When you hear the word essential oils, what comes to mind? Amazing scents? Tranquility? Us too. But one more phrase sticks out with us supplement nerds, and that’s “misleading claims.” This month we will discuss essential oils and address the ubiquitous misinformation surrounding them, especially as it pertains to quality and their use.
In medicine, when we use the term “essential” to describe a compound, it usually means our bodies don’t synthesize that compound and we must get it from outside sources. Our body doesn’t make Omega-3, so we call it an essential fatty acid.
The word essential in essential oils is not the same. It instead comes from a time when we thought we were removing the essence or “life spirit” from a plant when we extracted the aromatic oils. Sort of like how we call alcohol “spirits”.
The term has more old-fashioned, magical connotations than we would assign to it now, had we discovered these things more recently. Why did we think they were so magical? I’m so glad you asked…
What Is An Essential Oil?
An essential oil is a combination of chemical compounds extracted from plants. These chemicals are usually aromatic, which means they have an odor. In plants, these essential oils help the plant adapt to its environment.
Essential oil compounds attract pollinating insects which helps spread them across the landscape. They also aid in defense by repelling predatory bugs and animals or killing off microbes like bacteria or fungus that could threaten the plant.
It is to be noted the antimicrobial function of essential oils is MUCH different than antimicrobial use in complex human systems.
We use essential oils in many of the same ways plants do. Aromatherapy is a real thing for us: citrus oils make us believe a room is cleaner and lavender helps us calm at night which helps us sleep.
Here at the store, we may be able to retire early based solely on sales of natural bug repellants made of essential oils (because they actually work).
Aromatherapy usually involves using a diffuser to apply low-temperature heat to one or more essential oils or actively spraying essential oil solutions into the air.
They’re mostly benign when used appropriately. If a high concentration is used, even with aromatherapy, most people will notice nauseousness or a headache. Essential oils are also irritants and can cause topical reactions or damage the skin if handled incorrectly.
Some common essential oils are lavender, peppermint, eucalyptus, tea tree, or citronella. Essential oils cannot and should not be used unless diluted. Carrier oils are inert “bases” that are used to dilute essential oils prior to use. Examples of carrier oils include almond oil, grapeseed oil, or jojoba oil.
Many essential oils are isolates, meaning there is just one thing (i.e. just lavender, just cinnamon), but many essential oil companies create pre-made blends containing multiple essential oils that work together for some end.
We have a blend called Head Relief, for example, that is lavender, peppermint, basil, and orange peel. As a consumer, you can make your own essential oil combinations using individual essential oils, then dilute them with a carrier oil on demand or you can squirrel them away for future use.
Essential oils are botanicals and therefore have all the normal liabilities we go on and on about (for good reason). We worry about farming and harvesting practices, extraction methods, adulteration (adding compounds to a fake or dilute product to give the appearance of a quality or potent product), contamination, and mislabelling. We’ve talked at length about these things, so we won’t go too hard on that. Instead, let’s beat up manufacturers that are ground zero for misinformation.
Our Beef With Essential Oil Companies
To begin with, we’d like to enforce our position, especially those who are not familiar with our rants. Woodstock Vitamins is very pro-essential oil; we are simply anti-misinformation. We are advocates for people who want a more active role in using, selling, or educating on essential oils, but we are firmly against those who spread misinformation or are intentionally misleading. Woodstock Vitamins will never tell you that essential oils will be a cure-all, but we will tell you aromatherapy has various roles in health, healing, and well being. Use essential oils, please, because they’re awesome. If you want to encourage others to do so as well, please be aware that misinformation is plentiful.
Where do these misleading claims come from? Is it from years of hand-me-down “expertise”? Like copying copies, does each subsequent claim becomes a little less sharp? We subscribe to the belief that a majority of the misleading claims come from the multi-level marketing companies that specialize in essential oils.
Claim 1: A Multi-Level Marketing Company Is A Great Place To Buy Essential Oils.
“It Sure Looks Like A Pyramid To Me”
If you want to buy essential oils, how does one acquire them? Well, they can be purchased in normal ways, like going to a store or ordering from a manufacturer. Heck, you could even make your own if you wanted to if you had the time. There is one other major channel - one that made essential oils hit the mainstream: purchasing via multi-level marketing (MLM) companies.
MLMs, some believe, are modern day pyramid schemes that have just barely circumvented the illegal nature of pyramid companies. Each person recruits people to sell the product and a portion of the proceeds flow back upwards.
No, we don’t like MLM companies. If we were to be as diplomatic as possible, we could say MLM companies are not inherently bad, we just don’t agree with them. However, we are not diplomatic in this case. We believe they exist to hawk cheaply made products at a premium in order to make company owners rich, which has a side effect of making a very few MLM salespeople a decent income.
