.

Fun Fact: Plants in the genus Arborvitae contain thujone— a chemical compound with effects on the nervous system. It is the same chemical that was thought to give Absinthe drinkers wicked hallucinations, but it turns out that it only gave them seizures.

Lemon Grass Oil


The Good: Lemon Grass, as it turns out is a powerful anti-fungal agent. It is most potent topically against strains of Candida (the causative agent in yeast infections and is commonly used commercially as a preserving agent for food, as it adds a nice flavor and has many anti-microbial properties.

Studies have proven that there are few downsides to ingesting the oil, unless you don’t enjoy the bitter lemon flavor that is, as it has shown no properties that would be harmful to your insides.

The Bad: Lemon Grass is scientifically safe topically and internally, but we aren’t doctors, so use with caution, common sense, and the guidance of the medical professional or your choice.

Clary Sage – Salvia Sclarea


The Good: Clary Sage has been used for centuries as an antidepressant and it turns out that there is some science to back it up. Just the scent of the oil was enough to raise dopamine levels in trial participants and decrease cortisol (a nasty stress hormone) levels.

The oil also has anti-microbial properties, specifically against the strains of staph that cause wound infections, as well as a topical analgesic effect. It is commonly paired with lavender and marjoram as a pain-relieving massage oil and some compounds found in the mix are chemicals known to reduce pain and inflammation.

The Bad: There were no negatives discussed in the trials performed, unless participants not feeling any better afterward is considered a downside. Some folks did say the oil made them feel sleepy, sluggish or drugged, so use caution until you know how you will react to it.

Sambong – Blumea Balsamifera


The Good: This herb is popular in Philippine medicine and is used to treat everything from the common cold to tumors. In traditional medicine, it was used extensively by the Miao and Li Nations to treat burns and skin trauma.

Although science can’t back up the cancer part, the oil from the plant was incredibly effective at speeding up skin healing and warding off infection. Another study spoke to the plant’s significant anti-oxidant capability and potential use as a treatment or preventative for arthritis.

The Bad: Few in vivo studies have been performed on this plant, but nations of people have survived ingesting it and the Philippine government recommends it… The plant, itself, causes reactions in people who are allergic to ragweed, so if that is you, then consider yourself warned.

Clove – Syzygium Aromaticum


The Good: Cloves are native to Indonesia, where they are still grown to this day, although most of us associate their warm, spicy smell with pumpkin pie and ham. Their oil has been used topically in the US for a good century or two for its effectiveness as an oral antiseptic and pain reliever.

It was used in dentistry until more standardized analgesics came around and there is good reason for it. Clove oil contains numbing compounds as well as a strong anti-microbial agent, making it effective for not only making an angry tooth feel better, but also helping to clean out infection.

The Bad: Clove oil is pretty caustic stuff if used undiluted and can burn the tender tissue of your mouth, so it should be diluted. It also has a distinct and metallic taste, which some find unpleasant. There is evidence that Clove oil may not only numb angry nerve endings, but it could also kill them, so use it only under the guidance of a professional.

Lemon Oil – Citrus Limon


The Good: Although you might expect this oil to bear the light and mouthwatering fragrance of a fresh, squeezed summer day, the oil that is derived from the fruit is richer and incredibly intense.

Lemon oil has been used for anti-microbial purposes, but the most interesting and scientifically proven use has been it’s ability to significantly reduce nausea and vomiting in expecting mothers.

The Bad: Topical applications of cold-pressed Lemon Oil have been proven to produce sun sensitivity and burns.

Lavender Oil – Lavandula Angustifolia


The Good: Lavender oil is one of the most common scents in the US. It is included in a variety of products from dish soap to cookies. It is touted as the calming herb and it’s fragrance is definitely a thing of beauty.

Studies have proven that the fragrance of lavender can reduce patient tensions when waiting to see their doctor and reduce the amount of painkillers that patients require after an operation, but a deeper look reveals that it is all in their heads.

Although  they are saying they feel better after inhaling the peaceful purple flower, a study of post-op heart rates, inflammation and cortisol levels indicates no difference between the lavender-inhaling group and the non-lavender group.

Studies of it’s calming properties on parties with dementia also demonstrated no calming effect, so maybe the hype is working after all. The oil does demonstrate some admirable topical qualities, however. In the lab, it has been proven to speed up healing times for minor skin lesions and provide a barrier against infection.

The Bad: A 2007 study and subsequent Netflix documentary have shown that a combination of lavender and tea tree oils may have caused pre-pubescent boys to begin growing breasts. It isn’t very common, only a few cases have sprung up in the past decade, but they are steadily increasing.

Further trials have shown the combination to have effects on the endocrine system, but more research is needed to determine if it is a problem the everyone should be concerned about. There is also a risk for contact dermatitis associated with pure lavender oil when used for treating broken skin.

Although studies on aromatherapy have proven fruitless for the most part, essential oils have proven to be as or more effective than the best science experiment the lab could create.

These oils have their place in daily life, but should never be used without the guidance of a professional. The Earth is growing amazing things everyday, but even the most powerful weapon is useless if you don’t know how to use it.