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3 Health Benefits of Emu Oil + Side Effects & Dosage

Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Last updated:
Jonathan Ritter
Puya Yazdi
Medically reviewed by
Jonathan Ritter, PharmD, PhD (Pharmacology), Puya Yazdi, MD | Written by Carlos Tello, PhD (Molecular Biology) | Last updated:

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Emu Oil

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 seem to 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 [1, 2].

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 may have several specific health benefits [2].

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 [2].

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 [3].

Components

The diet of the birds, extraction method, and type of fat (subcutaneous versus retroperitoneal) each influence the concentrations of the components in emu oil [2, 3, 4].

On average, fatty acids make up 98 to 99% of the oil [2, 5, 6]:

  • Oleic acid (41-46%) is an omega-9 monounsaturated fat that may lower cholesterol and blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity, and enhance skin permeability, among other potential benefits [7, 8, 9, 10].
  • Linoleic acid (22-23%) is an omega-6 polyunsaturated fat that may improve skin barrier function and reduce dark spots from sun exposure, but is associated with higher rates of obesity and cancer when consumed in large quantities [11, 12, 13, 14].
  • Palmitic acid (18-20%) is a saturated fat essential to skin health that may, however, increase the risk of obesity and diabetes when consumed [15, 16].
  • α-Linoleic acid (0-20%) is an omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid that may reduce dark spots caused by sun exposure, prevent obesity, improve skin, and lower cancer risk, among other potential benefits [12, 17, 18, 19].
  • Stearic acid (0-10%) is a saturated fatty acid beneficial to skin hydration and healing. It also increases HDL cholesterol while reducing LDL cholesterol, although to a lesser extent than other saturated fats [20, 21, 22, 23].
  • Other minor fat components include palmitoleic and linolenic acid [6].

The remaining 1 to 2% of emu oil is composed of antioxidants, vitamins, and other organic compounds [2, 5]:

  • Carotenoids are antioxidants associated with a reduced likelihood of cancer and eye disease [24, 25].
  • Flavonoids are antioxidants that reduce inflammation, specifically promoting brain and gut health [26, 27, 28].
  • Sesquiterpenes are a type of terpene (organic compounds that are building blocks in most living creatures) with potential anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and even anticancer properties [29, 30, 31].
  • Vitamin A is necessary for maintaining a healthy metabolism, immune system, and hormone production, among other bodily functions [32, 33, 34].
  • Vitamin E is necessary for maintaining healthy cell membranes. Preliminary research suggests it may help with Alzheimer’s disease and some types of cancer [35, 36, 37].

Mechanism of Action

Emu oil may reduce inflammation:

  • By inhibiting the pro-inflammatory messenger molecules TNF-α, IL-1α, IL-1β, and IL-6 [38, 39, 40, 41].
  • Due to its high concentration of omega-3, which inhibits the inflammatory pathways that produce thromboxane B2, prostaglandin E2, and leukotriene B4, and suppresses activators of inflammatory genes [42].
  • Due to its high concentrations of omega-9 fatty acids, which reduce the migration of white blood cells (macrophages) to sites of inflammation [38].
  • Possibly due to the synergistic effect of the different omega fatty acids [43].

However, emu oil reduced acute inflammation in rats more than other oils with higher contents of these well-known anti-inflammatories. Researchers concluded that this effect cannot be solely attributed to its fat component [38].

Emu oil may permeate, moisturize, and heal the skin:

  • By destabilizing the alpha-helix structure of keratin [44].
  • Possibly by interacting with the fats in the skin [44].
  • Possibly by promoting the growth of new skin cells (epithelialization, differentiation of epidermal layers) and restructuring (fibrogenesis, collagen synthesis) [45, 46, 47].
  • By shifting white blood cells from the pro-inflammatory kind (M1 phenotype) to the anti-inflammatory kind (M2 phenotype) [41].
  • By enhancing the permeation (partitioning) of drugs into the skin [44].

Other mechanisms of emu oil include:

  • Scavenging of “free radicals” by antioxidant components, which reduces tissue damage due to oxidative stress [48].
  • Reducing oxidative damage due to its high ratio of unsaturated to saturated fats [48].
  • Stimulating bone-building cells (osteoblasts), while inhibiting those that break down bone (osteoclasts) through suppression of TNF-α [49].
  • Suppressing PPAR-γ, which may promote gut health [40].
  • Increasing stem-cell markers (sox-2, nanog, oct4, klf4, and c-Myc) that convert differentiated cells back into their embryonic state [50].

