Essential oils have become a craze. Every time I turn around there’s someone talking or writing something about essential oils. As a pharmacist, it’s a trend that has me a bit concerned. I’m not completely against using essential oils, but I do have a problem with how they’re being marketed and some of the ways which people are using them.
There’s definitely been a trend towards using more natural products and fewer synthetic (man-made) products. We’re becoming more aware of how some synthetic products are affecting the environment around us and our health. In many situations, that’s a change I applaud, support, and have been making myself in certain capacities. There is no doubt that there are many dangerous synthetic chemicals that should be avoided. I switched to using standard chemical cleaners to using Norwex because a) using primarily water and microfiber cloths to clean my house is safer than using cleaning chemicals and b) often, I’ve found the Norwex products to be more effective than the chemicals. As a pharmacist, I’ve been trained to think about drugs and chemicals in those two ways: safety and effectiveness. If a chemical is safe for human use, but not effective, there’s not any use in it! If a chemical is effective, but not safe, then you need to weigh the risks and the benefits before use.
First of all, let’s realize that you cannot eliminate chemicals. Organic chemistry is at the basis of biology. A chemical, by definition, is two or more atoms joined together through a chemical bond. Everything around you can be broken down into various chemical components, which can then be broken down into atoms. Even water is a chemical!
To be completely honest, just about every chemical can be harmful to some degree, it’s just dependent on the dose or exposure level, and whether it is doing more harm than good. Let’s look at a couple of examples:
-Water: in general, water is very safe for human use and consumption. However, excessive water consumption can lead to a condition called hyponatremia, which can be fatal.
-Chemotherapy: the drugs used in chemotherapy are very toxic and can cause a lot of health problems. However, we use them at specific doses in patients with cancer as a medicine that can help save their lives. The side effects of chemotherapy are all evidence of the toxicity, but overall the result in patients with cancer can be more good than harm.
Whether a chemical is natural or synthetic is irrelevant with regard to it’s safety to humans (or our pets!). There are plenty of really nasty natural chemicals that we try to avoid all the time!
Inappropriate Use of Essential Oils
My biggest concern is that essential oils are being marketed for a variety of health conditions, when there is no evidence that the oils provide any benefit for those conditions and the oils can have unwanted side effects, just like any other chemical or medication.
I would not recommend using essential oils internally (taking them by mouth). They are not food, and some oils are toxic when swallowed. Also, they may interact with some medications. This is the statement from the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy on using essential oils internally:
“Do not take essential oils internally without appropriate advanced aromatherapy education and understanding of the safety issues involved in doing so….Many individuals throughout the United States and the world are utilizing essential oils internally. Most are doing so without appropriate knowledge or understanding of how, when, how much, what essential oils, for what purpose, safety concerns, etc.”
Be cautious about which oils you apply to your skin. Some oils can cause irritation to the skin, and citrus oils can by phototoxic, meaning that the skin can be damaged if areas where the oil was applied are exposed to UV light.
Do NOT apply essential oils if you are pregnant. Essential oils can have effects on the body when applied topically, but they may not be the desired effects. For example, lavender and tea tree oil have the potential to imbalance hormone levels.
Avoid using essential oils on children. Children’s skin is thinner than adult skin, so children can absorb more through their skin – which means they can experience more of the toxic effects, or exaggerated responses of the desired effects.
Don’t use essential oils in any way (including as aromatherapy) around people with breathing problems, such as asthma.
Appropriate Use of Essential Oils
It is my opinion that essential oils should be used primarily as aromatherapy. This method of use poses the least health risks, at least to people without breathing disorders. That said, be considerate about using essential oils as aromatherapy around others. While you may find the scent to be pleasing or relaxing, the same scents may cause headaches or migraines for other people.
I’m allergic to fabric softener and dryer sheets, so for years my clean laundry has been unscented. When I started using wool dryer balls, I learned of how I could use essential oils in the balls to give my laundry a nice smell. I’ve been using orange when I dry my sheets, and it gives me a very light and pleasant smell when I go to bed!
Leave topical application of essential oils to massage therapists. They are more knowledgeable and experienced about the proper and safe application of essential oils. Make sure you inform your massage therapist if you have any allergies or medical conditions (including if you’re pregnant!).
What to Know Before You Buy
I’ve seen marketing for essential oils that I find to be downright scary as a pharmacist. Recently doTERRA and Young Living, companies that sell essential oils, got in trouble with the FDA due to some of their marketing statements. You can see the letter to doTERRA here and the letter to Young Living here. Consultants selling essential oils cannot claim that oils can prevent, mitigate, treat, or cure medical conditions….doing so would be illegal because essential oils are not drugs and their safety and effectiveness has not undergone the rigorous testing required by the FDA to be considered a drug. You’ll notice that the official marketing material from these companies makes very vague claims like: “cleanses and detoxifies,” “supports healthy digestion” or “promotes emotional balance and well-being.” Ask yourself what these things statements really mean.
Be wary if you are told that there are scientific studies proving a purported effect of an essential oil. Ask about the study – was it conducted in humans (rather than mice or a Petri dish), and if so, how many people? What was the study design – was it randomized, double-blinded, and placebo-controlled? I rarely see articles about essential oils that link to scientific studies. When I have found links, the studies are not particularly impressive.
There is a reason that essential oils have not become part of mainstream medical therapy, and it has nothing to do with pharmaceutical companies rejecting natural therapies because they can’t make any money off of them. After all, morphine is naturally produced by the opium poppy, and its an incredibly popular medicine! Almost every pharmacist, physician, and health care provider that I know cares very little about how much money drug companies are making – they care about therapies that can provide benefits for their patients with minimal risk of side effects. If essential oils were really able to provide a significant benefit for a variety of conditions, they would be recommended regularly by many health care providers. While I certainly wish that something as simple as essential oils could prevent the common cold, treat influenza, and generally make us invincible, that’s just simply not the case.
Until later, Ashlen