Walk into almost any store and you can find aromatherapy candles, scented spa treatments, fragrant potpourri, and scented oils touted to do everything from soften skin to improve your mood. The long tradition of using plants and herbs as medicine and in ritual lends a sense of wonder and some credibility to these claims in pagan circles. But is this stuff on the level? Is there any science behind it? Bottom line, does it really work? The answer, as one might expect, is not so simple.

When I first heard about essential oils I was sceptical. I had always been sensitive to chemical smells and perfumes, and when it was suggested that obnoxiously pungent oils pressed from herbs and other plants might be a valuable healing tool, I wanted nothing to do with them.

I was in high school when my opinion changed. I slipped one day in gym class and landed hard enough on my elbow to fracture one of the small bones in the joint. There was nothing the medical profession could do other than advise rest and remind me not to stress the arm until it healed. I was sent home without a cast or any recommendations… and discovered that my mother had a stock of essential oils at hand to treat me with.

I reluctantly agreed to try wintergreen and a blend called Pan Away (wintergreen, peppermint, helichrysum, and clove), applying the oils “neat” or directly on my elbow. Not only did I not experience an allergic reaction to the smell, the oils immediately warmed my elbow and took the pain away. Within a week I was carrying luggage on my class trip to Ottawa. In two weeks, my doctor was surprised by how quickly the injury had healed, even though I had been using the arm.

I was a convert to the oils, and I wanted to learn everything I could about what they were and how they worked.

Essential oils are, essentially, liquids distilled or pressed from plants. Most plants’ aromas can be attributed to chemicals present in their essential oils, chemicals which we know to be functional in carrying oxygen, nutrients, and minerals, and in bringing health and wellness to the human body. Essential oils are an estimated 20-30 times stronger than herbs in taste, smell, and in their bioactive impact.

The Egyptian Pharaohs were entombed with their wealth in gold, jewels, and precious oils to accompany them into the next life. Where the pyramids were broken into, the gold and jewels were left behind by thieves in favor of the far more valuable jars of oils, which were applied as perfume and used externally and internally to treat a wide range of diseases and problems.

In feudal societies in Europe, herbs were considered “a poor man’s oils” because only the landed overlords possessed the wealth and facilities to press and extract the precious oils.

Essential oils are considered “volatile,” meaning that they are made up of light molecules which flash off into the air, creating the powerful aroma that we smell. These naturally light chemicals are easily picked up by receptors in the nasal passages and can signal parts of the brain relating to mood, emotions, and remembered trauma. In fact, the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, is triggered more easily by smell than by any other sense. For this reason, many therapists have begun to use essential oils as an additional tool in therapy.

However, we need to be careful when using oils therapeutically: Essential oils are not all created equal! Some of the products on the market are just inferior quality. The requirements for distributors of health products state that in order to call a bottle of oil “100% organic essential oil,” at least one percent of the contents must be pure, organic essential oil – and the rest may be filled with anything else.

I am mortified when I see, for instance, a 500mL bottle of Eucalyptus oil sold for $15.00 with the warning: “May cause skin irritation. Do not apply directly on skin.” Real eucalyptus oil is known to heal and relieve skin blemishes and sensitivity. It sells for at least $15.00 per 15mL (that’s 33.33 times what the supermarket brand is charging).

I have no problem with people who know what they’re doing purchasing perfume-grade oils to use only for their (admittedly artificial and occasionally toxic) smell. However, the people selling these oils tend to give the rest a bad name by claiming that they work therapeutically, when if you want an oil to heal, you need to buy the ones that are no more and no less than what they claim to be.

Other falsification of oil contents include perfume-grade oils, the kind you’ll find in most stores (whether they are labeled as such or not), which may contain pesticide residues or chemicals used to top up the volume or alter the aroma of an oil.

Some companies will even substitute one plant for another, and offer misleading information about their products’ contents. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is often sold as “oregano oil,” and commercial “lavender” is usually a combination of chemically altered extracts from lavandin, a hybrid lavender with entirely different therapeutic properties.

Most of the world’s production of real lavender is used by the perfume industry, leaving essential oil companies desperate to boost their supply. So that bottle of Lavender oil you purchased at your local health food store might or might not contain any real Lavandula augustifolia.

The distinction can be especially important if you plan to use the oils for more than just the aroma; lavandin can actually worsen burns that true lavender would heal. If you plan to take essential oils internally, it is especially important to know your source, because any pesticides or chemical additives are concentrated in a fat-soluble form in the oil, and can be especially toxic, where a pure essential oil would be beneficial.

Warnings aside, if you’ve found a supplier who can bring you the purest quality of therapeutic-grade oils, there’s almost no way to go wrong. I believe that we can heal problems of the mind, body, and spirit with these healing essences… and the research is there to back up this belief.

It has been found empirically that inhaling the aroma of lemon oil can boost mood, decrease appetite, and improve the digestion. Peppermint oil has been used effectively in traditional practices to relieve headaches, sinus problems, and digestive disorders, and may even help flush out parasites.

Frankincense has recently been shown to help shrink tumours, and oils such as vetiver, frankincense, and cedarwood may help children suffering from ADD/ADHD to focus and learn.

Traditional cultures around the world have always made use of the healing power of plants. There is a wealth of knowledge waiting to be discovered concerning the transformational power of the aromatic oils, and contemporary science is coming to appreciate these natural remedies and recognize the range of benefits that can be derived from them.

A few words of advice for oils enthusiasts: Don’t expect low-price oils you pick up at the health food store to be the real thing: Look for someone who really knows their facts and can help you find the right oils for your needs. Be open to new options: the experts will tell you that aromatherapy (inhalation of oils) is just the tip of the iceberg where essential oils are concerned! Pure oils have been used directly on the skin, inhaled, or used internally to treat depression, cancer, hormonal balance, and much more.

Please feel free to contact me with any questions or comments about this article or about oils in general. Blessed be!

Victoria Anisman-Reiner, B.S.c is a holistic practitioner in the West End of Toronto, specializing in patients with ADD/ADHD and allergies. For more information on therapeutic-grade essential oils, she can be found at http://oilsdragon.younglivingworld.com.