Who does not like a nice fragrance?
Who would object to aromatherapy?
Nobody, I suppose.
But, if its called THERAPY, we surely must ask whether it is therapeutic. And is aromatherapy therapeutic? Let’s see:
This randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial tested whether patients with post-dural puncture headache (PDPH) caused by spinal anesthesia would benefit from aromatherapy. A total od 50 patients received 15-minute inhalations of either lavender oil or liquid paraffin as placebo. The severity of headache was scored before (baseline) and after the intervention – immediately, 30, 60, 90, and 120 minutes after – using a visual analog scale. In addition, the dosage and frequency of the pain killers as well as adverse effects of the intervention were recorded.
Both groups showed a reduction in headache scores post intervention. However, the headache scores between the groups was significantly different immediately after the intervention in favor of lavender oil (difference: 1.60 ± 0.63, P = .015). Furthermore, it was observed that the mean changes of the headache scores compared to the baseline were significant at each time interval in favor of the placebo group (P < .05), except immediately after the intervention. No significant difference was observed in Diclofenac intake between groups (P = .440), and no adverse effects were noted.
The authors concluded that aromatherapy with lavender oil was observed to reduce the severity of PDPH only immediately after the intervention, while only minimal effects were observed at successive time intervals. However, it is noted that the study was likely underpowered and further studies are recommended to better understand the effects of lavender oil on PDPH and compare its effects to other herbal products or pharmacological agents commonly used for managing headaches.
I find it laudable that some researchers conduct clinical trials even of so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) which many of us might view as trivial. I find it more laudable that they try to do this rigorously by adding a placebo control group to the study. And I would find it even more laudable, if they did this adequately.
Considering parafin oil to be a placebo in a study of lavender oil inhalation can hardly be called adequate. Placebos are used in clinical trials mostly to account for the expectation of patients. This means that, whenever possible, patients need to be blinded to the group aloocation and the placebo must be indistinguishable from the verum. In the present trial, the patients could obviously tell the difference between the smell of lavender and the absence of any smell in the control group. Thus, their expectation could easily suffice to bring about the findings observed in the study. This means that the trial does not neccessarily demonstrate the effects of armoatherapy, but might (and most probably does) merely show the power of expectation.
How can one design such a trial more rigorously? you will ask.
There are several options. For instance, for the control group, one could use an artificial fragrance not made from natural lavender. Alternatively, one could include only patients who are unfamiliar with the smell of lavender and use a similaryly pleasant fragrance from a different plant as the control intervention.
As it stands, the study – even though aimed at testing the hypothesis that aromatherpy with lavender has specific effects on pain – tells us next to nothing.
… except, of course that it is always worth thinking very carefully about the adequate way to conduct a clinical trial.
In these pre-Xmas days, many homes will smell of cinnamon. It’s certainly a wonderful spice for creating an atmosphere. But ther are also other uses for ciannamon.
Current treatments for overactive bladder (OAB) have limited efficacy, low persistence and a high rate of adverse events commonly leading to treatment cessation in clinical practice. Clinicians in Asia commonly use traditional Chinese medicine as an alternative for OAB treatment despite it having uncertain efficacy and safety. To evaluate the efficacy and safety of cinnamon patch (CP) treatment for alleviating symptoms of OAB, this double-blind randomized, placebo-controlled trial was conducted.
The 6-week study was conducted in an outpatient setting; 66 subjects diagnosed as having OAB were enrolled and treated with a placebo (n=33) or CP (n=33). The OAB symptom score (OABSS) was selected as the primary end point, and a patient perception of bladder condition (PPBC), an urgency severity scale (USS), and post-voiding residual urine (PVR) volume were selected as secondary end points.
In total, 66 participants (40 women and 26 men), 60 years of age, were included in the intention-to-treat analyses. Baseline characteristics were comparable between the CP and placebo groups. Treatment with a CP showed statistically significant differences in reductions in OABSS scores, PPBC scores, and USS scores.
The authors concluded that compared to a placebo, treatment with CP might be considered an effective and safe complementary therapy for OAB. Further studies employing a positive control, different dosage forms, larger sample sizes, and longer treatment periods are warranted.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum and Cinnamon cassia)belongs to the Lauraceae family. It contains manganese, iron, dietary fiber, and calcium as well as cinnamaldehyde, cinnamic acid, cinnamate, and numerous other components such as polyphenols and antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic, antimicrobial, anticancer effects. Several reports have dealt with the numerous properties of cinnamon in the forms of bark, essential oils, bark powder, and phenolic compounds, and each of these properties can play a key role in human health.