However, too much emu oil applied to recover skin may reduce gaseous exchange, slowing down skin regeneration [51].

Health Benefits

Possibly Effective for:

Skin Health

Emu oil is often marketed as a moisturizing cream, a claim backed by a few, small studies.

A small trial of 11 participants found that emu oil was subjectively more moisturizing and penetrating than a popular mineral oil cosmetic base [52].

In another trial on 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 [53].

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 [54].

In a small trial on 11 people, 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 [55].

In a month-long clinical trial of 126 people, 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 [56].

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 [57].

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 [58].

Other common market claims, such as reversing wrinkles, stopping sun damage, and tightening the skin after weight loss, remain uninvestigated.

To sum up, limited evidence suggests that emu oil may help moisturize the skin, while further research is needed to confirm other potential skin health-promoting effects. You may discuss with you doctor if emu oil may be beneficial in your case.

Insufficient Evidence for:

1) Increasing the Absorption of Drugs and Nutrients

Through triple-action at the molecular level, emu oil may work its way through the protective outer layer of skin (stratum corneum) to the soft layer interwoven with blood vessels (epidermis), and also help other substances do the same [44].

In a study of 22 men with Peyronie’s disease (which causes curved, painful erections due to a buildup of scar tissue), a 3- to 6-month treatment of 0.5 mL H-100 (Nicardipine, superoxide dismutase, and emu oil) applied topically significantly reduced pain and curvature, while improving flaccid-stretched penile length. In this study, emu oil served as a carrier for the active compounds [59].

When curcumin was mixed with emu oil, its bioavailability in rats increased 5 times. The topical curcumin/emu oil mixture was able to significantly reduce acute and chronic inflammation [60, 61].

A topical treatment of emu oil mixed with insulin may provide an alternative method to injected insulin, as seen in lab and rabbit studies [62].

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 [63].

A small clinical trial and some animal research cannot be considered sufficient evidence to back the use of emu oil as a carrier for drug delivery. More clinical research on larger populations is needed to confirm these preliminary findings.

2) Wound Healing

Emu oil improved the healing of second- and third-degree burns in a clinical trial on 125 children. However, researchers measured the rate of healing subjectively and did not provide an adequate description of their methodology or results [64].

Emu oil reduced pain and healing time of burns, as well as the inflammatory marker TNF-α, in rats. It may do so by enhancing specific steps in the healing process (such as epithelialization and differentiation of epidermal layers) [45, 46].

A lotion with this oil, botanical oil, and vitamin E doubled the rate of wound healing in mice compared to an antibiotic ointment. Note that this doesn’t mean that emu oil is an antibiotic, as sometimes claimed [65].

However, emu oil by itself did not have the same effect as the lotion, and large quantities of pure emu oil might even slow healing. For instance, pure emu oil delayed the healing of burns on mice [65, 47].

These conflicting findings may be due to the effects of pure versus diluted emu oil. A cell-based study found that solutions with less than 2% emu oil promoted skin cell growth, while concentrations of more than 2% emu oil “smothered” cells. They possibly reduced their ability to absorb nutrients and excrete waste [51].

However, the final outcome for burns covered with pure emu oil was still beneficial in mice. The oil improved the structural repair (fibrogenesis and collagen synthesis) of the skin, leading to more active hair follicles that covered the burned area more effectively [47].

A low-quality clinical trial and some animal studies cannot be considered sufficient evidence that emu oil helps with wound healing. Larger, more robust clinical trials are needed before we can claim it for certain.

Anecdotal Evidence

Repelling Mosquitos

In a small experiment, 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 [66].

Because the study was very small and it has never been replicated, it constitutes no evidence that emu oil can be used as a mosquito repellent.

Animal and Cell Research (Lack of Evidence)

No clinical evidence supports the use of emu oil for any of the conditions listed in this section. Below is a summary of the existing animal and cell-based research, which should guide further investigational efforts. However, the studies should not be interpreted as supportive of any health benefit.

Inflammation

Emu oil seems to be an effective topical anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain reliever) in rats and mice.

