A few thought-provoking questions about essential oils

I get asked a lot about essential oils.  I answer very little. Why?

The answer is simply that we don’t know much about how or if they work.  Except from stories about how they have helped certain people in certain situations, no one has done a large studies to truly evaluate their effectiveness or safety.

The main explanation for why they are used is that people (parents) are simply looking for something that’s an alternative to using what I’m going to call from now on “conventional” medicines.

Going forward, I’m not going to rely much on my knowledge as a doctor, I’m just going to be using common sense and asking a series of questions that I hope will get you all thinking.

What is medicine?

A few thought provoking questions about essential oils

This is the dictionary.com definition: Any substance or substances used in treating disease or illness.

Doctors prescribe medicines that enter the body from many different avenues.  I have patients that take Zyrtec (cetirizine) by mouth, inhale albuterol, sniff steroid nasal sprays.  There are medicines that are delivered topically but they aren’t as commonly used (especially in kids).  The most common example was the Daytrana patch for ADHD but I haven’t seen it used in years (I’ve never prescribed it) because topical medications can have unpredictable rates of absorption which makes determining how much medication actually gets into the system how to estimate.  I only really use topical creams for things that need to be treated topically (rashes).

I see friends recommending essential oils on all my social media accounts for many different ailments and it’s not always clear to me what they are recommending: topical application, diffusion or ingestion.  But, if medicine is “any substance or substances used in treating disease or illness” and medicine can be inhaled, applied topically or ingested, then why aren’t essential oils just another type of medicine?

What does it mean that they are more natural?

Another discussion that is centered around essential oils is that they are more natural.  I get this concern.  In a world where everything is processed (down to a lot of our food), why wouldn’t you want something that is more natural for your family?  However, just because something is natural, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing…

Let’s take formaldehyde.  I’m not particularly concerned about formaldehyde because it is a byproduct of metabolism inside our own bodies.  It is formed during metabolic processes and can then be converted into CO2 and exhaled or urinated out.  Keep in mind that it is a known carcinogen when the dose gets to high but we know (from history) that it requires a very high level of exposure to get to the point where it causes cancer.  Ultimately, the concern I have with formaldehyde is this: It is commonly used as a reason by families who don’t vaccinate even thought it’s made in the body. (Is there anything more natural than that?)

A more simple argument against using essential oils based on the reason that they are more natural is this: “Marijuana is natural, do you want you kid smoking that too?”

Do doctors prescribe medicine for every little thing?

I commonly hear this: Doctors just want to prescribe a drug for everything.  I want something different for my family.

The whole thing that motivated to write this post was a posting I saw on a social media account last week: It is a picture of a line of essential oils across a bathroom counter (about 10 bottles-not sure if they were all used this morning or not) and part of the caption below: “He uses oils for allergies, eczema, acid reflux and stress.”

I’m not attacking this person at all and I’m not actually sure who it belongs to (so don’t take it personally).  But, does trading a “conventional” medicine for an essential oil make any difference?  Are essential oils becoming the new, “take one for everything?”

I personally have occasional struggles with allergies, acid reflux and stress but I might take medicine allergies or reflux every few months and I modify my diet, sleep  habits and exercise to help with reflux and stress.  Therefore, taking essential oils would not be an alternative to taking a medicine for me at all because I’d rather take nothing.  I think people assume that because I’m a doctor, my wife and I shove medicine down ours and our kids throat for just about any and every symptom imaginable which is simply not true.  Our kids occasionally get cetirizine for allergies (on average less than once a month), acetaminophen or ibuprofen (on average less than once a month) and my asthmatic gets inhalers (1-2 days per year).  They take antibiotics only when absolutely necessary.

So, be wary of using the reasoning that doctors use medicine for everything.  Some may, but this doctor doesn’t and I don’t consider it any different to be using an essential oil for every little thing.

Do doctors stand to benefit when they prescribe a medication?

Fortunately and unfortunately, I don’t practice medicine in a time where I can get flown to Hawaii for a long vacation with my family for prescribing a certain medication.  I’m very glad I didn’t because working in that environment would have been very difficult.  When I first started practice, drug reps could bring lunch and some pens but even these 2 practices have stopped.  At this point, I have no incentive to prescribe a medication except the desire to see my patient improve.  In fact, soon I will be incentivized to not write for medications as insurance plans become more focused on cutting expenses by decreasing their cost of prescription drugs (I will be encouraged to use cheaper alternative when available but nothing is cheaper than not writing for anything).  So, the argument that doctors are pushing drugs in an effort to profit is simply not true for most doctors.  There are doctors who are paid consultants and speakers for drug companies, but most are not.