The new study is interesting and prompts me to ponder:
- Do the pharmacologically active ingredients of cinnamon pass the skin barrier in sufficient amounts to have any effect at all? Or perhaps it was the scent? In which case, this would have been a study of aromatherapy.
- Considering the typical scent of cinnamon, I find it hard to imagine that this study was truly double blind.
- Cinnamon is alleged to have antimicrobial, antiviral, antifungal, antioxidant, antitumor, antihypertensive, antilipemic, antidiabetic, gastroprotective, and immunomodulatory effects. I do wonder which, if any, of these are responsible for the observed clinical results of this trial.
- Cinnamon is known to sometimes lead to allergic reactions. I wonder whether this could be a problem when it is applied in patches.
So, for the time being, I think, I prefere cinnamon, the spice, to cinnamon, the medicine.
This recent Cochrane review assessed the effects of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) for post-caesarean pain. Randomised clinical trials (RCTs), including quasi-RCTs and cluster-RCTs, comparing SCAM, alone or associated with other forms of pain relief, versus other treatments or placebo or no treatment, for the treatment of post-CS pain were included.
A total of 37 studies (3076 women) investigating 8 different SCAM therapies for post-CS pain relief were found. There was substantial heterogeneity among the trials. The primary outcome measures were pain and adverse effects. Secondary outcome measures included vital signs, rescue analgesic requirement at 6 weeks after discharge; all of which were poorly reported or not reported at all.
The quality of the RCTs was low. Whether acupuncture or acupressure (versus no treatment) or acupuncture or acupressure plus analgesia (versus placebo plus analgesia) have any effect on pain. Acupuncture or acupressure plus analgesia (versus analgesia) may reduce pain at 12 hours (standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.28, 95% confidence interval (CI) -0.64 to 0.07; 130 women; 2 studies; low-certainty evidence) and 24 hours (SMD -0.63, 95% CI -0.99 to -0.26; 2 studies; 130 women; low-certainty evidence). It is uncertain whether acupuncture or acupressure (versus no treatment) or acupuncture or acupressure plus analgesia (versus analgesia) have any effect on the risk of adverse effects.
Aromatherapy plus analgesia may reduce pain when compared with placebo plus analgesia at 12 hours (mean difference (MD) -2.63 visual analogue scale (VAS), 95% CI -3.48 to -1.77; 3 studies; 360 women; low-certainty evidence) and 24 hours (MD -3.38 VAS, 95% CI -3.85 to -2.91; 1 study; 200 women; low-certainty evidence). The authors were uncertain whether aromatherapy plus analgesia has any effect on adverse effects (anxiety) compared with placebo plus analgesia.
Electromagnetic therapy may reduce pain compared with placebo plus analgesia at 12 hours (MD -8.00, 95% CI -11.65 to -4.35; 1 study; 72 women; low-certainty evidence) and 24 hours (MD -13.00 VAS, 95% CI -17.13 to -8.87; 1 study; 72 women; low-certainty evidence).
There were 6 RCTs (651 women), 5 of which were quasi-RCTs, comparing massage (foot and hand) plus analgesia versus analgesia. All the evidence relating to pain, adverse effects (anxiety), vital signs and rescue analgesic requirement was very low-certainty.
Music therapy plus analgesia may reduce pain when compared with placebo plus analgesia at one hour (SMD -0.84, 95% CI -1.23 to -0.46; participants = 115; studies = 2; I2 = 0%; low-certainty evidence), 24 hours (MD -1.79, 95% CI -2.67 to -0.91; 1 study; 38 women; low-certainty evidence), and also when compared with analgesia at one hour (MD -2.11, 95% CI -3.11 to -1.10; 1 study; 38 women; low-certainty evidence) and at 24 hours (MD -2.69, 95% CI -3.67 to -1.70; 1 study; 38 women; low-certainty evidence). It is uncertain whether music therapy plus analgesia has any effect on adverse effects (anxiety), when compared with placebo plus analgesia because the quality of evidence is very low.
The investigators were uncertain whether Reiki plus analgesia compared with analgesia alone has any effect on pain, adverse effects, vital signs or rescue analgesic requirement because the quality of evidence is very low (one study, 90 women). Relaxation Relaxation may reduce pain compared with standard care at 24 hours (MD -0.53 VAS, 95% CI -1.05 to -0.01; 1 study; 60 women; low-certainty evidence).