When applied topically it reduced acute swelling by up to 71% in rats. This anti-inflammatory effect lasted up to 12 hours and was stronger than that of fish oil, flaxseed oil, or the mainstream natural anti-inflammatory olive oil [38, 67, 38, 67, 68].

One study found emu oil’s effect on swelling comparable to ibuprofen in rats [68].

Another rat study found that emu oil improved intestinal inflammation due to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs [69].

Mixtures of 85% emu oil and 15% cineole also significantly reduced arthritic inflammation in rats [68].

However, the only study in humans found this oil ineffective.In a clinical trial of 73 women with joint pain due to their breast cancer treatment, topical application of pure emu oil did not significantly reduce the pain compared to the placebo [70].

Side Effects of Chemotherapy

Digestive distress is common in chemo patients. Compared to olive oil, daily consumption of emu oil reduced inflammation, improved structure, and sped up healing of the mucous layer of the digestive tract (mucositis) due to chemotherapy in rats. Additionally, a combination of emu oil and Lyprinol (fat supplement made from green mussels) reduced signs of chemotherapy-induced intestinal inflammation [71, 72, 73].

Emu oil also protected rat bones from breakdown due to chemotherapy by preserving bone-building cells (osteoblasts) and limiting bone-destroying cells (osteoclasts) through the inhibition of TNF-α [74].

However, no chemo-protective effects have been observed in humans. In a pilot study of 42 people undergoing chemotherapy, there was little difference in skin irritation between those who used 100% emu oil and those who used cottonseed oil [75].

Hair Growth

Although often marketed as a cure for thinning hair, only one study in mice has been conducted.

The 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 [47].

A commercial hair-growth product was 5% more effective 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 [63].

Gut Health

Dietary emu oil reduced the severity of colon inflammation (colitis) and tissue damage in rats by stimulating the intestinal repair process. Although emu oil also increased gland death in the distal colon, the overall intestinal and colon health improved [76].

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 [40].

In rats with 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 [77].

Emu oil also improved the symptoms of colon cancer in mice, not only by 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 [78].

Lowering LDL Cholesterol

Emu oil’ s high concentration of mono- and polyunsaturated fats suggest it may help reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol while improving HDL (good) cholesterol when consumed in moderate amounts [79, 80].

Hamsters fed a diet containing 10% emu oil had significantly lower LDL levels compared to those fed olive oil or coconut oil. The oil had no effects on HDL and triglyceride levels [81].

Rats fed an unhealthy “cafeteria” diet with emu oil had lower blood levels of LDL and higher blood levels of HDL. The rats that received high doses of emu oil also did not show any evidence of arterial thickening or plaque build-up [82].

Testosterone Boost

Rats fed an unhealthy “cafeteria” diet with emu oil had higher levels of testosterone compared to those who did not consume emu oil [82].

Slowing Alzheimer’s Progression

A combination of tart cherry extract, Nordic fish oil, and emu oil slowed the development of cognitive symptoms in mice with Alzheimer’s disease by reducing inflammation and brain cell death [83].

Possibly Ineffective as:

Topical Pain-Killer

All the evidence of emu oil’s pain-relieving properties is linked to its ability to improve skin hydration and reduce inflammation [53, 45, 46].

When directly tested in a clinical trial on 73 women with joint pain, emu oil did not reduce pain compared to the placebo [70].

Unproven Popular Claims About Emu Oil

Obesity & Diabetes

Mono- and polyunsaturated fats may aid in weight loss and improve insulin sensitivity, but there have been no emu oil-specific experiments on these topics [84, 85].

Antibacterial and Antiviral

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 [86].

Limitations & 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 more widely investigated, we recommend remaining wary of products that claim to grow hair, reduce weight, or heal infections.

Side Effects & Precautions

Keep in mind that the safety profile of emu oil is relatively unknown, given the lack of well-designed clinical studies. The list of side effects below is not a definite one and you should consult your doctor about other potential side effects based on your health condition and possible drug or supplement interactions.

Two clinical trials with 20 and 11 healthy people found no evidence of skin irritation, even after 4 weeks of daily application [87, 55].

However, 3 of the 22 men with Peyronie’s disease experienced a mild localized rash from emu oil in another trial [59].

