Unless you’ve been living without internet, you know essential oils have exploded in popularity. Though millions love their oils, there are still some cynics or skeptics.
Vanessa and I get a message from someone almost weekly, wondering about our thoughts on a new post, from someone hellbent on scaring people away from essential oils.
The internet is a great venue for skeptics, cynics, or haters to invoke fear and anger about virtually any topic. They often leave their readers utterly confused about what’s fact, and what is opinion.
For those who are new to essential oils, or are on the fence about whether or not to try them, these emotionally-charged posts often create fear and doubt.
For me, the situation is nothing new. I’ve seen the same pattern play out about nutritional supplements, diets, exercise, and many other health-related topics.
The adoption of any new idea or paradigm shift always attracts detractors, not just health-related stuff.
Remember, people ridiculed the idea that the earth was round, that the Wright Brothers could fly, and that Facebook would be anything more than a college-based website.
Over the past ten years, essential oil use in America has gone through a significant paradigm shift. Along with millions of promoters, essential oils have also attracted many naysayers.
So, with all the messages and questions we receive about the latest alarmist’s article, I found that it wasn’t a great use of time to reply to each one, one-at-a-time. I decided to summarize my answer in a single post to refer them to, as well as to help those who wonder but don’t ask.
I will not debate every point people make against essential oils, especially those that are just nonsense. I simply want to dispel some myths, correct some misinformation, and help you think a little differently.
I could have written similar articles over the years on high-dose vitamin D, low-carb or high-protein diets, CrossFit, or Bulletproof Coffee™, when each of those ideas gained popularity, as well as opposition. Today, they’re pretty much accepted as healthy and beneficial.
In full disclosure, my wife and I are distributors of essential oils. Our passion for health and fitness, and relentless pursuit of exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle options to improve our own health and others’, led Vanessa to essential oils in 2014. Not only did we realize the potential for our health, but Vanessa also saw the opportunity to build a business promoting them. It grew so fast that I resigned from my Senior Director role at a major fitness company a year later, and joined her.
I point this out because someone might say I’m biased based on my affiliation with the company we promote. From my point of view, we wouldn’t represent the company or promote essential oils if they weren’t effective, as we’ve built our career and reputations around delivering quality health and fitness content and education. One point of view would be to dismiss this article because of my bias. Another would be to realize I believe in them enough to be biased about them in the first place. You can decide for yourself.
The Four Stages of Idea Acceptance
History has a way of repeating itself. What we’ve seen with essential oils, we’ve seen with any new paradigm shift.
Adoption of a new idea or paradigm is a four-stage process, described in Virus of the Mind by Richard Brodie:
- Complacency/Marginalization: Early on, most people shrug off the new idea. Actually, when Vanessa got started with essential oils in January of 2014, I gave it little attention myself. I said, “I’m glad you found something you’re interested in, but I doubt they work very well, because I haven’t heard of them.” I pretty much blew them off, which is something I’m embarrassed to admit today. It wasn’t very manly.
- Ridicule: Often, when others don’t understand a new idea, they laugh at it or mock it. Because it contradicts their beliefs, or they don’t want to let on that they don’t understand, they make fun of it.
- Criticism: As the idea gains greater momentum, many of those who ridiculed it, dig their heals in even further. Rather than admit they were wrong, they look for ways to prove they were right. They criticize. They question the idea’s safety. And if they have trouble getting others to listen to their point of view on the idea, they attack those promoting the new paradigm, and slander the person who started it.
- Acceptance: Eventually, the idea has enough anecdotal and scientific support, that even the greatest skeptics cannot argue against it anymore. Sometimes, they swallow their pride, admit they were wrong, and become the idea’s biggest voices of support. Other times, they just find another idea to ridicule or criticize.
If you look back even 20 years in America, there was little discussion of essential oils outside of massage, mind/body and meditation. Over the past 5-10 years, more people have benefitted from their use, and have shared those benefits with others.
Today, the paradigm of essential oils as therapeutic natural products, sits between stages three and four. There is still plenty of criticism, but much more acceptance.
While anecdotal evidence is interesting, research backs up others’ experiences, as evidenced by the large number of published studies found in PubMed.
Mahatma Ghandi summarized the process of idea acceptance quite well:
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.Mahatma Ghandi
Essential oils, in my opinion, are just 5-10 years behind supplements in America. It wasn’t that long ago that nutritional supplements were deemed useless or even dangerous. Today, even those with a rudimentary level of nutrition knowledge understand their value.
Don’t Get Hooked by Clickbait
Have you ever scrolled through your Facebook newsfeed, and seen a headline that freaked you out so much, you shared the post without even reading it?
