What Are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts that contain volatile aromatic compounds. They are distilled or mechanically pressed from various parts of plants including flowers, leaves, bark, seeds, twigs, roots and resin.

Some studies show that some of these oil may help alleviate aches and pains, but more research is needed. Inhaling certain essential oils can irritate the lungs and respiratory tract, so those with underlying health conditions should consult their healthcare professional before using them.


The volatile compounds in essential oils act as antioxidants and can inhibit the oxidation of fats in food. This can help preserve the taste, odour and colour of foods. It can also prevent the growth of spoilage and pathogenic bacteria.

Different plants produce essential oils with varying chemical compositions. They are referred to as different chemical races or chemotypes within a plant species.

The study investigated the ability of 17 essential oil samples to inhibit the growth of a group of seven food-borne pathogens and spoilage organisms, namely Brochothrix thermosphacta, Escherichia coli, Listeria innocua, Pseudomonas putida, Salmonella typhimurium and Shewanella putrefaciens. It also assessed the antioxidant properties (DPPH, ferric reducing antioxidant power and ABTS radical scavenging activity) of these oils as well as their chemical characterization.


Essential oils are natural antimicrobial compounds with broad-spectrum antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial properties. They contain a wide range of volatile aromatic compounds including monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, phenols, esters, aldehydes and ketones.

The antimicrobial activity of essential oil volatile constituents was demonstrated by their ability to penetrate and disrupt lipid membranes of bacterial cells. They also inhibit bacterial ions and molecules from translocating across the cell wall, causing leakage of critical cellular components.

The sensitivity of Mycobacterium smegmatis, the bacteria that causes tuberculosis, to airborne evaporatives of essential oils suggest that these volatile compounds could be useful in treating serious fungal infections. However, further studies are needed to confirm the efficacy of these compounds against multidrug resistant organisms. Due to their complex chemistry, caution is required when using these oils as they may interact with certain pharmaceutical drugs.


Many people use essential oils in aromatherapy to improve their mood. Smell is one of the senses most closely associated with memory, and some scents can remind you of happy memories.

Oils that have antidepressant properties include rose, ylang-ylang, and bergamot. The chemical compounds atractylon, a-curcumene, and a-farnesene found in ylang-ylang and bergamot may help speed up the action of existing antidepressants by blocking their degradation.

If you are depressed, talk to your doctor before using essential oils as an alternative therapy. Depression is usually more than a chemical imbalance and requires addressing life circumstances that contribute to it. It’s also important to stick with your antidepressant treatment plan. Skipping doses or stopping too soon can make depression symptoms return. It’s also important to check for drug interactions between your antidepressant and other medications.


Some essential oils have sedative properties and can induce a calm, peaceful and relaxed feeling. Several studies have shown that inhaling certain oils, such as lavender oil and hyssop oil, can decrease agitation in patients with dementia.

Individuals with respiratory chronic diseases, such as asthma or COPD should discuss their use of essential oils with a healthcare professional to assess the potential risks and benefits. For example, some oils may increase inflammation and aggravate airway irritation.

Despite their health benefits, essential oils are not regulated like prescription drugs and can be harmful if misused. They should never be ingested or vaped without the guidance of a state licensed and credentialed medical expert. If you’re interested in trying them, a professional should recommend the right kind for your particular condition and suggest safe dilution levels.


Research shows that some essential oils may help reduce anxiety and improve sleep. Some are also believed to ease symptoms of gastrointestinal issues and headaches, such as peppermint oil for irritable bowel syndrome and lavender for tension.

The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate essential oils, so it is important to use only high-quality ones. Look for “therapeutic grade” on the label and avoid those that contain synthetic fragrances, since these can cause irritation and skin reactions.

Before applying an essential oil to the skin, try a small patch test by putting a few drops on your wrist or elbow. Some essential oils are not safe for children or pregnant and breastfeeding women, and some can be toxic to pets. Consult your medical professional for advice.