What can essential oils do for you? Use “sweet orange to quell anxiety,” “lavender to sleep better,” and “rosemary for better focus at work,” says health.com.

Essential oils are made by cold-pressing or steam-distilling plant material. They’re usually inhaled as part of “aromatherapy,” though some people recommend swallowing or rubbing them on your skin.

Some studies report subtle effects on anxiety, stress, or thinking ability, but “the quality of the trials is often deplorably low,” says Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter in Britain.

So why do some people swear by essential oils? It may be the power of suggestion.

In one trial, 90 women inhaled lavender or neroli. Heart rates rose in those who were told that the scent they were smelling was stimulating, and dropped in those who were told that the scent was relaxing. It didn’t matter which scent they smelled.

Know the risks of certain oils

The National Capital Poison Control Center cautions that essential oils may not be harmless.

“For topical use, essential oils must be diluted,” says Ernst. “Even then, rashes and allergic reactions are possible. And they are not rare.”

Most oils are likely safe, though some may be dangerous. For example, as little as one teaspoon of wintergreen oil has as much of its active ingredient (salicylate) as roughly 20 aspirins. And eucalyptus oil has caused seizures when inhaled, swallowed, applied to the skin, or used as nasal drops.

Do you use essential oils? Be sure to keep them out of reach of children.

The bottom line

“Aromatherapy is a bit of old-fashioned pampering,” says Ernst. “But therapeutic claims for essential oils are usually bogus. And don’t assume that the oils are harmless if you swallow or rub them on your skin.”

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