They also smell nice, and many essential oil diffusers have sleek and modern designs that look great in the home.
You might even have a friend who swears by getting great sleep by spraying lavender oil on her pillow at night, or a co-worker who claims peppermint essential oil stops her morning sickness in its tracks.
The essential oils market is expected to reach $15 billion USD by 2025, a staggering figure. This is largely due to the internet and social media, along with massive multi-level marketing (MLM) companies and their representatives promoting these oils all over the internet—often with misleading and unsafe claims.
Let's take a look at the world of essential oils, and how they tricked the world.
Essential Oils Are Natural, But That Doesn't Necessarily Mean Safe
First things first: essential oils are oils that have been extracted from the roots, leaves or seeds of various plants using applied pressure.
Just because these oils come from plants doesn't mean they're safe.
These oils are meant to be diluted. They're very highly concentrated—in concentrations exponentially higher than you could ever be exposed to from the plant itself. Also, just because something is natural doesn't mean it's safe; many plants are toxic to humans and animals.
Essential oils contain hundreds of different chemicals and it's impossible to know the effects of all of them.
Misuse is also rampant: not all oils are safe to be ingested, inhaled via a diffuser, or applied to the skin in undiluted form, and this has lead to a large number of health-related issued for users, their family and their pets.
Since essential oils are unregulated by the FDA, it's something of a wild west situation where people are recommending oils to their friends and family and no one knows the actual effects they might be having.
It's True: Essential Oils Can Have Positive Effects
It would be irresponsible not to talk about the truth that some essential oils can have medicinal effects.
There hasn't been a lot of clinical research done on the effects of essential oils on the human body, meaning that most claims made about the positive effects of these oils are unsubstantiated.
However, there are some studies that have shown possible benefits.
For example, a 2018 study (2) found evidence that lavender essential oil can have a marked anti-anxiety effect and could be a viable treatment for those suffering with the affliction.
Another 2003 study (3) found evidence that tea tree oil is an effective anti-fungal agent.
It's very likely that other essential oils can have a positive health effect. However, at this point there hasn't been nearly enough clinical research to prove it.
The issue isn't that all essential oils are bad; the issue is that users and companies are giving unsubstantiated information about the oils which is, in turn, causing them to be used unsafely.
Lavender & Tea Tree Oil Possibly Linked To Abnormal Breast Growth in Boys and Girls
While lavender and tea tree oils have possible positive effects, a shocking new study shows that they might also be endocrine disruptors that cause gynecomatsia (abnormal breast growth) in young girls and boys.
The study (7) looked at three prepubescent girls and one boy with gynecomastia and a history of exposure to lavender-containing fragrances.
When the exposure to lavender was stopped, the abnormal breast growth stopped as well.
And that's not all: an older study from 2007 found similar results related to both lavender and tea tree oils. (8) However, this study was done on in vetro cells and didn't look at the topical application of the oils or other direct exposure.
However, clinical studies should always be taken with a grain of salt. The first study had a very small sample size (4 people) and wasn't controlled research and was also vague. What were the exact products used? Did these products have other possible endocrine disruptors? Were the oils tested for purity?
Regardless, these studies show that caution should be used when it comes to essential oil use. However, the experts who performed the first study aren't recommending avoiding products with lavender essential oils. They're simply urging the FDA to do more research on them.
Essential oils contain hundreds of chemicals, and many of the chemicals found in lavender and tea tree oil can be found in other essential oils as well.
At Better Goods, we identify any products that have lavender or tea tree oils so you can make the personal decision of whether or not to avoid them.
Essential Oils Are Unregulated Everywhere In The World
First of all, there are no regulatory agencies anywhere in the world that do testing on essential oils.
In the USA, much like dietary supplements, essential oils are not regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration.) This means that zero testing nor FDA approval needs to be acquired to market and sell essential oil products to consumers.
However, the FDA does regulate how the products can be marketed.
Companies cannot claim that their essential oils will treat, prevent, cure or mitigate any disease or affliction without scientific data to back these claims up.
