Essential oils have become the bane of my existence.
This has not always been the case. Just seven years ago I cannot confidently say I had even heard of essential oils and I certainly did not encounter them daily.
At least some of the fault lies with me; I do work at a spa after all. Aromatherapy and the spa and wellness industry go together like peanut butter and jelly. Everyday I am forced to breathe in their earthy smells through a diffuser, watch customers fawn over our Doterra samples, and listen to bold claims about their therapeutic powers.
While it’s far from surprising that I encounter them at work, it has made me more aware of their existence and rising popularity. These days you can buy them everywhere, from the grocery store to Amazon, or perhaps from that annoying friend trying to hawk them on Facebook. Essential oils have even infiltrated the snowboarding scene.
Shredding into Pseudoscience
One day I scrolled across Instagram and saw that an Olympic snowboarder, Jamie Anderson, had teamed up with Doterra. This seems only natural given the extent to which the sports world often embraces alternative medicine, and the fact that Jamie Anderson has touted the benefits of healing crystals. Even though the partnership sounds logical, it didn’t sit well with me.
How could I take issue with tiny bottles of plant essence? Lavender, frankincense, roman chamomile, all words with pleasant connotations. A collection of essential oils at home has practically become a badge of honor in the wellness age. As often happens, I appear to be waging war on an innocent victim, and a popular one at that.
As I scrolled through the comments on Jamie’s post, essential oil advocates enthusiastically shared which oils they use for a panacea of problems — ranging from migraines to warding off the flu. Jamie herself described them as her “natural pharmacy.”
Bold Claims, Weak Science
This is nothing new to me. I have become fairly immune to hearing people make claims about the miraculous medicinal properties of essential oils, often in the same breathe with which they rebuke modern medicine and pharmaceuticals. I’ve overheard many small, eye roll-inducing claims such as an oil blend can boost your immune system. But hearing people argue that essential oils can treat more serious conditions like ADHD, diabetes, or tuberculosis has induced a burning rage inside that I have until now suppressed.
Aromatherapy as a concept should immediately raise red flags. Sure, smelling something can evoke strong reactions or emotions. But even if any of the chemicals in essential oils had proven medicinal effects, the mechanism by which inhaling an essential oil could treat internal ailments appears to be lacking. According to Skeptoid, very few molecules are involved when you breath in a smell. Not enough would reach your system to have a measurable effect on your body, and certainly not to cure it of a disease.
Of course essential oils are not used strictly as aromatherapy. Practitioners will also recommend applying certain oils topically or even taking them internally. A guide of how to use essential oils lingers around the spa break room. When I dared to open it, I found lists of dozens of ailments paired with the essential oils or blends that can be used to treat them, as well as directions for use. While some like balding were funny; seeing multiple oils suggested for shrinking tumors was disturbing.
The guide prescribes putting two drops of Frankincense under the tongue daily for cancer. At this point we have moved from red flag territory to full on alarm bells. For almost any condition the guide seems to recommend five different oils. And each essential oil seems to have five unrelated illnesses it can treat. If this isn’t starting to sound more like magic than science to you, then you clearly have forgotten your skeptical hat.
In many ways essential oils are more closely related to folklore. Although anecdotal “evidence” abounds in the world of essential oils, the science is completely lacking to support almost any of this medical advice. As Dr. Steven Novella points out, while there have been several in vitro studies conducted on essential oils, there is little in the way of the well-designed, double-blind clinical studies that are the gold standard for science-based medicine.
Research on the oils succumbs to the same pattern of many alternative therapies according Dr. Novella, “do a lot of basic studies showing that ‘stuff happens’ in the petri dish. Then do worthless clinical trials with inadequate designs guaranteed to show a placebo effect, and use them to declare your treatment ‘evidence-based.’”