Drug and Substance Interactions

Supplement/Herb/Nutrient-drug interactions can be dangerous and, in rare cases, even life-threatening. Always consult your doctor before supplementing and let them know about all drugs and supplements you are using or considering.

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 [60, 61]
  • Insulin for decreasing blood sugar [62]

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 [55]
  • Vitamin E and botanical oil, for enhancing skin healing [65]
  • Nicardipine and superoxide dismutase, for treating Peyronie’s disease [59]
  • Minoxidil, for stimulating hair growth [63]
  • Glycyrrhizin or aloe vera, for reducing ulcers [40, 77]
  • Tart cherry extract and nordic fish oil, for reducing cognitive impairment [83]

The skin-penetration enhancer cineole, the main constituent of eucalyptus oil, improved emu oil’s anti-inflammatory properties in rats [68].

Supplementation

Due to the lack of solid clinical research, emu oil has not been approved by the FDA for medical use. Regulations set manufacturing standards for supplements but don’t guarantee that they’re safe or effective. Speak with your doctor before using emu oil.

Importantly, not all emu oil is created equal.

Animal and cell-based studies have found discrepancies in emu oil’s anti-arthritic and antioxidative properties depending on the bird’s diet when alive, type of fat, and extraction method [2, 68, 88].

One study also found that oil made from the back fat of emus, especially those farmed versus feral, was more effective in reducing arthritic inflammation in rats [2].

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 the 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 primarily used for making soaps and animal feed

Forms

Emu oil can be applied topically or ingested, although human research is significantly lacking for the latter.

Dosage

Because emu oil is not approved for any conditions, there is no official dose. Users and manufacturers have established unofficial doses based on trial and error. Discuss the best dose with your doctor.

Topical Application

Clinical studies found the following doses effective:

  • 20% to 100% emu oil 1x-2x/day for skin hydration [54, 56, 53, 52]
  • 1% to 100% emu oil as mosquito repellant [66*]

Ingested

The optimal dose of emu oil may depend 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 at the following doses:

  • 3 mL/kg of body weight per day for intestinal and colon inflammation [38, 67, 76]
  • 6 mL/kg of body weight per day to prevent digestive damage from chemotherapy [71, 72]
  • 8 mL/kg of body weight per day to reduce LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol and testosterone [82]

Be sure to follow directions on product labels and consult your pharmacist or doctor before consuming emu oil. Never take emu oil in place of what your doctor recommends or prescribes

User Experiences

The opinions expressed in this section are solely those of emu oil users, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. Their reviews do not represent the opinions of SelfHacked. SelfHacked does not endorse any specific product, service, or treatment.

Do not consider user experiences as medical advice. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare providers because of something you have read on SelfHacked. We understand that reading individual, real-life experiences can be a helpful resource, but it is never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified healthcare provider.

Users often comment on how emu oil moisturizes the entire body, including hair, skin, nails, even gums. Some users also reported experiencing fewer wrinkles and “filled-out” or “plumped” cheeks after applying a couple of drops before bed.

Some users reported it improved their acne and eczema, reducing redness and dry patches.

It even reportedly worked for some users with extremely sensitive or oily skin without leaving a greasy residue. They recommended using only a drop or two, alone or mixed with lavender lotion or rose water.

According to some users, emu oil also improved hair hydration and allowed it to grow longer, without greasing clothes or sheets. Users suggested mixing with shampoo and conditioner, and deep conditioning hair with it a couple of 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 was an increase in facial hair growth.

New users should make sure the oil does not smell when first purchased. If it does, it is likely rancid and should be returned. Experienced users also recommend keeping emu oil in the fridge or buying it in small quantities to make sure it does not go bad before using it.

A small percentage of users saw zero effect and were very disappointed after purchasing such an expensive oil.

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* References with an asterisk identify experiments which came from patent proposals versus scientific journals. These are therefore not peer-reviewed and generally less reliable.

About the Author

Carlos Tello

Carlos Tello

PhD (Molecular Biology)
Carlos received his PhD and MS from the Universidad de Sevilla.
Carlos spent 9 years in the laboratory investigating mineral transport in plants. He then started working as a freelancer, mainly in science writing, editing, and consulting. Carlos is passionate about learning the mechanisms behind biological processes and communicating science to both academic and non-academic audiences. He strongly believes that scientific literacy is crucial to maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid falling for scams.

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