Behavior & Development • Feb 26, 2015

The Return of Essential Oils

essential oilsDo essential oils really work, or are they just over-priced fragrant quackery? I would have assumed the latter, until I got an invitation to an essential oils party from a friend who is a Harvard educated lawyer. A shop-at-home party for alternative medications was the least likely place I’d expect to find her, let alone me. And so I hit the evidenced based research, expecting to prove her wrong. Here’s what I found.

Essential oils have passed the test of antiquity—they have been used medicinally since the beginning of recorded history. Frankincense, an essential oil, is believed to have been a gift of the Magi. It’s difficult to call them a passing fad. Why then, haven’t essential oils been integrated into western medicine? Modern medical literature includes limited research on their efficacy, but since 2000 there have been a growing number of research studies on essential oils popping up in traditional medical journals, with 1045 PubMed listed articles in 2013.

If you’ve ever used Vick’s Vaporub you already believe in essential oils. Vicks is a mix of essential oils suspended in petroleum jelly, although some of these oils may be made synthetically by the Vicks company (they don’t specify).

An essential oil is concentrated plant oil with a distinct smell, such as oil of clove, mint, lavender, or citrus. They are not essential for health– the term “essential” means “essence-of”. They are used in perfumes, soap, lotions, incense, household cleaning products, and to add flavor to food and drink. You probably already use them everyday.

Here are six reasons why essential oils have returned to American medicine.

1. There is real money to be made in the essential oil market. 

There is a growing market for essential oils intended for home medical use, with prices ranging from about $12 to $80 for a 5 milliliter vial. They can be ingested, aerosolized, used topically, or put in a bath or shower. Medicinal essential oils are expensive, subject to limited regulated, and supposedly treat everything from headache to cancer. There is real money to be made in the market, money that comes from the pockets of the vulnerable, sick, and desperate.

2. Modern medical research shows they work…sometimes:

The antibacterial qualities of essential oils are quantifiable and make for easily published research, but if you had any doubt consider this story from the citrus industry: The American citrus industry struggles to get citrus waste to biodegrade because it contains oils with natural antibacterial qualities. Limonene, specifically, is actually removed from citrus waste to promote biodegradation. Now you can buy this citrus “waste” product as an essential oil for $12 per 5 ml vial.

Essential oils have been shown to have antiseptic properties against drug-resistant bacteria, and can work synergistically with existing antibiotics to treat drug-resistant infections. This is, perhaps, the most promising role of essential oils in western medicine.

Like any antibiotic, certain oils are effective against certain bacteria. There is no one-drug-kills-it-all or one-oil-kills-it-all. And some essential oils actually promote the growth of bacteria and fungus.

3. Essential oils supposedly treat frustrating conditions that western medicine has failed to treat well.

Advocates say essential oils can treat anything and everything: migraines, cancer, stress, nausea, anxiety, insomnia, viral illness, memory, dementia, even aging. But the research just doesn’t exist for all of this– essential oils are no fountain of youth.

Moms of kids with ADHD are shelling out big bucks for oils that supposedly provide natural improvement for attention and behavior. They’re tired, they’re frustrated, they don’t want to put their child on stimulants, so they’ll try essential oils. This is where I start to get angry with the essential oil market. The purported research quoted by online oil vendors is by people like Dr. Terry Friedmann, a physician who also writes about astrology and has no research published in any PedMed listed medical journal. I can’t find any reputable research that shows efficacy of essential oils for ADHD.

Cancer is perhaps the most contentious area. Some oils, such as Thymoquinone, are shown to be effective anti-tumor agents. These oils are chemotherapeutic drugs with toxic effects.

Should they be studied and used by qualified individuals to treat cancer patients? Yes. But chemotherapeutic drugs should not be purchased online or from a friend at a shop-at-home party. Just because a drug comes from a plant does not mean it’s safe.

The FDA has started to crack down on online vendors who state that essential oils can treat conditions like ADHD and cancer, but the FDA can’t regulate what goes on at shop-at-home parties.