Now, think for a second about your Young Living or doTERRA rep, how do they stand to benefit when they recommend a treatment for you?

Finally, for my distributors and reps out there: Are you practicing medicine without a license?

This is the definition of practicing medicine without a license from Michigan (I’m sorry I couldn’t find the one from Texas for my Texas people):

An individual who practices or holds himself out as practicing a health profession subject to regulation without a license or registration or under a suspended, revoked, lapsed, void, or fraudulently obtained license or registration, or outside the provisions of a limited license or registration, or who uses as his own the license or registration of another person, is guilty of a felony. For the purpose of the offense of practicing medicine without a license, the “practice of medicine” means the diagnosis, treatment, prevention, cure, or relieving of a human disease, ailment, defect, complaint, or other physical or mental condition, by attendance, advice, device, diagnostic test, or other means, or offering, undertaking, attempting to do, or holding oneself out as able to do, any of these acts. 

The last part is the interesting part: The practice of medicine means the diagnosis, treatment, prevention, cure or relieving of human disease … by attendance, advice … or holding oneself out as able to do, any of these acts.  You’ll have to read it closely for yourself to see what you think.  Think about what would happen is something did go wrong with one of the oils you recommended or sold, would your company back you?  Maybe you should ask them and see what they say.

Now that I’ve kicked the ant pile and I will now sit back and see what happens.  People who know me personally know that I am one of the most open-minded pediatricians they know about calmly weighing evidence on either side of a discussion or debate.  I try very hard not to bring my preconceived ideas into consideration when I make a decision.  I have extensively studied essential oils personally and am confident that, at this time, I cannot recommend them for my patients until further studies come out regarding efficacy and safety in children.  I just pray now that you will consider my questions in the same way I have considered yours over the years.

Justin Smith is a pediatrician who blogs at DoctorJSmith.  He can be reached on Twitter@TheDocSmitty.

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • John C. Key MD

    I and my family use essential oils and I think they are great…but in my world they are definitely a COMPLEMENTARY medication rather than an alternative or a primary treatment in and of themselves. They make people feel better. They generally smell good. What’s not to love? Most patients I see are already using essential oils on their own, they haven’t come to me to ask for a recommendation.

    You allude to Texas medical practices…I believe our Texas Medical Practice Act requires licensed physicians to document that they have used an initial orthodox allopathic medical approach before they can legally offer, use, or recommend an “alternative” medical treatment to a patient.

    In my experience patients who seek to use alternative treatments are those who have been disappointed or harmed by standard medical care. It’s not that they sought to start with alternative medicine.

    • Justin Smith

      I think what you are saying can be true that families are using them, at times as a complimentary option…however, judging by my Facebook and Instagram feed, I have many friends that are using them as a primary means of medical care…then they may or may not go to the doctor if things get dire. Secondly, I’m not concerned about a physician who is selling or recommending them, I’m pretty confident they would be covered. I’m more concerned about a mom with no medical training who is selling essential oils to remedy medical problems to their clients. Would she have the same protection?

  • John C. Key MD

    I don’t sell them,,,but I’ve never understood why physician selling is “conflict” and other professionals selling is “high value added services”.

  • querywoman

    I use essential oils for various things. I got interested in them through art. I have bought a stash probably much more cheaply on ebay than from the people hucking them to you.

  • Melanie St. Ours

    I’m a CAM practitioner, and I couldn’t agree more with the questions raised here.

    First of all, the inherent conflict of interest for the MLM reps who are selling E.O.’s is something that’s disturbed me for a long time. It’s a big part of why I don’t sell any remedies at all and only offer education and consulting through my practice. Folks in the natural medicine world want to point fingers at the profits of Big Pharma, but they’re not so willing to look at the CAM enthusiasts who have conflicts of interest in their own business practices. This is a major issue.

    And secondly, as someone who is keenly interested in botanical medicine, essential oils are among the *most* concentrated, refined, and potentially dangerous preparations for plant-based medicines/therapeutics. They are usually part of the plant’s system for defending itself, and as such, they’re really useful to repel insects—but they can also cause unpleasant dermatologic effects when applied topically, as well as toxicity when ingested.

    My hairstylist recently bragged to me that she treated her 10 month old daughter’s diaper rash by giving her a drink made with honey, lemon, and cinnamon essential oil. It was all I could do not to shout at her. Let alone the danger of giving honey to a baby, there is *no* good reason to give something as strong as cinnamon essential oil to a baby! It’s dangerous, and yet somehow people don’t seem to understand just how concentrated essential oils are….

    Botanical medicine really does have a place at the table, but essential oils absolutely should *not* be the first tool that people reach for when they’re looking to include herbs and plant-based medicines in their regimens. Thank you for raising this important issue.