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Can essential oils help headaches? As most people know, migraines and headaches can be debilitating—even if you are an infrequent sufferer. While over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen, aspirin and acetaminophen (as well as migraine-specific meds, like Excedrin) can help relieve symptoms fast, there is a growing interest in "natural" headache treatments. Essential oils are leading the pack as holistic or alternative treatments for many health issues, including stress. Here's what research and studies show about the efficacy of essential oils for headaches and migraines.

What Are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are plant compounds that have been pressed and extracted into the material's purest form. They smell potent, due to their highly concentrated makeup. While there are varying methods of extracting the oils, steam heating or cold pressing is most typically used. Essential oils are used for a variety of reasons, from homeopathic treatments (including headaches!) to an alternative for scented candles.

A woman rubbing her temples next to a diffuser
Credit: Getty Images / Neustockimages / Catherine Falls Commercial

How Do You Use Essential Oils?

The power of essential oils is in their scent. To gain the maximum efficacy of essential oils, they should be inhaled through the nose. But before you go sniffing every miniature bottle in the pharmacy, try these common methods for using essential oils.

Essential Oils on the Skin

Most essential oils are too potent to use directly on the skin. However, if they're diluted into a carrier oil (skin-friendly jojoba and almond oils are commonly used), they can be massaged into your hands, feet, neck and anywhere else you like. It's a good idea to test the oil on a small patch of your skin before using it all over the body.

Essential Oils in a Diffuser

Diffusers use steam to dilute and disperse a scent. They're a low-cost way to scent an entire room without the fire danger associated with burning candles This is also a great way to stretch your essential oils — a few drops into the diffuser's water basin are all that's needed to scent a room.

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You could also put essential oils in an oil-diffusing humidifier, since dry air can irritate sinuses and cause headaches. The American Migraine Foundation says that cool, dry air can cause dehydration—especially if you crank up the heat in your home during the winter. A humidifier can help by keeping the indoor air moist.

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What Are the Best Essential Oils for Migraines and Headaches?

Now that you know how to use essential oils, it's important to pick the right ones. What are the best essential oils for headaches or migraines? Here's what research has shown.

Eucalyptus

Eucalyptus oil smells invigorating and bright—it is a powerful sinus cleanser, which is why it's frequently used in spas. It's also been associated with muscle and mental relaxation (especially in combination with peppermint oil). And one study showed that inhaling eucalyptus oil significantly reduced pain and inflammation in knee-replacement patients. While knee replacements are clearly a long way from headaches, the results are promising.

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Lavender

Long praised for its calming properties, lavender can actually do more than just relax you. In a 2012 study, a group of participants inhaled lavender essential oils and noted their headache severity over a two-hour period. The people who sniffed lavender reported a much higher instance of headache reduction than the control group, who inhaled liquid paraffin.

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Peppermint

Peppermint oil does more than just bring holiday cheer (although it's great at that, too). One early study showed that when rubbed onto the temples and forehead, peppermint oil encouraged muscle relaxation. It also produces an analgesic effect on tension headaches, making it a smart option for your diffuser any time of year.

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Rosemary

Rosemary oil can also help your headache. It's been studied as an anti-inflammatory agent, with a recent review citing it as promising, though more research regarding dosage and delivery is needed. Rosemary has also shown promise in helping to alleviate depression and anxiety symptoms, which may appear alongside headaches. (And of course, it smells delicious.)

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Rose oil

A 2017 study that evaluated the efficacy of rose oil in migraine sufferers provided hope for short-term relief: The results showed that inhalation of rose oil was most helpful for providing short-term relief for those who experience "hot" migraine symptoms, such as sharp and searing pain.

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The Bottom Line

Headaches and migraines can be triggered by various things (such as dehydration or stress), and they can be painful. While they won't replace medication, essential oils may be able to help relieve your headache. However, it's worth speaking to your doctor if you have persistent headaches or migraines.