Does aromatherapy using essential oils really work?

From easing pain to improving mood, here's what the evidence says

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Browse the shelves of a pharmacy or natural grocery store and you're likely to spot small bottles of fragrant oils, such as lavender and peppermint, extracted from plants.

Known as essential oils, these are the tools for the practice of aromatherapy -- applying oils to the skin, sniffing them, or heating them in a device called an essential oil diffuser that disperses them into the air. Aromatherapy products are also available as lotions and soaps.

Promoters of this complementary therapy say it can aid sleep, relieve migraines and nausea, improve emotional well-being, and more. And U.S. consumers are buying into it; they spent about $1 billion on essential oils last year alone, according to market research firm Spins.

Does aromatherapy work? Currently, there is no proof that the practice can cure any illness. For many of the "softer" claims -- such as its purported role as a sleep aid or pain reducer -- there has been little testing, and the scientific research that has been conducted has generally yielded conflicting results.

That doesn't matter to a lot of people, however. They tell us that their own experiences with essential oils are all the proof they need. Just one example, Bartram Academy. It's a pre-school in St. Johns County. They have toys and learning tools in every class, right along with an oil diffuser. They use it everyday. For example, when it's getting close to nap time they add a few drops of lavender and other calming scents.  

"They (kids) don't go from being crazy to being out for a nap but I definitely notice that if you have the oils diffusing, there is a little more natural calmness about everybody," Laura Leslie told us. She's a teacher at the school.

Leslie explained how they change the scents throughout the day based on what the kids have going on. One of the oils they use consistently is a proprietary blend, made by DoTerra. It's called, "On Guard," and it's supposed to boost your immune system and Leslie believes it makes a huge difference.

"Five years ago my daughter came here to preschool and I noticed she wasn't getting sick like the other moms said their kids were and I knew there was something to it. That's how I was introduced to the oils."

Leslie has been using the oils at home ever since. In fact, she started selling them. And now, after five years she shared this about her daughter.

"I honestly think she's been out of school sick twice and she's in third grade now," Leslie said.

Leslie even teaches a class on how to use the oils twice a month. See the end of this article for details.

But when Consumer Reports examined the studies and spoke with experts, it found several ­areas in which the research seemed intriguing. Here's what you need to know about three key aromatherapy claims.

Lifts your mood

Lavender and lemon essential oils are in many of the aromatherapy products that are marketed as mood boosters, and some small studies support the notion that they (along with jasmine) may help -- if only temporarily.

But recent research had mixed results. In a study published in the journal Psycho­neuro­endocrinology, researchers taped cotton balls scented with lavender oil, lemon oil, or distilled water to the noses of 56 volunteers and quizzed participants about their mood. "There were not significant positive effects for lavender, but the mood effects for lemon oil were notable," says study lead Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, Ph.D., a psychiatry professor at Ohio State University.

Reduces anxiety

You're likely to see essential oils such as bergamot, chamomile, frankincense, lavender, lemon, and rose in aromatherapy products touted to relieve anxiety.

Some research suggests that the scents of lavender and lemon essential oil may be helpful, but the studies are specific to those with dementia. For example, a 2015 study of 186 dementia patients, published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, found that lavender essential oil had calming effects, especially in combination with acupressure—the application of pressure to points on the body. In an earlier study of 71 people with dementia, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, lemon balm essential oil reduced signs of agitation, such as throwing objects or screaming.

Relieves nausea

Ginger and peppermint essential oils are commonly sold as stomach soothers. Some studies suggest that they, along with cardamom or fennel, may reduce nausea. But the most compelling research is on isopropyl alcohol, according to a review of nine studies. And a study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine found that nauseated hospital patients who sniffed alcohol swabs reported significantly less nausea than those who sniffed salt­water.

Isopropyl alcohol swabs are in most first aid kits and are inexpensive, so people can easily use them to alleviate nausea, says study author Antonia Helbling, an emergency medicine physician at San Antonio Military Medical Center.

So what do our experts think about scent as medicine?

"Using the smell of alcohol to help with nausea may seem promising, but there simply isn't enough solid evidence to back up most of the health claims for essential oils," says Consumer Reports' chief medical adviser, Marvin M. Lipman, M.D. "And do not trust any aromatherapy product that claims to treat a specific illness."

If you would like to learn more about how to use essential oils, there are classes twice a month at Bartram Academy. The next one is Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon. Free childcare is provided and the school is located at 164 Everest Lane, St. Johns, Florida. For more information on future classes, email laura@lauraleslie.com.