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Understanding Essential Oils: Methods of Exposure and Potential Therapeutic Effects



Essential oils are widely used in various products including fragrances, food flavorings, soaps, lotions, shampoos, hair-styling products, laundry detergents and more. These natural essential oils have gained popularity as safe alternatives to conventional pharmacological treatments. In this article, we will explore the different ways essential oils enter the human body and their potential therapeutic effects.


Methods of Essential Oil Exposure:

1. Skin Absorption.

Essential oils, being oil or fat soluble, can easily permeate the skin membranes and enter the systemic circulation, reaching organs throughout the body [1]. Topical application of essential oils involves diluting the essential oils in carrier oils like olive oil or coconut oil, and gently massaging them into the skin to promote absorption through pores and hair follicles.


2. Inhalation.

Because the essential oils are volatile, they can be inhaled, allowing them to reach the respiratory tract and lungs, and then distributed to the bloodstream. The exposure of essential oils via respiratory tract is more rapid compared to skin absorption [1]. Inhalation methods include direct inhalation from a tissue, using vaporizers or utilizing diffusers.


Figure above was cited from literature [2], (a) essential oils inhaled and passes through the respiratory system, (b) delivery of essential oils to the olfactory system, (c) exchange of essential oils gas to the circulatory system.


3. Ingestion.

While some essential oils may be toxic when ingested, others can be safely consumed in small quantities. When ingested, essential oils can be absorbed into the bloodstream and distributed throughout the body, potentially offering therapeutic benefits. [1].


Mechanisms of Therapeutic Effects:

1. Biochemical reaction.

Essential oils can interact with hormones and enzymes in the body, acting as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs). They can bind to hormone receptors and act as agonists (producing a response by binding to the receptors) or antagonists (producing a response by blocking the receptors). For example, lavender and tea tree essential oils have been shown to exhibit estrogenic effects and can influence breast development in certain cases.[3].


2. Physiological reaction.

Essential oils can act on specific physiological functions. For example, it is known that fennel essential oil contains anethole as volatile compound that have similar structure to an estrogenic agent, Diethylstilbestrol (DES) [1]. The exposure of fennel oil may be effective for addressing female-related issues, such as lactation and menstruation, as anethole acts as active estrogenic agent and has shown potential in managing polycystic ovary treatment [4].



3. Psychological reaction.

Volatile compounds in essential oils may trigger the olfactory area of the brain (sensory nerves responsible for the sense of smell) or the limbic system, making the neurotransmitter messengers provide changes in mental and emotional behavior [1]. Lavender essential oil contains linalool and linalyl acetate, they provide sedative and relaxant properties [1] and have been known for treating stress, anxiety, and depression because its ability to activate (trigger) the central oxytocin neurons (neuron that involved in modulation multiple behavioral functions including social, maternal, feeding, and emotional related behavior in mammals) [5].


Essential oils offer various methods of exposure to the human body, including skin absorption, inhalation, and ingestion. Their potential therapeutic effects arise from complex biochemical, physiological, and psychological reactions within the body. While essential oils can provide benefits, it is important to exercise caution, considering potential risks and individual sensitivities. Understanding these aspects can guide safe and informed usage of essential oils for their intended purposes.


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