The Magic and the Myth of Essential Oils

The rise of the wellness movement and its clean beauty derivative has propelled essential oils to the forefront of natural skincare, lauded for their perceived purity. A little jasmine in my face mask, tea tree oil in my moisturizer, rose hip in my hip new face mist...all natural and therapeutic grade (read it on the label, myself), so they must be good for me and my skin. Wait up! Why is my face splotchy? Where did this rash come from?

By now, it’s a familiar tale echoed across Facebook groups and self-published books: the horror stories of essential oils gone wrong, sometimes so wrong they end with a trip to the ER. So what does that mean? Are essential oils essentially baloney? Is clean beauty the latest myth manufactured by manipulative marketers just trying to make an easy buck off my glow goals? How can I trust anything anyone says ever again?

The Essentials of Essential Oils

Putting nature’s wunderkind into context with some basic definitions and practices

The truth is, essential oils, and the myriad claims surrounding them, are complex...starting with what they actually are. Contrary to popular belief, essential does not mean they are the essence of a plant. It means they’re a volatile organic compound, mostly composed of terpenes and their oxygenated derivatives, obtained from the flowers, leaves, seeds, roots, stems, bark or woods of a plant that go through a lengthy distillation process. If it’s cold-pressed, it’s not an essential oil, unless its citrus.

Essential oils have been used for centuries to treat varies woes. Today, they’re a go-to for everything from anxiety to acne. Those who swear by their calming or healing benefits use them in a number of different ways, depending on the oil and desired benefit:

  1. Indirect inhalation, usually through a diffuser which spreads the aromatic oil through the air.
  2. Direct inhalation, through either an individual inhaler or breathing in a couple of drops rubbed into the palms.
  3. Aromatherapy massage, usually a mix of essentials oils diluted with a carrier oil and massaged into the skin.
  4. Topically as a skin treatment, either alone or diluted in a carrier oil/skincare product.
  5. Ingested orally, by placing a couple of drops under the tongue.

Each deployment strategy comes with the risk of toxicity, albeit some more than others, but the risks are particularly stark when essential oils come into contact with the skin. (1, 2)

First, a Fragrance Refresh

Natural is about as pure as manure

Frangrace is a term frequently found on skincare labels that can represent anywhere from 5 to 500 synthetic or natural compounds that give a product its scent. The issue with fragrances is that consumers rarely know just what those 5 to 500 compounds are. Nowadays, fragrance is commonly linked to irritation, allergic reactions and photosensitivity. A single reaction to any of the thousands of ingredients in use to manufacture any given fragrance can lead to a lifetime of sensitivity to that ingredient. Despite that, brands aren’t required to detail in full the ingredients they use in their fragrances because of the legally murky protections of trade secrets.

But What’s That Gotta Do with Essential Oils?

In fragrance, natural doesn’t always mean safer

Essential oils, the fragrant part found in plants, are commonly used as natural compounds in fragrances. But despite their popularity as godsend alternatives to chemical-laden skincare, essential oils can have serious side effects ranging from mild irritation to severe burns. Moreover, many fragrance ingredients considered bad for skin are naturally present in fragrant plant oils such as limonene, citronellol and eugenol. Essential oils known to trigger allergic reactions are also some of the most popular: tea tree oil, lavender and peppermint to name a few. (3, 4, 5, 6)

The Rise of Essential Oils

Queens of so-called clean take on the mainstream

Propelled by the growing market force of the wellness industrial complex, plant-based oils have moved from alternative to mainstream DIY medicine in the last decade. Their popularity spiked as part of a collective consumer revolt against a medical status quo that feels toxic in more ways than one — unpleasant, impersonal, expensive and ineffective. People wanted something cleaner, something more accessible, something they could trust. It all feels satisfyingly anti-establishment, doesn’t it? A small way to take back power from a chemically charged, uncaring health and skincare system that’s been disrespecting our pockets, our persons and our planet for far too long. Here! Here! (7)

The Downfall of Essential Oils

Consumers are getting wise to the alt-medicine marketing machine

Caveat: Wellness brands need to make money to take their bite out of that modern medicine pie, too. In 2016, the global essential oil market alone was valued at 6.63 billion dollars according to market research tank Grand View Research. That’s not a criticism, so much as a self-evident reality (and, too many, proof that alternative wellness can compete with Big Medicine). What is critical is the amount of misinformation this newly carved out market niche is at best, not stopping, at worst willfully spreading. Sketchy multi-level marketing schemes that don’t properly educate their sales force; inconclusive research presented as Biblical truth by goddess our Mother Earth; an under-regulated alt-medicine market that goes more-or-less unchecked in the claims department — these are all recipes for making money and misleading consumers without taking responsibility.

