Contrary to popular belief, essential oils are not miracle cures.
In fact, some essential oils are dangerous.
I’ll help you separate fact from fiction in today’s post!
I don’t think a month goes by where I don’t receive an invitation to join or purchase DoTerra or Young Living essential oils. I bet a friend of yours has suggested you join her essential oil MLM team.
It’s a great investment, right?
It seems to me that the popularity of essential oils and aromatherapy has taken off in the past few years. I now see storefronts in malls and shopping areas where the merchant sells essential oil paraphernalia. And I understand why – essential oils smell amazing.
I take no issue with the fact that essential oils smell great and induce relaxation. I’m challenged with some of the more dubious claims that certain oils possess healing powers. Especially when they report to be a cure for cancer.
Not only that, there are plenty of hidden dangers in using essential oils. Dangers that MLM reps are unaware of. Dangers that you need to be aware of. Especially if you have kids or pets!
In today’s post, I’ll discuss whether essential oils actually improve your health and the hidden dangers in many common essential oils. By the end of today’s post, you’ll see – and smell – essential oils in a whole new light!
Let’s get going!
Making scents of aromatherapy and essential oils
Aromatherapy refers to the inhalation and topical application of true, authentic essential oils from aromatic plants to restore or enhance health, beauty, and well-being. The field of aromatherapy activity is quite wide, ranging from the deep and penetrating therapeutic actions of essential oils to the extreme subtlety of fragrance on the psyche. One of the uses of aromatherapy is to strengthen the self-healing processes by preventative methods and indirect stimulation of the immune system. (1)
This is how aromatherapy is defined by the Alliance of International Aromatherapists (AIA). An aromatherapist makes use of essential oils in his or her practice in order to bring about specific healing reactions.
Before we continue, let’s make a clarification on the word essential. In the context of vitamins or minerals, essential refers to the fact that your body cannot produce the substance. If a vitamin/mineral is essential, it must be obtained from your diet. Think of omega-3 fatty acids – these are what are known as EFAs or, essential fatty acids.
In the context of oils, essential does not mean that your body requires the oil. Instead, essential is in reference to the essence of the plant. The essential oil of lavender contains the essence of the lavender plant.
Now, there is nuance to the word essential in the world of oils. It is generally agreed that the best oils are 100% essential oil. Meaning that there is no carrier oil mixed with the essential oil. Cheaper oils mix essential oils with carrier oils – making a solution that is diluted or, less than 100% essential oil. But this isn’t always a bad thing – I’ll explain why a little bit later!
Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils. This is typically done through diffusion (inhalation) or the topical application of the essential oils on the body – as is typically done during raindrop therapy.
Ok, now you know the basics. It’s time to see what science thinks of essential oils!
What does science think of essential oils?
Science doesn’t think essential oils do much more than a placebo effect. At least that’s the general feeling I got from reading a number of research journals. And in their defense, I think there to be good reasoning behind this.
The vast majority of studies on essential oils do a poor job controlling variables. When a study poorly controls variables, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions. Essentially, we don’t know exactly what is causing the effect because not enough variables had been controlled for.
Let me give you an example from the world of essential oils and aromatherapy:
This study analyzed the effect of lavender essential oil on those with knee pain caused by osteoarthritis. The conclusion of the study reads:
Conclusion: Aromatherapy massage with lavender essential oil was found effective in relieving pain in patients with knee osteoarthritis. However, further studies are needed to confirm findings of this study.
Well, that sounds promising. Lavender oil probably improves knee pain in those with osteoarthritis. Time to purchase some lavender oils and put it on your achy joints!
Not so fast!
There are a couple of glaring shortcomings of this study. It goes back to not controlling variables. The first – and most damning – is that this study was done on a massage of the knee using lavender essential oil. The variable that wasn’t controlled here is massage.
Of course knee pain is going to be improved after a massage!
But that’s not what we’re wondering. We want to know if lavender oil improves knee pain. But this study didn’t control for the massage variable. Group 1 got massage with lavender oil. Group 2 got a massage with just almond oil. Group 3 did not receive a massage or oil treatment.
Not surprisingly, groups 1 and 2 had improved knee pain. But there wasn’t a difference between the two. This leads me to suspect that it was the massage that improved pain levels and not the lavender oil. But since variables were poorly controlled, we can’t make firm conclusions.
The second issue is the timeframe. If you’ve read my article on whether reiki is real or not, you’ll know I question the efficacy because they ask patients about the improvement they experience immediately after treatment. As a clinician, I’m more concerned about the longterm benefit.
In the aromatherapy study, the researchers leave out the fact that after 4 weeks, there was no improvement in pain. The short-term improvement that was experienced lasted for less than a week. If an intervention improves pain for less than a week, I’m not convinced it’s effective.
Now, essential oil supporters are going to say I cherry-picked this study in an effort to strengthen my claim and further criticize the efficacy of essential oils. So, I’ll next show you the best study I could find on essential oils.
What about the good scientific studies on aromatherapy and essential oils?
By good, I am referring to studies that do double-blind placebo-controlled testing. If you want to get your friend the scientist to buy your oils, you’ll want to provide her with these types of studies. And there are double-blind studies on essential oils!
