A few things you should know about essential oils

Ah, essential oils, Tupperware of the sorta crunchy clique. If you haven’t been pitched by an essential oil salesperson, just wait. It’s coming. You’ll be talking to your sister-in-law (or friend or coworker) about your recurrent cough (or skin rash or heartburn or soap-scummy shower) and she’ll say, “Oh, I have just the thing." Then she’ll tell you how this powerful, all-natural essential oil is just what you need for everything from routine annoyances to serious illnesses.

Before you know it, you’ll be thumbing through a beautiful pamphlet promising cures for infections, backaches, PMS, acne, Alzheimer’s, and scummy showers. It’s a modern cure-all that doctors and pharmaceutical companies don’t want you to know about…and if you buy now you’ll get a 5ml bottle of exclusive, certified, therapeutic-grade peppermint oil at no additional cost.         

A caveat before you throw tomatoes at me

Before I continue, let me say up front that I'm not an essential oil hater, and I do actually use some essential oils (EOs); however, I feel critical of the way in which I see them promoted and used as some sort of holistic alternative to pharmaceutical medicines. Many people are familiar with EOs used for aromatherapy, but more and more often, EO companies and their reps promote internal and external use of the oils, basically using them as medicines. In this post, I’m commenting on the medicinal use of EOs and not on their use in aromatherapy.  

What's my beef with EOs?

My first big problem with EOs is that several of the big producers are multilevel marketing companies—dōTERRA and Young Living are the most well known. If you aren’t familiar with multilevel marketing (MLM), it means the person selling you the product gets a cut of the profit on your sale. It's in their interest for you to spend a lot of money on their products. I’m not saying MLMs are always evil money-making schemes, but they make me wary and I avoid them for that reason. (There are some reputable EO companies that aren’t MLMs, by the way.)

In addition, many EO salespeople make some pretty unwise and potentially dangerous recommendations. A friend recently told me she was advised to apply undiluted tea tree oil directly to a burn to help it heal faster. (OUCH. Don’t do that!) Several mothers I know were horrified to realize that eucalyptus oil can be a respiratory irritant, which is worrisome given that they were using the eucalyptus oil to treat respiratory illness. (Was the treatment exacerbating the illness? Who knows.)  

EOs are powerful, should only be used in very small quantities, and should never be applied to the skin undiluted. If an EO rep tells you otherwise, run away. 

In case you think I'm being alarmist, I'm not. This aromatherapy school has started an EO injury database to keep track of people harmed by oils. http://www.atlanticinstitute.com/injury-report-2014/

My biggest concerns about EOs

1. EOs are antibiotics.

I get confused when when someone says she avoids prescription antibiotics at all costs and then tells me she routinely ingests an antimicrobial EO. Pardon me, but antimicrobial means kills bacteria. Hey, wait! Antibiotic also means kills bacteria. Imagine that.

OK, I understand that an antimicrobial agent made from plants you might grow in your herb garden (lavender, thyme, oregano) may seem preferable to one made in a lab and sold by prescription only. I truly get that. It’s easy to assume that since EOs are made from plants, and since plants are natural, that they must healthy. 

(Arsenic, radon, and mercury are natural, too, by the way.)

I don’t love prescription antibiotics, either, but the fact is any substance that kills microorganisms can have a powerful effect in the body, whether it comes from CVS in an orange plastic bottle or from an MLM in a tiny brown glass bottle. 

Think about this: Prescription antibiotics are targeted to the bacteria causing a particular infection, whether it’s bronchitis, an infected spider bite, or strep throat. There is still some collateral damage to other types of bacteria, but the drug is designed to kill off only the bacteria causing the infection. On the other hand, an antimicrobial EO like oregano kills bacteria indiscriminately. We’re talking annihilation. 

Even if the oregano oil is organic and was harvested by free-range fairies in a field of unicorns, bacterial annihilation contradicts the current research about the human microbiome (the total population of bacteria in our bodies) and how its diversity and robustness determine so much about our health

The whole notion of “good” and “bad” bacteria is severely out of date. Sometimes bacteria we’ve labeled as “bad” actually serve important roles in the body that we’re only beginning to understand. Read up on H. pylori for an example of this complex relationship. 

If you accept that having a diverse bacteria population is critical to good health (and you should), why would you want to expose yourself to a substance that can indiscriminately kill your microbiome? Killing bacteria is killing bacteria. It’s ridiculous to avoid one type of antibiotic and dowse yourself with another one simply because of its origin, especially when the one you choose is not specialized to treat the type of bacteria you’re trying to eradicate, and especially when the newest science shows that having too few bacteria is often associated with health problems.

Please understand that I'm not arguing for pharmaceuticals. I am arguing that indiscriminately killing bacteria with EOs is a poor plan for restoring health. 

2. EOs are not sustainable.

It takes an enormous amount of plant material to produce one of those teeny tiny bottles of oil, and the oil uses only one component of the plant. If you believe in plant medicine, you should know it’s a shame to throw away the rest of the plant after isolating just one part of it. 

I invite my dear, kind, and thoughtful conservation-minded friends (you know who you are, with your washable snack bags, cloth diapers, and reusable menstrual cups) to ask yourself whether products that produce enormous waste fit your belief system. 

3. EOs are not more natural than pharmaceuticals.

EOs are not plant medicine. They are isolated constituents of a whole plant. There’s nothing natural about the process by which EOs are made. (You try extracting oil from a peppermint leaf and lemme know how that goes.) Pharmaceuticals are made by isolating an active component from the source material, and EOs are made the same way.

Some EO usage tips

If you’re going to use EOs, find a reliable source. I could list some reliable sources, but I think you should do your own research. You and I might read the same information and come up with different conclusions. 

  • Be reasonable about your use. A few drops of eucalyptus oil in a liter of humidifier water may not be a problem. But ingesting EOs in your water or slathering them on your baby? That’s taking a risk. We didn’t talk about this, but EO companies aren’t regulated and several of them have made up their own certifications, so there’s no telling what might actually be in that bottle.
  • Be a critical thinker. I know several people who swear by EOs for their health issues. Relief from suffering is a powerful thing, no doubt. But relief doesn’t always equal a cure, and it also doesn’t mean no residual harm is being done. For example, if you’re having chronic knee pain, an EO might give you some relief (by numbing the nerve impulses), but it won’t fix your knee problem. Ask why your knee (or stomach or head or back) is hurting and seek answers to fix it. If the EO helps manage the pain in the interim, OK. Just don’t confuse relief from pain with curing of the problem. 
  • If you want to learn about using plants as medicine, learn from herbalists, not EO salespeople. (I know several EO salespeople and they're lovely humans. They're just not herbalists.)

    Plant medicine uses the whole plant. DIY herbal remedies are far less expensive and typically much safer than EOs. Pick up a Rosemary Gladstar or Robin Rose Bennett book and make yourself a few tinctures, infusions, and salves to experience what it’s like to use the whole plant instead of one isolated component.

p.s. In case you’re wondering, here are some of the oils I feel safe using in moderation. I'm not saying these are risk-free, but I've done my homework and I'm okay using them. Lavender oil is great on minor burns. I use diluted EOs (like lemon eucalyptus and geranium) for mosquito repellents, and a few drops of eucalyptus and peppermint in a diffuser or in a chest rub when one of us is sick and congested. I use vanilla oil in my coconut sugar scrub. My EO rules are: Always in very small amounts, always diluted, and never ingested. 

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