But that tide is turning as more and more people find out the hard way that there are wrong ways to use essential oils and that the damage can’t always be undone. Even aromatherapists dedicated to their practice caution that the potential dangers of overuse, which can lead to toxicity and permanent damage, aren’t being accurately represented by businesses who stand to profit. (8, 9)

But, But, But...They’re Naaaatural

Doesn’t that make essential oils pure, gentle and good?

Natural doesn’t automatically equal safe, especially when it comes to putting volatile substances on the skin. On a scale of kombucha to Cherry Cola, your essential oils are about as natural as Corona with lime after the (however many steps of) distillation they go through. Plus, pure therapeutic grade is an oft-promoted selling point with little backbone simply because there is no universally accepted or independently verified definition or certification of it. It’s an internal standard, which means there are about as many definitions for therapeutic grade as there are companies using the term to describe their products. That doesn’t mean every company you’ve ever purchased essential oil from is selling crap and lies, per se, but it does mean take the jargon with a grain of salt. (10)

Distilling the Seed of Truth

Essential oil hardliners are on to something

Consumers general disillusionment with Western medicine and healthcare is more than a passing phase. And natural alternatives with ancient history do provide a certain peace of mind and relief from stress. Moreover, many of the claims made about essential oils are grounded in a grain of truth, generally from studies that do demonstrate certain benefits.

Tea tree oil, for example, has antibacterial and antifungal properties — but that doesn’t mean it’s going to cure your foot fungus. Lavender may be calming and sleep-inducing for some, but it gives other headaches. Citrus essential oils have a reputation for killing germs, boosting the immune system and offering antioxidant protection — so long as they don’t lead to severe sensitivity to the sun leaving blisters and welts after a few minutes of exposure.

And the jury’s still out on whether or not the experienced benefits are due to a direct biological effect from the oils or an indirect placebo effect because we want to feel better. In other words, essential oils are mood boosters...which isn’t to downplay their potential. A psychological shift can be as powerful a healer as any physiological change. (11, 12)

Soul Searching Across the Aisle

Both modern medicine and wellness marketers need to do better

The problem with essential oils isn’t that they’re wishful thinking so much as they’re too good to be that true. Companies (and their well-intentioned, but undereducated sales reps) overstate the benefits, downplay the risks and don’t fully train the public on how (and how not) to use essentials oils safely. LIke, if you get a rash after topically applying an essential oil, your body is not “detoxifying.” Your skin is reacting — negatively. By definition, a detox is a reaction in response to something being taken away, not added. Nor are essential oils the live essence of plants. More accurately, they’re the poop  — the byproduct at the end of a plant’s metabolic process. And, lastly, “pure” doesn’t equate good quality since a pure oil can be distilled incorrectly or could have been obtained from a less-than-desirable variety of a plant species that results in less-than-promised results.

For all its good intentions, the wellness movement (and by extension, natural skincare) is still comparatively young and finding its way, especially when it comes to marketing a product without overpromising or undereducating. On the flip side, despite its short comings, the wellness movement is forcing the health and beauty establishment to take a hard, cold look at their hard, cold soulless practices that drove so many away in the first place. That’s the power of consumer choice. So long as that choice doesn’t come with a trip to the ER room from painful oil-induced blistering, it’s a power consumers ought to exercise. So before buying into the hype, wise up to the limitations of essentials oils; understand that business big and small, natural or not, have to make money to stay in business; and patch test before slathering anything over your face or body.

Unfortunately, both the new approach and old ways are pocket-gaugingly out of reach for most and remain largely accessible to an income bracket somewhere north of the majority. That paradigm shift is one we’re all waiting for and no amount of mood-boosting positive thinking is going to get us there (until we collectively manifest that next pay raise). But that’s a whole can of worms for another post. (13)

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