Herbalism and essential oils have gone mainstream.I
nstead of Tupperware parties, multi-level-marketing representatives are pitching essential oil products to a nearly-saturated audience.
How many people do you know sell doTerra or Young Life products? It’s likely you can name at least two. Who can you call to replace your favorite Tupperware cake box? You might have to ask around.
With essential oils showing up in grocery store aisles and your social media feeds, you’ve probably wondered if you should experiment a little. Or, if you’ve already accumulated a collection of little brown dropper bottles, you might want to stop and consider their safety.
Most essential oils, when used properly, can help with symptoms associated with a variety of ailments, but some can be problematic for you, your family, and your pets when they’re used incorrectly, or without a little bit of due diligence.
What Are Essential Oils?
Merriam-Webster defines essential oils as “any of a class of volatile oils that give plants their characteristic odors and are used especially in perfumes and flavorings, and for aromatherapy”.
Aromatherapeutic use of essential oils includes diluting them with lotions or massage oils or adding a few drops of a particular essential oil in an air diffuser.
Essential oils can be used alone or as a part of a “recipe” to achieve a particular effect. Some plant oils are selected for their purported ability to provide pain relief and relaxation, while others are reputed to ease respiratory issues, headaches, and memory issues.
Are Essential Oils Approved by the FDA?
There’s no government oversight for essential oils themselves; only how they’re labeled and marketed. Some products containing essential oils are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); others by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The FDA has been proactive in releasing warnings to several herbal supplement and essential oil manufacturers due to marketing claims that misrepresent their products’ effectiveness in treating certain conditions. The U.S. Department of Justice prosecuted one company for claiming their product was effective in treating cancer, and another company for illegally importing parts of a rare and protected tree. In 2014, the FDA chastised three major companies for marketing their products as treatments or cures for Ebola.
Standardization challenges are one reason why it’s difficult to regulate essential oils. Potency in plant crops varies depending upon climate, soil nutrition, and freshness, and different extraction processes affect the quality of the end product.
So why do you see “Certified” or similar labels on essential oils? The fact is, many companies establish their own internal programs—not those of industrial associations or third-party inspectors—to “certify” their oils as “pure” or “therapeutic grade”, thus boosting their credibility in a competitive market.
Are Essential Oils Safe?
Aromatherapy and herbalism have been around for millennia, and modern physicians and naturopathic doctors are increasingly prescribing plant-based treatments to their patients. That being said, some oils are hazardous when used incorrectly.
Sometimes people think that if an “essential oil” or other ingredient comes from a plant, it must be safe. But many plants contain materials that are toxic, irritating, or likely to cause allergic reactions when applied to the skin. For example, cumin oil is safe in food, but can cause the skin to blister. Certain citrus oils used safely in food can also be harmful in cosmetics, particularly when applied to skin exposed to the sun. — FDA
Some essential oils cause photosensitivity, and others are proven to either reduce or enhance the effectiveness of prescribed medications. A study released in March 2018 found that the main chemicals in lavender and tea tree oil can cause breast growth in pubescent boys due to interference with the endocrine system, which regulates hormone production.
The study’s lead researcher, J. Tyler Ramsey at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) says that the same chemicals found in lavender and tea tree oils are also found in “at least 65 other essential oils.” His study did find that the issues went away once the subjects stopped using the compounds.
Essential oils, when used incorrectly, can have serious effects. National Capital Poison Center posted warnings about the following popular oils on its website:
Camphor, commonly used as a chest rub or in lip balms, can cause seizures when eaten, or when applied to the skin more frequently than recommended.
Oil of Wintergreen, in tiny doses, is commonly used as a food flavoring, but when consumed “straight” from the bottle, it can be as deadly as downing a bottle of adult aspirin.
Nutmeg, in concentrated form, can cause coma or seizures.
Eucalyptus and sage oils, when swallowed, also cause seizures.
Pennyroyal, a type of peppermint, can cause severe liver damage.
Lavender Oil: In addition to lavender’s effect on the endocrine system, the oil can also affect brain function in small children if it’s swallowed in even small amounts.
Children, who have thinner skin and underdeveloped livers may be more susceptible to essential oil poisoning. Because many essential oils smell good, they might be enticed to drink them from the bottle or apply it to their skin.
Seniors, who also have decreased skin thickness, should consider using smaller amounts when they apply essential oil products externally.
For example, Barb B., a 72-year-old woman from Oxnard, California, reported feeling lightheaded on several occasions after using a moisturizer she’d scented with lavender oil. She didn’t make the connection until she met with her primary care physician, who asked Barb about every over-the-counter medication she’d used since their last visit… and asking specifically about herbal remedies and essential oils.
Essential Oils and Pets
Plant chemicals that are considered to be safe for us might cause problems for our companion animals. Dogs and cats are far more sensitive to odors than we are, and the presence of strong fragrances might cause them discomfort. Contact with non-diluted oils, whether on the animal’s skin or fur, can cause irritation or illness.
Pet birds, due to their delicate respiratory systems, shouldn’t be exposed to diffused or concentrated essential oils.
“I lost my 14-year-old African Grey after I began diffusing essential oils,” David H. of Missoula, MT said. “I’d always been careful with cleaning supplies because I knew they could cause problems, but I had no idea how harmful eucalyptus and lemon oil was for birds.”
Use As Directed for Encouraging Results
When used according to label instructions, essential oils are generally considered safe, and as peer-reviewed studies are beginning to take notice of the public demand for alternative health treatments, results indicate that aromatherapy can benefit users who are trying to treat a wide variety of symptoms.
Even the FDA is showing promise in approving concentrated plant-based chemicals; in mid-April 2018, it indicated that it would approve Epidiolex, a branded product made of a high-grade, high-concentration of Cannabidiol, also known as CBD, specifically for the treatment of Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndromes. The factors that made the FDA more amenable to approving the pharmaceutical-grade product included the manufacturer’s process for purity and consistency, something quite difficult when factoring in all the variables associated with plant crops.
How Will You Supplement Your Wellness Regimen?
We want to be healthy, and we want to be able to take more responsibility for what we put into (or on) our bodies. When we make informed decisions about any activity related to physical fitness, nutrition, and alternative medicine, we’re less likely to harm ourselves and our families.
It’s a good idea to consult with your physician or veterinarian before including essential oils into your wellness routine or using them to make your home smell great. We’ve heard a lot of stories about how essential oils and herbal medicine have proven to be effective supplements to conventional Western medicine.
And if you’re looking to supplement your health insurance, you’ll definitely want to consult with Emerge.