Essential Oils: Separating Scam From Science

Awhile back a friend of mine told me that he stopped seeing this girl he was dating because she sold essential oils as a side gig. As someone who uses essential oils in my own homemade skincare products I was surprised and a little offended when I heard this. But he went on to explain how she was part of a Multi-Level Marketing Scam (an MLM for short) and actually believed that essential oils could cure everything from the common cold to PMS to depression and cancer! Hell yeah I would dump someone like that too! As a biologist I was seriously upset to find out that essential oils have become the holy grail of MLM scams over the past years. Essential oils have some wonderful properties but they are absolutely not a cure for any serious disease. So I want to set the record straight on what essential oils actually can do and what is absolute BS.

While making lotion a drop of Lavender oil spilled on my wood table. I didn’t notice right away & when I went to wipe it off it removed the varnish! This is why you do not put essential oils undiluted on your skin!

Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts that are produced by distillation. They can contain a dozen or more natural chemicals and are very fragrant. Because they are derived from plants (leaves, wood, flowers, etc.) some people think they have no negative side effects and could not possibly be harmful. This however is a BIG mistake. If you google essential oils you will find all sorts of bad information online ranging from mildly inaccurate to outright dangerous lies. A prominent TV doctor who I will not out (although maybe I should?) has a bunch of dangerous information on his website. He recommends that people can ingest essential oils and only need to dilute essential oils in a 1:1 ratio with carrier oils. OMG NEVER DO THAT! Some essential oils contain ingredients that are irritating to the skin or are KNOWN TO CAUSE CANCER. Rose for example contains Methyl eugenol which is regulated in the state of California because it is known to cause cancer. In the EU you legally have to dilute it to a safe level to be able to sell it in cosmetic products. In the US regulation is pretty non-existant but that doesn’t mean people are selling safe products.

A prominent TV doctor who I will not out …has a bunch of dangerous information on his website.

For example I recently picked up an eczema balm for babies thinking that if it’s for babies it must be gentle enough to use on my skin. I was in a rush so I only quickly looked at the ingredients before buying and missed something very important. This balm that was supposed to be safe for babies contained Bergamot essential oil which is phototoxic meaning when exposed to UV rays it will form compounds that are harmful to your skin. If you are going to use phototoxic oils on your skin you absolutely need to stay out of the sun or wear sunscreen over it. This is a really irresponsible thing to put in a product for babies without having a clear warning of the harm you could be causing. Plus it contained Lavender oil at what smelled like a very high concentration which again is not safe for babies. But this I was just guessing based on how the product smelled, to be fair maybe it wasn’t that bad but with disclosing the percentage of the essential oil in the product you just have to assume that it’s safe.

Personally I have a hard time trusting that natural products are safe when there is so much bad information out there on essential oils. DIY blogs that are often run by the companies that sell essential oils or people which sell their own products typically tell people to dilute essential oils by counting drops. You cannot measure accurately based on drops. For accurate measurements you need to weigh your ingredients and not measure by volume. This isn’t that hard either. For $15 you can get a scale that measure down to 0.01 grams. When I first started measuring my essential oils by weight I was shocked to realize that one drop could vary so widely. Different oils have different weights and the size of a dropper and the viscosity of the oil all effect the weight of one drop. Some essential oils have a dermal max (meaning the maximum % that is safe to use in a topical product) of 0.1% or less. There is no way you can accurately make a 0.1% mix by counting drops.

Some companies adulterate their essential oils with cheaper compounds…

Another danger in using essential oils come from not knowing the constitutes of the oils you are using. Lets use rose again as an example. Rose contains Geraniol which is a potent terpene with antibacterial and antimicrobial effects. However in too high of a concentration it is a skin irritant and is regulated in the EU (again the US just doesn’t care so who knows what’s in US made cosmetics). If you wanted to make a blend of Rose with other oils like Geranium that also has Geraniol it’s really important to know how much Geraniol is in both oils. You might think you are safe by keeping each at a low percentage but could still end up with a higher than recommended amount of Geraniol in your final product. To be safe you should always request a Certificate Of Analysis from where ever you are buying your essential oils. This will show you whats actually in your oils. Unfortunately companies are not required to make COA’s available so I personally will never buy from a company that won’t happily give me their COA. Some companies adulterate their essential oils with cheaper compounds and in that case they certainly don’t want you seeing their COA.

Peppermint essential oil …can cause serious neurological problems when inhaled for long periods of time …

There is a good amount of scientific data showing that essential oils can be antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumoral, and can promote a sense of relaxation among other things. However a lot of these studies are very small scale or are done on animals or on cell cultures. Studies on cells and animals do not always directly translate to human use. If you want to use essential oils the safest way is to use an oil diffuser but don’t diffuse oils in a very small room or for an extended period of time (like more than 20-30 mins). Peppermint essential oil for example can cause serious neurological problems when inhaled for long periods of time due to it’s menthol content. And if you want to buy products containing essential oils make sure to learn which ones are phototoxic and which ones contain carcinogen so you can shop safely. If you want to try making your own DIY products for the love of god please just buy a $15 scale and do it right!

Roes, beautiful but deadly? Ok maybe not deadly but Rose does contain a known carcinogen and should always be diluted.

Interested in learning more about essential oils? Leave me comments bellow, I’d be happy to go into more detail or cover other topics in another post.

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