Essential oils have been a significant component of medical therapy for thousands of years. The role of essential oils in medicine today has been replaced with prescription medications. With the increasing demand for natural therapies, one could ask: Are essential oils making a comeback?
There are a number of medical studies, over the past several years, exploring the use of specific essential oils on skin conditions, especially acne. Many of the prescription medical drugs for acne are effective, but have significant side effects. The over-the-counter acne therapies are also effective, but again, have side effects. Acne treatments may contain preservatives, stabilizers and other synthetic compounds. There is some reasonable research that some additives may not be safe for long-term use.
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Essential oils are derived from plants. They are made up of a number of different compounds; many of them are aromatic oils and have well-documented medicinal properties. These oils are extracted from different parts of the plant through steam distillation or, in some cases, extracted with alcohol. Essential oils are commonly found in perfumes, many cosmetics, cleaning products and food flavorings.
If one surfs the Internet, there are many exaggerated claims for benefits of essential oils and good medical research is sorely lacking. This is unfortunate because many of the historical references about essential oils suggest that there is great potential for the treatment of many common medical problems. In contrast, the treatment of acne with essential oils does have a number of well-controlled studies yielding some very positive results.
Acne is probably the most common skin condition. Approximately 50 million Americans are affected by acne every year. Almost everyone remembering back to the teen years can recall experiencing the acne scourge. Essential oils may provide some needed relief.
One 2012 study, published in the medical journal Alternative Medicine Review, demonstrated in a double-blind placebo-controlled manner that the essential oil copaiba (South American tree) was significantly better than a placebo in reducing acne. Another 2012 medical study demonstrated that essential oils from orange and sweet basil were also very effective in the treatment of acne (45 percent to 78 percent resolution).
In this study, they demonstrated that one mechanism of action for these two essential oils was the inhibition of bacterial growth. Tea tree oil has been used in a number of studies specifically for acne. It seems to have significant antibacterial activity especially for the acne-causing bacteria Propionibacterium acnes.
Since 1990, there have been at least 20 good medical studies demonstrating the benefits of essential oils for the treatment of acne. In all of the studies, the side effect profile is minimal. No toxicity was reported.
Throughout history, the application of essential oils was done by those who had expertise in their use. Today is no different. The indiscriminate use of essential oil for the treatment of acne by those who are unqualified can result in skin damage as well as allergic reactions. In addition, some essential oils are potentially carcinogenic. A certificate of certification in the use of essential oils is highly recommended.
• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Health System. His website is www.alt-med.org.