Whether they are diffused through an aromatherapy diffuser or applied directly onto the skin, it’s safe to say that because of their versatility, aromatherapy and essential oils have definitely grown in popularity. 

After all, a 2020 market analysis report published in Grandview Research revealed that the global essential oils market demand was estimated at 247.08 kilotons in 2020 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.5 percent from 2020 to 2027. 

With that being said, the increasing interest in aromatherapy and essential oils is hard to ignore. 

So, are these oils actually legit, or are they just another wellness fad in disguise?

The Science of Essential Oils

You may be surprised to learn that the use of essential oils dates is more than a modern fad. In fact, it dates all the way back to ancient Egyptian times. Now, in the modern day, we’re able to test if these ancient methods have provable health benefits.

A number of studies have shown a promising correlation between aromatherapy and positive health benefits.

A 2015 study published in the Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal focused on postpartum women in an intervention group for anxiety and insomnia. They used lavender essential oil every night for 8 weeks. At the end of the test period, there was a significant improvement in the mothers’ sleep quality. 

Similarly, a randomized controlled trial documented in Nursing in Critical Care found that lavender essential oil was able to increase the quality of sleep and reduce level of anxiety in patients with coronary artery disease.

Finally, a 2019 study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine revealed that when mice inhaled compound Anshen essential oil (which consists of sandalwood, aloe, rose, lavender, Frankincense, neroli, and sweet orange essential oils), it was able to significantly reduce the spontaneous activity of mice, reduce latency of sleeping time, and prolong the duration of sleeping time.

How to Safely Use Essential Oils for Sleep

It’s important to keep in mind that “natural” does not mean “safe” when it comes to home remedies like essential oils. Because essential oils are highly concentrated, they are more potent than the plant they are derived from.

That’s why it’s important to follow guidelines from your doctor, and do your research through reputable sources and peer-reviewed studies.

In general, there are a few safety considerations you should keep in mind:

  1. Do not apply pure, undiluted essential oils directly to the skin: Essential oils are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream and liver, which may be toxic in large doses.
  2. Do not orally ingest essential oils: Few essential oils are suitable for oral ingestion, and it is best to seek medical guidance before attempting it for yourself. In general, it is suggested that you explore other means of essential oil use which may be safer and more effective.
  3. Avoid use around children: Because kids’ bodies (their skin and liver, in particular) are not fully developed, they may be more susceptible to toxic effects.
  4. Avoid use around animals: According to the ASPCA, use around animals should be avoided due to reported adverse effects. Also, some popular oils (like lavender) may be toxic to cats and dogs. Birds, especially, should not be exposed to essential oils as using a diffuser may cause harm to their sensitive respiratory tracts.
  5. Talk to your doctor before using essential oils during pregnancy: Use of essential oils during pregnancy is controversial, with some medical professionals expressing concerns over potential exposure of the fetus to the highly concentrated solutions, especially during the first trimester. It is best to consult your doctor before using essential oils while pregnant.
  6. Avoid use in unventilated spaces: If using a diffuser, make sure your room is well ventilated. You’ll also want to diffuse intermittently (30-60 minutes on, then 30-60 minutes off) to avoid excess inhalation. Make sure to turn off your diffuser when you’re ready to go to sleep.
  7. Do not apply photosensitive oils (even diluted) to skin prior to going outside: Some oils (including expressed grapefruit, lime, bergamot,  and lemon peels, angelica root, and cumin seed) are photosensitive. These oils contain furocoumarins, which can cause severe burns and increase skin cancer risk when your skin is exposed to UV rays or sunlight.
  8. Discontinue use if any irritation occurs: If you experience any skin irritation, dizziness, or nausea, immediately discontinue essential oil use. It’s always best to perform a small patch test of the diluted oil to check for allergic reactions before use.

Getting Started with Essential Oils

For those new to essential oils, we reached out to sleep expert and health coach Annika Carroll for recommendations on getting started safely using essential oils for sleep.

