The increasing use of essential oils has been accompanied by an increasing number of poisonings, especially of children, and other adverse effects. Unsupported claims about their purity and medicinal properties are made. Buyers should beware of fraud, get reliable information before using these highly concentrated oils, and keep them out of the reach of children.
For a long time, essential oils (EOs) were a niche market of a small number of massage therapists, aromatherapists, natural remedy enthusiasts, and crafty folks who liked making nice smelling potpourris, candles, and soap. In recent years, though, aggressive marketing by a couple of multilevel marketing companies has pushed the use of EOs into a larger market. Along with it have come an irresponsible plethora of bogus claims, the promotion of unsafe practices, and the annoying marketing to family and friends that comes along with MLMs.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not anti-EO. I am against fraud, misinformation, unsafe practices, and accidental poisonings, especially of children.
I've been alarmed at some of the tales I've been told of pregnant women being encouraged to ingest EOs or blends being rubbed undiluted on babies' feet to ward off colds, a practice about as useful as wearing garlic around one's neck to ward off vampires. Unsuspecting targets of sales pitches given by people who know little more than the company line are led to believe their well-meaning solicitors actually know what they are talking about. Indeed, this unpaid sales force often believes it themselves. However, when you start asking relevant questions, it quickly becomes clear that they know almost nothing about the products they are selling. What could possibly be the harm in these nice smelling oils? Well, potentially quite a bit.
First let's get one thing straight: there is no such thing as "therapeutic grade" essential oils. This is a term made up by the companies themselves. There is no certification, no regulation by any governmental or otherwise disinterested party. When EOs from "reputable" companies, including the two big MLMs who claim they monitor the production of their EOs from seed to seal, as they say, are tested by independent labs, the results are that a significant portion of EOs are adulterated with synthetic fragrances. Fraud is rampant in the EO industry. Unless every single batch is tested by an independent third party, there is no way to guarantee the purity of any EO.
Several years ago, a group of aromatherapists pitched in and had thirteen samples of peppermint oil from "reputable" companies tested by an indepdendent lab. Ten of the thirteen samples were "not in compliance," including those from the big MLMs. That is, they contained substances that were not natural to peppermint oil; they were adulterated with synthetics. The results of these lab reports were published online and were accessible for several years. Recently I've noticed that this and other damning evidence have disappeared without explanation. One article remains online but costs $.25 to read. The article, published on Utahstories.com, is titled Damning Evidence that Young Living and DoTerra's Oils are Adulterated, tells the story of Dr. Robert Pappas, a chemist who was hired by Young Living Oils to test some samples of their EOs. YLO and DoTerra, a company formed by former YLO employees, have been hurling lawsuits at each other, accusing each other of selling contaminated EOs. Dr. Pappas has testified in sworn testimony before the court that he found YLO's samples to be synthetic and when he reported this to founder and CEO Gary Young, Young pressured him to change his report. Dr. Pappas' sworn videotaped testimony was available for viewing on a website but, like other evidence, is no longer available. We can't help but suspect legal threats are preventing the public from viewing the court testimony. [Note: a currently working video of part of Dr. Pappas' testimony is currently available but may not remain so.] However, still available are recent reports that several YLO distributors pooled their resources to have some samples tested and, again, they were found to be adulterated. When they confronted YLO about these results, representatives failed to answer and, instead, tried to claim it was a smear campaign. One distributor who had believed in the company wrote about The day Young Living broke my heart . . . Since that time, another group of EO enthusiasts have pooled their resources and have been submitting samples of various companies' EOs for testing. You can see the results of their tests here. As of this writing, it seems that a higher percentage of EOs are being found in compliance than earlier tests indicated. Perhaps the greater scrutiny has made EO companies a bit more cautious.
Two particularly dangerous practices have been promoted by the MLMs: ingesting EOs and applying them undiluted ("neat") to the skin. EOs are extremely concentrated and most should not be applied undiluted to the skin. When their EOs cause red welts and rashes to form, the companies claim this is a sign of "detoxing," which is rubbish. It is contact dermatitis. The National Association of Holistic Aromatherapists have issued a white paper warning of the dangers of "Raindrop Therapy," (RDT) practice promoted by YLO that involves applying their EOs neat to the skin. The Aromatherapy Registration Council condemns the practice of applying EOs neat to the skin and has issued a paper warning they will drop from membership any member who practices RDT or "Aromatouch," a similar practice promoted by DoTerra. Outside of a very few EOs, no responsible aromatherapists recommend applying EOs neat to the skin. Even those considered safe to apply undiluted can cause reactions, especially with repeated exposure.
