The leaves of the West Indian bay tree, called "the spice tree" in some areas of the Caribbean, are known for their culinary uses, such as for cooking stews, soups and porridge.1 But did you know that the essential oil derived from these leaves is valuable as well?
Bay essential oil is known to contain antimicrobial compounds and other beneficial properties.2 It also has a spicy and smoky masculine aroma that make it appealing to men. Discover more about this herbal oil by reading the information below.
Bay essential oil is obtained from the bay tree (Pimenta racemosa), an evergreen tree that originated in the West Indies,3 but is now harvested in Morocco, Spain and the U.S.4 The bay tree is related to the allspice plant family, and grows up to 12 meters (a little over 39 feet) tall. It possesses long-pointed leaves, with small yellow or white flowers and black nonedible berries.5
Bay oil is often confused with bay laurel essential oil, which comes from the Laurus nobilis plant, native to the Mediterranean region.6 While these two oils share similar qualities, the important thing to remember is they come from two different plants. The bay tree is also different from the bayberry shrub, from which early American settlers produced candles.7
Bay oil is extracted from the fresh leaves of the bay tree through steam distillation. It has a yellow to dark brown color and a strong spicy fragrance, which resembles that of clove oil.8,9
West Indies bay oil is frequently used in cosmetics and perfumery.10 In the 20th century, the oil was distilled with rum and water to produce a cologne called "Bay Rum," which became popular among men for its spicy, smoky and woody tones. Unlike other plant oils like rose or geranium oils (which are more feminine), its spicy, smoky and woody tones and masculine aroma makes it a good choice for men.11
Bay oil is also considered an analgesic in aromatherapy, and it helps in relieving rheumatic muscle and joint pain and nerve pain (neuralgia). It may also be used as a massage oil or added to bathwater along with citrus or spice oils to induce a relaxing effect.12 It is added to hair products like shampoos for its ability to promote healthy hair growth and help boost scalp circulation.13 Bay oil, as well as fresh bay leaves, may serve as an insect repellent and air freshener too.14
The essential oil of bay owes its analgesic properties to three chemical constituents: eugenol, chavicol (estragole) and myrcene. Because of the presence of eugenol, the oil can cause irritations and should be used under the guidance of an aromatherapy practitioner.15
One of the main benefits of bay oil is its ability to help ease pain brought on by neuralgia, which is severe pain that occurs due to a damaged nerve. It can also assist in stimulating blood vessel contraction, and in alleviating poor circulation.16
Bay oil can help reduce pain from joint and muscle problems (including sprains and arthritis), and alleviate coughs and colds, viral infections and flu. It also functions as a decongestant and can be used to help ease respiratory problems when inhaled.17
Bay oil, along with thyme oil, also shows antifungal activity. In a 2008 study, out of 26 plant species tested, thyme and bay oils were the most effective against Phytophthora cactorum and Cryphonectria parasitica.18
Further research19 has demonstrated the antibacterial effects of bay essential oil, along with nine other essential oils — cinnamon, grapefruit, lemongrass, thyme, clary sage, wintergreen, clove, allspice and camphor. These oils were tested on methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and methicillin-sensitive Staphylococcus aureus (MSSA).
Researchers found that these oils were more efficient in eliminating the bacterial strains than vancomycin, the primary drug used for MRSA and MSSA treatment. West Indies bay oil, as well as bay laurel oil, exhibited bacteria-fighting properties against other pathogenic species, such as Campylobacter, Salmonella, E. coli, and listeria.20
Bay essential oil is obtained when the fresh leaves of the bay tree are steam-distilled. The leaves are gathered from a tree aged at least 5 years old. Salt or seawater is often added in the distillation water, which increases the rate of distillation. However, freshwater produces a higher yield.21
Bay oil is primarily used topically. It can be used as a massage oil, or added to burners and vaporizers. Its effects may vary depending on the amount you use, though. High amounts of bay oil may produce a sedative effect, while smaller amounts can serve as a stimulant.22
Undiluted essential oils can cause skin irritations, and bay essential oil is no different. Prior to use, it must first be mixed with a carrier oil, such as almond oil, coconut oil or olive oil. Bay oil blends well with several essential oils, including ylang ylang, lavender, black pepper, lemon, grapefruit, geranium and lime oils.23
Any essential oil must first be tested to determine if you're allergic to it, so I recommend doing a skin patch test. Apply a drop of the diluted bay oil on a small portion of your skin, and observe for any adverse effects.
Due to the compound eugenol, it is advisable to use very minute amounts of bay oil. It was found that the oil is not irritating to human skin at 10 percent, but it is still recommended to use topically a maximum concentration of 3 percent.24
Although bay oil works as an antiseptic and decongestant for respiratory ailments, the oil's eugenol content can irritate your mucous membranes and skin.25 It should be used in moderation or upon the advice of a physician or professional aromatherapist.
The chemical's presence also suggests that the oil may be hepatoxic and may affect blood clotting.26 It should not be used by people suffering from kidney and liver diseases, or those using anticoagulants. It is strictly advised not to apply the pure oil onto sensitive or damaged skin, as it can cause further harm.27
Pregnant or nursing women should avoid using bay oil, even if it's diluted, to prevent any sensitizations. Children and infants should also refrain from using bay oil due to their delicate nature. For more information on bay essential oil or any other plant oils, I would advise you to consult your doctor or a qualified aromatherapist.