4. Who doesn’t like some nice-smelling medicine to massage onto your skin?

If you’ve spent ten minutes reading about essential oils you’re probably ready to try them– in a warm bath, as massage, as aromatherapy– it all sounds good. And that’s the point– just feeling good helps sick people feel better. The potential placebo effect is difficult to determine because using any essential oil is pleasurable.

5. American don’t care about population studies, they care about themselves.

I can jabber on about PubMed research and most people don’t care– they’d rather try some essential oil themselves. If it works, who cares about the research? Here’s the problem with that approach: once you spend $79 on a tiny vial of Frankincense, you’re going to be looking for it to work. You’ll note every little improvement in your condition and attribute it to your lovely smelling treatment. But could you have achieved the same outcome with a hot bath, massage, and scented candle?

6. Essential oils give people control over their medicine cabinet

No prescription, no doctor’s appointment, no insurance pre-authorization needed. For frustrated sick people, a medicine cabinet full of essential oils brings autonomy and control. You can throw out over-priced cough medicine that didn’t work and try something that you at least enjoy using. Educated, intelligent people are tired of yielding to doctors and beurocrats when it comes to their healthcare decisions. Alternative medications are a welcomed relief… especially if they work, or at least seem like they work.

Essential oils have returned to American medicine, and I suspect they are here to stay. I am pessimistic that a medicine cabinet full of plant oil can greatly improve either quality or quantity of life. I’d be very cautious about toxicity, especially if you are ingesting essential oils. I don’t have any good advice about how to pick a reputable source of essential oils, and I worry that what’s in a bottle may not be what’s on a label. I’m hopeful we can continue to research and use these drugs safely and effectively, but for right now I consider them just that– drugs.

KSDK NewsChannel5 recently interviewed me about this topic for a story that aired in their 10pm newscast. Click here to watch that story.



  1. Thank you for this article! I have been looking all over for an opinion and oil information from someone besides a person who profits from selling essential oils. I was so happy to find one here from a medical professional. I am a skeptic like yourself. I can’t help but feel that, if essential oils had been up to the task of healing our ailments so thoroughly since the dawn of time (practically), then they wouldn’t have taken such a backseat to modern medicine. I am sure a lot of them smell good and do make you feel pleasant, but I just can’t bring myself to spend $100’s on them when my life and health has been just fine without them up to this point.

  2. Great points made here! I caution most moms against using scented products since Jessica Reiner’s research shows American moms have five times more synthetic scent (petroleum based) byproducts in their breast milk than moms in other countries. A significant difference exists between a synthetic petroleum scents and natural, tested and verified essential oils. EOs are powerful, they address issues western medicine can’t seem to get to, and they are an excellent adjunct therapy that has been used since antiquity and are now being heavily investigated using western methods, with more coming out in the east that in the west, since oils have been used traditionally for centuries in countries that have been around that long.

  3. Hello Dr. Kathleen, I really love that you are open to Essential Oils, mankind’s oldest plant medicine. I feel after that story on KSDK I have educating to do on the safety of using Essential Oils. I have been using for about 15 years. I am a certified Practitioner . Can we please talk about safety? The ‘bombs’ that were referenced in the news broadcast are dangerous. I would love to talk with you about safety and perhaps do an in-service for you and your staff.
    Kathleen Duckworth

  4. Thanks so much Dr. Kathleen for sharing this. I’ve been on the fence regarding ‘Essential Oils’, even though I’ve used several like ‘Surfer’s Salve’ to heal my kid’s exzema. I do get skeptical when I hear companies tout that they have a cure for ADHD or ADD. It seems that everyone is hopping on that bandwagon.

  5. So this article is stating that essential oil benefits are basically in your mind!

  6. I grew up on the edges of “crunchy” culture in California so my kook alarms go off whenever something is touted as a natural miracle cure. I liked this take on essential oils and thought it balanced between skepticism and acceptance of some alternative medicine. My personal experience was the oils my mother-in-law gave me for mothers day last year. I used one of them once and got the worst migraine headache I have had in years it must have contained something I am allergic. I am very hesitant now to use these “drugs” because I just don’t know what they might do to me they are clearly not benign.

