Essential oils: Do they just smell nice?

Essential oils have risen in popularity as a natural health remedy for a variety of ailments, including headaches, sore throats, colds and even mental health issues like anxiety and stress. Despite many people claiming success with essential oils as a treatment, others have yet to be convinced that plant-based oils can truly cure (or help) bodily problems.

Essential oils are concentrated compounds extracted from plants, typically kept in small glass bottles like the one pictured above. Oils can be massaged directly into the skin, ingested or inhaled through aromatherapy. Diffusers are sold that eject water mixed with a few drops of essential oil to disperse throughout a room. 

Some of the more well-known oils are lavender, tea tree, lemon and peppermint, but hundreds of different oils exist that claim to treat a large array of maladies. My personal experience using essential oils has been great. I use lavender when I am stressed, peppermint on my temples to get rid of headaches and tea tree on an infected piercing, which healed it within a week after more than a month of irritation. As a wave of sickness descends on Hope College, I am diffusing R.C. and thieves in my room to help fight off my cold. But is there any proof that essential oils are effective as health remedies?

In short (at least from the scientific community) the answer is a solid maybe. Some clinical studies have found essential oils to be successful at reducing or eliminating symptoms, but others have found no change. Essential oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which is important to note when using consumer-purchased essential oils in a self-regulated medicinal context. 

Beyond using essential oils on or in the human body, some research studies show that oils have powerful antimicrobial effects. Cinnamon has been found to kill Escherichia coli and other bacteria even more effectively than common household cleaners. Thyme oil is the active ingredient in many household cleaners, and many use a combination of essential oils for both scent purposes and antimicrobial properties. Baby-safe products often use essential oils, as they are frequently more safe in a diluted cleaner than other chemical products. 

The essential oil thieves has a fun story behind it, although the exact truth of the story is not well-documented. The tale starts in 15th century Europe, when the bubonic plague was running rampant, killing nearly everyone who came into contact with it. Yet some thieves were able to rob the dead of their possessions and somehow did not come down with the plague! When the thieves were caught, they shared their unique concoction of natural, aromatic herbs that prevented them from contracting the disease.

In modern times, scientists have tested the essential oil blend on which the story was based and found it 99.96% effective in killing airborne bacteria. Although just one essential oil of many, thieves is a true example of how essential oils have antimicrobial effects and can benefit human health. 

Despite the mixed results from research studies and anecdotal evidence, I believe that with more information on essential oils, they would be found to have powerful benefits for many different human illnesses, in the context of antimicrobial cleaners and many other different possibilities. When it comes down to it, essential oils are chemical compounds (just as much as Clorox or medicines are!) that interact with bacteria and the human body in specific, typically beneficial, ways. Just because essential oils come from a natural source doesn’t make them less powerful, as some people may skeptically argue against those who claim benefit from essential oils.

Sophia Vander Kooy (’20) shared some of her thoughts on essential oils: “I am not an expert on any area of mindfulness or wellness, and all I really know about essential oils is that I like them. I think that in a lot of wellness practices, the power of belief is necessary to creating change. I believe that essential oils can ground me and reduce my stress, and in turn I feel the benefits of them. Lavender, orange and mint are my favorites, but there is a myriad of others to choose from with distinct purposes. I also believe that an important part of wellness practices is a lack of judgment. Do what works for you! Believe you deserve to do something nice for yourself and trust the process.”

Other medical professionals share that essential oils work for some people and not for others. Doing what you deem best for you will provide the largest benefit. When it comes to mental health, being mindful and open to caring for yourself is extremely important to maintain a positive mindset. 

With that being said, essential oils cannot replace medical treatment, and this article does not endorse the use of essential oils. Following the advice of a doctor is always best when seeking treatment, but essential oils can be helpful for some people along with treatment or to treat minor ailments. 

Essential oils are also found in use at Hope’s Yoga Club. Alaina Streberger (’20), co-founder of the Yoga Club along with Vander Kooy, says that “almost every yoga class I begin and end by spraying the room with essential oils in the form of aromatherapy. Students absolutely love it. I always hear them raving about how the smells complete the class. It is amazing how much power our sense of smell can have on our mood and the energy of a space.”

Streberger also uses oils for everyday remedies. “I love to use lavender before bed because it is a very calming and relaxing oil. Lavender also can help calm nerves before an exam or interview. Rubbing a few drops on your wrists like perfume and taking deep breaths can help slow the nervous system in times of stress.” 

On the other hand, Streberger also touched on how oils can be used to rejuvenate the body and mind: “Peppermint/eucalyptus is a very energizing, sensory stimulating oil. It works amazingly for healing headaches if you rub a few drops in circles on your temples or neck. It is also my secret cure for stomach cramps, and works wonders on sore muscles!”

“Clove and tea tree have antibacterial effects,” Streberger also mentioned. As usual, when it comes to an elective, not-clearly-proven therapy like essential oils, there are always people who object. Streberger doesn’t seem concerned about that. “Of course there is always going to be people who don’t believe in the power of essential oils; this could be for many reasons. But I believe that you never know until you try something new.”


Megan Grimes (‘20) was the Lifestyle editor at the Anchor during the 2019-2020 academic year. She has a biology and English double major and computer science minor at Hope, and she spends most of her free time playing with her 1-year-old son, Teddy. Running is one of her favorite activities, along with any other outdoor activity, reading, writing, yoga and spending time with friends and family. She loves to share people’s stories with the belief that hearing more about other people’s experiences can help you better navigate your own. After Hope, she intends to find a job in science writing to help better communicate science through story and quality writing.

'Essential oils: Do they just smell nice?' has 2 comments

  1. October 24, 2019 @ 7:50 am Rachel Wild

    Great article. Thanks. It’s really good to see you raising awareness. Using essential oils can be such an incredible journey! I have been using essential oils for over thirty years, and have in recent years started selling specific blends commercially in the UK. Even though I consciously put together the most healing blends of essential oils and carrier oils, I am regularly blown away by how some people are able to heal when using my products. This week alone I received feedback that one women has successfully eliminated two growths within a month, on two separate occasions, by specifically targeting them with FACIAL OIL No. 2 and another has reduced the appearance of a surgical facial scar, involving 18 stitches, to it practically not being visible within 2 and a half months. One woman even says it’s cured her extreme Raynaud’s and associated chill blains! I am deeply humbled by all of this. The natural world is truly amazing! I have consolidated all the best feedback here about this product if you are interested in reading it…


  2. January 9, 2020 @ 12:55 am Megha

    I absolutely loved reading your article.


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