Emu oil is often touted as a “cure-all” for everything from inflammation to hair loss to diabetes. While many of these claims are dubious, some have scientific support. Keep reading to learn the benefits and potential side effects of emu oil.
What is Emu Oil?
Emu oil is a traditional medicine made from the fat of the ostrich’s smaller cousin, the emu bird. Australian aboriginals traditionally used emu oil to treat skin ailments (burns, rashes) and to reduce inflammation [R, R].
After witness testimony from 1820 alluding to its medicinal properties, emu oil became a popular “alternative medicine”. Marketing schemes may be reminiscent of fish oil, but emu oil has many concrete health benefits [R].
For one, it is relatively sustainable to manufacture. The human body easily metabolizes emu oil, so it requires little refining compared to plant-based oils. It is also more sustainable than petroleum-based oils [R].
After the fat is harvested from the emu, it is rendered and passed through a series of filters to extract the oil. Some operations also use the meat and skin of the emu for food and leather as well [R].
- Oleic acid (41-46%) is an omega-9 monounsaturated fat that lowers cholesterol and blood pressure, improves insulin sensitivity, and enhances skin permeability, among other benefits [R, R, R, R].
- Linoleic acid (22-23%) is an omega-6 polyunsaturated fat, which improves skin barrier function and reduces dark spots from sun exposure, but may increase the likelihood of obesity and cancer when consumed in large quantities [R, R, R, R].
- Palmitic acid (18-20%) is a saturated fat that is essential for skin health but may increase the risk of obesity and diabetes when consumed [R, R].
- α-Linoleic acid (0-20%) is an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid that reduces dark spots due to sun exposure, prevents obesity, improves skin, and lowers cancer risk, among other benefits [R, R, R, R].
- Stearic acid (0-10%) is a saturated fatty acid that is beneficial to skin hydration and healing. It also increases HDL cholesterol while reducing LDL cholesterol, although to a lesser extent than other saturated fats [R, R, R, R].
- Other minor fat components include palmitoleic and linolenic acid [R].
- Carotenoids are antioxidants that reduce the likelihood of cancer and eye disease [R, R].
- Flavonoids are antioxidants that reduce inflammation, specifically promoting brain and gut health [R, R, R].
- Sesquiterpenes are a type of terpene (organic compounds that are building blocks in most living creatures), which have anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, and may also possibly treat cancer [R, R, R].
- Vitamin A is necessary for maintaining a healthy metabolism, immune system, and hormone production, among other bodily functions [R, R, R].
- Vitamin E is necessary for maintaining healthy cell membranes and may treat cancer and Alzheimer’s Disease, among other benefits [R, R, R].
Mechanism of Action
Emu oil reduces inflammation:
- By inhibiting the pro-inflammatory messenger molecules TNF-α, IL-1α, IL-1β, and IL-6 [R, R, R, R].
- Due to its high concentration of omega-3, which inhibits inflammatory eicosanoid pathways that produce thromboxane B2, prostaglandin E2, and leukotriene B4, and suppress activators of inflammatory genes [R].
- Due to its high concentrations of omega-9 fatty acids, which reduce the migration of macrophages to sites of inflammation [R].
- Possibly due to the synergistic effect of the different omega fatty acids [R].
However, emu oil reduced acute inflammation in rats more than other oils with higher contents of these well-known anti-inflammatories. Researchers deduced that this suppression of inflammation cannot be solely attributed to its fat component [R].
Emu oil permeates, moisturizes, and heals skin:
- By destabilizing the alpha-helix structure of keratin [R].
- Possibly by interacting with the fats in the skin [R].
- Perhaps by promoting the growth of new skin cells (epithelialization, differentiation of epidermal layers) and restructuring (fibrogenesis, collagen synthesis) [R, R, R].
- By changing white blood cells from the pro-inflammatory kind (M1 phenotype) to the anti-inflammatory kind (M2 phenotype) [R].
- By enhancing the permeation (partitioning) of drugs into the skin [R].
