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Sure, essential oils smell great. But are they good for anything else?

Essential oils are all the rage — but do they live up to their claims?

You can't pass through the personal care aisle of a supermarket without seeing labels that tout the benefits of essential oils, including the relaxing effects of lavender and the skin-nourishing properties of pomegranate seed. And anyone with a Facebook or Pinterest account has likely witnessed the growth of multilevel marketing companies that reap large profits from independent distributors who sell essential oils from home and advertise their wonders through social media.

But what is it exactly that makes an oil "essential"? And is there evidence that essential oils actually do anything?

Essential oils aren't essential to either human or plant life. The "essential" in their name refers to the fact that they are the concentrated essence of a plant, says John Labows, a fragrance technology consultant in the Philadelphia area.

Though humans have used botanical essences for thousands of years (ancient Egyptians anointed their bodies with perfumed oils and medieval healers treated ailments with botanical extracts), essential oils as we know them today are removed from plants by steam distillation or, in the case of citrus oils, mechanical expression.

"Essential oils are certainly part of most fragrances," says Labows, explaining that fragrances typically contain a mixture of natural and synthetic chemicals. "The main difference between essential oil and fragrance is that essential oils are more complex."

This chemical complexity composes the unique aroma of a particular essential oil. A primary scent component of lavender is linalool, which is often synthesized in the laboratory. When manufacturers add linalool to a fragrance, it gives the impression of lavender, but it smells "harsher," says Labows. "When you use the natural essential oil, you get a rounded scent."

The recent trend in essential oils has more to do with healthcare than perfume, however.

Proponents not only use essential oils in body care, but also diffuse them through the air, pour them into bathwater, inhale their vapors and apply them to reflexology points on the bottoms of their feet. Some people even ingest them.

Therapeutic benefits attributed to essential oils run the gamut from mood elevation and stress relief to remedies for chronic pain, insomnia, migraine, arthritis and more. The Food and Drug Administration has cracked down on such health claims, leaving companies to adopt more general language such as "promotes wellness" or "may be an important part of a daily health regimen."

Questionable claims aside, there is a large body of research looking into therapeutic uses of essential oils. In some cases, the effects are straightforward. Laboratory studies show that lavender and tea tree oil kill common strains of fungi and bacteria. Menthol in peppermint oil stimulates cold-sensitive nerve receptors to produce a "cooling" sensation without actual temperature change and desensitizes nerve receptors in the airways, suppressing the cough reflex. Clove oil, which has long been used to treat toothaches, contains a numbing agent that inhibits neural response in much the same way that local anesthetics do.

But when it comes to the effects of essential oils on mood, cognition or systemic wellness, the evidence is fuzzy.

There have been few studies on the effectiveness — or safety — of ingesting essential oils. And it seems that for every aromatherapy study showing the positive effects of inhaling or applying an essential oil, another study shows the same oil has no effect.

A 2012 analysis of 10 scientific reviews looking at several studies on the effects of essential oils for some health conditions (including hypertension, depression, anxiety, chronic pain and dementia) concluded that "the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition."

There is evidence that smells in general influence mood and behavior, however.

Studies show that people exposed to pleasant odors report improved mood and increased productivity compared with people exposed to unpleasant odors or odor-free environments.

Researchers at Marywood University exposed people to three ambient scent conditions: neroli (traditionally classified as stimulating), lavender (traditionally classified as relaxing) or no scent. No matter which condition they were in, people who were told they were smelling a stimulating scent showed changes in heart rate and skin conductance that indicated physiological arousal. When told they were smelling a relaxing scent, they exhibited decreased physiological arousal.

"It just goes to show that the power of suggestion and the power of the mind can override the inherent quality of an odor," says Estelle Campenni, a psychology professor who led the study. "There really is a mind-body connection."

So it might be that the primary aromatherapeutic mechanism of an essential oil is driven by the placebo effect. But since aromatherapy has few adverse effects, there's no harm in giving it a try if you enjoy the smell of essential oils. After all, if you believe they will work, there is a good chance that they will.

Making scents with Lather founder Emilie Davidson Hoyt

Walking into Lather from the bustling streets of Old Town Pasadena is like stepping into a garden oasis.

It's calm, quiet — and the place smells divine. The shop's aroma isn't heady like a department store perfume counter, where you're bound to leave with temples throbbing and a nose that's numb to fragrance for several hours. Rather, it's a clean, natural scent. Think crushed lemon grass, tangerine peel, vanilla bean. You want to close your eyes and breathe deeply.

Lather's creator, Emilie Davidson Hoyt, was inspired to start the business after growing up with severe migraine headaches.

"One thing that triggered my migraines was synthetic fragrance. So I had to eliminate fragrance from lotion, shampoo — any kind of beauty product or personal care product," Hoyt said. She looked for products scented with essential oils, which are concentrated compounds extracted from plants but at the time they were considered "alternative" and geared more toward the health-food market than the mainstream market.

"That was very weird to me," she recalled. "I thought, why is natural the alternative? The [artificial] fragrance should be the alternative."

So she created her own olive oil soap, scented with essential oils. She has since expanded to gift baskets filled with essential-oil-scented skin creams, exfoliating scrubs, shower gels and other products. She opened her first store in Pasadena in 1999, and over the past 15 years Lather has grown to five stores and a line of naturally scented hotel, spa and boutique products.

There's a blending bar where customers can sit at the counter in front of an array of amber-colored bottles filled with essential oils ranging from basil and black pepper to vetiver, violet and ylang ylang — any of which can be added by the drop to lotions, massage oils, spritzers or perfume vials to create customized scent blends.

Some people come for the aromatherapeutic benefits of essential oils.

Others come seeking personalized, natural perfumes.

"We keep everybody's recipe on file," says Hoyt, pulling a card from a box behind the counter. Reading the recipe of a nervous flyer who was about to board a plane and wanted a roll-on tube filled with a tranquilizing aroma, she said, "I used lavender and camomile to calm her, and then I wanted to use something she really enjoyed, so we added some vanilla [because it] smelled comforting to her and had good memories for her."

Hoyt says that people typically smell the blend as she mixes it, guiding her to use more or less of a particular essential oil. When customers want a relaxing blend, she might suggest her favorite, German blue camomile, Moroccan rose or some of the more meditative scents like frankincense or sandalwood (which smells more earthy and less sweet than synthetic sandalwood). For stimulating scents, she might suggest citrus oils such as orange, tangerine or lemon grass, or other energizing scents such as ginger or peppermint.

"Peppermint is a big one for focus," says Hoyt. "I tell kids to use it when they're studying and then to use it again when they're taking the test. It's a very simple trick and it creates a strong memory association."

health@latimes.com

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 16, 2016, in the Features section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Scents and sensibility" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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