The purpose of a headline is to get the reader to read the story, or to tell others about it. Tabloids have used this tactic for years. They exaggerate what’s in the story to make a jucier headline. In online publishing, this “hook” is called clickbate.
Merriam-Webster defines clickbait as “something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.”
Sadly, many clickbait headlines are never read. Instead, people just share the misleading headline as though it were truth.
Two of my favorite clickbait headlines in recent years were “Meat Causes Cancer,” and “Eggs Are Worse Than Cigarettes.” If you got “hooked” by those headlines, perhaps I’ll address them with facts in the future.
Of course, not all of the anti-essential oils articles are written as clickbait. Some are written by people who read or heard one of the many myths surrounding oils, and decided to write their own post, repeating the same myths.
I read an article recently, written by a very conventional nurse. I think she really believed what she wrote, and could tell she was quite emotional about it. However, her reasoning was based on all sorts of misinformation. Unfortunately, if a reader didn’t check the author’s facts, they would have been scared away from the use of essential oils.
Myths become even more believable when they’re written by someone who has letters after their name, like RN, MS, RD, DC, or others.
I’ve addressed some of the most common myths below.
Essential Oil Myths and Misinformation
If a friend happens to bring up one of these myths, you’ll know the real story behind it.
My favorite question I ask, whenever some says something that doesn’t make much sense, is “How do you mean?”
For example, if your friend says, “There isn’t any research on essential oils,” ask “How do you mean?”
Chances are, they won’t know what to say next, because they’re just parroting what someone else said or wrote. If they’re interested in the facts, share some of the following info.
Myth 1: There isn’t any research on essential oils
Fact: PubMed has tons of published research and papers on essential oils in English. There’s even more in other languages like French.
Most of the research is independently funded, so there isn’t bias.
At the time of writing this article, a search for “Essential Oils” in PubMed revealed almost 22,000 published papers.
Filtering out only those papers that are human-related still leaves almost 5400! I have 230 papers that I’ve read in my Evernote file. Most involve some pretty fascinating discoveries.
Anyone who says “there’s no research” clearly doesn’t know how to find it or read it.
Myth 2: Essential Oils are Dangerous or Harmful
Fact: Anything can be harmful if misused or abused. Heck, if you drink too much water it can kill you.
I would also add that low-quality essential oils, like nutritional supplements, can be dangerous as they don’t always contain what you think they contain. Use only pure, tested, therapeutic natural products.
If you get your supplements, herbs, or essential oils (actually, pretty much any product) from a discount retailer, flea market, or street vendor, you’re probably not getting a high-quality product.
When it comes to essential oils, there have been a small number of documented incidents. A very small number, actually, when you compare it to other natural products, food, or pharmaceuticals.
I’ll address some of the most-cited incidents below.
The FDA keeps track of all adverse events, which are available online. Again, the number related to essential oils is very, very small. But if it was “zero,” I would be skeptical as a small percentage of people often react negatively to almost anything they expose their bodies to, even when it’s all-natural.
Again, most of the significant adverse events are a result of misuse. Unfortunately, the cynics and alarmists exaggerate things, and make it sound like all essential oils are dangerous. Not true.
Here are some of the cases that get cited as “evidence” of their danger. With some critical thinking, you’ll see that making a statement such as “essential oils are dangerous” based on these incidents, is extremely far-fetched.
- Three children, ages 15-36 months, were admitted to hospitals in New York City, following seizures resulting from exposure to camphor-containing pesticide. Two of the kids had eaten the pesticide, and one had rubbed it on the skin. According to the published paper, “These cases highlight the toxicity associated with camphor usage in the community and that inappropriate use of illegally sold camphor products is an important public health issue.”
- An 18-month-old boy was admitted to the hospital after displaying signs of confusion and a depressed nervous system. He had ingested homemade lavandin (not “lavender”) extract.
- A teenage boy consumed an entire bottle of nutmeg (not the essential oil…actual nutmeg) to experience its hallucinogenic effects. Not surprisingly, it worked, and he was brought to the emergency room, probably by some pretty upset parents.
- This is one of the most commonly cited. Three, yes, THREE different boys were independently seen by a physician after developing gynecomastia. Each used (or their parents had) lotions or gels that contained lavender essential oil. There is no further information about what else was in the lotion (as many personal care products contain xenoestrogens, which are known to increase estrogen levels in the body), nor is it known if the lavender was pure lavender in the lotion. This paper is often cited as reason to avoid lavender use in young boys. Again, three boys who have used lavender-containing lotions, may or may not have developed gynecomastia from the oil.
