Forget The Rosemary Oil

In 2017 some research was published that said exposing children to the aroma of rosemary essential oil significantly enhanced their working memory. 

This caused the Daily Mail to explode and other newspapers went crackers.

Except the research is misleading and it was characteristically misinterpreted. Why do people never read the terms and conditions?

Dr Mark Moss and Victoria Earle of Northumbria University studied only 40 children which is a minute study. This should ring alarm bells from the outset.

Anyway, they diffused rosemary oil in one room for ten minutes but not in another and then these 40 Y6 children were sat opposite a researcher and tested with some memory games. They found that the children in the Rosemary room did better than children in the non-scented room.

Of course, this is bonkers research because if it worked then every school up and down the land would be spending half its budget on rosemary oil and drenching corridors and classrooms in the stuff to get results. They aren’t.

If it worked then there would be people selling rosemary oil outside the schools gates and dealing in the stuff. They aren’t.

I think it stinks. This is far from ‘scientific’ and all just a bit sensational.

Dr Moss is more optimistic although offers nothing concrete, “Why and how rosemary has this effect is still up for debate. It could be that aromas affect electrical activity in the brain or that pharmacologically active compounds can be absorbed when adults are exposed.”

He reckons we now need some large-scale trials of aroma application in education settings.

Well certainly larger trials would help but I think we are really clutching at straws if we think that sniffing rosemary is going to make any difference. We might as well get children drinking green tea mid-morning, running barefoot in P.E. and keeping our fingers crossed that their working memory improves. It won’t. Although doing star jumps might!

Rosemary is not “the ultimate brain boosting herb” or “common scent solution” as some would have us believe. Far from it.

Alex Kasprak (2019) has looked into the research a bit further and got in touch with Rachel Hertz, a professor of Psychiatry and Human Behaviour at the Brown University Medical School. She has authored reviews of the scientific basis for aromatherapy and told

Rosemary can not in and of itself increase memory and the field has changed [away from that view]. Rosemary would be no better than any other scent to which an association to certain memories had been linked.

If anyone tells you to try rosemary oil during exam season then tell them to wake up and smell the coffee. This sort of advice is absolutely out of order and gives parents false hope. It has no scientific basis:

Some companies like to cash in on rosemary and feed our minds with information that has no solid evidence to support it. For example, be very wary of claims like this one:

“Build up your brain. Rosemary essential oil can increase mental focus and sharpen concentration, making it a powerful brain booster. By stimulating the activity in certain areas of the brain, this essential oil also improves memory, beats “brain fog,” and can renew energy levels.”

Holland and Barrett are less gushing but have benefited from the rosemary hype: “Rosemary Oil is thought to be a highly stimulating oil that clears the head, aids memory, and enlivens the brain and mind.”

Nature’s Best cite the Moss and Earle study above but this is misleading. What it doesn’t tell potential customers is that rosemary oil does not increase memory.

Opening the windows and ventilating classrooms would be my advice to get rid of some of the stale smells that lurk in classrooms and that includes the smell of dubious research that might be hanging in the air.

What next? You’ll be telling me that WD-40 is great for arthritic knees and chest infections so every staffroom needs an emergency canister in their first aid kit. We are good at falling for flawed logic because we want to believe things work. Forget the rosemary and just get some fresh air.

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