Essential oils are all the rage. Why wouldn’t they be when there’s all sorts of information spread around about the various health and beauty benefits that they can achieve with just a few drops. With huge claims that certain oils can cure headaches, acne, or even depression and anxiety, it’s easy to give in to curiosity and pick up an oil diffuser and a couple droplet bottles to see if these plant extracts could really help alleviate your ailments. But are these oils really the miracle workers they claim to be? Keep reading to learn why essential oils may not be so essential.
WHAT ARE ESSENTIAL OILS?
Essential oils are highly concentrated plant extracts from flowers, roots, leaves, and other parts of the plant. They are typically used with aromatherapy, where the oil is diffused into the air and inhaled, topically through lotions or direct application, or they are ingested in food or medication.
Nowadays, essential oils are frequently added to personal care products for a more "natural" approach to skin, hair, and oral care. Peppermint oil can be found in toothpaste, lavender oil in moisturizers, and tea tree oil in cleansers and acne treatments, but just because they are marketed as "natural" does not mean they are better for your health.
Read more about greenwashing, the natural beauty marketing trend.
THE RISK OF ESSENTIAL OILS
The use of essential oils can be traced back to 1000 A.D. when healers would extract oils using steam. Flash forward to now, and that 1000 year old healing method is being adopted by many people who want to stray away from modern medicine and find a natural solution to their problems. However natural does not equal healthy.
You may assume that because essential oils are derived from plants that they’re harmless, because nature has to be good for you, right? Well, that’s simply not the case, and if you aren’t careful, essential oil usage can lead to the opposite of those healing results you’re aiming for.
There isn’t much evidence or research that proves that essential oils really achieve what they claim they can do. This is why some brands, such as Cleure, only formulate personal care products that are free of essential oils or plant extracts.
Alleviating anxiety and depression, reducing fungal skin infections, and soothing effects are all alleged benefits of essential oils, and while those effects show for some people, it's not conclusive evidence that it works for everyone. Some companies even make farfetched promises of helping cure Ebola, Autism, and brain injury, but a lot of that is exaggerated information, and if they do point to some sort of study, they usually have small sample sizes, and aren’t adequately backed up.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has no regulations over essential oils as they don’t meet the standards for effectiveness or safety, and the promises they make are not verified in any way. So there’s no assurance that the essential oils you purchase are pure and safe for consumption, and these oil companies can say whatever they want, as long as they have a disclaimer that says their statements and claims are not evaluated by the FDA.
The market takeover of essential oil brands has led to companies encouraging using many oils at once, as well as marketing towards pregnant women and children, both of which can be dangerous. Overuse can lead to toxicity, and there isn’t much research that ensures safety for children, babies, and fetuses.
While aromatherapy has been around for centuries, the new trend has only led to companies that are seeking profit rather than consumer health and wellness, and as a result there are several risk factors of using essential oils that can leave you with more health problems than you started with.
Allergic Reactions from Essential Oils
Exposure to essential oils, whether it be from a diffuser, topical application, or ingestion, can lead to allergic reactions and irritation. Irritation may only last a few hours while allergic reactions can last days or even weeks. Negative reactions happen most frequently when oils aren’t diffused in any way, but even essential oils diluted in a carrier oil still pose a threat since allergies to plant extracts are common.
The most common negative reactions to essential oils are contact dermatitis and atopic dermatitis which appear as an itchy, bumpy rash at the point of contact, or swelling of the eyes if exposed to oils from a diffuser.
Those with asthma or nasal allergies such as contact urticaria and anaphylaxis should also be wary. Since many essential oils are derived from weeds and plants that contain pollen and other allergens, using and inhaling them could be harmful or even life threatening if the allergy is severe enough.
Even if you do not have an allergy to an essential oil, frequent contact can result in sensitization which causes allergy like symptoms.
Most Common Essential Oil Allergies
- Oregano oil
- Cinnamon bark oil
- Jasmine oil
- Lemongrass oil
- Ylang-ylang oil
- Chamomile oil
- Bergamot oil
Sun Sensitivity from Citrus Oils
Using essential oils from citrus such as bergamot, lemon, lime, orange, and angelica can weaken the skin’s ability to protect against UV rays, causing phototoxicity which leads to severe sunburn. Lathering up in sunscreen will lose its protective and anti-aging effects, if you counteract its purpose with essential oils.
Some essential oils are approved for ingestion as ingredients in other foods that the FDA labels GRAS (generally recognized as safe). Others, however, can be toxic if ingested.
Other Possible Side Effects of Essential Oil Use
- Kidney damage
- Rapid heart rate
- Decreasing effects of prescribed medication
On top of all the possible side effects of using essential oils as directed, there’s still so much misinformation and uncertainty surrounding essential oils that can lead to misuse that can do even more harm. Dermatologists have reported seeing patients with chemical burns and large blisters from putting undiluted oils directly on the skin. Using essential oils as a home remedy with no doctor’s approval can expose you to a series of problems that can be avoided if you just stay away from them.
Essential oils may smell wonderful and you might be tempted to give in to the hype and and smear a eucalyptus oil infused lotion on your skin or spritz on some lavender oil perfume, but you’re better off sticking to ingredients you (and the FDA) can trust. Fragrance free skincare with natural ingredients that are not plant derived are safe for most allergies and irritations.