But there's a big loophole here.
Nothing stops 3rd party sellers of essential oils from making claims like these, and in fact, if you look on social media, you'll see no end to misleading claims. We'll get into that in the next section.
Other unregulated and misleading claims you might see on essential oil bottles or marketing:
- Grade A - A meaningless claim - you'll never see any essential oil branded as grade B or C.
- Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade ® - A trademark of the DoTerra company, making it a meaningless and unofficial term.
- Approved by the ISO - The ISO is the main certifying body recognized for its universally accepted standards for individual essential oils. However, they have nothing to do with standards for the actual quality of the essential oils.
- GRAS approved - GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) is a term used by the FDA for natural ingredients used in food. Essential oils themselves aren't GRAS-approved but you might see this label on products that contain essential oils as an ingredient.
- Pharmaceutical, Food or Medical Grade - All three of these are unregulated terms that are not legally defined and mean nothing.
The MLM + Social Media Problem
Multi-level marketing (MLM) companies like DoTerra and Young Living have turned recruiting hopeful side-hustlers into hawkers of these products.
Essential oils, MLM companies and their representitives have found the perfect platform on social media. The hashtag #essentialoils on Instagram has nearly 10 million posts at the time of writing, just one of hundreds of hashtags used.
Browse any of these hashtags and you'll find images of countless smiling representatives, happily talking about the supposed benefits of the oils they're selling. You'll find an equal number of those users trying to recruit others into their "downline" (an MLM term for reps recruited under another rep).
This has lead to not only an explosion in popularity of essential oils, but an equal amount of misinformation being spread by the uneducated sellers of these products.
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Did you know that our animals can totally benefit from essential oils as well!? ⠀⠀ I am going to link you up to our Veterinarian Panel who spoke on how incredible doTERRA oils can be to support your pets anxious feelings, tummy issues and overall health. ⠀⠀ We have two small Yorkie pups and have used oils on and around them for the past 5 years. We love diffusing Peace, applying diluted Serenity to their paws (to help with anxiety) and often use DigestZen diluted on their belly when something isn’t sitting right. ⠀⠀ Do you use oils on your animals? What is your favorite?
MLM companies like DoTerra & Young Living do little to prevent their reps from spreading dangerous misinformation about their essential oils even after receiving warnings from the FDA.
Essential Oils Promoted As Cures For Diseases
These warnings were in response to their "consultants" promoting the products as possible cures for things like ebola virus, cancer, autism, paralysis and more.
It's not easy to tell where the line is between ignorance and willful deception when it comes to people promoting their MLM essential oils as cures for terrible afflictions like cancer, but one fact remains clear: this is incredibly dangerous misinformation.
Parents Giving Essential Oils To Their Children
There's a growing distrust of the pharmaceutical industry which has lead to a growing number of parents giving essential oils to their children to treat medical issues.
For example, Facebook is filled with groups of parents who are anti-vaxx, anti-medication and in many cases, even anti-doctor. In these groups you'll find countless members who tote essential oils as safe and better alternatives to real medications.
This is a growing problem that has lead to not only an increasing number of children not getting the treatment they need, but also an increasing number of poisonings due to misuse of essential oils.
In Australia, poisonings from essential oils are growing more than 5% per year, with 63% of cases being in children under the age of 15. (6)
Users should also be cautious about diffusing essential oils in a home with young children. The tiny bodies of young children are much more easily overwhelmed by essential oils
Pet Owners Giving Essential Oils To Their Cats & Dogs
In 2018, a Facebook post went viral (8) when a woman inadvertently poisoned the family cat by diffusing eucalyptus essential oils to treat her cold.
Reliable studies on the effects of essential oils on animals are even more scarce than those on humans. There have been a few studies in 2002 (9), 2013 (10) and 2016 (11) that were all sponsored by companies that make products with essential oils in them.
Many essential oils are straight-up known to be toxic to dogs, cats or birds. For example, oils known to be toxic to dogs include pennyroyal oil, pine oils, tea tree oil and wintergreen oil.