In this study, rose oil was used as an intervention for migraine headaches. When rose oil went head-to-head against the placebo, there was no difference in the following markers:
- Pain intensity
- Light sensitivity (photophobia)
- Sensitivity to loud sounds (phonophobia)
Now, something worth mentioning also occurred in this particular study. The researchers analyzed additional data to further classify migraine headaches into either cold-type or hot-type. The data they used to make this classification wasn’t included.
However, they coincidentally found that rose oil was shown to lower pain levels in hot-type migraines. Again, they didn’t mention what a ‘hot’ migraine is.
I’m going to leave it with you to decide if the researchers played with data to come up with those migraine sub-groups. I’ve personally not heard of that classification before. It smells fishy!
Should you get some rose oil for your next migraine?
Well, it smells nice. And it might help lessen your pain if you’re experiencing a hot-type migraine. No negative or adverse effects were reported. You won’t be harmed by taking it.
But before you run out and purchase a bottle of essential oils, you should know that they’re not as safe as you might think. In fact, there are a number of dangers associated with essential oils. I’ll show you the risks below!
Can essential oils cure disease?
Regulatory bodies have ensured essential oil companies are not allowed to use the term “cures cancer”. In fact, in 2014, the FDA sent warning letters to both Young Living and DoTerra essential oils. (2, 3) The reason:
DoTerra and Young Living were making claims that their oils could cure Ebola, Parkinson’s disease, autism, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, insomnia, heart disease, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dementia, and multiple sclerosis, bacterial infections, brain injury, endometriosis, Grave’s Disease, tumor reduction, and ADD/ADHD.
But that hasn’t stopped evangelicals from spreading the healing properties of essential oils and aromatherapy. Let’s make it clear, essential oils have not been shown to cure cancer or any other disease.
This 2016 study reviewed all other studies using essential oils as a treatment for symptoms associated with cancer. The conclusion was that essential oils are not thought to improve health outcomes in cancer patients.
To be clear – there is no evidence showing that essential oils are able to cure any virus or disease. Anyone insisting otherwise is spreading misinformation.
Are essential oils natural?
Essential oils are man-made. You’re not going to find essential oils growing on trees. Essential oils are not natural.
There are three processes commonly used to make essential oils. Each of these methods is done using modern technology. They are not natural in the sense of being found in nature. For more information on the details on all the processes used to manufacture essential oils, click here.
I describe three of the more common practices used for making essential oils below. Please note that there are other ways of making essential oils that I have intentionally left out as these processes are less common.
The most common way of making essential oils is through a process known as distillation. To make essential oil, you’re going to need a distiller. Then, you need to heat up water combined with plant material to 100 degrees Celcius. At which point you can start to extract the essential oil of the plant. This is called steam distillation. It’s likely the most common way in which essential oils are created.
Expression or Cold-press extraction
The expression method of essential oil collection involves the slow rotation of a heavy, spiked roller along the skin of a plant without applying any outside heat. This method lends itself well to essential oils of the citrus variety. It does not work well for other plant types.
Some plants cannot be extracted using heat or pressure. For these essential oils, chemical extraction is necessary. Solvents like hexane or ethanol are needed to extract the essential oil from the plant. These extraction solvents remain in the oil after processing.
Summary: essential oils are made by non-natural means from natural plant material. I’ll leave it with you to decide whether or not they’re natural.
Are essential oils dangerous?
The common assumption is that:
Natural = Safe
Synthetic = Toxic
The fact that essential oils are natural is often used as justification for them being safe. But as you just learned, essential oils are not natural. They are not found in nature. Essential oils are man-made. And contrary to popular belief, essential oils can, in fact, be dangerous.
Consider that essential oils are highly concentrated. And I mean highly concentrated. Young Living claims that it takes 27 square feet of lavender plants to make a 15ml bottle. Or, that it takes 75 lemons to make a 15mL bottle. (5) For every 1mL of lemon oil, there are 5 lemons! That’s incredibly concentrated!
Have you ever got a chemical burn from raw garlic?
Raw garlic possesses many sulfur-containing compounds. These compounds are thought to be implicated in the chemical burns caused by applying raw garlic on the skin. (4) Now, let’s keep in mind that these burns can occur with no increase in the concentration of the substance.
What do you think would happen if you applied concentrated essential oil of garlic to your skin?
If you’re curious, check out this case report from the British Medical Journal of a lady who placed raw garlic on her foot for a few weeks. If she were to have placed garlic essential oil, I suspect the results would have been even worse.
When you put highly concentrated substances (whether from natural plants or not) on your skin or in your mouth, adverse effects can – and do – happen. Essential oils do not have an impeccable safety record. In fact, there is a long list of adverse effects documented every year. You can find this report here.
Don’t assume that essential oils are safe. Your detox reactions may actually be your body experiencing adverse effects. Don’t ignore these. They’re a sign for you to stop using the oil.
Before applying any concentrated oil to your skin, check the adverse effects of the oil in question. Diluting highly concentrated blends is always good practice.