I don’t point out these cases to dismiss the reality of the situation. As parents of these kids, I’m sure it was really scary, even though all the kids recovered. I do point them out to show that the numbers are incredibly small, and there’s more to the story than just the idea that “essential oils are harmful.”
Eating pesticide is not the same as using essential oils appropriately.
Homemade lavandin is not the same as therapeutic, pure lavender essential oil.
Eating a full bottle of nutmeg (or even drinking a bottle of nutmeg essential oil) would be misuse or abuse.
And making an across-the-board statement about lavender and boys, based on the case of three boys who may or may not have used therapeutic lavender, is still quite a stretch.
All that said, parents ought to be responsible with their essential oil storage, just as they would with their supplements, drugs, household cleaners, antifreeze, mouthwash, cough medicine, etc.
Wintergreen essential oil can be harmful if swallowed in large quantities, as it is metabolized and acts on the body much like aspirin.
Myth 3: Essential Oils Cause Reactions
Like just about anything, essential oils can cause certain reactions in some people. Each person has a unique biochemistry, and responds differently. It’s bound to happen. The reactions are not life-threatening, just inconvenient or uncomfortable.
Again, this is typical with food, cosmetics, certain climates, supplements, and essential oils.
For example, just because some people have a nut allergy, it would be silly to warn everyone to avoid nuts, especially since they have a number of health benefits.
It’s the same thing with essential oils. You might get a reaction to certain oils when you use them on your skin. Most people don’t. Is it because of the oil itself, or because of a nutrient deficiency, or from chemicals in your skin care products that causes the reaction? I don’t know.
If you’re among those who have a reaction, and can only inhale them or take them internally, it’s a bummer, but that’s just the way it is.
As another example, I believe whey protein is the best protein source on the planet, but I don’t tolerate it well. That doesn’t stop me from recommending it to those who do.
Myth 4: Essential Oil Companies Got In Trouble With the FDA for Making Medical Claims
Oh my. This is just another example of how you can’t believe everything you read on the internet, and how people can publish content without checking their facts at all.
Neither Young Living nor doTERRA had illegal claims on their company’s sites.
The issue, per the FDA, was that distributors from both companies made medical claims on their independent websites, social media profiles, and in public classes and seminars.
Even if a supplement, herb, or essential oil has a drug-like effect, you cannot market it using drug claims. Drug claims include terms like anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, etc. Phrases such as “lowers cholesterol,” “raises testosterone,” or “treats (disease)” could also be considered drug claims.
The average person doesn’t know the difference between a structure/function claim, and a drug claim. In their enthusiasm to share what they knew of essential oils, many distributors broke the rules. The FDA held the parent companies, Young Living and doTERRA, responsible.
Both took action to educate their distributors and eliminate illegal claims online, in print and in educational meetings and lectures.
Myth 5: The FDA Does Not Regulate Essential Oils
The FDA does regulate dietary supplements, cosmetics, food, etc.
The FDA does not pre-approve ingredients in them. However, manufacturers must notify the FDA of any new ingredients they might use in a dietary supplement prior to marketing it, and show that it is safe for use.
The FDA performs unannounced audits each year to ensure all manufacturing processes, documentation, and testing meets or exceeds FDA requirements. If the FDA officer finds issues, he or she issues a warning letter. The company, then gets a deadline to fix it.
They either comply, or they can be shut down.
Practice Critical Thinking
We have a three-year-old grandson named Asher. He is ADORABLE. Each time he’s with us, he learns something new, and most of his learning comes through mimicry.
Mimicry is the first step in learning. It’s quite effective, provided whatever you mimic is accurate or correct.
Asher loves playing with construction vehicles, so we’ve bought him number of Bruder trucks. Each time we’ve bought him a new truck, we’ve told him the name of the truck, such as Excavator, Dump Truck, Cement Mixer, Front Loader, etc. (he has quite a few now). He repeats it back, and then enthusiastically tells others the names of his trucks.
With all of his enthusiasm, the only reason he’s right about what they’re called is because we gave him accurate information.
If we’d told him they were called the totem pole, spray bottle, flying saucer, and aluminum can, that’s what he’d enthusiastically call them. That’s what makes his age so adorable.
As adults, before we mimic, copy, or repeat what we see or hear from others, we should always make sure that we are mimicking the truth (or the most accurate assumption based on the evidence available).
We have to ask questions and to apply critical thinking, or we could be mimicking false information.
There’s way too much misinformation spread around the internet about health and fitness. The misinformation leads people into choices that aren’t the best for them, and leads others away from choices that would be valuable.
If something doesn’t sound quite right, question it. Even those with credentials like RN, RD, or MD might base their recommendations only on an opinion, rather than education and experience.
I hope this article has given you something to think about, and some better questions to ask.
If so, please share it!