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
TENS (versus no treatment) may reduce pain at one hour (MD -2.26, 95% CI -3.35 to -1.17; 1 study; 40 women; low-certainty evidence). TENS plus analgesia (versus placebo plus analgesia) may reduce pain compared with placebo plus analgesia at one hour (SMD -1.10 VAS, 95% CI -1.37 to -0.82; 3 studies; 238 women; low-certainty evidence) and at 24 hours (MD -0.70 VAS, 95% CI -0.87 to -0.53; 108 women; 1 study; low-certainty evidence). TENS plus analgesia (versus placebo plus analgesia) may reduce heart rate (MD -7.00 bpm, 95% CI -7.63 to -6.37; 108 women; 1 study; low-certainty evidence) and respiratory rate (MD -1.10 brpm, 95% CI -1.26 to -0.94; 108 women; 1 study; low-certainty evidence). The authors were uncertain whether TENS plus analgesia (versus analgesia) has any effect on pain at six hours or 24 hours, or vital signs because the quality of evidence is very low (two studies, 92 women).
The authors concluded that some SCAM therapies may help reduce post-CS pain for up to 24 hours. The evidence on adverse events is too uncertain to make any judgements on safety and we have no evidence about the longer-term effects on pain. Since pain control is the most relevant outcome for post-CS women and their clinicians, it is important that future studies of SCAM for post-CS pain measure pain as a primary outcome, preferably as the proportion of participants with at least moderate (30%) or substantial (50%) pain relief. Measuring pain as a dichotomous variable would improve the certainty of evidence and it is easy to understand for non-specialists. Future trials also need to be large enough to detect effects on clinical outcomes; measure other important outcomes as listed in this review, and use validated scales.
I feel that the Cochrane Collaboration does itself no favours by publishing such poor reviews. This one is both poorly conceived and badly reported. In fact, I see little reason to deal with pain after CS differently than with post-operative pain in general. Some of the modalities discussed are not truly SCAM. Most of the secondary endpoints are irrelevant. The inclusion of adverse effects as a primary endpoint seems nonsensical considering that SCAM studies are notoriously bad at reporting them. Many of the allegedly positive findings rely on trial designs that cannot control for placebo effects (e.g A+B versus B); therefore they tell us nothing about the effectiveness of the therapy.
Most importantly, the conclusions are not helpful. I would have simply stated that none of the SCAM modalities are supported by convincing evidence as treatments for pain control after CS.
This Cochrane review assessed the efficacy and safety of aromatherapy for people with dementia. The researchers included randomised controlled trials which compared fragrance from plants in an intervention defined as aromatherapy for people with dementia with placebo aromatherapy or with treatment as usual. All doses, frequencies and fragrances of aromatherapy were considered. Participants in the included studies had a diagnosis of dementia of any subtype and severity.
The investigators included 13 studies with 708 participants. All participants had dementia and in the 12 trials which described the setting, all were resident in institutional care facilities. Nine trials recruited participants because they had significant agitation or other behavioural and psychological symptoms in dementia (BPSD) at baseline. The fragrances used were:
- lavender (eight studies);
- lemon balm (four studies);
- lavender and lemon balm,
- lavender and orange,
- cedar extracts (one study each).
For six trials, assessment of risk of bias and extraction of results was hampered by poor reporting. Four of the other seven trials were at low risk of bias in all domains, but all were small (range 18 to 186 participants; median 66). The primary outcomes were:
- overall behavioural,
- psychological symptoms,
- adverse effects.
Ten trials assessed agitation using various scales. Among the 5 trials for which the confidence in the results was moderate or low, 4 trials reported no significant effect on agitation and one trial reported a significant benefit of aromatherapy. The other 5 trials either reported no useable data or the confidence in the results was very low. Eight trials assessed overall BPSD using the Neuropsychiatric Inventory and there was moderate or low confidence in the results of 5 of them. Of these, 4 reported significant benefit from aromatherapy and one reported no significant effect.
Adverse events were poorly reported or not reported at all in most trials. No more than two trials assessed each of our secondary outcomes of quality of life, mood, sleep, activities of daily living, caregiver burden. There was no evidence of benefit on these outcomes. Three trials assessed cognition: one did not report any data and the other two trials reported no significant effect of aromatherapy on cognition. The confidence in the results of these studies was low.