  7. Dear Jennifer,

    Thank you for your comment and research. If you carefully read many of the PubMed listed articles regarding the antimicrobial properties of certain essential oils, you will find that they tested some oils that actually promoted growth of certain bacteria and fungi. You have to read more than just the title and abstract. If you read the methods sections, you will see the data indicating that some oils resulted in increased in vitro microbial growth.

  8. I am a user of essential oils. I will not sit here and say yes it will cure cancer . Yes it will shrink your tumor . However , the things that I have used essential oils for, yes they helped greatly ! My husband’s RLS : a drop of oil on each big toe and a drop of oil on each thigh = very still legs at night ! Yes I use them for my ADHD daughter . Did it cure it , no . Did it help ? Yes . Over the weekend my 2 yr old got stung by a wasp in the palm of her hand . As she cried in pain I put a drop of an oil on it . She stopped crying within 15 seconds. After that you would have never known it happened. The list goes on . It is the best investment I have ever made for the wellness of my family. My goal is to get my daughter off the 7 pills she takes a day . At 11 she takes more than my 63 year old mother. I truly believe It will happen with essential oils !!

  9. Well, I may be automatically assumed to be biased because I sell essential oils. But I’m a glutton for punishment, so here goes.

    The reason I got into selling essential oils was not because of the money. Instead, I experienced the effects of them first-hand. My friend had been suffering from horrible pain in her legs due to bad circulation and her husband has terrible ankle pain after breaking them in a motorcycle accident years ago. My friend was taking 4 Loratabs every day to ease the pain. After researching the best oils for her, she tried them. Even though it didn’t completely eliminate her pain meds, she was able to reduce her dosage to one pill day. Her husband did the same. Now he doesn’t take pain meds at all.

    I can understand some people’s skepticism about essential oils. I didn’t think much about them until a few months ago. They are not fountain of youth at all. I understand that. For instance, some oils don’t work for me like they should. Peppermint doesn’t ease my headache, but it does for my husband. Also, I was a bit surprised that you said that the research just doesn’t exist for helping certain medical conditions. Actually, it does. Go to US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health website and search for essential oils. There are many research studies out there that show promising results. I have a post on my blog that sites a number of them as well.

    They really do work for some people. And a person who has been suffering from ongoing pain can’t just “think” that pain away. Just like with any medicine – natural or manufactured – it takes several tries to find the best one that works for you. I wouldn’t flush the oils down the drain so quickly. 🙂 – Lisa

