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Essential oils 101

A dropper drips oil into a brown bottle surrounded by mint leaves

Feb. 5, 2024— Essential oils—chemicals extracted from plants such as lavender, eucalyptus, peppermint and chamomile—are often used in aromatherapy. They're a popular option for easing stress and anxiety, and some research suggests they may help ease the side effects of cancer treatments. But they may come with some health risks.

Research is limited

Many people find essential oils and their aromas pleasant. And, while research is limited, they may offer real benefits. According to the National Cancer Institute, some research has found that aromatherapy with essential oils may improve sleep, lower stress levels and reduce certain side effects of cancer treatments, such as nausea. Other studies have shown no benefit to aromatherapy treatment.

But essential oils may also come with risks, warns the American Lung Association (ALA). One example: A recent study found a link between heavy inhalation of essential oils and a faster heart rate, increased blood pressure and decreased lung function.

Because they're so concentrated, essential oils also can cause allergic reactions and irritate your respiratory system. The risk may be higher if you have a lung condition such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

It's also important to note that essential oils are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That means the ingredients in a bottle may not match what's on the label.

More research is needed to learn more about the possible benefits and risks of essential oils—including what happens when oils are combined.

Safety tips

If you use essential oils, keep these safety tips from the ALA in mind:

  • Dilute before inhaling. Avoid inhaling essential oils at their full strength.
  • Don't ingest. In general, it isn't safe to swallow essential oils.
  • Use diffusers carefully. Read the diffuser instructions, and make sure the room is well-ventilated.
  • Do a patch test. Apply oil to a small area on your skin and check for any allergic reaction before using it elsewhere on your body.
  • Notice your body's response. Carefully track how you feel after using essential oils. If you're concerned about any reaction, stop use immediately and call your doctor.
  • Involve your doctor. Talk with your doctor before using essential oils, especially if you plan to do so for specific health problems. Tell your doctor about any reactions you're having.
  • Take care with pets. Essential oils may be toxic to some pets, depending on the animal and how they're exposed to the oil. Keep your diffuser and oils someplace pet-proof, and consult a vet before using any on your pet.

Want to learn more about alternative treatments? Visit our Alternative Medicine topic center.


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