Be suspicious of the marketing for essential oils

Kayla wrote in:

Hello!  I am curious what you think about essential oils.  They have recently become incredibly popular in my community, but I am pretty skeptical because so much of the enthusiasm is coming from those who have signed up as ‘distributors’ with doTerra or Young Living (2 essential oil multi-level marketing companies.). The biggest concern I have is that these companies (and all these new distributors) recommend taking many of these oils internally, and giving them orally to children.  I know there is little research to validate the super exaggerated claims that these oils cure everything, and I am wondering if there is evidence of them actually being harmful-especially taken internally?  I try to provide good information to the moms in my community groups (I am a BSN/public health nurse), and I wonder if taking these oils internally, and especially giving them to children internally, is something that should be discouraged.

One of the reasons I enjoy writing is questions like these — I had no idea that essential oils were being aggressively marketed for their alleged health benefits to children. I just thought they smelled good. Silly me. When there is money to be made, you can bet someone is out there hustling.

Essential oils are concentrated liquids containing volatile compounds from plants. The name itself, essential, refers to the “essence” of a plant, or the key compounds that form a plant’s unique aroma. It does not mean “essential” as in, “essential for health” the way that the word “essential” is sometimes used to refer to vitamins or other compounds. Because they deliver a concentrated aroma, essential oils are commonly used in soaps, fragrances, incense, and as flavorings in foods.

Of course, not all essential oils are the same. What they are and what they do depends on what plant they’ve come from (and sometimes what part of the plant.) Some essential oils have clear medical uses:

  • Oil of wintergreen (chemical name methyl salicylate) is a constituent of many heating rubs, like Bengay. If swallowed, even a small dose of concentrated oil of wintergreen can be fatal. In lower concentrations the same compound is used to flavor chewing gum.
  • Oil of cloves has both antiseptic and analgesic properties, and is used topically in dentistry to numb toothaches (remember that scene in Marathon Man? By the way, the book was better.) High doses of oil of cloves can cause abdominal upset, intestinal bleeding, and liver or kidney failure.
  • Oil of lemon eucalyptus is an effective mosquito repellent when applied topically. But, as with many other essential oils, it’s dangerous when swallowed.

Some essential oils can have harmful effects even when used topically. Lavender and tea tree oils, used only on the skin, can be absorbed well enough into the blood to cause systemic, estrogen-like effects, causing breast growth in boys. Whether taken internally or used topically, essential oils should be used with caution.

Is there any reason to think there are broad health benefits from essential oils, as a group? Many of them smell good, and I imagine that used in a sort of aroma therapy they might be relaxing to people who like the smell of lemon, cedarwood, patchouli, or hyssop.

But statements referring to essential oils collectively as having near-magical health benefits are just plain silly. If you wouldn’t say “chemicals are healthy,” then you shouldn’t say “essential oils are healthy” — because essential oils are just one group of chemicals, a group that contains many different things that could all have different effects when put on or in a human body.

Essential oils have been around a long time, but what about these firms that have sprung up to market them? Kayla mentioned two companies that she says are aggressively setting up “distributors” in neighborhoods via multilevel marketing schemes. Parents need to be very wary about purchasing anything through these kinds of shady arrangements, or (worse) of getting themselves involved in these schemes as distributors themselves.

Multilevel marketing arrangements rely on distributors recruiting their own distributors, where each level above gets a slice of the commissions from each level below. If you recruit your own distributors, and they then recruit their own distributors, then you will get a slice from everyone below you. Of course, the early adopters above you are getting their slices too — and unless a whole ton of product is actually sold, you can bet that most of the people who actually sell product don’t themselves have much commission left over for themselves. The math just can’t work unless each level manages to recruit an ever-growing number of further distributors … and eventually, the pyramid collapses. With distributors at the bottom of the pyramid left with unsellable inventory and no possible way to recoup their investment.

When these kinds of sales arrangements evolve, with everyone depending on commissions and the recruitment of further distributors, exaggerated claims for a product’s benefits are very likely to follow.

So, Kayla is right to be suspicious of this latest health fad. Some essential oils probably do offer health benefits, but many can be harmful if used incorrectly; and since selling these is intertwined with questionable business practices, it’s unlikely that Kayla is going to get reliable or balanced health information from local distributors. Don’t waste your money or endanger your health — stay away from the multilevel marketing of essential oils.

Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at The Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool: A Parent’s Guide and A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child.

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