The Good & Bad Of Essential Oils On 'Stuff You Should Know'

On this episode of Stuff You Should Know, Chuck and Josh talk about essential oils. These plant byproducts have become a multi-billion dollar business as more and more people tout their medical properties, claiming they can cure anything from acne to cancer. Essential oils do have some legitimate medical uses, but there is a lot of false information out there, too. Chuck and Josh go through the history of essential oils, the science of extracting them, and separates the fact from the fiction so we have a better understanding of essential oils and their actual, useful applications. Essential oils date back to Ancient Egypt and were part of the reason trade opened up between the Middle East and the Orient way back in the day. Scientists still aren’t sure their exact function in nature except as a form of communication – since flowers and plants use scent to attract pollinators and deter predators – but for humans, at least, the health benefits are pretty great.

Legitimate uses for essential oils include preservatives, flavor and scent agents, natural mosquito and insect repellants, aromatherapy, and even as a fungicidal, pesticidal, or herbicidal agent for crops, depending on which oil you’re talking about. Clove oil is antimicrobial; tea tree oil is great for skin issues like acne or eczema; eucalyptus is used for relieving congestion, arthritis pain, and burns; lavender aids in sleep and relaxation; and rose oil helps with anxiety. Because of some oils’ antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties, Josh thinks we may see more essential oils in cleaning sprays and disinfectants. And as bunk as aromatherapy may sound to many people, there’s scientific evidence that the smell of lavender can prevent serotonin reuptake, keeping the serotonin in our brains longer so we can hang onto those happy feelings. Essential oils have even been shown to have properties the superbug MRSA, a type of staph infection, cannot develop a resistance to. 

But essential oils are far more complex than we think. Where the plant is growing, the time of year you pick the plant, and even the time of day can make a difference as to what oils it’s producing. Some essential oils are known to be harmful for pregnant women, causing sudden heavy menstrual bleeding. Because some oils have shown antiviral properties, there are fears that unethical companies could market them as cures for coronavirus or ebola. Some companies have already claimed that their oils cure things like Parkinson’s Disease, autism, hypertension, heart diseases, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and more. “There’s just no science to back that up,” Josh says; while essential oils may be useful in treating symptoms of these diseases, such as nausea from cancer treatments or aggression in dementia patients, there's no proof at all that their benefits extend any farther than that. Listen to the episode for more on the good and bad of essential oils on Stuff You Should Know.

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