MLM companies sell stuff. Unlike traditional sales channels, MLMs don't make most of their money on the products; a significant portion of their revenue comes from salespeople recruiting others (usually friends and family) to become salespeople. The recruits fork over money for “startup costs” like marketing materials and sales kits, and are required to purchase the product. Every person you recruit gives you some income. Each person you sell product to gets you income and everyone above you on the triangle-shaped distribution method.
In MLMs, the product is secondary to the true purpose of the business. The true goal is to create a network of people who buy-in and further recruit others to buy in "downstream." Each level lower and lower benefits the one above it.
In order for these types of things to be successful for everyone at every level, the products have to be high margin; the difference between the cost and the price has to be humongous. There are two ways of accomplishing this: use cheap raw materials and deceive others into thinking it is a premium product, or use a decent quality item and charge insane prices, again, claiming your product is worth the premium. Essential oils are usually the second one.
The essential oil MLMs sell decent quality oils at a mint (that's a pun, by the way). Again, the quality is probably fine, if not decent for the MLM companies that sell essential oils. The quality is definitely far from being premium or exceptional; it is purely marketing and positioning that they are superior to any other well-made product.
Their prices are just insane, with no justification beyond having to "feed" all levels of the business model. I’m looking through a catalog as I write this. Here's a straight comparison of a few of their products, at the price per ounce (1 ounce = 30 ml):
We can make a very strong argument that our products are higher quality and that quality is not the reason for the price discrepancy.
Besides the price gouging, the organizations themselves are not trustworthy. The FDA has sent numerous letters to essential oil MLMs. The founder of one of them has a sordid past. I don't want to do the character assassination thing, but some research on his claims, ideology, and problems will be illuminating to some (examples here, and here).
MLMs and their suppliers are leading the way in spreading misinformation. That’s not just me tweeting fake news. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) states:
“NAHA is aware of several Multi-level marketing companies who disseminate irresponsible and misinformation into the aromatherapy marketplace.”
We will talk more about this misinformation in the rant.
Trust me, I get it. I see why people want to participate in MLMs. There are stories of people doing well financially being a salesperson for the company. The company themselves have obvious motives; they are literally printing money. We don’t view MLM companies as a harmless way to buy goods, but as a system where a few people do well, some lose a little, and some lose much.
With essential oils, the products are unjustifiably priced to excessive levels, the companies themselves mislead consumers (to the chagrin of national, industry organizations and experts), the FDA has taken issue with their claims and practices, and the founders are highly flawed and untrustworthy people.
Claim 2: I Need “Therapeutic Grade” Essential Oils.
Misleading Consumers About Quality - What’s In A Name?
The best analogy I can come up with for finding a quality product in the natural products industry is that it's like looking for a needle in a haystack, except you don’t know what a needle looks like.
There are LOTS of products out there. There are a few good brands, but most consumers, unfortunately, don’t have the tools or expertise to be able to identify what would constitute quality. Companies know this, and understand how hard it is to convey a product is high quality. In essential oils, leading companies have used terms to convey quality, but they are absent of any true standards and hold no real value. Here are the two most commonly used terms to describe an essential oil:
There is no such thing as a “therapeutic grade” essential oil. Like the terms natural, organic, or whole food, essential oil companies will use the term “therapeutic grade” to denote a high degree of quality. Therapeutic grade is not an official term and there is no set of universal standards that would constitute quality, at all, in essential oils. Excuse the pun, but the term has been diluted by its widespread usage by companies with and without good quality controls.
Pure Essential Oils
Purity is something we definitely would strive for, especially with essential oils. But labeling a product as a “pure essential oil” doesn’t tell us much about the quality either. Pure means free from contaminants, but it could be processed in a way to not capture all the crucial components into the final product. A pure essential oil could be too dilute or could be extracted from a weak harvest or the less-than-ideal plant species.
Finding Quality Essential Oils
This comes down to two things, information and trust. You, as a consumer, must be informed about what types of things to look for. You then must find a company that delivers on those quality measures that you can actually trust. Back to the MLM and another reason why I wouldn’t recommend them for purchasing essential oils… it’s trust. Essentialoils.org has this great quote on their myths page:
"If the leader of a company has a history of misinformation, arrest records for practicing medicine without a license, getting sued for injuring people by improper use of essential oils, using the names of credible people inappropriately for personal gain, and questionable ethics in general then its probably not a company whose "therapeutic grade" standard would really carry much weight with the aromatherapy community at large and should also not be taken seriously by an educated EO consumer. "
Our whole push is for transparency in the industry, and the company that we’ve chosen to make our essential oils delivers. They list the key pieces of our essential oil quality standards right on the label. Take note: good companies BRAG about doing the right thing and are willing to share the data that proves it. Here’s a brief rundown of the major components of our essential oils standards:
Farming & Harvesting: Organic farming practices are preferred, but certified organic is difficult to do with essential oils. We’re not fans of certified organic anyway, but a commitment from our vendors on sustainable, clean farming is needed. (This doesn’t stop MLMs from using deceiving marketing about their products which leads consumers to believe the are organic.) Instead, we look for two terms: sustainable farming and sustainable harvesting. Sustainable farming means they use no synthetic pesticides and often stick to a stricter list than the organic list. Sustainable harvesting typically means the plant is wildcrafted - it is grown in the wild - and it is harvested to ensure not to endanger the species or surrounding environment in any way.
