Are Essential Oils a Placebo or Something More?

Essential oils: pleasant placebo or something more? - graphic of oil bottle and flowers

I’m a big fan of aromatherapy. I have a diffuser and use a variety of essential oil blends, and if they’re just a pleasant placebo, I’m good with that. Essential oils smell nice and they’re a great way to practice self-care.

But do they live up to the various health claims that people make about them?

Essential oils are made up of volatile compounds that have a plant’s characteristic fragrance. They’ve been used for thousands of years for a variety of purposes. The two primary modes of using aromatherapy are topical, including aromatherapy massage, or inhaled, such as with a diffuser.

Looking at the research

A number of systematic reviews have evaluated the existing research literature base on aromatherapy. However, these reviews identified significant methodological flaws in the studies they found.

Methodology matters because it affects the validity and generalizability of the results. There’s no fundamental reason why researchers can’t conduct well-designed studies on alternative health treatments, although the size would likely be limited based on research funding.

Control groups

A basic part of establishing treatment effectiveness is to have a control group for comparison. Without some sort of control, positive results may not mean all that much. Let’s say a study looked at 10 patients in hospital who were given aromatherapy massage, and they reported decreased pain afterwards. It could be having the practitioner devote time to them, the massage, the oil massage in particular, the essential oil, the pleasant smell, a sense of obligation to report a beneficial effect, or any number of other factors.


Let’s consider a study by Hicks described in a paper by Perry and Perry. A mental health day hospital ward was identified on which a majority and staff and patients believed that aromatherapy was helpful. They decided to do a study, and lo and behold, the patients’ diaries and the aromatherapists’ notes indicated that it was a resounding success. Of course, the study makes no mention of which essential oils they actually used, but that’s just a minor detail, isn’t it?

All talk

Sometimes, a whole lot of words are used to disguise a whole lot of nothing. You can see that in this excerpt from a journal paper’s abstract:

“Once the oils are in the system, they remodulate themselves and work in a friendly manner at the site of malfunction or at the affected area. This type of therapy utilizes various permutation and combinations to get relief from numerous ailments like depression, indigestion, headache, insomnia, muscular pain, respiratory problems, skin ailments, swollen joints, urine associated complications etc. The essential oils are found to be more beneficial when other aspects of life and diet are given due consideration.”

Ali et al., 2015

A systematic review by Lee and colleagues noted that aromatherapy is the most often used complementary and alternative medicine intervention for anxiety worldwide. They concluded that, while there were some positive indications that aromatherapy may be helpful for anxiety, the existing research is not conclusive.

What’s’ the real story?

Looking at a few specific essential oils, tea tree oil is known to have antimicrobial properties. There have been some positive findings, although nothing conclusive, with peppermint oil for tension headaches, fennel oil for painful menstrual periods, and lavender for sleep.

Some people talking about essential oils run straight into serious pseudoscience territory. This post on “high vibration” essential oils looks at some of that nonsense.

While the evidence just isn’t there to support aromatherapy as a science, it can be a fabulous self-care strategy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If there’s some placebo effect thrown in there, that’s good too. But relying on it as a primary form of treatment is probably not the best idea.


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17 thoughts on “Are Essential Oils a Placebo or Something More?”

  1. Thanks so muchfor this informative post. I agree aromatherapy is a great way of self-care, but it’s a pity that no controlled studies have been done on its effectiveness.

  2. I like the idea of essential oils but to me they are very smelly, still better than AirWick pods (?) in your home.
    I do use a few essential oils like rosemary in my shower- and shaving cream. I make my own Vicks Vapo Rub with coconut oil, peppermint and eucalyptus essential oil. And in my cleaning products I put tea tree. I like the smell of that. Oregano (smells like pizza) can be good for the airways.
    I don’t use it for anything else, I tried but it didn’t work. I don’t believe it can ‘cure’ diseases and I don’t believe that they will get you over your anxiety attack or will solve your self-esteem issues.
    I know that there are standards in place for making essential oils, the quality depends on where the flowers/herbs grow, when they are harvested and how they are processed.
    Rose essential oil, for ex, is very expensive because they need a whole lot of rose petals to produce 1 small bottle. I think that the ‘hype’ is because they sell not so good oils for big bucks with the promise off ….

  3. We use peppermint oil (it’s like a roll-on tube) to jolt us into the present. This works for us because smell is our weakest sense. Hearing for danger is our super power. Smell is way below average in us. We can drive by cow pastures and roadkill skunks (poor babies, we hope you are at peace) without noticing. We breathe shallowly as well as part of hypervigilance; if we breathe loudly, we can’t hear outside danger noises.

    From reading _The Transformation _, we feel like every therapy that works relies on belief, trust—are those other names for placebo? Cynics in us say it is. We are so jaded that some of us try to talk ourselves out of what we can’t experience directly, know. We can smell the oil, it makes us feel more present, so it “works” for us.

    Thanks for this post that looked at research. You are book smart as well as wise.

    May you have acceptance for this stage of your journey. With love 💕, us

    1. I can see how peppermint would work well for that purpose. I have a peppermint roll-on that I use for mild headaches, and I think it helps by grabbing my attention and making me forget about the headache. And if something works, no matter how it may do it, that’s a good thing. ❤️❤️❤️

  4. Scent is a powerful tool. It certainly evokes memories – often when someone is trying to jog someone’s memory they will ask “what do you smell?” I use Mrs. Meyer’s products and my home is all lemon verbena including room freshener spray, dish soap, all purpose cleaner etc. People seem to really enjoy that scent. I have it in my diffusers but I will be going back to eucalyptus – I find eucalyptus very soothing. As for tea tree oil – so works in skin creams and body washes – it keeps my granuloma annulare under control. I often gift lavender scented candles and sachets to friends who complain of stress and problems sleeping. And again I don’t know if it really helps but they say they enjoy it and it pleases them.

  5. Love this post, and I agree with you about the healing potential AND the limitations of essential oils. I LOL’ed at the quote about essential oils working in a “friendly manner.”

  6. Oh ok, I assumed it was just about the smell! A case of the less you know the better :D.

    For me, they’re certainly living up the hype (as I perceived it!).

  7. I’m a big fan of essential oils. I bought a little bracelet from amazon that you can drop some scent into. I was a little sceptical at first, but after a few weeks, it has definitely helped with my anxiety. I use lavender and have found it to calm me down a bit. I agree with your conclusion, it it works for someone then why question it? 🙂

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