The Health Benefits of Emu Oil

Aboriginal remedy used for hair and skin care and other conditions

Young woman holding pipette with oil applying on her curly hair

iprogressman / Getty Images

Emu oil is a natural product made from the refined fat of the emu, a large flightless bird native to Australia. Rich in antioxidants like vitamin A and polyunsaturated fats, emu oil has long been used in aboriginal culture to heal wounds and treat common skin disorders.

The oil is derived from fat deposits just beneath the skin of the bird. It is then processed, filtered, and refined to various standards to obtain the prized, bright yellow oil that is said to have anti-inflammatory and anti-aging properties. Emu oil is also sometimes taken internally as a health tonic to treat digestive disorders and arthritis.

Health Benefits

Aboriginal people have long used emu oil to aid in the healing of wounds and to treat skin conditions as far-ranging as ​acne, eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, and shingles. When used for hair care, emu oil is said to increase fullness, add shine, control dandruff, eliminate split ends, and prevent hair loss. Emu oil is even sometimes used as a natural insect repellent.

When consumed, refined emu oil is thought to offer health benefits, in part because it is composed of nearly 70% "healthy" polyunsaturated fats.

There are some who contend that this heart-healthy fat can even aid in weight loss, high cholesterol, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and arthritis.

While some manufacturers are quick to promote such claims, there is actually little evidence that emu oil can improve a person's skin or hair, much less treat general or chronic health conditions. Most of the evidence is anecdotal at best.

With that being said, a number of smaller studies have examined the benefits of emu oil in treating several common and uncommon disorders. Here is what they found:

Skin Conditions

Emu oil is easily absorbed in the skin and can readily moisturize and hydrate dry, flaking skin. It is said to treat inflammatory skin conditions, including dermatitis, infections, and sunburns, although its exact mechanism of action is unclear.

Proponents contend that the anti-inflammatory effects are attributed to omega-3, omega-6, and omega-9 fatty acids which inhibit the cyclooxygenase (COX) enzyme in a similar way as Voltaren (diclofenac) and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

Despite such assertions, it is unlikely that emu oil exerts potent anti-inflammatory effects given that the fatty acid content is really no greater than most fish oils.

This is not to say that emu oil doesn't have a place in the treatment of skin conditions. For example, a 2016 study in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Therapy reported that the daily application of an emu-oil cream to the areola of breastfeeding women significantly reduced cracking and bleeding compared to women who didn't use the cream. (However, there was no assessment as to the safety of emu oil to the breastfed infant.)

In other areas, emu oil has fallen short of its far-reaching claims. An animal-based study published in Dermatology Research and Practice concluded that the use of emu oil to treat burns had a negative effect, slowing healing and prolonging inflammation compared to having no treatment at all.

A 2013 study in the Journal of Research in Medical Science further reported that emu oil was nowhere near as effective in treating seborrheic dermatitis, a common inflammatory skin condition, as clotrimazole or hydrocortisone cream.

Radiation and Chemotherapy

Despite its shortcomings in treating inflammatory skin conditions, there is some evidence that the hydrating effect of emu oil is beneficial to people undergoing radiation or chemotherapy for cancer.

According to a 2015 study in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, and Physics, the twice-daily application of emu oil following radiation therapy reduced the severity of skin redness, rashes, peeling, and swelling compared to cottonseed oil.

(Whether it compares favorably to more commonly prescribed skin creams, such as A&D, Eucerin, Aquaphor, Biafene, or Radiacare, has yet to be established.)

Similarly, an animal-based study published in the British Journal of Nutrition reported that emu oil consumed orally helped alleviate symptoms of mucositis, a common side effect of chemotherapy characterized by the inflammation of the mucous membranes of the digestive tract. Further research is needed to determine if the same might occur in humans.

Digestive Disorders

There is some evidence, albeit scant, that emu oil can aid in the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

A 2016 study in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine reported that rats fed emu oil and aloe vera for five days prior to treatment with indomethacin (an NSAID commonly in people with Crohn's disease) had less intestinal inflammation and fewer treatment-related ulcers than those that weren't.

While this suggests that emu oil may offer some level of intestinal protection in people with IBD, it is unclear from this study if emu oil, aloe vera, or both were the active ingredient. Further research is needed to establish its safety and effectiveness in humans.

Possible Side Effects

Even though emu oil has been used for centuries in aboriginal medicine, there is little known about the long-term safety of the product, especially when taken internally.

