If you’re toying with the idea of trying out some essential oils, you’re probably wondering what could possibly go wrong. It seems like there wouldn’t be too much of a risk with an oil that you rub on your skin or use as an air freshener. Even Duke University and other esteemed institutions are looking at using essential oils to help patients heal and recover.
Just like dietary supplements, essential oils are not tested or regulated in the United States – it’s the Wild West, because they do not state that they are treating a specific disease. This is akin to how “heart healthy” is allowed on food and supplement labels without regulation, but “prevents heart disease” is a different story entirely. The FDA has issued warnings to three companies recently for marketing their products specifically for the treatment of serious health conditions like cancer, brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and ADHD.
Results from studies have been very mixed and some essential oils have been found to contain ingredients not disclosed on the label. Dr. Edzard Ernst, a former chair or complementary medicine at the University of Exeter has published two review studies and found that there is no “convincing evidence” that aromatherapy has any effect on hypertension, depression, anxiety, pain, or symptoms of dementia. As for other research that proves a benefit to using these oils? Experts say that the positive results could be due to the placebo effect or to something else, such as the act of being massaged itself. More research is definitely needed.
Unfortunately, people are very motivated by the word “natural”, which means absolutely nothing on the labels of food, supplements, or essential oils. However, no one has died from the inhalation or from skin application of an essential oil to date. Still, in rare cases, aromatherapy can cause rashes, asthma, headaches, liver damage, nerve damage, and harm to a fetus (essential oils cross the placenta). Again, this is in very rare cases. To avoid any risk of skin irritation, mix one-part essential oil into five parts carrier oils, such as coconut oil before applying it. Unfortunately, ingestion of essential oil has been linked to death. An oil can have a completely different effect when ingested; so an oil that is used to prevent coughs when inhaled can cause seizures when ingested. Ingesting essential oils can lead to drug interactions and medical contraindications that you wouldn’t necessarily expect.
You also might want to think twice before purchasing any sprays; the French magazine 60 Million Consumers (60 Millions de Consommateurs) investigated 46 “so-called purifying products” and found that all of them contained volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can be dangerous for the respiratory system and can trigger asthma attacks, headaches, skin reactions, nausea, and increased sensitivity to common allergens. They are especially dangerous for children under the age of three and can be fatal for cats. Speaking of which…kid and animal poisoning from essential oil ingestion is on the rise nationally, so please keep any products that you have locked up in a secure place in your house.
Using essential oils as an adjunct to proven medical treatment is probably safe in moderate amounts, as long as you speak to your physician beforehand (especially if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or have health problems) and choose essential oils from reputable sources. Remember that more is not better; it is toxicity.