The authors reached the following conclusions: We have not found any convincing evidence that aromatherapy (or exposure to fragrant plant oils) is beneficial for people with dementia although there are many limitations to the data. Conduct or reporting problems in half of the included studies meant that they could not contribute to the conclusions. Results from the other studies were inconsistent. Harms were very poorly reported in the included studies. In order for clear conclusions to be drawn, better design and reporting and consistency of outcome measurement in future trials would be needed.
This is a thorough review. It makes many of the points that I so often make regarding SCAM research:
- too many of the primary studies are badly designed;
- too many of the primary studies are too small;
- too many of the primary studies are poorly reported;
- too many of the primary studies fail to mention adverse effects thus violating research ethics;
- too many of the primary studies are done by pseudo-scientists who use research for promotion rather than testing hypotheses.
It is time that SCAM researchers, ethic review boards, funders, editors and journal reviewers take these points into serious consideration – if only to avoid clinical research getting a bad reputation and losing the support of patients without which it cannot exist.
Aromatherapy is currently one of the most popular of all alternative therapies. It consists of the use of essential oils for medicinal purposes. Aromatherapy usually involves the application of diluted essential oils via a gentle massage of the body surface. Less frequently, the essential oils are applied via inhalation. The chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse (1881-1950) coined the term ‘aromatherapy’ after experiencing that lavender oil helped to cure a serious burn. In 1937, he published a book on the subject: Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles, Hormones Végétales. Later, the French surgeon Jean Valnet used essential oils to help heal soldiers’ wounds in World War II.
This Iranian study aimed to investigate the effect of inhalation aromatherapy with damask rose essence on pain and anxiety in burn patients. This three group clinical trial was conducted on 120 patients with burns less than 30% of total body surface area (TBSA). The patients were randomly allocated into three groups, aromatherapy damask rose essence, placebo, and control. The pain intensity was assessed using visual analogue scale prior to intervention, immediately before, and 15 min after dressing. Anxiety was measured using Spielberger Inventory at before intervention and 15 min after dressing, also the prolonged effect of intervention on pain was assessed by number of the analgesics drugs received for four hours after dressing change. The intervention included inhalation of 6 drops of 40% damask rose essential oil in the damask group, and six drops of distilled water in placebo group one hour before dressing change. The control group received no additional intervention. All groups also received standard care.
Baseline state-trait anxiety and pain intensity were similar in these three groups. A significant reduction was found in pain intensity immediately before and after dressing and state anxiety after dressing in the damask group compared to the placebo and control groups. The researchers found no significant difference between the placebo and control groups in terms of these variables at these times. No significant difference was noted among the three groups in frequency of analgesics drugs and trait anxiety after intervention.
The authors concluded that inhaled aromatherapy with Damask rose essence reduces subjective pain intensity and state anxiety in burned patients. Therefore, it is recommended considering use of damask rose essence, as an easy and affordable method along with other treatments.
These are interesting findings for sure. Aromatherapy is far less implausible than many other so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs). It furthermore has the advantages of being safe and inexpensive.
I have no reason to doubt the validity of the study. Yet, I nevertheless think it is prudent to insist on an independent replication before issuing a general recommendation.
In 2012, we evaluated the efficacy/effectiveness of lavender for the reduction of stress/anxiety.
Our systematic review included 15 RCTs. Two trials scored 4 points on the 5-point Jadad scale, the remaining 13 scored two or less. Results from seven trials appeared to favour lavender over controls for at least one relevant outcome. We concluded that methodological issues limit the extent to which any conclusions can be drawn regarding the efficacy/effectiveness of lavender. The best evidence suggests that oral lavender supplements may have some therapeutic effects. However, further independent replications are needed before firm conclusions can be drawn.
Since 2012, more evidence has emerged. The latest study on the subject aimed to investigate the effects of lavender oil on sleep and quality of life of menopausal women through steam inhalation. It was quasi-experimental with pre-test/post-test placebo control groups. It was conducted with 57 women, 27 of whom were subject to aromatherapy and 30 to a placebo. Data were collected using the Questionnaire Form, the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) and the Menopause-Specific Quality of Life Questionnaire (MENQOL).
For the intervention group, the PSQI median scores after the administration of aromatherapy were found to be significantly lower than those before the administration (p < 0.001) and those of the placebo group (p < 0.001). Similarly, for the intervention group, the total median MENQOL scores after the administration of the aromatherapy were found to be significantly lower than the scores prior to the administration (p < 0.001) as well as the scores of the placebo group (p < 0.001).