Other actions of emu oil include:
- Scavenging of “free radicals” by antioxidant components, which reduces tissue damage due to oxidative stress [R].
- Reducing oxidative damage due to its high ratio of unsaturated to saturated fats [R].
- Stimulating bone-building cells (osteoblasts), while inhibiting activators and receptors of cells that break down bone (osteoclasts) through suppression of TNF-α [R].
- Suppressing PPAR-γ, which may promote gut health [R].
- Increasing stem-cell markers (sox-2, nanog, oct4, klf4, and c-Myc) that convert differentiated cells back into their embryonic state [R].
However, too much emu oil applied to recover skin may reduce gaseous exchange, slowing down skin regeneration [R].
Health Benefits of Emu Oil
1) Emu Oil Improves Skin Hydration and Possibly Overall Health
Emu oil is often marketed as a moisturizing cream, and the science backs up that conclusion in a number of different studies.
Subjectively, it feels nice. A double-blind pilot study of 11 participants found that emu oil was subjectively more moisturizing and penetrating than a popular mineral oil cosmetic base [R].
It also effectively retains moisture and therefore soothes particularly sensitive skin.
For example, in a study of 70 breastfeeding mothers, a cream with 30% emu oil improved nipple hydration just 24 hours after first application compared to the other, untreated nipple.
This helped prevent painful, cracked, or bleeding nipples, and allowed women to breastfeed longer [R].
Another study of 31 newborns (approximately 6 hours old) found that a single application of lotion made with 20% emu oil improved skin hydration in one foot by 33% after 24 hours compared to the untreated foot [R].
In a month-long randomized controlled trial of 126 participants, twice-daily application of 20% emu oil improved the redness, itching, and scales associated with chronic skin inflammation (seborrheic dermatitis). However, it was not as effective as the popular treatment hydrocortisone [R].
Emu oil may also prevent spots and freckles that come with sun-exposure and aging.
Skin cells bathed in .01% emu oil reduced their production of melanin, indicating that emu oil could help reduce freckles and skin staining [R].
Daily application of 0.1 mL of emu oil increased skin cell production, hair follicle growth, and skin coloring (melanogenesis) in mice by increasing the level of 3 H-thymidine, a marker of DNA synthesis [R*].
While emu oil effectively retains skin moisture, claims of it reversing wrinkles, stopping sun damage, and tightening skin after weight loss remain uninvestigated.
2) Emu Oil Increases the Absorption of Drugs and Nutrients Through the Skin
Through triple action at the molecular level, emu oil can work its way through the protective outer layer of skin (stratum corneum) to the soft layer interwoven with blood vessels (epidermis), and also helps other substances do the same [R].
When curcumin was mixed with emu oil, its bioavailability increased 5 times. Thus, the topical application of the curcumin/emu oil mixture was able to significantly reduce acute and chronic inflammation in rats [R, R].
Similar effects were found in human studies with a variety of drugs and nutrients.
For example, emu oil improved symptoms of Peyronie’s disease, which causes curved, painful erections due to a buildup of scar tissue.
In a study (a double-blind placebo-controlled pilot study of 22 men with Peyronie’s disease), a 3- to a 6-month treatment of 0.5 mL H-100 (Nicardipine, superoxide dismutase, and emu oil) applied topically significantly reduced pain and curvature, while improving penile length [R].
In a single-blind placebo-controlled study with 11 participants, a combination of caffeine, vitamin K, and emu oil emulsifier improved skin moisture, elasticity, and pigmentation in the under-eye skin after daily application for 4 weeks [R].
The research on permeation enhancers is slow going, as it is difficult to predict which penetration enhancers and drugs/nutrients will work together, but researchers are hopeful about the potential of emu oil [R].
For example, a topical treatment of emu oil mixed with insulin may provide an alternative method to injected insulin, as seen in lab and rabbit studies [R].
