Essential Oils: Medicine or Marketing?

It seems there is an essential oil for everything. Oncoming cold? Use peppermint. Anxiety or trouble sleeping? Use lavender. Troublesome acne? Use tea tree oil. The cure for cancer? Ask some people, and they will say essential oils. As essential oils’ popularity has grown, so have the claims surrounding what they can do.

Still, even with all this hype, most people will agree that it’s highly unlikely essential oils are going to do much against something like cancer. But, if you’re anything like myself, you’re probably left wondering, what can essential oils do? With this much talk, it can’t all be nothing, but it’s also hard to figure out where the limits of essential oils’ benefits are.


Separating the Fact from Fiction

The first thing to know about the healing benefits of essential oils, is there is actually very little research into what they can really do. Many of the tall claims you hear about their amazing, life-altering properties don’t have substantial research to back them up. The second thing to know is that this doesn’t mean all the proclaimed benefits are fake. The reality of essential oils lies somewhere between crackpot medicine and a magical cure-all.

Part of the reason so many messages are floating around about what essential oils can and cannot do, is how they are marketed and distributed. Rachel Monroe discusses this system in-depth in an article for The New Yorker, but suffice it to say, many essential oils are sold by individuals working for a couple large companies. What this means is there are a lot of people who are really into essential oils saying a lot of things without much regulation. When it comes down to it, claims that essential oils can cure complex ailments like depression or cancer shouldn’t be taken as fact. This shouldn’t deter you from what you can get from essential oils, however.


So, What are the Benefits?

Essential oils aren’t about to solve the most serious of issues, but they do still have benefits. Herbal medicine and aromatherapy have been around for a long time for good reason. Just like a hot toddy truly does soothe symptoms of a cold, the scents and compounds of essential oils have legitimate benefits. Scent is a powerful thing and there is a definite link between stimulating the right smell receptors and reaping some emotional and even physiological benefits. For instance, if you love the scent of lavender, smelling it will give you a pick-me-up as the smell can trigger chemical messages that make you feel happy and calm. Will it cure depression? Probably not. Can it calm you down, relax you, and help set you up for sleep? Certainly.

Beyond the connections of smell and mood, there are some studies showing certain connections between essential oils and physical ailments. For instance, tea tree oil has been linked to helping with acne and peppermint oil might ease symptoms of digestive issues and IBS. These studies are still early and neither claims the oils are a cure, but there are true benefits when it comes to easing moods and symptoms.

Ultimately, there is a reason traditional herbal remedies and aromatherapy are still around, and it’s the same reason essential oils are popular: for the right situation, they do work! While you shouldn’t look at essential oils as a cure-all, there are many things you want them on hand for, from adding scents to soaps and lotions to using diffusers or creating home versions of vic’s vapor rub or natural sleep aids. At best, you’ll find some scents that soothe aches and help lift your spirits, and at worst, your home and life will smell really great.




For an in-depth read on the distribution system of essential oils, check out:

“How Essential Oils Became the Cure for Our Age of Anxiety” by Rachel Monroe, The New Yorker, October 9, 2017.


For more information on the science of essential oils, check out:

“The Science of Essential Oils: Does Using Scents Make Sense?” by Cari Nierenberg, LiveScience, September 2, 2015.