The practice of ingesting EOs has the potential to be even more hazardous. In this article on essential oil safety, a naturapath warns that ingesting EOs can cause seizures in children. A search of PubMed finds a number of case reports of adverse effects from ingesting EOs, including death. Again, the responsible aromatheray associations warn that aromatherapists should not recommend ingesting EOs. This report of a near fatal case of a woman admitted to a hospital in a comatose state after ingesting peppermint oil names a number of compounds in peppermint oil that can damage the liver, the kidneys, and the brain. Besides the fact that EOs are extremely concentrated, since they are often contaminated with synthetic fragrances which may not be safe for consumption. Food grade oils can be purchased to be used to flavor foods, in which case they are dispersed throughout the food so that their concentration is diluted to a safe level and the ingredients have been monitored for safety. The growing promotion of these unsafe practices has led the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy to collect lists of worst injuries from EOs, pleading with people to Stop The Insanity!
Why would anyone want to ingest EOs or apply them undiluted to their skin? These companies make claims that their EOs will cure disease and all manner of physical ailments, from scoliosis to ebola. Both YLO and DoTerra have been issued warnings about making claims about unsupported medicinal benefits of their EOs. The list of claims they make, including that their EOs will help you lose weight and will "enhance the body's aura," is almost endless and quite imaginative. Unfortunately, it's all bogus, too. Dr. Eva Briggs writes about listening to Gary Young speak at the Total Health Expo in Toronto and calls Young a "total wacko" whose fabrications rival any tall tales ever told by Mark Twain.
Even use of EOs in diffusers can trigger adverse reactions. In one case report listed in PubMed, a women developed persistent eczema from airborne exposure to various EOs after using an aromalamp in her house for a year. Due to the volatile oils having permeated all the surfaces in her dwelling, the entire house had to be remodeled. Many of the case reports and reviews caution that the incidence of allergic reactions and poisonings are on the rise as sales of EOs increase. Children, aromatherapists, massage therapists, and others whose occupations expose them to EOs are at particular risk.
Besides the fraud and unsafe practices promoted by these companies who seem prepared to say anything to make a buck, there is another reason for concern about the growing use of essential oils: their environmental impact. Depending on the specific EO, it takes anywhere from hundreds to thousands of pounds of plant material to make one pound of EO. According to aromatherapist and author Mindy Green, it takes 200 to 250 pounds of lavender to make one pound of lavender oil and as much as 10,000 pounds of rose blossoms to make one pound of rose oil. Considering the environmental impact of devoting such large areas of land to monocropping and the impact it could have on the food supply, Green questions the ethics of the increasing casual use of EOs.
Essential oils can be useful and fun. Massage therapists often add them to their massage oils and some people enjoy scenting a room with essential oils. Their use, however, is not without its hazards. EOs are extremely concentrated and should be used responsibly. The reknowned aromatherapist and educator Robert Tisserand, author of Essential Oil Safety, is a voice of reason in a field prone to insanity. While ill-informed EO enthusiasts were claiming that frankincense oil would cure cancer, Tisserand was writing articles that explained the science and delivered sensible information. (And no, frankincense will not cure cancer. We wish it were that easy.) Tisserand has promoted safe use of EOs and in this internview explains why ingestion of EOs is a bad idea. His books, website, blog, and classes are great resources for those who would like to use EOs responsibly.
If you have an interest in using EOs, don't trust the sales pitch of a poorly trained "distributor." Get the facts from reliable, independent sources on how to use them safely. Please keep EOs out of the reach of children. The vast majority of poisonings have been children.
[Edit 1/17/17: Something I had not considered is the potential for adverse reactions in household pets. Birds can be very sensitive to some EOs. Dogs love to lick and could suffer from exposure to EOs applied to the skin. I'm not a fan, but when Natural News publishes an article warning that well-meaning owners might harm their pets with essential oils, you know it's not an exaggeration from the anti-alt med crowd.]
The following partial list of case reports of adverse effects from EOs listed in the database PubMed is provided to impress the importance of using EOs safely, keeping them out of the reach of children, and avoiding overexposure.
Pediatric tea tree oil aspiration treated with surfactant in the emergency department.
18 month old child ingested tea tree oil, developed central nervous system depression and respiratory distress.
Fifteen month old boy develops liver failure after ingesting clove oil. Report mentions increasing incidents of accidental poisonings as the sales of EOs increases.
"Essential oils have the potential to initiate allergic reactions due to their volatile and skin absorbent nature. Practitioners and aromatherapy teachers need to be aware of the potential for allergies and be equipped to deal with them if they should arise. Two cases are presented of potentially serious reactions that occurred within a learning situation along with a brief literature critique about allergic reactions to essential oils."
There are many more reports, in particular tea tree oil poisoning, allergic reactions among aromatherapists, poisoning from pennyroyal, sensitivity to lavender and chamomile.