Furthermore, a commercial hair-growth product was 5% more effective at stimulating hair growth in mice when mixed with emu oil, though it was unclear if the effect was due to increased skin permeability, or if emu oil itself was stimulating hair growth [R].
3) Emu Oil May Reduce Inflammation
Emu oil is an effective topical anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain reliever) in rats and mice, but science has yet to demonstrate the same effect in humans.
Mixtures of 85% emu oil and 15% cineole also significantly reduced arthritic inflammation in rats [R].
Emu oil may provide a cure, as well as an alternative, to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), since the extended use of drugs such as ibuprofen can cause liver and intestinal damage.
Another study involving rats found that emu oil improved intestinal inflammation due to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs [R].
However, the effectiveness of emu oil on inflammation in humans is yet to be determined.
In a randomized, placebo-controlled trial of 73 women with joint pain due to their breast cancer treatment, topical application of pure emu oil (0.1 to 0.5 mL on each joint,3 times per day) did not significantly reduce the pain compared to the placebo [R].
4) Emu Oil May Speed Skin Healing
Emu oil, alone and in combination with other natural remedies, reduces pain and speeds healing in animals. However, this effect has not been adequately investigated in humans.
Emu oil reduced pain and healing time of burns, as well as the inflammatory marker TNF-α in rat experiments. It may do this by enhancing specific steps in the healing process of skin (epithelialization and differentiation of epidermal layers) [R, R].
This, however, does not mean that emu oil is an antibiotic, as sometimes claimed.
For example, 100% emu oil delayed the healing of burns on mice [R].
These conflicting findings may be due to the effects of pure versus diluted emu oil. A lab study found that solutions with less than 2% emu oil promoted skin cell growth, while concentrations of more than 2% emu oil “smothered” cells, possibly by reducing their ability to absorb nutrients and excrete waste [R].
However, the final outcome for burns covered with pure emu oil was still beneficial; the oil improved the structural repair (fibrogenesis and collagen synthesis) of the mice’s skin, leading to more active hair follicles that covered the burned area more completely [R].
Unfortunately, emu oil’s effect on the healing of human skin is not well documented.
Emu oil improved the healing of second- and third-degree burns in 125 children. However, researchers measured the rate of healing subjectively and did not provide an adequate description of their methodology or results [R].
5) Emu Oil May Improve Gut Health
Emu oil has successfully improved intestine and colon health in a number of animal models.
For example, the consumption of emu oil reduced the severity of colon inflammation (colitis) and tissue damage in rats by stimulating the intestinal repair process. Though emu oil also increased gland death in the distal colon, overall intestinal and colon health improved [R].
The combination of emu oil and glycyrrhizin (a component of licorice root) was particularly effective in reducing ulcers caused by colitis in mice, likely by increasing antioxidants and suppressing TNF-α and PPRA-γ [R].
In a rat model of Crohn’s disease, emu oil and aloe vera reduced ulcers better than the prescribed medication sulfasalazine, likely due to their combined antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects [R].
The beneficial actions of emu oil may go beyond its anti-inflammatory properties.
Emu oil improved the symptoms of colon cancer in mice, not only reducing inflammation but also suppressing weight loss and growth of small tumors. However, the growth of medium tumors was slightly increased in mice treated with emu oil [R].
Researchers are hopeful that these effects will be reproducible in humans, indicating that emu oil may be a possible alternative treatment for gastrointestinal disorders [R].
6) Emu Oil May Reduce LDL (Bad) Cholesterol
Thanks to emu oil’ s high concentration of mono- and polyunsaturated fats, it is likely that moderate consumption of the oil reduces LDL (bad) cholesterol while improving HDL (good) cholesterol [R, R].
Rats fed an unhealthy “cafeteria” diet with emu oil had lower blood levels of LDL and higher blood levels of HDL compared to those that did not consume the emu oil.
The rats that received high doses of emu oil also did not show any evidence of arterial thickening or plaque build-up [R].
However, researchers have yet to observe this hypothesized effect of emu oil in humans.