Carroll asserts that “essential oils have shown supporting benefits in people’s healing journeys. Their track record of multiple thousand years of use for medical purposes speaks for itself.

She tells SleepMoment that it’s best for beginners to start simply by diffusing lavender essential oil in an essential oil diffuser. This is done by adding water and five drops of lavender to your diffuser, and diffusing the solution for ten minutes before bedtime.

“When oils are dispersed into the air and inhaled, the compounds travel through the olfactory system into the limbic system,” she explains.

Carroll advises against using undiluted essential oils to your skin. “These oils are highly concentrated, and can cause skin irritation. This is why you’ll always want to use essential oil with a carrier oil (jojoba or almond oil),” she says.

So, if you don’t have a diffuser, Carroll suggests buying or creating a diluted lavender spray to apply to your pillow at night. “You can also massage diluted lavender oil (use three to six drops of lavender oil to two tablespoons of carrier oil) onto your abdomen and the back of your neck,” she adds.

Exploring Essential Oils as a Sleep Aid

So, do essential oils work for sleep?

Carroll suggests that the answer to this question varies from person to person. She warns that “because humans are all very individual, keep in mind that what works for one person might not work for someone else.”

However, she says that if you are looking to give these natural oils a try, the best essential oils for sleep include lavender, German chamomile, and bergamot.

You’ll find more on each oil’s individual benefits below: 

Lavender

According to some research, lavender essential oil benefits may include supporting sleep and relieving anxiety, tension, and depression.

This occurs because lavender is rich in linalool, a molecule that has a natural sedative, calming effect on the human body, according to Carroll:

“Lavender essential oils contain linalool, a molecule that gives lavender its floral scent. Low doses of linalool have a sedative effect on the human body. They also lower cortisol and norepinephrine, two of the body’s main stress hormones and release serotonin and dopamine.”

German Chamomile

Chamomile is one of the oldest medicinal herbs known to man and has appeared in ancient medical texts across Egypt, Greece, and Rome to reduce mild inflammation, calm the nerves, and aid in digestion.

Traditionally, chamomile, in the form of tea and aromatherapy, has been used to improve sleep and is generally regarded as a mild sedative and sleep-inducer.

Bergamot

While bergamot peel is known for it’s slightly-spicy floral aroma, it is also full of sleep-promoting constituents such as limonene—the compound extracted from the rind of citrus peels—asserts Carroll.

“Adenosine receptors [are] a neurotransmitter that builds up in our bodies during the day and helps us to build up sleep pressure for a good night’s sleep, explains Carroll. “According to a 2011 study published in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, [limonene] has been shown to help shuffle adenosine into the cells more effectively, leading to better sleep as a result,” she tells SleepMoment.

Getting the Most Out of Aromatherapy

While there have been studies that point toward positive health benefits of aromatherapy and essential oils, Carroll stresses that not all oils available on market today are the same. 

Occupying a grey area between perfume and medicine, essential oils are not typically not regulated by the FDA, although some companies have faced crackdowns for making unsubstantiated medical claims.

Also, the addition of filler oils (including vegetable oils and synthetic extenders) without proper disclosure is a known issue in the industry.

While there are at-home “purity tests” available, these are often unreliable and should not be trusted. The only way to truly know if a product contains pure essential oils is through an official composition analysis.

“Before you buy an oil, check the manufacturer’s website, and see if they regularly test their oils for purity,” Carroll advises. “Test reports can sometimes be found on the website, or you can contact the company directly and ask for their purity testing.”

Keep in mind that these reports should be from an independent, third-party source.

Final Thoughts on Aromatherapy 

Essential oils and aromatherapy have become increasingly popular over the past few years, and there is some promising research on the effectiveness of using essential oils to promote relaxation and fall asleep faster.

However, it’s always best to follow safety guidelines and check with your doctor before beginning an aromatherapy routine, especially if you have an existing health condition (including pregnancy) or take a prescribed medication.