Wellness

How safe and effective are essential oils? We ask the experts

While many hail their natural benefits, they're not a miracle cure — and some products may actually be harmful so caution is crucial

17 January 2021 - 00:00
By Sanet Oberholzer
Essential oils are typically extracted from plants using a variety of methods, like steam-distillation or cold pressing.
Image: 123RF/amylv Essential oils are typically extracted from plants using a variety of methods, like steam-distillation or cold pressing.

It seems there's no shortage of miracle cures to treat a variety of ailments, but often we're left wondering whether certain therapies are safe. The use of essential oils is a point of contestation and a topic covered in Netflix's recent documentary (Un)Well, so Lifestyle asked experts for the lowdown on them.

Dr Maureen Allem, founder and medical director at Skin Renewal aesthetic clinics, explains that essential oils are typically extracted from plants using a variety of methods, like steam-distillation or cold pressing. These extracts are used, and have been used for thousands of years, to assist with health and mental conditions.

THE SCIENTIFIC BASIS

Allem says many studies have been done to ascertain the efficacy of essential oils as used in modern medicine, but most are still inconclusive and not backed by extensive clinical trials.

Dr Rakesh Newaj, a specialist dermatologist, agrees. "While there's a great deal of information on the internet and social media praising the medicinal effects of essential oils and aromatherapy, there's insufficient scientific research to fully support and substantiate these claims."

Allem adds: "Essential oils can help with certain symptoms, but, depending on the condition, at some point medical intervention will be needed."

THE BENEFITS

The anti-microbial properties of some essential oils are one tangible effect. According to Newaj, cinnamon, thyme, oregano and clove oils have anti-microbial properties. "But these oils can't be used as a replacement for antibiotic or anti-fungal drugs," he says.

Conditions like eczema and psoriasis can benefit from the moisturising effect of essential oils. Scars may improve on their own with time, and using tea-tree oil may keep the scar soft and speed up the re-modelling of the scar.

Allem says tea tree oils are beneficial for breakouts — they're anti-bacterial and anti-microbial — and chamomile has been used for acne-related concerns due to its anti-inflammatory effect.

Newaj says dry skin is caused by a lack of sebum. Certain oils can stimulate the sebaceous glands and promote skin elasticity. These include geranium, lavender, rose, jasmine, chamomile and sandalwood.

"Most oils (including petroleum products) can seal the moisture that remains on the skin after a shower and act as an occlusive moisturiser," he says.

WHEN TO PRACTISE CAUTION

Much of the information on essential oils tends to be anecdotal or rooted in folklore. Newaj says it's for this reason that people should remember that "natural" or "organic" does not translate to being "safe" and "beneficial".

People should remember that 'natural' or 'organic' does not translate to being 'safe' and 'beneficial'
Dr Rakesh Newaj, specialist dermatologist

Consider the potential toxic effects of essential oils — just because they're natural derivatives doesn't mean they don't contain chemicals. Bitter orange and kakadu lime oils have been shown to have phototoxic and cytotoxic effects and can potentially damage the components in your cells. Some oils, like tea tree, lavender, peppermint, and ylang-ylang, can cause contact eczema.

Allem warns that pure essential oils have to be used discreetly as they can be potent and volatile and might cause a reaction.

"There's also no evidence to prove that essential oils are safe to ingest," she says.

HOW TO APPLY ESSENTIAL OILS

Allem says you don't need to dilute essential oils in a carrier oil (like coconut or avocado oil) if you'll be using them in diffusers or for aromatic purposes like dropping them onto your pillow to sleep better. But if you want to use essential oils on your skin, a carrier oil is needed to avoid skin reactions.

Newaj cautions that some oils, like clove and thyme oils, should never be used on the face. Other oils should never be used under any circumstances, for example bergamot, grapefruit, lemon and sweet lemon oil.

"Like any chemical, essential oils have potential side-effects. Always make sure to do your research before using them," says Newaj. 


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