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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  • DoubtfulGuest

    Great post. I had no idea the multilevel marketing was going on for essential oils. Another issue I always wonder about is photosensitivity from lavender and a few others. These often show up in sunscreens — go figure, with some of them specifically marketed for kids.

    • John C. Key MD

      Where ISN’T multilevel marketing an issue? Many of the alternative/complementary treatments that I support are entwined in MLM. I like history of the Old West and the traveling medicine show may be cute, but I just can’t bring myself to go there. I eschew MLM in my medical practice.

      • querywoman

        Psychiatrist Steven Barrett of Quackwatch also criticizes and explores MLM.

        • RenegadeRN

          Steven Barrett has been discredited long ago. He really never even practiced medicine as a psychiatrist.
          No disrespect to psychiatrists, but most would not consider themselves experts in other areas of the body.

  • querywoman

    I use essential oils all the time. I started using them in art. I use them for pest control – mint oil is great for that.
    I am currently mixing lavender oil with a little olive oil to combat an antibiotic related yeast infection. In the 1980s, I had to pay for an office visit to get some Monistat. I wish I had known about the olive oil back then.
    I used clove oil for pain when I couldn’t afford to get my teeth pull. Why isn’t dental care more affordable?
    I have researched wintergreen oil, which I used last night for pest control, and am not convinced it’s fatal. No, I’m not swallowing it to test it.
    Prescription medications have many side effects.

  • bRAD

    Perhaps the author should focus his advice on health related matters rather than business and money. You described a pyramid scheme, which not all multi-level marketing companies are. There are certainly MLM companies to avoid with over priced, over hyped, and unnecessary products. But others have legitimate product lines and have been around for decades, repeatedly creating wealthy individuals out of the middle class. Avon, Mary Kay, Nu Skin, and Tupperware come to mind.

    • querywoman

      Avon is not MLM, and it has the smallest investment of which I am aware for the sell-it-yourself stuff. Just a small charge for an Avon small suitcase with samples.
      I don’t know about the others, but Mary Kay is MLM. There are many Mary Kay bashing sites, like, “The Pink Truth.”

  • querywoman

    I also don’t buy my essential oils from MLM marketers.

  • Sharon

    I believe it is important to increase other’s awareness [to the dangers of inhaling certain ones, for example, or using some that could be dangerous to animals; particularly cats, etc.]. But to entirely discourage?

    No. Consumer beware is the motto, but that isn’t to say essential oils do not have their benefits. In fact, I would much prefer using my own added scent to lotion than purchase a scented product with a whole lot more additives I’ve never heard of. And I believe there are already plenty studies out there that help to support the use of essential oils [carefully/responsibly] for health & well-being. And some oils actually ARE “food grade”/ingest-able. I would much rather use lemon from a worthy brand of essential oil in plain seltzer water than drink some artificial, chemically flavored beverage meant to taste like lemon. But, one must always use caution and discriminate between all of the hype pushed in the consumer markets.

    S. A., RN, BSN

    • querywoman

      Peppermint and spearmint repel bugs. A drop of orange oil in your laundry soap boosts cleaning power. Why buy cleaner with oranges? Use the real stuff. Don’t put in directly on quality clothes.
      Eucalyptus oil blows out the sinuses.
      The essential oils have antibacterial and antifungal powers. Put them on a rag and rub on your doorknobs that the whole family is sharing and spreading germs.
      Do not get them in your eyes! I got peppermint oil in my eye once, and thought I was heading for the ER. Wash hands thoroughly before rubbing your eyes.
      I used to buy mine on ebay, but now I found a less-frilly herb store than Whole Foods to buy them locally.

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