Written by Zoe Manoukian
At the start of my winter break, I drove from Nantes to Paris with a young man who I met through a ride sharing application. Throughout the four hours, we discussed politics, films, must see French spots, and our current situations. I was interested to hear that my road companion was about one year into his new job working with a small essential oil company.
While I have been made aware of the rising popularity of essential oils, especially among teenagers and college students, I had yet to meet someone who truly believed in their healing and invigorating properties until this drive. He finds them to be stress relieving and even stimulating. For instance, he told me that diffusing cleansing scents such as eucalyptus in a coworking space can vastly increase productivity. Listening to him talk at great lengths about the power of essential oils intrigued me, and I felt that now, being in France, may be the best time for me to explore aromatherapy.
France is considered to be the birthplace of aromatherapy, and the French chemist and scholar René Maurice Gattefossé to be its founder. According to Central Coast Lavender Farm & Apothecary, Gattefossé badly burned his hand while working in the pharmacy one day in 1918, and instinctually placed it in a nearby container, finding instant relief. The container was full of lavender oil, and the immediate alleviation inspired him to pursue the science of essential oils. Essential oils and fragrances are quite accessible here in France, where the image of lavender and poppy fields comes to mind. The south of France particularly is known for its fragrances, specifically Grasse, the perfume capital of the world according to tisserandinstitute.org.
Johns Hopkins explains that essential oils are created by distilling the oils that are extracted from various parts of the plant such as the flower, bark, leaves, and fruit. The resulting fragrances stimulate the smell receptors in the olfactory sensors, which then send messages through the nervous system to the limbic system, which is the part of the brain that controls emotions. They can be experienced orally, topically, or through inhalation. There is some debate regarding the extent to which essential oils are beneficial.
While John Hopkins found that certain oils can be more effective than antibiotics in combatting Lyme bacteria, and supports studies that suggest the essential oils are effective in relieving anxiety, depression, insomnia, low appetite, and dry mouth, researchers at Harvard are more incredulous. Harvard Health states that not enough empirical research pertaining to aromatherapy has been conducted to draw such bold conclusions, citing a study conducted by behavioral medicine researchers at Ohio State University that found lemon and lavender oils to be ineffective. After a series of tests, researchers found that the scent of lemon improved the moods of participants, but neither lemon nor lavender improved physical wellness. Further, they found that the scent of lemon did not alleviate stress, and that both lemon and lavender hindered immune responses more than distilled water.
Harvard Health also references, however, studies from 2000 that suggest that aromatherapy massage can reduce anxiety and is beneficial in supportive care. Likewise, they cite a 2007 study in the journal Obesity Surgery, which found that surgical patients who inhaled lavender only required half the amount of pain medication as patients who did not inhale.
Lastly, they reference Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, who argue that certain combinations of essential oil can combat alopecia areata (hair loss) when applied topically. Though they question the effectiveness of essential oils, Harvard Health does not question their popularity. They believe that despite their studies which suggest general ineffectiveness, many people will continue the use of essential oils as they find the practice to be enjoyable. And, whether research supports it or not, many people do claim to find the oils helpful. For those who are interested in trying essential oils, Johns Hopkins recommends lavender for alleviating stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness; tea tree oil for wounds, acne, insect bites, and athlete’s foot; peppermint for tension headaches; and lemon oil for mood boosting.
Though diffusers seem to be on the rise, they recommend avoiding them as it is possible that the presence of a scent can be disruptive to others, especially those with allergies or asthma. Instead, they suggest the use of accessories such as necklaces, bracelets, and keychains which will have a designated wick for holding the oils. Body oil and aroma sticks are also options. Furthermore, they warn that the term “therapeutic grade” is nothing more than a marketing term, and that consumers should be diligent in searching for natural ingredients in the label, as well as making purchases from a reputable company. They also suggest keeping an eye out for dark colored glass containers, as pure oils often stain the container to a darker color.
Lastly, avoid “fragrance oils” and oils with added fragrances. For those who do wish to use infusers, Dr. Michel Faucon, author of Traité d’Aromatherapie Scientifique et Médicale, encourages dilutions of 10% or less, as well as intermittent rather than continuous diffusion. Further, when using diffusers, he discourages the use of: water, as it can lead to bacterial growth; glass parts, as they are likely to break; and naked flames, as they can catch fire if they make contact with the oil. He discourages the application of undiluted oils.
Whether or not essential oils can truly contribute to a healthier mentality and well-being is still up for debate. But at the end of the day, most researchers find that unless used incorrectly, the use of essential oils cannot be harmful. If you are looking for an alternative way to manage stress or simply to maintain a better smelling dorm room, aromatherapy might be an interesting topic for you to explore.