Any credible source have encountered generally has the same analysis: that the existent studies on essential oils are scarce, pre-clinical, small, poorly designed and do by not by any means provide definitive proof (or any at all necessarily) that these oils can treat the absurd amount of illnesses that websites, books, and sellers claim. And we certainly lack the information to isolate active ingredients and determine application, dosage, safety, or interactions with other drugs.
Don’t Let That Little Nuisance Called the FDA Stop You
This reality unfortunately does not stop essential oil companies from implying that their products have all sorts of medicinal benefits. The FDA requires disclaimers reading, “these statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” That does not, however, stop manufacturers from stating that their product products provide “immune support” or “aid in digestion.” And it certainly doesn’t prevent a seller from holding a Tupperware-style party and telling her captive friends tales of how peppermint oil treated her son’s autism. No, really that happens.
I’m continually amazed (slash concerned) at how readily people accept that essential oils could, or even should, have some type of therapeutic value without question. But when Googling it becomes clear why so many people have bought into the hype. Finding reliable scientific analysis of the oils is hard, finding sites dedicated to their promotion is not.
While the marketing is largely overblown, this does not absolve anyone from failing to apply critical thinking. Especially when the defense of essential oils often boils down to, “Well, they are natural and really old. They used them way back in Ancient Egypt.” Well, the ancient Egyptians had a life expectancy of 30 years and died of minor infections and diseases we can prevent or cure today. Try again.
Tales of MLMs and Snake Oil
Despite my grievances they don’t appear to be disappearing anytime soon.
The market was at a staggering 7.1 billion in 2017 and is predicted to rise to 13 billion by 2024. Use in food products and cosmetics has helped drive the rise, as well as a trend toward natural and alternative therapies. And essential oil companies are already reaping the benefits from the mom telling her friend to buy that $100 bottle of frankincense to fix all of her woes, since allegedly it’s miraculous.
Maybe you just enjoy the way they scent your home or using some to make soap. While I haven’t found one essential oil with a scent I genuinely like, this is far from a reason to stop others from partaking in their favorite aromas. However, when more than one poster on social media asks which oil can protect their kid from the measles, we run into more dangerous territory. Thanks to anti-vaxxers, vaccine rates have been dropping in certain areas, causing measles to make a resurgence in the U.S. and other parts of the world. You know what hasn’t fixed the problem? Essential oils.
The promotion of alternative therapies in place of proven medical treatment will always carry risks. And essential oils themselves despite being natural are not automatically safe, especially for your furry companion. In spite of lacking science and clashes with the FDA, essential oil companies continue to promote bad information and engage in questionable business practices.
Young Living was instrumental in popularizing essential oils and re-defining them as household items. Between 2007 and 2017 they experienced tenfold growth. But here’s the shadier reality: 94 percent of their 2 million active sellers made less than $1 in all of 2016, meaning that over a billion in sales they reported is going to a very small percent at the top while many are actually losing money. While they might label it “multi-level marketing”, that sure smells like a pyramid scheme to me. Even if it is patchouli scented.
More so, the origins of Young Living are somewhat shocking, although not entirely surprising given that the company seems willing to do anything for a buck. Founder Gary Young has been found guilty of practicing medicine without a license and forced to set up sketchy clinics in other countries more than once. And his long list of cringe-worthy acts include administering essential oils intravenously, delivering his own daughter and subsequently killing her by holding her underwater, as well as claiming that he could detect cancer with blood tests.
A journalist once sent a blood sample to Mr. Young. Young proceeded to tell him that he had cancer and could cure it through his clinic’s detox program for a mere $2,000 a week. Except that the blood was from a cat — and that cat didn’t even have cancer. The founder of the now equally popular Doterra split off from Young Living when he found out that Young had performed gall bladder surgery with no medical training. Apparently that is the red line.
These are not the figures I would opt to receive medical advice from, nor the type of companies I would choose to support. I can’t stop you from diffusing lavender in your apartment, or throwing some drops of a blend in your bath (though once I tried this and had to leap out when my skin started to burn). But if anyone invites you to a Doterra party, I advise that you run far, far away.