A Reformed Skeptic’s Guide to Essential Oils

If you look past the shady MLMs and hyperbolic health claims, essential oils have some amazing benefits.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska via Pexels

I have a confession to make: I spent £175 on essential oils and accessories this week. I feel good about this decision, although my partner— who shares a bank account with me — does not.

Right now you may be lowkey judging me— and I get it. Essentials oils have a bad rep. At best, they’re expensive bottles of nice smelling liquids. At worst, they’re quackery of the highest order. They conjure images of wannabe saleswomen trying to shift dodgy oils on Facebook, shamelessly claiming they’ll cure your Aunt Pam’s cancer or little Johnny’s autism.

That was my impression, at least.

The pandemic has achieved two things in my life. Firstly, it’s ramped up my hypochondria from a baseline 7 to a dizzying 9.9. If there’s something that can treat or prevent this ghastly plague, I want to hear about it. Secondly, I’m largely at a loose end, so there’s more time for my journalism (read: obsessively researching things on the Internet). Combine those with a curious Facebook advertisement for essential oils, and I’m like a truffle pig following a scent. Let me tell you right now, it was an unexpectedly wild ride.

I stand before you today to tell you I was wrong about essential oils. Sort of. Actually, there is a lot of snake oil out there — but there are some promising health benefits, too. Like, actually backed by science.

Annoyingly, it’s a total minefield out there. Not all essential oils and consumption methods are created equal. If you want to reap the maximum benefits, you have to put in the legwork. Thankfully, I’ve come prepared with everything you need to know about essential oils, but can’t be bothered to google.

The dark side of essential oils

Before we dive in, a primer on essential oils: in a nutshell, they’re strong-smelling, concentrated extracts from plants. Why do we give a rat’s ass? They contain chemical compounds that are potentially beneficial to human health and wellbeing.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad press surrounding essential oils, and much of this can be attributed to their association with multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs). Under these arrangements, non-salaried individuals sell a company’s products or services directly to consumers, often targeting their personal networks. ‘Representatives’ typically have to purchase their own stock and pay for their own training, supposedly making money off sales and onboarding others into the program. It’s essentially a pyramid scheme. The critical difference is that there is actually a product to sell, so making money is theoretically possible.

In reality, less than 1% of MLM participants turn a profit.

The whole thing is a recipe for disaster. MLM’s pray on vulnerable people in bad financial situations, luring them in with an opportunity to make a quick buck. These unsuspecting victims bankrupt themselves buying stock they have no idea how to sell, so push that shit on their loved ones like the most unscrupulous street dealer. It’s an industry underpinned by false promises, fuelled by cult-like mind control.

If you only take one thing away from this article, it should be this: stay away from MLMs. You’ll make about $4 a year, and your family will hate you.

Unfortunately, essential oils are one of the most popular products sold by MLMs — see Young Living and doTerra. These billion-dollar companies have repeatedly come under fire for distributing completely unqualified medical advice, and falsely presenting essential oils as a cure for anything — from AIDs and cancer to Alzheimer's and Ebola. More recently, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has warned the two companies about making unsupported claims regarding coronavirus prevention and treatment.

It gets worse. Even a quick peek down the Young Living rabbit hole reveals a story as crazy as Tiger King. There’s illegal trafficking of endangered plant species, an ex-convict founder practicing medicine without a license, and associations to a Mexican clinic that used cat blood samples to tell a man he had cancer. In 2019, a class action lawsuit was taken out against the company, alleging it to be an unlawful pyramid scheme, a ‘convincing lie’.

Perhaps most importantly, essential oils are potent chemical substances that shouldn’t be used without appropriate precautions. They’re generally pretty safe, but if used inappropriately can cause chemical burns, allergic reactions, or even seizures. MLMs are just not equipped to properly distribute safety information — Young Living was sued in 2014 for failing to warn a consumer about an oil’s interactions with sunlight, resulting in her receiving severe burns.

It’s the wild west out there.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov via Pexels

Scientifically proven benefits

At this point, no one would blame you for vowing to stay away from essential oils, but don’t be too hasty. If you put the dodgy business practices to one side, there’s something to be said for the oils themselves — benefits backed by Actual Science™.

Fun fact: if you’re curious about the potential benefits (or snake-oiliness) of a natural therapy or compound, PubMed Central is your friend. Here you’ll find a vast collection of biomedical and life sciences journals, accessible in full, entirely for free. This is great if you’re skeptical as hell, but still want to believe. Quite often, there’s more scientific support for natural remedies and preventatives than you’d think.

If you search ‘essential oils’ in PubMed Central, there are about 44,000 search results looking at their biological activities and therapeutic benefits. Many of them are quite encouraging, showing how essential oils can effectively be applied to a number of common health conditions.

For example, studies have shown that lavender oil exhibits an anxiety-soothing effect, without the tolerance, dependency, and withdrawal effects of traditional sedatives. Other studies have looked at the ability of certain essential oils (thyme, marjoram, and rosemary) to break down the bacterial biofilms that play a role in urinary tract infections (UTIs). They conclude that these herbs are viable alternatives to antibiotics, and can help address the growing problem of multidrug-resistant bacteria.

Researchers have also looked into essential oils for conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Patients taking turmeric extracts and fennel essential oil have reported a significant reduction in the severity of their symptoms, plus improvements to their quality of life.

The list of potential applications goes on and on, but what about today’s most pressing concern, the coronavirus? I’m not going to sit here and tell you that essential oils can cure COVID-19, but there are reasons to watch this space. Multiple studies suggest certain oils could have useful mechanisms in both the prevention and treatment of the virus.

