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When that familiar painful throbbing sensation starts knocking on your noggin, an essential oil cabinet probably isn’t the first place you’d turn to for relief. But maybe it should be…
While there’s a reason over the counter staples like ibuprofen and acetaminophen are a go-to for those who deal with routine headaches, they’re not your only option.
Essential oils can do a lot more than just make a room smell great. Each one has its own benefits, and some are particularly ideal for helping to relieve things like headaches and migraines.
But why would you use an essential oil instead of a pill? Fair question!
EOs don’t typically come with the side effects that medication might (though everyone can react differently and you should always do a patch test when trying a new one).
And if medication isn’t an option, it’s nice to have a few natural tricks up your sleeve.
This is probably the most commonly used essential oil for headache relief, and there’s a reason for that: uh, it works, obviously.
Peppermint oil contains menthol, which helps your muscles relax and eases pain. It also has a pleasant cooling effect on your skin that helps inhibit muscle contractions on the head and neck while stimulating blood flow to that area.
This type of EO is especially great for tension headaches. Some research has found that applying diluted peppermint oil to your temples can specifically relieve headache pain.
Great for soothing: Tension headaches
Another popular option is lavender essential oil. This all-around soothing scent is known for being super relaxing (you may have heard of it being used as a sleep aid).
Research has shown that it’s so calming that, when combined with a massage or some gentle pressure, it can ease stress that could cause the tension in the back and neck muscles that ends up causing a headache.
Great for soothing: Tension headaches and migraines
Research backs up the fact that rosemary essential oil can be a powerful anti-inflammatory that also boasts pain-relieving properties. It is often used to improve circulation and treat headaches.
One study found that rosemary EO could be beneficial for opioid withdrawal symptoms because it can reduce pain and relieve insomnia — things that can also contribute to headaches.
Another study found that rosemary can ease anxiety and depression, two more conditions that can bring on a headache.
Great for soothing: Tension headaches
A cup of chamomile tea is one way to help relax after a long day, so is it any surprise that chamomile essential oil is just as soothing? Research has shown that chamomile EO can help reduce anxiety and depression, which, again, can cause headaches.
This is another one that has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce pain, such as pain from headaches.
Great for soothing: Tension headaches
When a headache isn’t brought on by stress or anxiety, and it’s also not a migraine, then it’s probably caused by congestion or annoying sinus issues.
If that’s what you’re dealing with, grab some eucalyptus essential oil ASAP. This stuff has been shown to have the power to open up nasal passages and clear the sinuses, relieving some of the tension that causes that throbbing head pain.
A 2013 study found that inhaling eucalyptus EO can help lower blood pressure and relieve pain.
It can even help with tension headaches: research has found that eucalyptus is relaxing and soothing, easing the stress that can cause a headache.
Mix it with peppermint EO and you have yourself a promising tension headache remedy.
Great for soothing: Sinus/congestion headaches, tension headaches
This essential oil is more than just a beautiful addition to natural perfumes. Some research has shown that this flowery EO may help with hormonal and menopausal issues — and headaches can definitely be caused by things like PMS.
If you mix geranium with lavender and give yourself a little massage (especially near your temples), it might be even more effective.
Great for soothing: Hormonal, menopausal, or menstruation headaches
Research has shown that frankincense can be effective in relieving the pain caused by cluster headaches because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
Cluster headaches tend to start from pain in your muscles, neck, and back, which is why an anti-inflammatory can help reduce that discomfort.
A 2019 study found that frankincense essential oil reduced the effects of stress and improved sleep in mice. Frankincense also seemed to act as an antioxidant, reducing the damage of stress on cells.
Frankincense can also be relaxing and soothing, calming you down and easing stress, which can prevent a headache from coming on.
Great for soothing: Cluster headaches, tension headaches
You’re probably already aware that ginger can be powerful in combating nausea and vomiting. But ginger essential oil is also a powerful anti-inflammatory that may help with all sorts of pain.