  10. Dr. Kathleen,
    I can so appreciate your concern over the misuse and misrepresentation of Essential Oils and their efficacy. I too WAS a skeptic! I didn’t see how an oil could be more beneficial than medication. However, I had experience with “Chinese Medicine” (acupuncture and herbals) for chronic sinus infection and a diagnosis of chronic fatigue when I was 27 years old! The “Chinese” approach helped me when “Western” approaches only seemed to make me worse than I was before! (The Doctors best guess on why I had chronic fatigue was due to the use of a prescription drug cocktail a Neurologist had me on after an accident.)
    I continued to use herbal “tinctures” on an as needed basis, but had really drifted away from using more than pro-biotic to support my digestive tract which had issues due to IBS – diagnosed with when I was 19 years old.
    2 years ago I read a book by Dr. Mark Hyman – It changed my life! By changing my diet IBS issues are resolved – unless I eat gluten! NO “Western” Doctor ever did anything for my digestive issues other than prescribe drug after drug that only worked on the symptom – NEVER any attempt to address the root cause of the problems!
    Last year I succumbed to Pneumonia not once or twice but 4 times in addition to 2 bouts with Bronchitis! This period cost me a lot of money! Dr. visits, prescription medications, xrays, breathing treatments…. (LOTS OF MONEY!) and you know what? I paid it! Why? Because, I NEEDED help! In the midst of being this sick, paying for prescription after prescription, taking anti-biotics, steroids, (tablet and later inhaler), 4 different inhalers, cough syrups, etc…. (HUNDREDS of dollars out of pocket, plus time off work!) an acquaintance mentioned Essential Oils and that maybe they could help. I didn’t understand how they could help me. However, I was “desperate” to get better! I was sick and tired of being sick and tired and missing out on quality time with my two kids because I felt so sick and tired.
    Ultimately, I tried the oils she suggested. Boy, am I GLAD I did!!!
    As a result of using the Essential Oils I am fully recovered from the ever recurring Pneumonia and I am OFF all the other prescribed medications as well as the majority of the over the counter pain killers (Tylenol, Alieve, Naproxia Sodium, and a prescribed muscle relaxer – all to deal with my chronic headaches and muscle spasms in my neck and back). I can breathe! My lungs don’t hurt anymore. I am able to exercise again.
    So, is it all in my head as a placebo? I can’t answer that. But, I would have thought that with everything else I tried blindly trusting the medical elite, I would have had that effect with all their recommended protocols. Especially, with how much I paid out of pocket – over and above my health insurance.
    I have done a lot of research subsequent to my ‘personal experience’ and am learning more about Essential Oils (not all oils are created equal – well the oil maybe – but the way the plants are grown and processed are not. I’d only recommend Therapeutic grade- not GMO plants, grown with no pesticides.) Can there be “risks” in using EO’s? Sure! More than those that accompany any other prescribed medication with the pages of usage warnings and yet still considered ‘safe’? I don’t think so. Can someone have an “adverse reaction” to any prescribed medication? Of course! Can someone have a reaction to a natural food product? Yes! Does that mean that the medication or food is bad? NO.
    I am sorry if this comes off like a “rant”. But, I think all too often the “warnings” against something natural is unwarranted and shows a bias of “medical elitism”. I get all the years and study that go into the earned degree and the experiential knowledge gained through medical practice. But, just because the U.S.A. drug companies are not funding “research” into the efficacy of Essential Oils doesn’t negate the reality of other cultures findings and positive results using “alternative” medicinal approaches.
    If you would never hear from a Doctor the benefits and uses of herbs, oils, healthy diet (not talking about merely counting calories – rather food quality)then where could someone learn how to help themselves? Why not a “home party” – led by people who have found some help with the product(s)?

  11. It is important to know that not all essential oils are created equal. The essential oils that have been available in the US over the past 25 years were the best available at the time. Many of them had fillers, additives, synthetics or pesticides. When you are dealing with pure oils that have nothing added or changed from nature you will then have a medicinal grade oil. Essential oils are not lucrative to pharmaceutical companies because nature cannot be patented so there is no money to be made for them in essential oils. Here is a panel of doctors talking about essential oils being used in the medical field.
    Doctors on the Scientic Advisory Board of doTERRA.
    I didn’t see anything in the article that says you have tried doterra’s essential oil to see if they work. Check out for more information. Remember France has been using medicinal grade essential oils in their medical practice and patients must have a prescription from a doctor to get them. Vanderbuilt Hospital has been using essential oils in their hospital for 4 years. Dr. Winterton an orhtopedic surgeon in Salt Lake City, and his colleagues in Salt Lake City and in Australia are using essential oils in their surgeries. Dr. Winterton offers more research here.

  12. Shannon Smith,

    I am very much a skeptic of Essential Oils, but I get Bronchitis/Pneumonia every winter. Right now I’ve had my deep-lung cough for three weeks with no signs of it letting up. Maybe I inquire as to the type of EO you used for your lung problems? I’d be very much obliged.


