MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

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They recently conducted independent lab tests on the purity of 33 samples of essential ois from well-known names in the essential oil industry to see what was really inside each bottle. Their report raises lots of concerns, in my view. The team that wrote the report kindly sent me a summary and asked me to publish it here which I now do without any alteration, abbreviation or further comment:

Everybody’s talking about essential oils. More importantly, everybody’s using them. The global demand for these fragrant chemical compounds reached an extraordinary 226.9 kilotons in 2018 and further growth is projected by the marketing people who measure such things. The proliferation of essential oil users is tied to growth in the food and beverage, personal care and aromatherapy industries.

It’s not surprising that the scientific study of essential oils has also increased with demand for the products. The best essential oil brands invest in quality testing but don’t necessarily follow scientific protocol or make detailed testing results available to consumers. So the literature is still limited— and the jury is still out on whether these compounds are effective in treating medical conditions.

Essential oils are extracted from plants. In their pure form, they are highly concentrated—and sometimes toxic.  To make them practical to use, essential oils are typically mixed with diluting carrier oils. Methods of extraction include cold-pressing, steam and water distillation, and the use of chemical solvents. Evaluating individual products made with essential oils is challenging because there are thousands of brands on the market. Neither the extraction methods used or the potency of the products—let alone, testing methods—are standardized. Manufacturers’ ambitious marketing claims, which often rely on ambiguous language, further obscure consumers’ ability to judge for themselves which oils are best suited to their purposes. The list of problems some products purport to solve can run the gamut from an itchy scalp to menopause symptoms.

What’s more, few essential oil manufacturers educate consumers on proper dosage or contraindications, which can lead to accidental misuse and illness. Children are particularly sensitive to many oils and yet most manufacturers fail to warn against applying oils to children’s skin. Pregnant women are usually advised not to use essential oils during their first trimesters, though some studies have suggested they can help alleviate pain during childbirth. Some essential oils should never be used during pregnancy. Essential oils can interact or interfere with prescription medicines and nutritional supplements. But unlike prescription drugs, they don’t come with warning labels about these potential interactions.

Genuinely scientific, peer-reviewed studies of essential oils have primarily focused on using aromatherapy as an adjunct to conventional medical treatment. Science has confirmed that when inhaled, essential oil molecules travel quickly to the brain—specifically the limbic region, which controls pulse, respiration, sexual arousal, and other autonomic functions. Emotional responses like fear and motivation originate in the limbic system. The most promising applications of aromatherapy appear to be in diminishing stress and offering pain relief. But actual clinical trials into such topics as reducing nausea in by chemotherapy patients, relieving anxiety during childbirth, alleviating headaches, and improving sleep have been inconclusive.

Other studies have focused on the subject of inflammation, which is known to contribute to a wide range of medical problems. Essential oils derived from the thyme, clove, rose, eucalyptus, fennel, and bergamot have been demonstrated through one study to activate chemicals in the body which suppress inflammation and suppress chemicals that activate it.

Researchers are also exploring the potential of essential oils as antibacterial agents. Parts of the juniper, cumin, coriander and lavender plants may be effective in battling E coli, while cinnamon may prove useful in treating strep throat and pneumonia.

As ancient and traditional as their use may be in certain cultures, the scientific reality is it’s too early to tell how effective essential oils are in treating the wide range of conditions they are theorized (and now, commonly advertised) to treat.

But that’s not to say you shouldn’t use them, according to recommendations from your doctor. When considering the efficacy of essential oils, bear in mind that the act of self-care can be therapeutic in and of itself. We all know that treating ourselves to a hot bath—or an ice cream cone for that matter—can give us a temporary sense of well-being. For the time being, short-term selfsoothing may be all we can count on from essential oils. But there’s something to be said for even temporary relief. An entire industry of over-the-counter medicines has been founded upon it.

4 Responses to Are essential oils a con?

  • Since when are many doctors capable of giving recommendations about essential oils?

    Like most medical issues, including with conventional medicine, caveat emptor.

    • Since when are you able to give recommendations on medical issues, Roger? Tell us about your schooling and who you are. Your performance here on this blog indicates that you have practically no insight into health and medicine. Prove to us why we should take advice from you on medical issues.

  • One problem for the consumer is the name:
    “Essential” implies the oils are, well, essential.
    Not so.

    These oils are “essences’, derived as the article describes.
    We can manage perfectly well without them!

    Caveat emptor indeed.

  • This here is a good and thorough introduction on how to use “essential oils”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q_Ecmciv9zI

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