The authors of the new study concluded that that aromatherapy involving lavender-scented steam inhalation increased sleep quality and quality of life in women with sleep deprivation problems during menopause.
Hurray, this seems to be a decent trial with a positive result for SCAM!
And why not? It is not at all implausible that lavender has hypnotic effects. There are now quite a few reasonably sound trials that suggest it works. Moreover, it is safe and not very expensive (or even free, if you can grow it yourself).
I for one am more than happy to report a positive finding for a SCAM and merely regret that I cannot do so more often.
My ‘Corona-Virus Quackery Club’ (CVQC) is getting rather popular. The current members,
are now thinking of admitting the essential oil salesmen. It seems that many of them find it impossible to resist the chance to make a fast buck on the fear many consumers currently have. Take this website for instance:
If you have a breathing aid or respiratory device, use it to reduce breathing difficulties. Alternatively, you can use a breathing ointment like Breathe and Focus Oil. Formulated with menthol, eucalyptus, rosemary and thyme essential oils, this phyto-aromatherapy ointment helps ease breathing difficulties commonly associated with cold, flu, cough, asthma and pneumonia. Gently massage a few drops of Breathe and Focus Oil to your chest and apply 1 to 2 drops to a tissue or handkerchief then inhale the aroma. Repeat as often as necessary.
Studies showed that eucalyptus essential oil contains cineole that helps reduce inflammation and infection in the lungs. Eucalyptus Radiata essential oil has antiviral effects against coronavirus SARS. Rosemary essential oil has been shown to be effective against Klebsiella pneumoniae, a bacteria which causes pneumonia in humans and animals. Thyme essential oil has been shown to have antiviral activities against Influenza A virus (H1N1), while menthol with its cooling-effect has also been shown to reduce breathing difficulties. These essential oils may help you dealing with Covid-19 disease.
Another website even has the promising title ‘What can you try to cure from coronavirus ….’ and it tells us that:
Black cumin can boost immunity, especially in patients with impaired immune systems. According to research, 1 gram Seed capsules, twice daily for four weeks can improve T-cell ratio between positive and negative up to 72%. Increased immunity plays an important role in the healing of colds, influenza, AIDS, and other diseases related to the immune system.
But there is more – so much more that I can here only present a very small selection of that is on offer.
- Cinnamon bark
- Clove bud
- Eucalyptus globulus/radiata
- Lemon myrtle
- Tea tree
- Thyme thymol & linalool
Yet another website includes the claim: “The most powerful anti-virus essential oils to provide defence (sic) against coronavirus include:
- Cedarwood Virginian
- Clove Bud
- Eucalyptus Globulus, Radiata and Smithii
- Juniper Berry
- Lavender Spike
- Laurel leaf
- Tea Tree
- Thyme Sweet Thyme White.”
I know, this is confusing! I do sympathise with the difficulty of choosing between all these recommendation; therefore, let me help you. Here is the full list of essential oils proven to prevent or treat a corona-virus infection:
Yes, that’s right: NO ESSENTIAL OIL HAS EVER BEEN FOUND TO BE EFFECTIVE AGAINST THIS OR ANY OTHER VIRUS INFECTION!
The FDA agree and have therefore sent out letters to seven US companies warning them to stop selling products that claim to cure or prevent COVID-19 infections, stating that such products are a threat to public health because they might prompt consumers to stop or delay appropriate medical treatment.
WELCOME TO THE CVQC, ESSENTIAL OIL SALESMEN!
It has been reported that Brazil and India will collaborate in the promotion of quackery! Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have just signed several agreements on collaboration. Agreement 8 is particularly intriguing:
8. Memo of agreement for cooperation in Traditional Medicine and Homeopathy
We seek to promote and develop bilateral cooperation in the field of traditional medicine and homeopathy. The areas of cooperation provided for in the instrument include exchange of experience in teaching regulations, practices, medicines and non-medicine therapies; knowledge promotion, exchange of training for therapists, health professionals, scientists, teaching professionals and students; and development of joint research, besides educational and training programs.
Homeopathy, already a recognized medical specialty in Brazil, is currently offered for free by the Brazilian national healthcare system. Other so-called alternative medicines (SCAMs) employed in the Brazilian healthcare system include:
- spiritual healing,
- crystal healing,
Homeopathy and acupuncture are also recognized by the Brazilian Federal Council and both are taught in the most prestigious public Universities, in medical, veterinary, public health and nursing schools.