    Sam Elliott

  13. The oil you want is called “Breathe” and I promise you results. Contact me on Facebook and I can help you. Deanna M. Schaffer

  14. There are good and bad oils. If you purchase oils from a store they are filled with synthetics. These synthetics mimic the smells but not the chemical compounds required for healing and health. Unless you know what kind you tried and unless an educator instructed you on application and amount you didn’t give reputable oil a chance

  15. “Thank You”…you do have to consider that it’s greed that drives the pharmaceutical industry. If they can’t patent these plants that give us essential oils then they’re not interested. These pharma’s don’t have health in mind…it’s all about the $$$.

  16. Not unlike art, it’s all in the eye/mind of the beholder.

    I happen to believe lavender and or Lemon for example really helps with my anxiety.

    I could careless if there has been studies done or not on the effectiveness of essential oils.

    They work great for me, I now consider them medicine.

    For a few dollars give one a try, I did, and I found out that when used properly they enhance the quality of my life.

  17. I have recently been diagnosed with adult ADHD. (Adderall actually helps me calm down and clear my head.) I was doing research to help my twins with ADHD and stumbled upon it.
    My mom’s side of the family is definitely into natural healing (my grandma is a chiropractor and Rakhi master). I am “crunchy”. I’ve been using essential oils for years. Even so, essential oils and a healthy diet couldn’t fix this.
    I have to say that the only essential oil that has improved mine and my kids ADHD symptoms are things which help reduce anxiety, like lavender and lemongrass.
    I’ve learned that ADHD is the most researched medical condition on the planet. As the author of this article stated there are no case studies that show the effectiveness of the oil beyond the placebo effect. Keep in mind that the placebo effect heals 50% of patients. Aroma therapy seems to fit into the placebo effect. It isn’t effective on its own, but when paired with adderall, fish oil, good supplements, sun, etc…I finally can focus on the important things even if it’s not interesting to me.

  18. I am not convinced that the FDA has people’s best interest at heart. Many countries are ahead of the USA in treating diseases and conditions. i am not certain the FDA is not on the pharmaceutical payroll. When I have issues and doctors cant seem to be able to correct the problem, I turn to my YOUNG LIVING essential oils – the oils that are followed from seed to seal. NOT ALL OILS ARE CREATED EQUALLY. If you are taking oils that are sold by a middle man (AMAZON, BED BATH AND BEYOND, DISCOUNT STORES, ORGANIC AND HERBAL SUPPLEMENTS ETC) you are more likely getting oils that have been bought on the black market under filthy conditions. Be smart and buy direct from a top proven company. Young living has been in business for 22 years and has their own farms that are monitored from seed to seal. Being from Iowa and just getting out of the hospital, I was elated to learn that one of the largest hospitals in Iowa has now given personnel the ability to use lavender, lemon and peppermint on patients without doctor approval. I am COPD stage 4 and I have quit with my pro-air and turned to Peppermint. It is an immediate recovery unlike the pro-Air. My daughter has used several oils in her house to cut down on sickness. She diffuses Thieves continuously, and had 8 doctors appointments in Nov, 9 in Dec, 4 in January and started diffusing thieves on the 17. She had no more doctors appointments with her 4 children until their birthday physicals the end of last month. Her doctor asked where she had been and she told him. He is new and just out of medical school. He told her “that was great. Anytime you can do natural over drugs that is a good thing.” Thank God for open minds. He is not the only doctor who is following this line of thought. I am also using peppermint and Panaway on sore knees and one of the roll-ons for muscle spasms. The medical field gave me muscle relaxers that were basically sleeping pills making me lethargic. My oil works almost immediately with NO SIDE EFFECTS. In my head? I don’t think so.

  19. We have four registered nurses and nurse practitioners who have left the field of nursing. They all had a child who had ADHD or ADD and have found the Reconnect kit to be a lifesaver for their child. Does it work? I don’t know but evidently it worked for their children. Once again, many people are using oils that are not PURE and have synthetics added – which is extremely dangerous. Oils that have 5% true oil can say 100% pure. Don’t be tricked and then disappointed when an oil does not work. Another thing not all oils work for everyone. Peppermint, a rather cheap oil will work wonders for some where others will need Panaway a more expensive oil. If you are dealing with the right distributor (not a store) they will give you a sample to try the product before you buy.