7) Emu Oil May Reduce the Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Digestive distress is common in chemo patients. Emu oil may be able to help alleviate this unintended consequence.
Compared to olive oil, daily consumption of emu oil a day reduced inflammation, improved structure, and expedited healing of the mucous layer of the digestive tract (mucositis) due to chemotherapy in rats [R, R].
Furthermore, a combination of emu oil and Lyprinol (fat supplement made from green mussels) reduced signs of chemotherapy-induced intestinal inflammation in rats [R].
The protective effects of emu oil during chemotherapy may extend beyond the gut.
For example, emu oil protected bones from degradation due to chemotherapy by preserving bone-building cells (osteoblasts) and limited bone-destroying cells (osteoclasts) through the inhibition of TNF-α in rats [R].
However, at this point, researchers have not observed any chemo-protective effects in humans.
In a DB-RCT pilot study of 42 patients undergoing chemotherapy, there was little difference in skin irritation between those who used 100% emu oil and those who used cottonseed oil [R].
8) Emu Oil May Increase Hair Growth
Often marketed as a cure for thinning hair, only one study in mice has found evidence of emu oil stimulating hair growth.
Topical application of pure emu oil on burned mice improved wound healing (by increasing fibrogenesis and collagen synthesis in the skin), leading to more active hair follicles that better covered the burned area compared to controls [R].
Another study may have found supporting evidence, but the mechanism is unclear.
As mentioned above, a commercial hair-growth product was 5% more effective in stimulating hair growth in mice when mixed with emu oil. However, it was unclear if the effect was due to increased skin permeability, or if emu oil itself was stimulating hair growth [R].
9) Emu Oil May Repel Mosquitos
In an experiment done for a patent proposal, a volunteer placed two hands, one treated with emu oil and the other untreated, in a container full of mosquitos. The bugs landed on and bit the treated hand significantly less than the untreated hand. This effect was seen using mixtures of as little as 1% emu oil and lasted for over 30 minutes [R*].
However, this study had a sample size of one and the results have not been reproduced, so it is possible that the discrepancy between hands happened by chance.
10) Emu Oil May Increase Testosterone
Rats fed an unhealthy “cafeteria” diet with emu oil had higher levels of testosterone compared to those who did not consume emu oil [R].
11) Emu Oil May Slow Alzheimer’s Symptoms (with Tart Cherry Extract and Fish Oil)
A combination of tart cherry extract, Nordic fish oil, and emu oil slowed development of cognitive symptoms in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease by reducing inflammation and brain cell (neuron) death [R].
Unproven Popular Claims about Emu Oil
Emu Oil and Obesity, Diabetes
Emu Oil as a Topical Pain-Killer
When directly tested in humans, emu oil did not reduce pain compared to the placebo (RCT of 73 women with joint pain) [R].
While there are many patents for emu oil’s ability to improve antifungal, antibacterial, and antiviral medications, emu oil is simply the carrier of the medications. There are currently no peer-reviewed studies investigating the antimicrobial properties of emu oil [R].
However, 3 of the 22 men with Peyronie’s disease experienced a mild localized rash from emu oil [R].
As discussed above, emu oil is capable of increasing the absorption and therefore the effect of nutrients and drugs, such as:
- Curcumin (an active component of turmeric) for reducing inflammation [R, R]
- Insulin for decreasing blood sugar [R]
However, it is not always clear in which cases emu oil is simply improving permeation versus directly improving the condition itself, such as with:
- Caffeine and vitamin K, for improving skin elasticity and hydration [R]
- Vitamin E and botanical oil, for enhancing skin healing [R]
- Nicardipine and superoxide dismutase, for treating Peyronie’s disease [R]
- Minoxidil, for stimulating hair growth [R]
- Glycyrrhizin or aloe vera, for reducing ulcers [R, R]
- Tart cherry extract and nordic fish oil, for reducing cognitive impairment [R]
The skin-penetration enhancer cineole, the main constituent of eucalyptus oil, improved emu oil’s anti-inflammatory properties in rats [R].