When used for skin or hair care, refined emu oil is generally considered safe and well-tolerated. The problem, of course, is that the quality of emu oils can vary significantly, with lower-grade oils often causing redness and irritation.

Before applying emu oil to the skin or hair, always test the oil on a small patch of skin and wait 24 hours to see if any redness, swelling, or rash develops.

While emu oil is readily available in capsule and oral formulations, it is unknown at what dose the oil may be unsafe or pose a risk of overdose. Moreover, there is little published research about possible side effects or interactions that may occur with oral use.

(Even fish oil, consumed safely as a dietary supplement, has side effects and interactions that bar some people from using it.)

Due to the lack of safety research, the internal use of emu oil should be avoided in children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers. Others should use emu oil supplements with extreme caution, ideally under the guidance of a qualified health professional

Dosage and Preparation

Emu oil is offered in a variety of topical applications, including unrefined oils and highly refined oils in glass dropper bottles. There are also emu oil sprays and moisturizing creams or lotions enriched with emu oil.

Emu oil is also offered as a dietary supplement, typically as a gel cap or food-grade oil. While there are no guidelines for the appropriate use of emu oil when taken internally, most manufacturers recommend a daily 2-gram dose (approximately one-half teaspoon or one or two gel caps). Never exceed the recommended dose on the product label.

Although emu oil can help moisturize and hydrate the skin, it should not be used to treat burns, cuts, rashes, or other skin injuries. Doing so may slow skin healing compared to other, more common first aid treatments.

What to Look For

In the United States. much of the emu oil comes from independent ranchers who render the prized oil as an adjunct to their business. Some will sell the oil to specialist manufacturers for refinement; others will do it themselves.

Because of this, the quality of emu oil can vary significantly from one producer to the next. To better ensure quality and safety, there are several things you should do:

  • Check for credentials. One good way is to see if the producer is a certified member of the American Emu Association (AEA), a non-profit organization dedicated to the ethical farming of emus.
  • Check the grade. In an effort to curb the sale of adulterated products, the AEA established an emu oil grading system: Grade A (fully refined), Grade B (once refined), and Grade C (crude). As a general rule, avoid anything but Grade A.
  • Buy organic. If the oil is refined from an intermediary manufacturer, opt for brands that are certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
  • Avoid added ingredients. Some additives, including vegetable oils and preservatives, can be irritating to the skin. Only purchase oils labeled "pure," meaning they have no added ingredients of any sort.
  • Check the color and smell. Refined emu oil should have a bright yellow color and little if any smell. Refined emu oil also has little taste.

If buying emu oil supplements, the same rules of thumb apply.

Because dietary supplements are largely unregulated in the United States (and few emu oil manufacturers submit their products for quality testing), there are few reasonable ways to tell if one brand is better than the next.

As a consumer, it is important to do your homework and to not be misled by health claims. Not only are these claims poorly supported, but it is illegal for a supplements manufacturer to do so in the United States.

In response to such claims, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) featured emu oil in a report entitled "How to Spot a Health Fraud," warning consumers to "be suspicious of products that claim to cure a wide range of unrelated diseases."

Other Questions

How long does emu oil keep?

Grade A emu oil has a shelf of around 18 months to two years. Lower-grade oils have a far shorter life, simply because there are proteins and other compounds that give rise to early spoilage.

Emu oil can be stored in a cool, dry room. You can extend the shelf life by keeping the oil in the refrigerator. While the oil will thicken during refrigeration, it will quickly return to normal consistency once removed.

Never use an emu oil product past its expiration date, and discard of any oil that has changed in color or consistency and/or has a rancid smell.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  1. Jeengar MK, Kumar S, Thummuri D, et al. Review on emu products for use as complementary and alternative medicine. Nutrition. 2015 Jan;31(1):21-27. doi:10.1016/j.nut.2014.04.004.

  2. Afshar, M.; Ghaderi, R.; Zardast, M. et al. Effects of Topical Emu Oil on Burn Wounds in the Skin of Balb/c Mice. Dermatol Res Pract. 2016; 2016:6419216. doi:10.1155/2016/6419216.

  3. American Emu Association. AEA Certified Emu Oil Program Updated. Ortonville, Michigan; January 2012.

  4. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "How to Spot a Health Fraud." Silver Spring, Maryland; updated May 5, 2016.

Additional Reading