One study from August 2020 states:

Essential oils (EOs) have long been known to have anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, bronchodilatory, and antiviral properties and are being proposed to have activity against SARC-CoV-2 virus. Owing to their lipophilic nature, EOs are advocated to penetrate viral membranes easily leading to membrane disruption. Moreover, EOs contain multiple active phytochemicals that can act synergistically on multiple stages of viral replication and also induce positive effects on host respiratory system including bronchodilation and mucus lysis.

It goes on to discuss the benefits of specific oils (including eucalyptus and garlic) and their constituent compounds, suggesting ways in which they might assist against characteristics of COVID-19 infection (including the deadly cytokine storm).

Another study from May 2020 discusses the potent inhibitive effects of certain essential oils (including cinnamon, thyme, and tea tree) on strains of influenza, which may similarly apply to COVID-19. It also notes that synergistic effects have been observed between essential oils and synthetic antiviral agents, suggesting oils could be a useful complementary therapy.

In short, there is scientific support for many of the wellness-enhancing effects of essential oils after all. It’s worth noting that the powerful compounds found in many plants and essential oils were once the only medicines that we had. In fact, many modern pharmaceutical drugs are derived from plant extracts.

Photo by Anna Shvets via Pexels

How to best consume essential oils (and not poison yourself)

So, maybe you’ve decided you’d like to give essential oils a try… but how? Again, essential oils are potent chemicals, so care needs to be taken about how they’re sourced and consumed.

This is where the second rabbit hole begins.

Selecting an oil to use

Different oils have completely different properties, and therefore different therapeutic characteristics. If you’ve got a specific problem you want to solve, Pub Med is once again a useful resource, as is the Internet at large. Most essential oil vendors (more on that below) will have details on their website about the benefits of each oil, as well as scent profiles. You can also find premixed blend suggestions. If you have the cash, your best option is to consult an aromatherapist, herbalist, or naturopath, who can give you tailored advice.

In any case, always do your research to make sure a given oil isn’t contraindicated with any pre-existing health conditions you might have. Similarly, make sure oils are suitable for pregnant women, children, or babies, if applicable.

Sourcing your oils

Real talk: you want to source the best oils possible. This is stuff that is going into your lungs or onto your skin, so you want to be sure it doesn’t contain any harmful additives or contaminants. But how do you know that something is high quality without relying on the marketing doublespeak of shifty MLMs?

First of all, check the labels to make sure the oil is 100% pure, i.e. nothing else added. All good? Great. Now it becomes a bit more complicated.

The main thing to know when looking for a good oil brand is that ‘therapeutic grade’ is entirely a marketing term — there is no legal definition. Any company can make this claim about their oils, and it isn’t held to any external quality standard or regulation.

Instead, one thing you can do is look out for organic oils — more specifically, ones that have an organic certification from a recognisable body (i.e. from the Soil Association in the UK, or the USDA in the US). Certified organic oils are likely to be healthier and less toxic, as they are sourced from plants that meet strict requirements in terms of pesticides, fertilisers, and GMOs.

That said, it’s harder for some plants to meet organic standards, so don’t necessarily be put off if there’s an oil you want that you can’t find with organic certifications. High-quality oil vendors will often publish detailed analyses of their oils online (commonly results from gas chromatography-mass spectrometry testing), so you can be sure that they are pure that way.

In general, try to get a feel for the vendor. Are they using recognisable certifications where they can? Are they open with their test results? Do they back up any claims they make? If the answer is yes, you’re good to go. If they’re throwing around marketing buzzwords, making too-good-to-be-true health claims, or giving off culty-vibes, I’d give them a wide berth.

Consumption methods

There are three ways to consume essential oils: via the skin, inhalation, or ingestion. Care needs to be taken when consuming essential oils internally, so it’s probably best to do so only under the advice of a trained professional. Alternatively, seek out preparations that are explicitly designed for internal consumption (e.g. soft gel supplements from reputable vendors).

The other two methods are more straightforward, but if you’re going to be applying it to your skin, there are two things to be aware of:

  1. Never put undiluted essential oils on your skin. This can cause irritation, and possibly burns. Instead, dilute a few drops of essential oil into a carrier oil, like jojoba or coconut.
  2. Do a patch test first to rule out allergy or sensitivity. Simply apply a bit of your chosen oil to a small patch of skin, and leave for 48 hours to see if any irritation occurs.

If you’re going for inhalation, there are a few options. The basic bitch option is to put a few drops of oil onto a tissue and inhale. Simple. A step up is to invest in an oil burner. With these, you add a few drops of oil to a small bowl of water, and heat this with a tea light candle. The water and oil then evaporate into steam, releasing the aroma into the air.

A lot of people rave about ultrasonic diffusers, which similarly disperse oils into the air via tiny drops of water vapour (but without the use of heat). They’re convenient, but I have my reservations for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the internal tanks where you put the oil and water are normally made of plastic, and over time the potent oils might degrade the plastic and release all sorts of nasty things into the air. Secondly, unless you clean out the tank thoroughly every day and dry it properly, there’s a real risk of it harbouring mould and bacteria — which you absolutely do not want to breathe in.

The best option, in my opinion, is a nebulizing diffuser. These diffuse only essential oils into the air, so you’re not altering the humidity of your environment. They work much like a perfume atomiser, meaning you don’t have to apply heat to your oils, which can reduce their therapeutic benefits. They’re also often made from glass, so you don’t have to worry about your oils coming into contact with plastic.

Photo by Drew L via Unsplash

TL;DR: Let’s not hate on essential oils. They’re largely guilty by association, and actually present some promising health benefits.

It’s too early for me to tell how much of a difference essential oils will make to my wellbeing, but at least my house smells nice.

Writer. Filmmaker. Entrepreneur. Overthinker. Honest talk about technology, modern culture, startup life, and the human mind

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