Limitations and Caveats
Researchers have observed many of the touted effects of emu oil in rats, mice, and other rodents, but not in humans. While the moisturizing capability of emu oil is well documented, we recommend remaining wary of products that claim to grow hair, reduce weight, or heal infections.
Furthermore, not all emu oil is created equal.
One study also found that oil made from the back fat of emus, especially emus that were farmed versus feral, was more effective in reducing arthritic inflammation in rats [R].
There are a variety of different businesses that promise to use the entire emu, feed emus a balanced diet, or capture feral emus. Whatever your preference, we highly recommend purchasing certified emu oil.
The American Emu Association provides a certification that guarantees the emu oil being sold is pure and that the birds were treated humanely.
It also provides a grading system so you can pick oil depending on your purpose:
- Grade A: For pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and dietary supplements; often called fully refined emu oil
- Grade B: For some cosmetic applications, but not for digestion
- Grade C: Crude emu oil that’s primarily used for making soaps and animal feed
Dosage & Forms of Supplementation
Emu oil can be applied topically or ingested, although human research is significantly lacking for the latter.
Studies with human participants have found that topical application of 1% to 100% emu oil effectively protects skin:
- 20% to 100% emu oil applied daily or twice a day improved skin hydration [R, R, R, R]
- 1% to 100% emu oil repelled mosquitos from the hand of one volunteer [R*]
Studies on rodents have found that 2% to 100% emu oil improves skin healing and swelling:
- 2% emu oil or less promoted skin cell growth in rats [R]
- 100% emu oil slowed skin regeneration but improved long-term healing in rats [R]
- 100% emu oil reduced acute swelling in rats [R, R]
The dosage of emu oil depends on several factors including age, health, and several other conditions. As of yet, there is not enough scientific information to determine the appropriate range of dosage for ingested emu oil in humans.
Researchers have seen beneficial effects in rats fed 3 to 8 mL/kg of body weight of pure emu oil per day:
- 3 mL/kg of body weight per day reduced intestinal and colon inflammation in rats [R, R, R]
- 6 mL/kg of body weight per day protected the digestive tract of rats from damage due to chemotherapy [R, R]
- 8 mL/kg of body weight per day reduced LDL cholesterol, and increased HDL cholesterol as well as testosterone in rats [R]
Be sure to follow directions on product labels and consult your pharmacist or doctor before consuming emu oil.
Users often comment on how emu oil is an excellent moisturizer for the entire body, including hair, skin, nails, even gums. Some users also experienced fewer wrinkles and “filled-out” or “plumped” cheeks after applying a couple drops before bed.
Some users also found it to improved their acne and eczema, reducing redness and dry patches.
It even works for users with extremely sensitive or oily skin without leaving a greasy residue. “This oil has made my skin more supple, plump and happier than ever before. Never have I ever had an oil mimic my natural oils.” They recommend using only a drop or two, alone or mixed with lavender lotion or rose water.
Emu oil also improved hair hydration and allowed it to grow longer, without greasing clothes or sheets. Users suggest mixing with shampoo and conditioner, and deep conditioning hair with it a couple times a month.
More people seem to apply it topically than take gel capsules, but those that do report reduced inflammation, as well as soft hair and skin.
The only side effect mentioned in the reviewed comments was an increase in hair growth–“lots of baby hairs on your face all over.”
New users should make sure the oil does not smell when first purchased. If it does, it is likely rancid and should be returned. They also recommend keeping emu oil in the fridge or buying it in small quantities to make sure it does not go bad before you use it.
A small percentage of users saw zero effect and were very disappointed after purchasing such expensive oil.
Emu oil may provide be a key ingredient in regenerative medicine involving stem cells.
The optimum concentration of emu oil in the scaffold mixture (electrospun serum) is 20% [R].
* References with an asterisk identify experiments which came from patent proposals versus scientific journals. These are therefore not peer-reviewed and generally less reliable.