Essential oils are all the rage — but do they live up to their claims?
You can’t pass through the personal care aisle of a supermarket without seeing labels that tout the benefits of essential oils, including the relaxing effects of lavender and the skin-nourishing properties of pomegranate seed. And anyone with a Facebook or Pinterest account has likely witnessed the growth of multilevel marketing companies that reap large profits from independent distributors who sell essential oils from home and advertise their wonders through social media.
But what is it exactly that makes an oil “essential”? And is there evidence that essential oils actually do anything?
Essential oils aren’t essential to either human or plant life. The “essential” in their name refers to the fact that they are the concentrated essence of a plant, says John Labows, a fragrance technology consultant in the Philadelphia area.
Though humans have used botanical essences for thousands of years (ancient Egyptians anointed their bodies with perfumed oils and medieval healers treated ailments with botanical extracts), essential oils as we know them today are removed from plants by steam distillation or, in the case of citrus oils, mechanical expression.
“Essential oils are certainly part of most fragrances,” says Labows, explaining that fragrances typically contain a mixture of natural and synthetic chemicals. “The main difference between essential oil and fragrance is that essential oils are more complex.”
This chemical complexity composes the unique aroma of a particular essential oil. A primary scent component of lavender is linalool, which is often synthesized in the laboratory. When manufacturers add linalool to a fragrance, it gives the impression of lavender, but it smells “harsher,” says Labors. “When you use the natural essential oil, you get a rounded scent.”
The recent trend in essential oils has more to do with health care than perfume, however.
Proponents not only use essential oils in body care but also diffuse them through the air, pour them into bath water, inhale their vapors and apply them to reflexology points on the bottoms of their feet. Some people even ingest them.
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