Even more dangers of essential oils
But wait, there’s more! Let’s look at some of the specific dangers associated with essential oils.
Photosensitivity refers to the amount your skin reacts when receiving radiation from the sun. If you’re incredibly pale like I am, your skin is more photosensitive. But photosensitivity can also be altered by different compounds applied to your skin. Compounds like essential oils.
All citrus oils are photosensitizing. Citrus contains furocoumarins, which can cause chemical burns when exposed to the sun’s UV rays. If you’ve applied a citrus oil to your skin (diluted or not) you’re going to want to avoid the sun for a day.
Bergamot is another oil that is incredibly photosensitive. Make sure you avoid all sun exposure after application. Better yet, don’t apply it to your skin at all.
Herbs containing menthol and 1,8-cineole
Essential oils of peppermint, rosemary, eucalyptus, and wintergreen all contain menthol and 1,8-cineole. In young children and/or those with respiratory disorders, these substances can slow – and even stop – breathing. If you’ve got a newborn, ensure you’re not diffusing this oil in your house! (5, 6)
I’ve written at length about the incredibly high levels of hormone-mimicking substances in our environment. You can also add essential oils to that list. Some oils, like lavender and tea tree, contain phytoestrogens – substances that can exert a profoundly negative effect on males.
One study found that lavender and tea tree oil were implicated in young boys developing breast tissue (gynecomastia). (7) If you’ve got young boys in your home, I’d advise you to avoid diffusing lavender oil and avoid using tea tree oil as a treatment for infections.
Are essential oils too dangerous to use?
There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because there are dangers associated with essential oils does not mean you should avoid them completely. Instead, educate yourself on the properties of any oil you want to use.
Learn whether said oil can be safely diffused around you, your children, and your pets. Learn whether or not the oil in question can be applied topically – just remember to always dilute it!
Don’t assume the essential oil is safe. Odds are it is. But there are specific essential oils and applications that are dangerous. Just because the oil comes from a natural plant doesn’t make it safe!
Don’t listen to reps who work for essential oil companies. They have a HUGE conflict of interest. Do your own research!
Should we be using essential oils for illness?
I think essential oils have a place. But at the time of this writing, we need a lot more research!
The studies that show essential oils having antiviral and/or antibacterial properties (here and here) are preliminary at best. The studies are not done on human subjects. They were tested in Petri dishes under very specific laboratory conditions.
But the studies do suggest there to be a benefit. I think more research – on human subjects – is warranted. Essential oils may have a positive role to play in our health.
But for now, skepticism is warranted. Proceed cautiously. Research the oil you want to use extensively.
Outside of stimulating your olfactory senses, avoid purchasing oils for their healing properties. At this time, we just don’t know if they have any!
And whatever you do, don’t join a multi-level marketing operation for essential oils!
Be careful of how you purchase your essential oils
If you want to buy vegetables, do you get the opportunity to join a team of vegetable vendors promising you a life-changing opportunity with millions of dollars in residual income and a way you can work for yourself without any stress?
Of course not. You go to your local farmers market or grocer and exchange dollars for vegetables. Done. End of transaction.
The big players in the essential oils world don’t play by these same rules. They play by the rules of pyramid schemes. Pyramid schemes have gone through a rebranding process, they’re now known as multi-level marketing.
Here’s a simple example of how it works:
You recruit six of your friends to give you $20. You now have $120. Now, each of your 6 friends has to go find 6 more friends to give them $20. This results in a net profit of $100. This process continues on and on as more people joint the network.
If this pattern continues for just twelves more levels, you would require 2 billion people! It is for this reason that pyramid schemes or multi-level marketing structures are self-defeating. You run out of people to recruit quickly.
The FTC recommends looking out for the following red flags. These usually indicate the existence of a pyramid scheme/multi-level marketing organization: (8)
- Most of the income generated comes from recruits; not from product sales.
- You’re required to buy and maintain product – whether or not you sell it.
- You’re required/encouraged to attend seminars or pay other fees.
Why essential oil companies utilize these structures
Let’s say you and I make essential oils. We think our oils can cure cancer. Since there haven’t been any studies to confirm that our oils cure cancer, we legally can’t make the claim or advertise that our products are a cancer miracle cure. There will be no billboards or commercials that tout the cancer-beating effects of our product – regulatory bodies would shut us down. Fast.
But if we structured our company to have many overly enthusiastic representatives selling our product directly to other users, well, those representatives could make all the claims they wanted. No matter how out-there the claims may seem. This creates a separation or buffer between what our company claims and what the independent representatives claim.
This way our product can still get advertised as a cure for cancer and side-step any regulations put in place by government organizations. I suspect this is why so many natural health products (like essential oils) are set up in an MLM-type hierarchy – it allows for grandiose claims to be perpetuated without any regulatory body intervening.
If you do want to purchase essential oils, purchase them like you would any other product – from a store. Ensure you don’t have to join or sign-up for anything.
Ok, now you know all the hidden dangers and quirks behind essential oils!
Now, I want to hear from you!
How have essential oils affected your health?
What sort of adverse effects have you experienced from essential oils (if any)?
Leave your answers in the comments section below!