Can Essential Oils Actually Ease Headaches? We Sniffed Out The Science

mbg Contributor By Annie Daly
mbg Contributor
Annie Daly is an NYC-based freelance wellness and travel journalist, and the author of the forthcoming book Destination Wellness, about various healthy living philosophies from around the world. Her work has appeared in AFAR, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, New York magazine’s Vulture, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, Refinery29, and more.
Medical review by Sarah Villafranco, M.D.
Founder of Osmia Organics
Sarah Villafranco, M.D., is a natural skin care expert and practiced emergency medicine for 10 years. She received a B.A. from Georgetown University, and then went on to get her M.D. from Georgetown University School of Medicine.
Essential oil dropper bottle

Image by Martí Sans / Stocksy

While they were once considered a pretty fringy, "woo-woo" wellness accessory—the kind your hippied-out aunt in Boulder would whisper about—essential oils are officially having a mainstream moment. The natural, highly concentrated liquids that contain chemical compounds from various plants are now used to help curb all sorts of ailments, from high stress to low libido. Experts say that the oils can help relieve headaches and migraines in some cases, as well—though more research needs to be done before they become a legitimate treatment for an achy head.

The science behind using essential oils for headaches.

"Although there are some studies out there that show that people who smell essential oils have less severe headaches than those who don't, they aren't done well enough to be scientifically conclusive yet," explains Pamela Dalton, Ph.D., a research scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia whose work focuses on the relationship between odor and emotional processes. "The problem with these studies is that there isn't an effective control group, as everyone who participates knows they are smelling oils because the aromas are so strong." 

What she can say for sure? Headaches are often caused by stress—so essential oils may help curb the throbbing pain simply because they relax you. "Doing anything that relaxes you when you have a headache, from getting a massage to smelling an essential oil whose scent you truly enjoy, can be an effective therapy," Dalton explains. 

Of course, there are tons of scents out there, so it's ultimately up to you to find one you truly enjoy. But certified aromatherapist Amy Galper, founder of the New York Institute of Aromatic Studies and co-author of Plant-Powered Beauty, has some advice to help you get started. Here, she recommends three popular "beginner blends" that smell amazing—and will help you dip your toe into the (highly aromatic) essential oil waters. 

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How to use essential oils for headache relief.

Once you've picked out the oils you want to use, the next step is actually using them right. And contrary to what you may think, that does not involve simply buying a bottle of the stuff and dabbing it onto your wrists like a perfume. Rather, Galper says there are three best-in-practice ways to reap the health benefits of essential oils:

1. Smell them using a diffuser.

Her advice: Put a few drops of each oil in an essential oil diffuser, and enjoy—but be sure to use the diffuser machine in a room with proper ventilation. "Otherwise, the smell could be too strong and it could irritate your lungs or your throat or your nose, similar to a very strong perfume," she says. Note: Do not run a diffuser 24/7 in your home. Use this method for one to three hours at a time, on an intermittent setting.

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2. Put them on your skin—but not straight on your skin.

"It's important to dilute the oils down into what's known as a 'carrier,' which can be an unscented lotion or cream, or any other oils you have around your house, like olive oil, coconut oil, almond oil, or argan oil," Galper explains. Mix six drops of the essential oil per tablespoon of your carrier of choice, and you should be good. (Be careful working with oils like lemon and grapefruit, which can react with UV light on the skin.)

3. Simply smell them!

This one's easiest of all: Just open a bottle of essential oil, take 5 to 10 deep breaths, and let the relaxing scent work its magic. 

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