A 2018 review of studies showed ginger not only effective as a migraine treatment but it increases the effectiveness of the heart pumping blood, can protect against the bad cholesterol, has an anti-oxidant effect that might have a role in protecting against cancer, and is anti-inflammatory and antibacterial.
There might even be a role for ginger essential oil against the development of diabetes. Ginger has been a respected choice for treating headaches and their accompanying nausea for thousands of years.
Great for soothing: Migraines
Okay, so, here’s the big thing to remember with essential oils: you’re not going to swallow them or ingest them in any way. That can be extremely dangerous. Instead, try these much safer ways to use them so that they’re most effective.
For a headache, probably the best way to use an essential oil is to apply it (diluted) to your skin, especially in the area the pain is coming from. If it’s a tension headache, apply on and around your temples.
Do not apply essential oils neat (directly to the skin), they must first be diluted in a carrier oil.
If you’re not into diluting your own, purchase an essential oil stick (EO added to a wax/butter formula) or something that’s already been diluted and blended for you specifically for the purpose of applying it topically.
Not in the mood for oily skin? Just breathing in the scent of an essential oil can result in headache-relieving benefits.
You can add a few droplets of the oil of your choice to a diffuser in a well ventilated area, but be aware that essential oils can affect everyone differently.
If your family is going to be around that diffuser, and you don’t want your child (or pets!) inhaling it, it may not be the best way to go about breathing it in. You can try an aromatherapy inhaler stick if you’d like.
Be considerate of others around you such as children, pregnant women, and pets. Diffused in the air, some essential oils can be dangerous for others, even toxic. Remove pets and others from the area.
Here’s the thing with essential oils: they aren’t regulated by the FDA, and there are no grading systems or certifications to look for on a bottle.
That means that basically anyone out there with a distiller could make a bottle of the stuff and sell it, which isn’t the most comforting thought. Some of them could include an ingredient or filler that isn’t on the label, or they may not have been harvested correctly.
They could also be contaminated. Here’s how to avoid that situation:
Make sure the Latin name is there
Many plants all over the world have similar common names, but that doesn’t mean that they were all created exactly the same. If you look for the Latin name and the common name, you’ll be assured that you’re buying the correct oil and not just something that has been generically named.
For example: if you want to buy lavender, look for the name Lavandula angustifolia, as that’s the correct Latin name. This might require a little research on your part, but it’s worth it in the end.
Read the label
Don’t ignore the label — especially if there’s a list of ingredients that includes anything more than just the name of the essential oil. The label should also reveal which country the plant matter originated from.
Do some research on the company
Not sure if you should trust the bottle you’re considering? Look into the company selling it. A quick Google search will give you info on most of them.
Your best bet is to buy from companies that are open about their sourcing, practice ethical harvesting methods, have good reviews online, and have been around for a while. Beware of multi-level marketing giants who often overprice and aren’t as open about the origin of their oils.
Opt for dark glass containers
If an essential oil is being sold in a clear plastic bottle… you don’t want it. Pure essential oils need to be stored in dark-colored glass bottles (like brown or blue).
Not only are EOs so concentrated that they can dissolve plastic over time, but sunlight can deteriorate the aromatic and therapeutic properties of the oils.
Avoid fragrance oils
There are essential oils (steam-distilled pure plant extracts) and then there are fragrance oils. Fragrance oils are typically made up of a cocktail of synthetic ingredients and do not contain the same life force of real plants — they shouldn’t be used for aromatherapy purposes.
You want 100 percent essential oil or nothing at all.
Know that price matters
In the case of an essential oil, a cheap price tag really could be too good to be true, however extreme markup is also something to be cautious of. A $40 half ounce bottle of bergamot is questionable when most other trusted suppliers are in the $10 to $15 range.
While they do range in price depending on the type of oil it is, how large a bottle you’re buying, and the state of that year’s crops, some are simply going to be more expensive than others (like sandalwood).