  20. Exactly! No one says that these oils treat or heal everything or anything. If you choose not to use them, that is your right. For many of us we have found them to be very helpful and has saved us many times when “pills” could not. I use Young Living. In January my daughter brought me a sample of peppermint. I laughed and called her a “snake oil” distributor lol. I have eaten those words many times since January. Just so you know, I am not a Young Living sales person. I have never sold ONE KIT. I did buy a kit though so I am listed as a distributor so I can get my oils at a lower cost.

  21. I don’t know what kind of Essential Oils party you were invited to but either the oils were a cheap oil or the person giving the class was a new distributor. Either they gave terrible information or you only heard part of what she said and did your own investigations. All oils are not made exactly the same, to give the impression they are is far from the truth. First, all of the cleaning products on the market may have lemon, orange or other fragrance but they also have many synthetic and dangerous chemicals in those products. It is very sad to see such a young doctor, as yourself, with such a closed mind to something that can help people. This is NOT something to take the place of doctors. I do not know anyone who says that these oils cure cancer or many of the other diseases or conditions you mention. They may refer to the oils as helping with side effects of chemo etc. The comments you have made are close minded and not at all what the company Young Living stands for or behind. There are benefits to these oils and one of our largest hospitals in Iowa now lets staff use Lavender, lemon and peppermint without doctor approval. I have COPD stage four and can take a whiff of peppermint and find immediate relief – unlike with my Pro-Air that may or may not work. My pulmonary doctor is aware of me using it and has no objections and even encouraged its use if it works better. Humm maybe you should take another look at these oils and have an open mind about them instead of thinking people are using them to replace doctors.

  22. the recipe i have for RLS is two of the vitamin/mineral additives that goes in water to drink at bedtime and then 2-3 drops of 3 oils that goes on the back of neck to the base of the skull. (brain stem area) If you are still looking for answers find me on Facebook, Debi Bolton-Howell and I will get some samples for you to see if they work.

  23. this was over a year ago. when cold and flu season starts you need to diffuse thieves daily. there are three different areas for breaking down bronchitis – inflammation, infection and fluids (mucus) It depends on the problem. If you do not find relief next year find me on Facebook Debi Bolton-Howell.

  24. Try Vetiver. My son is ADHD with anxiety issues and he states the vetiver helps a lot. Just make sure you buy from a reputatable Essential oil company. There are many out there including Aromatics international and Stillpoint.

  25. My first question for you is if you have asthma or any other lung issue. The reason why I ask is there are some essential oils that can cause problem if you do.

  26. Dr. Kathleen, PLEASE LEARN ABOUT THE DANGERS OF ESSENTIAL OILS TOO. No one should be taking EO orally unless prescribed by a well qualified Aromatherapist because there are dangers taking EO orally. Not ALL EO can be ingested orally for one. Two dosage is a very specialized field. Just like you know about the pharm drugs you have to treat EO’s the same. Some EO’s have warning for pregnancy, asthma, lung disorders, children of different ages. Again PLEASE LEARN FROM A AROMATHERPY SCHOOL FROM THE LIST ON NAHA SITE.

  27. I have had many such issues, and my miracle has been vitamin C –from wheezing deep in my lungs to chronic fatigue issues to asthma to energy issues…( I have had IBS all my life, and probably leaky gut because I KNOW that I don’t absorb all my nutrients well)…it all started when I tried 1000 mg vitamin C at the urging of my mother for something or other, and miraculously the wheezing that was with me daily for many years (and doctors scaring me about it) disappeared! Hasn’t come back in decades…and vitamin C is also helping a herniated disc problem I have now. I wont even go for a walk without taking it before hand. I suspect it is because I have inflammation in my body and vitamin C is very good at combating inflammation. I take about 3000 mg a day broken up throughout the day. As I am getting older I am needing it more and more….

Comments are closed.