If you’re friends with anyone caught up in the world of essential oils, you know it. Like Crossfit and veganism, they’ll tell you all about it, whether you ask or not.
When you’re losing your hair, you’re willing to give just about anything a try. And essential oils have a pretty low barrier to entry: They’re relatively inexpensive, smell good and are natural.
But are they effective at battling hair loss?
First, some background. Essential oils are plant extracts obtained through pressing or distillation (similar to steaming). They smell (and taste) like the plants they come from, and have a specific chemical makeup that not only affects these characteristics, but also how the oils work in or on the body.
A plant’s essential oil may come from its flowers, leaves, barks or roots, and these different sources can all have different properties. Some essential oils may seem pricey, but that’s largely because it takes so much of a plant product to create a small bottle. For example, it takes approximately 220 pounds of lavender flowers to create a pound of lavender essential oil, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils for various physical and emotional health benefits. People who practice aromatherapy claim it can be effective at treating everything from an upset stomach to depression. The oils are typically applied to the skin or inhaled when practicing aromatherapy, though some may be ingested.
Few scientific studies have been published on the use of essential oils in the treatment of hair loss. Let’s review them.
First, a 1998 study published in the Archives of Dermatology looked at the use of a blend of essential oils in the treatment of alopecia areata, a form of hair loss characterized by patchy bald spots. This randomized, double-blind, controlled study involving 86 patients lasted 7 months. Half of the group massaged a blend of thyme, rosemary, cedarwood and lavender essential oils with carrier oils into their scalp daily, where the other half (the control group) used only carrier oils.
According to the researchers, 44 percent of the participants who used essential oils saw improvement over the study period, compared with 15 percent of those in the control group. They concluded, “the results show aromatherapy to be a safe and effective treatment for alopecia areata.”
The second study, a 2015 trial published in the journal Skinmed, looked specifically at the effects of rosemary oil on androgenetic alopecia, or male pattern baldness. The researchers put the essential oil head-to-head with minoxidil, one of the only two medical treatments approved for male pattern hair loss by the FDA. Fifty study participants used rosemary oil and 50 used minoxidil for a period of 6 months. At the 6-month mark, both groups experienced “significant increase in hair count,” when compared to the beginning of the trial.
What these studies tell us: There may be a benefits of using essential oils to combat certain forms of hair loss. However, two studies on two different types of hair loss are not rock-solid proof of efficacy.
The risks of using essential oils as topical therapy are low, according to these studies, but may include scalp irritation.
Do not be fooled by fragrance oils or synthetic oils. These may contain essential oils, but will contain other ingredients, too. Pure essential oils contain only the oil from the plant.
Pure essential oils should contain purity information and/or the Latin name of the plant on the label. Because they’re highly concentrated, they are packaged in dark-colored, glass containers to protect their quality. And choose oils that come from a well-known company.
Not exactly sold on the use of essential oils in hair growth? We can’t blame you. The research is very limited, and we’re bigger fans of tried, true and science-backed treatment options.
The 2015 study above compared an essential oil to the effectiveness of minoxidil for a reason: minoxidil is one of only two topical medications approved for the treatment of androgenic alopecia by the Food and Drug Administration. It is a mainstay and the backbone of hair loss treatment.
Minoxidil has been around since the 1970s, and is sold over-the-counter. Unlike aromatherapy, there are numerous studies affirming that minoxidil is an effective treatment for hair loss.
However, once you begin to see benefits with minoxidil, you should not stop treatment, as hair loss will resume within three to four months. Considering the low risk of side effects and ease of application, however, long-term use of this topical medication is not much of a bother.
You can learn more about minoxidil in our guide, How to Apply Minoxidil for Hair Growth.
Finasteride is also an FDA-approved treatment for male androgenetic alopecia. It comes in pill form and is taken orally.
It belongs to a class of medications called 5-alpha-reductase inhibitors, and works by preventing the testosterone in your body from being converted to dihydrotestosterone, or DHT, which is the chemical primarily responsible for hair loss in men.
We’ve talked more about finasteride in the treatment of hair loss in our guide, What Every Man Should Know About Finasteride for Hair Loss.
Essential oils are plant-derived, smell good and are wildly popular. But this doesn’t automatically make them a good option for hair loss treatment. That said, some research does indicate promising results in the use of certain essential oils as topical hair loss remedies. More research is needed, however.
Trying essential oils on your scalp carries little risks, so may be pursued if you’re genuinely curious. However, there’s no proof it will render the results you’re after.
If you’re looking for hair loss medications that work, you should have a conversation with your healthcare provider about medications like finasteride and minoxidil.