Indirect exposure to essential oils is a danger as well. Anecdotal evidence (4) has shown pets having severe adverse reactions after being in homes with essential oil diffusers running.
The most common symptoms for cats and dogs exposed to diffused essential oils are drooling, vomiting, coughing, and sneezing. Diffusing oils can be fatal to cats and dogs that have asthma or other respiratory issues.Dr. Tina Wismer, medical director of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center
Dr. Wisner suggests keeping your pet away from any room using an essential oil diffuser, but we believe that not using a diffuser at all in a home with a pet is the safest solution.
Because there are no proven benefits of using essential oils and they might possibly be toxic, avoiding using oils either topically or internally is probably a bad idea.
Using Essential Oils During Pregnancy
The use of essential oils during pregnancy is a controversial topic and not well understood.
Many women get great relief from using essential oils during their pregnancy, which makes it hard to recommend not using them.
However, like most other topics surrounding essential oils, there is very little official information or studies on the use of essential oils during pregnancy.
The main concern is the possible risk of essential oil chemicals crossing over the placenta barrier. However, this has been neither proven or debunked by any study as of today.
On the internet you'll find lists of oils that are supposedly "safe" and "unsafe" for pregnancy, but it's unclear what the origin is of this information.
The majority of the risk most likely comes from ingestion of oils as opposed to using them topically or inhaled, but as they say, better safe than sorry.
The Coronavirus Outbreak & Essential Oils
On March 11th, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak a pandemic.
Almost instantly, claims that the virus could be killed or users could be made immune to the virus by ingesting particular essential oils started making the rounds on social media and websites of those selling oils.
At this time, there is no known cure for the virus.
However, a May 2020 study (7) of 171 essential oil compounds on the virus concluded that while the oils themselves did nothing against the virus themselves, they "components may act synergistically, essential oils may potentiate other antiviral agents, or they may provide some relief of COVID-19 symptoms."
Despite that, there is very little research regarding the efficacy of essential oils in killing the virus or otherwise helping protect against it. Around the time the virus was labeled a pandemic, the FDA issued warnings to 7 companies for selling products they claimed to be effective against the virus, many of them being essential oils. (8)
While some essential oils like tea tree oil are considered antiviral, but this doesn't mean that these oils are effective against all viruses, and certainly not against viruses that cause respiratory tract infections.
Skin Irritation & Allergic Reactions
The most common side-effect experienced with essential oil use is skin irritation and allergic reactions.
This could include:
- Irritation (Irritant contact dermatitis)
- Allergic contact dermatitis (delayed hypersensitivity)
- Contact urticaria (immediate hypersensitivity)
These problems will typically manifest with redness, itching, burning or hives, but the amount of time these issues last depends on whether it's an actual allergic reaction or just skin irritation. Sometimes, with an allergic reaction to the oils, the symptoms can last for weeks.
In the case of number 2, contact dermatitis, there will be a delayed hypersensitivity reaction, meaning you might not notice effects for 12 to 72 hours after exposure.
Essential oils should always be diluted, and not diluting is a common reason for these reactions to occur.
Some essential oils, like lime, lemon, orange and bergamot are known to cause photosensitive reactions. This means a reaction when used on the skin and then exposing them to the sun.
When diffusing essential oils, they might cause reactions like sneezing, a runny nose or congestion.
Contact Urticaria Anaphylaxis
Contact uricaria is the same type of allergic reaction some people get from a bee sting. Unfortunately, like bee stings, some people can go into anaphylaxis which can be fatal. These reactions seem to be extremely rare with essential oil use, but it's still worth noting.
There's still so much we don't know about essential oils. It's very likely that many of them have true, positive health effects, but the research just isn't there yet.
Essential oils are not all bad, but the way they're marketed as cure-all potions and spread by multi-level marketing sellers as such is very troubling.
Because of the possible downsides, we recommend using essential oils cautiously, and never as an alternative treatment to a serious condition in lieu of proven treatments.