While groups of all kinds of people have used essential oils for hundreds of years for a variety of health purposes, there is actually relatively little published in scientific research journals on oils. Fortunately, this is beginning to change as more scientists conduct controlled studies on natural vegetable oils. Scientists around the world are beginning to prove many health benefits known since ancient times.
Many industries, including food and cosmetics, are beginning to invest in essential oil research. Because these companies use this research to develop their products, and they don’t want their secrets to be known to their competitors, they often don’t share the findings or the details. Fortunately, some of these findings are published in technical journals related to cosmetics and plants.
However, even with a long history, renewed interest, and growing evidence, developing evidence for the efficacy of oils remains an uphill battle. Why?
Why is it so difficult to conduct research on essential oils?
There are many scientific challenges in oil research. Here are some of the considerations scientists are wrestling with today:
– History works again: People have used natural oils for thousands of years for many different purposes. Because they are currently used in so many ways, they do not fit well into the standard scientific method of testing in the laboratory, and then in animals, and finally in people. So if a scientist wants to create a research protocol to first use an essential oil on a person, he is usually denied, as this does not fit with typical scientific protocols.
– Where is the money? Most of the large-scale scientific studies to assess the impact of substances on humans are funded by pharmaceutical companies and cost enormous amounts of money. Pharmaceutical organizations can patent chemicals and then charge enough to cover the costs of funding studies that prove efficacy. However, since natural plants cannot be patented, there is no direct model for making money from proven scientific studies on essential oils.
– Essential oils are not controlled or standardized. Depending on the geographic location, the climate, the method of distillation or extraction, and even the way the oils are stored, they are all unique in their chemical composition and even their effectiveness. Fortunately, the industry has recognized this problem and is working on it. The International Organization for Standards, or ISO, has established chemical composition standards for many different natural oils that describe a range of acceptable chemical compositions. Still, these standards are not widely used.
– Blind controlled studies are difficult. The traditional scientific method involves the use of two groups, one of which gets the chemical being studied and one of which receives a placebo. What’s interesting in this area of study is that people can detect scents and often mentally associate them with past experiences. There is much debate about how this affects the outcome of these controlled studies. If people recognize the scent, is it really just another “blind” study?
While the studies done so far on essential oils have shown great promise, scientists will need to overcome some of the above problems to create scientifically documented proof of their effectiveness.