The global essential oils market size surpassed $6 billion US in 2015 and is expected to reach $9.8 billion by 2020. While there is a reasonable amount of evidence for benefits such as easing anxiety, there are still far too many exaggerated and unsubstantiated claims being put forth even by the largest companies. Below is a roundup of the evidence, marketing tactics, absurd claims, FDA warnings and outright fabrications.
Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, director of education and fellowship at the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine: “There have been some small studies showing that aromatherapy can be beneficial in certain populations for easing anxiety. However, when looked at in totality, the evidence is weak for beneficial effects with inhalation.”
Personal Touch & Placebo Benefits
“But even the authors of these pro-aromatherapy studies say the benefits they uncovered could be attributable to a lot of different factors. In the dementia study, to pick one, the researchers say increased social and physical contact between the sufferers and the caregivers who applied the lemon balm could explain some of the calming effects.
“Another issue with this kind of research involves something scientists call “expectancy.” If you believe sniffing rosemary or eucalyptus is going to perk you up or mellow you out, your expectations can result in placebo benefits that stem from your brain—not the plant essences you’re inhaling. These sorts of confounding variables are common in aromatherapy studies…..”
Lack of Research
“In addition to their intrinsic benefits to plants and being beautifully fragrant to people, essential oils have been used throughout history in many cultures for their medicinal and therapeutic benefits. Modern scientific study and trends towards more holistic approaches to wellness are driving a revival and new discovery of essential oil health applications. They say modern science is validating ‘the numerous health and wellness benefits of essential oils’ but they don’t identify those benefits or offer any evidence. No clinical studies are cited, and there is no research section on their website.”
Rose Essential Oil
“dōTERRA says rose essential oil has traditionally been used to help with skin problems, depression, stress, anxiety, and is supportive to the organs in the body. It supposedly works as an aphrodisiac, and has commonly been used for its antispasmodic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and sedative properties. The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database disagrees. It says ‘insufficient reliable evidence to rate’ and lists a number of adverse reactions and interactions with drugs.”
How MLM Boosts Sales of Essential Oils
“Why Does MLM (multi-level marketing) Appeal to Distributors? It offers the promise of direct income from sales; the chance to piggyback on the sales of others; the dream of making it rich; the opportunity to sell a product they believe in; and a way to make money in a pleasant way, at home, with their own hours, with a lot of social contact, and no need to apply for a job.
“Why Do Customers Buy? Imagine a typical customer experience. A friend or acquaintance invites you into her home, provides refreshments, a party atmosphere, and a social opportunity to visit with other old acquaintances and meet new friends and neighbors. You get free samples. People you know and trust tell you about their personal experiences, providing persuasive testimonials of apparently miraculous benefits. They vouch for the quality and manufacturing standards of the products. They offer discounts and the opportunity to join the community of distributors. It all sounds so good! The hostess has given you refreshments and goodies, so you feel a social obligation to reciprocate. There is the peer pressure of all the other attendees who are buying the products, and you don’t want to look like a Scrooge or an ungrateful oddball. You might end up, like the person who e-mailed me, spending $60 for something you didn’t want and don’t believe works.”
“Forty two primary reports met our inclusion criteria. In total, 71 patients experienced adverse effects of aromatherapy. Adverse effects ranged from mild to severe and included one fatality. The most common adverse effect was dermatitis. Lavender, peppermint, tea tree oil and ylang-ylang were the most common essential oils responsible for adverse effects.
“Aromatherapy has the potential to cause adverse effects some of which are serious. Their frequency remains unknown. Lack of sufficiently convincing evidence regarding the effectiveness of aromatherapy combined with its potential to cause adverse effects questions the usefulness of this modality in any condition.”
