By Elyse Delano |

Sweeping the nation (or at least Baylor University’s girls’ dormitories) are dozens of tiny bottles of essential oils. They pledge endless benefits; some are said to ease anxiety or kill acne, others to even prevent cancer. And this is done all while making your dorm smell less like molding laundry. But how effective really are these natural remedies, and are we paying 60 dollars (or more!) per 15 mL bottle for fancy potpourri?

Essential oils are concentrated plant chemical compounds blended with a carrier oil. The oils are often used for aromatherapy, or the practice of healing, typically through diffusion of the oil into the air or through absorption in the skin, which allows the chemical compounds to cross into the bloodstream.

I love essential oils not only for their smell, but for what they promise to do for me. I religiously used the “On Guard” oil last semester when all three of my roommates got sick, and attributed my continued health to my diffuser and the few drops I’d put in my water bottle.

Despite my appreciation for essential oils, however, I finally decided to do some research into their scientifically proven advantages to learn how much was just in my head.

Let’s start with their ability to kill bacteria. I was praying that studies would confirm that some oils have the ability to kill harmful bacteria and save my skin during flu season, but the results are unclear. Some studies have shown that oils, like Tea Tree and Peppermint, can actually kill harmful pathogens [1]. However, in a petri dish, bacteria are much easier to kill than in our bodies; if you pour some alcohol in a dish with bacteria, they’ll die just as they would with oils. No verifiable studies have been conducted about the impact of essential oils on bacteria in the body, but until that day, it doesn’t hurt to diffuse some “On Guard” and hope for the best.

Next, let’s look at essential oils’ ability to reduce anxiety. Lavender, for example, has long been associated with having anxiety reducing and sleep producing effects on the body. But how powerful really is this natural relaxer? If you suffer from mild anxiety or are stressed about an upcoming test, lavender may be the solution for you. In a study of 221 patients suffering from anxiety, lavender out-performed the placebo in calming nerves and alleviating stress [2]. A mixture of essential oils including lavender was also shown to decrease sleep disturbance and promote overall well-being in elderly patients as well [2]. It’s important to note, however, that the benefits of lavender have only been proven to relieve mild cases of anxiety and insomnia [3]; if you suffer from severe anxiety, consult a doctor- don’t just rely on essential oils.

Essential oils have also been shown to kill acne and reduce tension-related headaches. Peppermint, when compared to a placebo, reduced patients’ head tension and relieved pain when applied to the temples and when taken orally through a capsule [4]. Tea tree oil combats acne, though this takes place over time and is not wildly successful as a stand-alone treatment. However, it does reduce both inflammatory and noninflammatory acne, especially when used in conjunction with proper medication [5].

From these studies, have we concluded that essential oils are effective natural remedies? Yes and no. I plan to continue using my essential oils with the hopes that I don’t get the flu that’s going around my dorm, but ultimately, I know that no studies support that they actually work. While essential oils do suppress some pain or issues within the human body, they shouldn’t be relied on as medication alone. In tangent with prescribed medications for serious illnesses (both physical and mental), essential oils have been proven to speed up the healing process. Used as a treatment for minor issues, essential oils can bring much needed relief. So keep using your diffusers, but remember that these oils don’t solve everything. And no, they probably don’t prevent cancer [6].