Birch Essential Oil
Birch trees are deciduous trees native to cold and temperate northern climates, particularly the northern part of India. Birch essential oil that comes from these soft-wood trees has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. Known for its silvery white bark, the tree is rich in flavonoids (plant chemicals that produce beneficial antioxidant effects) and saponins (chemical compounds that can help lower cholesterol).
In the 1700s, both the Native Americans and European settlers used birch bark and wintergreen as herbal teas. Folklore has it that herbal remedies containing birch were used to treat diarrhea, dysentery, and indigestion. Birch and wintergreen are similar in that both their essential oils naturally contain methyl salicylates–counterirritants, which produce mild irritation of the skin to reduce pain in the underlying muscles and joints. Today, synthetic birch oil is available, reducing the demand for natural birch oil.
The Extraction Process
This particular essential oil is rare and difficult to extract from the wood of the tree. Consequently, the oil is available in limited quantities or is diluted and less potent. Prior to the steam distillation process, the bark of the birch tree must be softened by soaking it for up to 12 hours. Unlike most other essential oils, birch essential oil is heavier than water and sinks instead of floating to the top during the distillation process.
Uses for the Skin
As an astringent, birch essential oil can be used as a skin toner to reduce wrinkles and tighten sagging skin, helping to make you look younger. Often used as a skin cleanser and moisturizer, the anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties of the birch leaf and bark may help heal skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and dermatitis. Since the use of herbal therapies for the treatment of skin diseases often is better tolerated and causes fewer side effects than synthetic chemical drugs, with safe and appropriate use, many people benefit from the use of essential oils. (1)
Although the origins of folk medicine in the United States date back to colonial days, most natural remedies are centuries old, as plant remedies were commonly used by ancient civilizations. With a rising interest in alternative therapies, some randomized, controlled studies in the use of herbal therapies for skin disorders have shown promising results. A study in mice showed that the bark of the birch tree decreased itching and skin inflammation, which may make it helpful as a treatment for atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema. (2)
Other Therapeutic Effects
A natural stimulant, birch oil may be helpful in treating diseases affecting the circulatory, nervous, digestive, and endocrine systems. Because it contains methyl salicylate–the active compound in aspirin–birch is considered a natural pain reliever, the analgesic effects of which may help reduce the inflammation and soothe the pain associated with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Although analgesic agents pose the risk of potential side effects, they generally are effective at reducing the chronic pain related to arthritis. (3)
Small amounts of diluted birch essential oil may ease muscle aches and joint pain when applied topically to the skin, diluted in bath water, or used in vapor therapy. You can also add a drop to massage oil to rub into tired, sore muscles.