Small Sampling of Absurd Healing Claims Made By Some Companies
Frankincense: Anxiety, asthma, bronchitis, extreme coughing, scars and stretch marks, depression, fatigue exhaustion and burnout, fear, grief, happiness and peace, insecurity, loneliness, panic and panic attacks and stress
Lavender: Acne, allergies, anxiety, asthma, athlete's foot, bruises, burns, chicken pox, colic, cuts, cystitis, depression, dermatitis, earache, flatulence, headache, hypertension, insect bites, insect repellent, itching, labor pains, migraine, oily skin, rheumatism, scabies, scars, sores, sprains, strains, stretch marks, vertigo, whooping cough, irritability, panic attacks and stress
Rose: Eczema, mature skin, anger, anxiety, frigidity, depression grief, menopause, happiness and peace, loneliness, panic and panic attacks and stress
Two Warning Letters From The FDA
In 2014 the FDA sent two warning letters to the mammoth essential oil companies Young Living and doTerra International. They were warned for promoting their oils to heal or treat the following conditions:
Viral infections (including ebola), bacterial infections, cancer, brain injury, autism, endometriosis, Grave’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, ADD/ADHD, chicken pox, cold sore, colds, flu, fungal infections, Herpes simplex, MRSA, shingles, warts, Parkinson’s disease, autism, diabetes, insomnia, heart disease, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dementia, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease and arterial hypertension.
Certain oils were claimed to partially or fully kill prostate cancer cells, colon cancer cells, cervical cancer cells, bladder cancer cells, leukemia cells, melanoma and fibrosarcoma cells and brain tumor cells.
“Representatives of both doTerra and Young Living like to highlight the medical benefits of their products. ‘There are literally thousands of studies on the benefits of essential oils,’ Hill said. In fact, there have been very few large-scale, peer-reviewed studies of essential oils’ use on humans, and their conclusions have been relatively modest. It appears that lavender may improve sleep quality and duration, and that peppermint may reduce symptoms of headache and irritable-bowel syndrome. Many more studies have looked at oils’ impact on cell cultures in a lab, sometimes with encouraging results. Some oils have been shown to have antimicrobial effects, and to work synergistically with antibiotics. But the conclusions reached by scientists are beside the point for many consumers. ‘I’ll use my wife as an example,’ Hill said. ‘She’s not going to be able to tell you the first thing about chemistry. Put a research paper in front of her—zero interest. And that’s probably how most people are. What’s real to them is the experience they’re having.’”
Getting Around FDA Rules
“The Food and Drug Administration is charged with preventing sellers of alternative-health products from making unfounded medical claims. Without ample independent testing, companies can’t assert that their products prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure disease. They get around this by relying on abstract words like ‘vitality’ and ‘balance,’ and by talking in vague terms about general body systems or mild issues that don’t rise to the level of disease. Young Living and doTerra have attorneys on staff to insure that product descriptions are within legal bounds.”
Wild, Wild West of MLM Reps
“But although doTerra supplies educational materials to its Wellness Advocates, there are no requirements that they review or distribute them. ‘The multilevels have the whole aromatherapy community worried,’ Peter Holmes, the author of the textbook Aromatica told me. Both doTerra and Young Living encourage consumers to drink certain oils, a position that’s controversial even among alternative-health practitioners. Holmes said that, while he is unaware of the practices of specific companies, ‘You hear about completely untrained housewives telling people to ingest up to fifty drops. That is sheer insanity. That is medically dangerous. It’s a crazy situation.’”
Unsubstantiated and Dangerous Claims
“This May, a doTerra representative named Lara held an Essential Oils 101 class at a barbecue restaurant in Waco, Texas …… She was in the midst of a doTerra leadership-training program that brought her to a handful of states to lecture about oils. She told the dozen people assembled that she had become interested in oils a few years ago, when her three-year-old son started showing symptoms of autism after receiving the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. ‘My pediatrician had no help for me,’ she said. But diffusing oils made her son as ‘calm as a kitten.’ After a few years of treatment with oils, she said, he is on track developmentally.
