Aromatherapy is sometimes dismissed by health professionals as a trendy, new pseudo-science, but it actually has a long history and some solid science behind it.
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Although aromatherapy has only been studied scientifically since the early 20th century, its history goes back thousands of years to ancient China where certain herbs were burned to promote well-being.
It was also used in ancient Egypt and Arabia and was probably first brought to Europe by soldiers returning from the Crusades. Then, in the early 20th century, French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé began studying the chemical properties of essential oils after using lavender oil to help heal a burn on his hand following a lab accident, kicking off the modern study of aromatherapy.
Essential oils are concentrated volatile aroma compounds extracted from the leaves, blossoms, seeds, root, or bark of plants. Popular essential oils are lavender, rose, tea tree, peppermint, lemon, rosemary, eucalyptus, and ylang-ylang, and modern aromatherapy is the inhalation or topical use of these extracts to promote physical healing or emotional wellness.
Essential oils are recommended by aromatherapists and used by lay people to treat everything from constipation to cancer. Though many popular uses haven’t been studied or haven’t been proven to be effective, when used as a complimentary therapy, there’s very little risk associated with essential oils. It’s important, however, to use them under the supervision of a professional and to take certain precautions.
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Whether essential oils are inhaled or used topically, you should only purchase them from a trusted supplier. Essential oils are only regulated by the FDA if they claim to diagnose, cure, mitigate, or treat certain health conditions, and most if not all manufacturers are careful not to make these claims.
While the inhalation of essential oils isn’t dangerous for most healthy adults, unregulated essential oils can contain potentially harmful contaminants. Look for companies that not only make claims of purity but also back up their claims with analysis from independent laboratories.
There are also contraindications for using essential oils. You should consult with your doctor if you are pregnant or have a respiratory condition. Because some essential oils can affect hormones, you should always ask your healthcare provider about the safety of specific oils before using them during pregnancy. Popular oils that are not recommended for use during pregnancy include basil, cinnamon, chamomile, clove, fennel, ginger, rosemary, peppermint, sage, and thyme. (This list is not complete.)
People with respiratory conditions like asthma may find that essential oils contribute to airway spasms. There are many websites recommending the use of essential oils to treat asthma in children and adults, and anecdotally, it seems as if some asthma sufferers experience relief with the use of certain oils.
But most doctors don’t recommend the use of essential oils for asthma treatment because there hasn’t been high-quality research evaluating their safety, and there’s also a good deal of anecdotal evidence indicating that certain essential oils can cause or exacerbate asthma symptoms, especially in children.
While most essential oils are considered safe for topical use, individual sensitivities can be unpredictable, and you should never apply a new essential oil to a large area of skin without testing it first. Most essential oils are also diluted before being applied to the skin because of their potency.
Follow dilution directions carefully, and don’t apply essential oils directly to the skin unless told to do so by an expert. You should also avoid ingesting essential oils unless under the direction of a medical professional, and most essential oils usually aren’t recommended for children under 5.
The takeaway is that most uses of essential oils are safe, but you should consult with a professional about their use and be aware that there are many unverified and potentially hazardous applications being recommended online by bloggers and “health experts” without any training in aromatherapy. Choose your sources carefully, and enjoy essential oils safely.
For more information about the safety concerns and benefits of specific herbal preparations, including essential oils, check out HerbMed, an herb database that includes links to resources in scientific publications.
This article first appeared on AskDrManny.com.