Extraction Method: We get the essential oil compounds from a plant, and when we do so we must not be quick to use harsh chemicals like hexane or acetone, as traces of those things can and do exist in finished products. Typically an essential oil will be extracted using some form of distillation or cold-pressing (aka squeezing - mostly with the citrus oils). Extraction via these methods is hard to do wrong, but we must ensure the proper method used is for each plant, as some plants are fragile and we want to avoid chemical solvents.
Testing: We need to ensure the right finished product tests are done to ensure we have a clean, potent, pure product. Adulterants, or chemicals used to give a poorly made product the appearance of quality, are an issue with essential oils just like they are with any botanical therapy. Here’s a great story that shows adulteration pretty accurately, from my past. On our pharmacy boards, the task was to make a capsule for GI upset that contained peppermint oil. Whoops - I’ve gotten to the end but forgot the peppermint oil! Do I make it over? Do I hand it in and potentially fail for not following the order? Why don’t I just put some peppermint oil on a tissue and rub it on the capsules outside. This could give the appearance that it is a peppermint oil capsule because the testing methods used (a simple sniff test) couldn’t discern between the real thing and the adulterated product. The manufacturer (the pharmacy student) is keenly aware of how to skirt standards, regulations, or consumer expectations to make a product that gives the perception of quality. Please note that I did not do this, nor do I know anyone who did this on their boards, but after discussing it with friends, we realized we could have easily done it without penalty. I swear.
Labeling: An important step is to have a label that makes no unsubstantiated claims and is as transparent as possible. Another piece often missing from labels of essential oils is the latin name of the plant used. If this is not there, it’s a good sign we are not getting what we expect as the manufacturer is not following basic good manufacturing practices set out by FDA regulations.
Claim 3 - You Can Safely Take These Essential Oils Internally Or Use Them Topically
This is the biggest misconception we address regularly. Essential oils are strong, concentrated irritants. When interacting with the skin or mucosal membranes, they will irritate and easily damage the surfaces. Despite this being a basic fact about the chemical makeup of these products, many essential oil companies - especially the MLMs - advise their customers to use these products in an unsafe manner.
All essential oils MUST be diluted prior to use topically. There are many formulas, but in general, 10-30 drops of essential oil should be mixed with 1 ounce or 30 ml of a carrier oil such as almond oil or jojoba oil. We can guide you on proper dilutions of essential oils if you need. These carrier oils are inert and are not irritants. Diluting the essential oils allows successful use without fear of tissue damage. They still can irritate, and if they do, usage should be stopped for 3-7 days until the area heals.
If someone recommends putting a concentrated, pure essential oil on your skin without diluting it first, drop what you are doing and yell “STRANGER DANGER!” Not really, but it is usually an indicator of someone not understanding basic safety and properties of the essential oil they are advising you on. Almost as if they are unqualified to speak about it.
Internal use is another story. I don’t have the time to get into it, but internal use of essential oils is kinda crazy to me. Even if diluted, these things will definitely irritate the GI lining. Poison control talks about the dangers of ingesting essential oils at length here. The Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy has a nice system to collect reports of adverse events after essential oil use, which is reported here for 2016. I think the system is a bit flawed, but it is something.
Even if we did dilute them and they didn't irritate the gut, who knows if they are even absorbed? They probably aren’t.
One that we’re ok with internally is peppermint oil used in a special type of capsule, which delivers it only to the surface of the gut. Some GI docs recommend it for some inflammatory bowel diseases in addition to good probiotics, diet changes, and pharmaceuticals. This makes a bit more sense - we aren’t expecting it to be absorbed into the bloodstream.
In our opinion, we’d need to have a long discussion with someone interested in using essential oils internally to ensure that not only are they being safe (properly diluting and even encapsulating it), but they’ve tried absolutely everything else to no avail. In other words, we need to ensure a product intended for aromatherapy used internally is a good, real option.
The reason for our hesitation about the internal use goes into our fourth misleading claim, which is that essential oils can be used to treat or prevent diseases.