“Lara distributed a handout that listed various ailments and their oil treatments: eucalyptus for bronchitis, lavender for third-degree burns, cypress for mononucleosis, rosemary for respiratory syncytial virus. Diffusion ‘kills microorganisms in the air which helps stop the spread of sickness,’ the pamphlet read. Oils ‘repair our bodies at a cellular level so when you are not sure which oils to use, don’t be afraid to use several oils and the body will gain a myriad of benefits.’ Lara told the people in the room that doTerra had oils that were ‘very antiviral’ and could knock out bronchitis in twenty-four hours. She shared essential-oil success stories—her migraines gone, her friend’s rheumatoid arthritis reversing, a colleague’s mother’s cancer in remission. A blond woman at the back of the room raised her hand. ‘Cancer?’ she said, sounding both skeptical and hopeful. She explained that her sister-in-law had recently been treated for breast cancer, and was taking a pill to prevent its recurrence, but the side effects were terrible. The blond woman was hoping for a more natural solution.”
“Besides personal experience, the only kind of research aroma-therapists seem interested in is in reading what other aroma-therapists have said or believed about plants or oils. The practitioners and salespersons of aroma-therapeutic products seem singularly uninterested in scientific testing of their claims, many of which are empirical and could be easily tested. Of course, there are many aroma-therapists who make non-testable claims, such as claims regarding how certain oils will affect their ‘subtle body,’ bring balance to their chakra, restore harmony to their energy flow, return one to one's center, or contribute to spiritual growth. Aromatherapy is said to restore or enhance mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual health. Such claims are essentially non-testable. They are part of New Age mythology and can't really engender any meaningful discussion or debate.”
False Claims of Boosting the Immune System
One of the most prevalent claims by aroma-therapists is that essential oils boost or support the immune system. Simple and basic human biology contradicts this. William M. Meller, MD (Internal Medicine, Emergency Medicine, Medical Center at Santa Barbara, CA) calls the immune system "the body's homeland security":
“The immune system is a system of cells and proteins that are ‘scattered throughout the body — in the blood, lymph nodes, bone marrow, spleen, and even appendix. It's made up of white blood cells and the tissues that make and harbor them.’ Immune cells try to protect the body from foreign invasions by such things as germs. Immune cells attack and dispense with the offenders. The security forces created by the immune defense system are called antibodies, ‘highly specific proteins programmed to recognize and remember a specific virus or bacteria forever.’ Yes, forever.
“Our immune system never rests. In the mouth and gut it neutralizes germs that hitchhike in on food. In the lungs it screens the air we breathe. In the skin it wards off invaders trying to enter through dirty cuts and scrapes. The fact that we get so few infections, despite countless daily exposures, testifies to the vigilance of our immune forces.”
Bottom Line From Robert T. Carroll, Ph.D.
“In any case, I would not reject aromatherapy out of hand, however. When I have a cold and a stuffy nose, I'll use Vicks VapoRub, a mixture of camphor, menthol, and eucalyptus oil. Strictly speaking, I suppose I am a practicing aroma-therapist. However, when I look at what people who call themselves aroma-therapists claim, I have to conclude that aromatherapy is a mostly a pseudoscientific alternative medical therapy. It is a mixture of folklore, trial and error, anecdote, testimonial, New Age spiritualism, and fantasy. What aromatherapy lacks is a knack for sniffing out non-sense. And while some oils can kill bacteria, as can some soaps, it may not be in your best interest to kill every bacterium you can. Some of those billions of little creatures are actually doing your body some good!
"Finally, some of our strongest anti-biotics don't work very well on the deadliest strains of bacteria. What are the odds that some plant oil applied to the lower back is going to do what our strongest drugs can't do? I'd say the odds are not great, but if you believe in magic, go right ahead and oil up. Anyway, the scientific research on essential oils as anti-biotics and anti-virals for serious conditions is in its infancy. Essential oils can kill bugs in the lab, but will they be effective in real-life situations? There's always some pleasure in feeling you're doing something good for your body, even if you aren't. Call it placebo pleasure, if you like. If you could bottle it, you'd be rich. What a concept!”
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