India has gone one step further by establishing its AYUSH ministry. It registers SCAM practitioners considered ‘indigenous’ by the Indian government under a separate board. The SCAMs thus regulated are:
- Yoga and Naturopathy,
- Unani and Tibbi,
In India, practitioners are taught some of these subjects as MBBS ( Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery). The graduates are then considered to be ‘doctors’. In Brazil, homeopathy and acupuncture are practiced by medical doctors. Brazilian citizens are thus misled to believe that these SCAMs are evidence-based.
So, what this ‘bilateral co-operation’ is going to achieve? Narendra Nayak (President of the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations and former Assistant Professor of Biochemistry in Mangalore) and Natalia Pasternak (President of the Instituto Questão de Ciência in São Paulo) are less than optimistic:
Exchange of ‘technology’ of so called ‘psychic surgery’ of quacks like the late José Arigo, “the surgeon with the rusty knife”, with specialists of gaumutra (urine of India’s allegedly indigenous cows) whose concoction is supposed to be a panacea for 440 diseases? Is Brazil going to export to India the peculiar surgical techniques of the “medium” John of God, recently arrested, not for years of practicing unlicensed medicine and hurting people, but for sexual harassment and rape? Don’t get the wrong message, we are very glad John of God was convicted, and very glad for the brave women who came forward, but we cannot ignore the fact that he was never bothered by the authorities for placing people under his (usually not quite clean) knife.
Since India and Brazil are leaders in sugar production, are they going to support Homeopathy? Also the use of alcohol to produce their tinctures?
Again, we wonder why India and Brazil are going for an alleged system of medicine called homeopathy which is nowhere in the mainstream in the country of its origin -Germany. And why do they embrace it while the rest of the world is pushing back against homeopathy, after several scientific papers, reviews and meta-analyses showed beyond any reasonable doubt that it doesn’t work?
Brazil and India have much in common, both are rising developing economies, with a diverse population, trying to be true to their democratic ideals. Unfortunately, another similarity comes to light: the fact that presently both our countries are governed by rulers that have shown total disregard by scientific knowledge and evidence in many of their public policy decisions.
As heads of organizations that promote science and rational thinking in Brazil and India, we regret the decision of our governments to promote quackery as a legitimate subject of an international agreement.
I feel that individuals and organisations promoting critical thinking in other parts of the world should lend their support to these two courageous people.
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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.
According to the 2014 European Social Survey, Spain is relatively modest when it comes to using alternative therapies. While countries such as Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Lithuania, Sweden and Switzerland all have 1-year prevalence figures of over 30%, Spain only boasts a meagre 17%. Yet, its opposition to bogus treatments has recently become acute.
In 2016, it was reported that a master’s degree in homeopathic medicine at one of Spain’s top universities has been scrapped. Remarkably, the reason was “lack of scientific basis”. A university spokesman confirmed the course was being discontinued and gave three main reasons: “Firstly, the university’s Faculty of Medicine recommended scrapping the master’s because of the doubt that exists in the scientific community. Secondly, a lot of people within the university – professors and students across different faculties – had shown their opposition to the course. Thirdly, the postgraduate degree in homeopathic medicine is no longer approved by Spain’s Health Ministry.”
A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of being invited to a science festival in Bilbao and was impressed by the buoyant sceptic movement in Spain. At the time, two of my books were published in Spanish and received keen interest by the Spanish press.
And now, it has been reported that Spain’s Ministry of Health has released a list of only 2,008 homeopathic products whose manufacturers will have to apply for an official government license for if they wish to continue selling them. The homeopathic producers have until April 2019 to prove that their remedies actually work, which may very well completely slash homeopathic products in Spain.
It’s the latest blow for Spain’s homeopathy industry, once worth an estimated €100 million but which has seen a drop in public trust and therefore sales of around 30 percent in the last five years. Spain’s Health Ministry stopped allowing homeopathy treatments from being prescribed as part of people’s social security benefits, along with acupuncture, herbal medicine and body-based practices such as osteopathy, shiatsu or aromatherapy.
“Homeopathy is an alternative therapy that has not shown any scientific evidence that it works” Spanish Minister of Health Maria Luisa Carcedo is quoted as saying in La Vanguardia in response to the homeopathic blacklist. “I’m committed to combatting all forms of pseudoscience.”