Claim 4: Essential Oils Can And Will Do Everything To Make Us Healthier.
The Story Of Thieves
It literally is hurting my head typing this section out. Ok, here it goes… This is the story of the Thieves essential oil blend which is actively promoted as an antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral.
Way back in the 15th century when the bubonic plague was doing its thing in Europe and Asia, it is told that a group of four European thieves (eh see the name of the blend - pretty smart huh?) who would rob from the dead bodies but never got sick. It’s a freakin’ miracle! The reason, of course, is their advanced knowledge of herbal therapies and their specific blend of aromatic herbs they created that was highly effective in killing airborne bacteria.
The Thieves essential oil has been claimed to kill germs, boost your immune system, improve circulation and your respiratory system. It will protect against the flu, colds, pneumonia, and more. People even bring Moses into this, stating he always had aromatic substances he kept with him to protect Israelites from plagues.
Last month we talked about a study where stevia, in a test tube, killed Lyme bacteria. We also mentioned that salt water could do that. So it makes sense that a harsh compound like the essential oil in citrus that can do this to balloons would also kill bacteria if concentrated enough. This does not mean an essential oil blend will do anything to prevent illness beyond normal sanitary procedures: frequent hand washing, lowering exposure to pathogens, cleaning surfaces with proper cleaners, etc.
I'm not saying that it won’t help either. Aromatherapy is great and will help you feel better for sure. But, let’s get some logic into this situation… Did the 4 thieves magically produce this combination that worked perfectly from the start? Or were there 50 thieves originally and they kept refining the formula as their friends dropped dead until there were 4 left? What concentrations are “antiviral” of what essential oils, and what is this based on?
In 2014 at the height of the Ebola outbreak, essential oil companies - mainly the MLMs and their "suppliers" - touted essential oils as a cure for ebola. I'm not joking. If only the CDC had thought to use essential oils, right?
I’m all for using essential oils, but a majority of the claims being made about them are not supported by much of anything. I’m looking at a sheet we pilfered from a MLM company rep right now, which is SUPER illegal in the claims it makes. It has lists of different essential oils and the disease it treats. Like cancer. Or preventing strokes. This is not responsible advice.
I say to these people who facilitate and encourage this misinformation: Do we not think that the traditional medical establishment would want to use anything they possibly could to treat diseases? Is someone at Sloan-Kettering going, “I hear we could use Cinnamon and Lavender to treat this person, but I prefer Doxorubicin because I get rich!”
Essential oils are great. There are many things they work for and help with. There is a line, though, separating between what is physically possible and what is not. Adults can use essential oils as they want, and believe anything they want about them. Free love, man. Just be aware that the claims of therapeutic benefit of essential oils can be exaggerated, especially as it comes to serious things such as cancer prevention or treatment.
There is nothing magic about the Thieves or any other proprietary blend of essential oils. There are many other products with the same ingredients and concentrations that could be used in its stead. We’ve tried about 6 different essential oil bug sprays this year. They all have the same stuff in them. All of our customers love all of them. We have our favorites, but for us it comes down to having the proper ingredients, clean manufacturing processes, and fair pricing.
Good Essential Oils Just Make Good Scents
I heard the CEO of an essential oil odored their company to downsize, saying the high payroll didn’t make much scents. I think once you become a dad, the part of your brain that makes puns gets over activated. You love it though.
Let’s review: Essential oils are aromatic compounds from plants that have many important roles in nature and can be great for human use for many reasons. “Misleading claims” is the take home, punchline, final word, or theme for essential oils. Companies make claims about the quality of their oils (therapeutic grade, for example) that are unsubstantiated. A good essential oil company will be thorough through the entire manufacturing process and brag about it, educating consumers on how to spot a true high-quality product. Companies make claims about proper usage, and often tell people to use it in ways that can be harmful, such as ingesting them or using them topically without proper dilution or handling. Finally, what an essential oil can actually do is often exaggerated, and people are misled on what they actually can do. This is the worst for us, because we never want someone to abandon a proper, proven therapy for something more “natural” like essential oils.
Many of these misleading claims come from these multi-level marketing companies who sell overpriced, but decent quality essential oils by making outlandish claims for their safety and effectiveness. They have lost the respect of leading industry organizations - the people most passionate about essential oils and their use. We don’t recommend you buy a toaster from an MLM; there are better ways to get access to quality products that are far more cost effective with less nefarious history and practices.
I hope this sheds a light on the misleading claims made by essential oil companies and puts you in a better position to be a more informed consumer. Smell ya' later!
Our Woodstock Vitamins Essential Oils are Vitality Approved, so you can be sure that you're getting quality products: pure, potent, and consistent batch to batch.
Just trying to keep it real...
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth