Healthcare is a breeding ground for pseudoscience – and for good reason too. When it comes to our health we really are an easy target. Nobody likes to be sick and nobody wants to lose a loved one. It makes sense, then, that peddlers of pseudoscience often set their sights on the sick. There are as many alternative therapies as there are sick people, but I’d like to focus specifically on essential oils – solutions containing concentrated extracts from plants. One of the largest companies selling essential oils is doTERRA, and this quote from their website is a great example of the some of the flawed arguments you’ll hear for essential oils. I have marked the parts I wish to discuss:
“Essential oils have been used throughout recorded history for a wide variety of wellness applications.The Egyptians were some of the first people to use aromatic essential oils extensively in medical practice, beauty treatment, food preparation, and in religious ceremony. Frankincense, sandalwood, myrrh and cinnamon were considered very valuable cargo along caravan trade routes and were sometimes exchanged for gold.
“Borrowing from the Egyptians, the Greeks used essential oils in their practices of therapeutic massage and aromatherapy. The Romans also used aromatic oils to promote health and personal hygiene. Influenced by the Greeks and Romans, as well as Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic use of aromatic herbs, the Persians began to refine distillation methods for extracting essential oils from aromatic plants. Essential oil extracts were used throughout the dark ages in Europe for their anti-bacterial and fragrant properties.
“In modern times, the powerful healing properties of essential oils were rediscovered in 1937 by a French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, who healed a badly burnt hand with pure lavender oil. A French contemporary, Dr. Jean Valnet, used therapeutic-grade essential oils to successfully treat injured soldiers during World War II. Dr. Valnet went on to become a world leader in the development of aromatherapy practices. The modern use of essential oils has continued to grow rapidly as health scientists and medical practitioners continue to research and validate the numerous health and wellness benefits of therapeutic-grade essential oils.“
I’ll describe the errors that I see with these paragraphs in order.
1. “Essential oils have been used throughout recorded history for a wide variety of wellness applications.”
The first red flag I saw when I began researching essential oils was the logical fallacy “appeal to antiquity” – claiming that something has powerful properties because some ancient civilization used it. The fact that ancient Egyptians used essential oils is irrelevant to the claim that they are clinically effective, and we can’t determine whether something is good or bad just because it has ancient origins. Treating disease by ingesting animal feces or applying it to your skin is also an ancient Egyptian remedy, in fact more common than essential oils, but I don’t see that catching on in the same way.
2. “Essential oil extracts were used throughout the dark ages in Europe for their anti-bacterial and fragrant properties.”
There is absolutely no way that essential oils were used in Europe during the dark ages for their anti-bacterial properties. The germ theory of medicine was not developed at the time, and was not used clinically until the 1870s. However, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say that essential oils were used throughout the dark ages in Europe for their anti-bacterial properties. When you think “anti-bacterial” do you really think of the dark ages as a good example? Just think, now you too can have a life expectancy of nearly thirty years!
3. “French chemist, Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, who healed a badly burnt hand with pure lavender oil.”
That’s right, the whole of the modern argument rests on one piece of anecdotal evidence. A french chemist burnt his hand and it was healed with pure lavender oil. It’s fine, of course, to mention an anecdote as the reason for pursuing an area of research. The most common example I can think of is Sir Alexander Fleming and the discovery of penicillin. The story of its discovery is famous, but no one says that penicillin works because Fleming noticed that his moldy bread stopped bacterial growth. You can’t claim that lavender oil heals burnt hands because someone says it worked once. Penicillin is well understood and has plenty of research to support its antibacterial claims. Essential oils? Not so much.
4. “The modern use of essential oils has continued to grow rapidly as health scientists and medical practitioners continue to research and validate the numerous health and wellness benefits of therapeutic-grade essential oils.”
This is the most telling sentence of all. Everything before this sentence is full of specific people, times, and places that support the health benefits of essential oils. The second they bring up modern research, though, they become vague and non-specific. Why not say “in recent years, researchers at Harvard have shown that…” or something like that? The reason is simple. There actually isn’t any modern research that supports the claims. Essential oils claim to be effective at treating a wide range of diseases. They supposedly have antimicrobial, antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial properties. This is not the case. Here are a few studies I found on PubMed:
- Adverse effects of aromatherapy: A systematic review of case reports and case series - This study found that not only are essential oils not helpful, they can be harmful. The most common issue is dermatitis. This is because most essential oils are sold as aromatherapy - a technique with a very serious misnomer. “Aromatherapy”, in many cases, is actually meant to be applied directly to your skin. Supposedly the oil absorbs into your skin. Which brings up the question: If aromatherapy has nothing to do with smell and has not been shown to be an effective therapy, why is it called aromatherapy?
- Effect of sweet orange aroma on experimental anxiety in humans - This sounds promising, right? A nice, sweet smell to calm your nerves. Should work, right? It seems to me that if essential oils can claim anything it should be that the nice smell will calm your nerves. This study shows that a nice smell actually doesn’t have any effect at all on the amount of anxiety you have.
- The effect of aromatherapy on postoperative nausea in women undergoing surgical procedures - This is another one whose title sounds promising, but the results aren’t what the title suggests. In this study, the effect of aromatherapy treatments on nausea was examined. Once again, the study shows that aromatherapy is not helpful.
- Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) Oil: a Review of Antimicrobial and Other Medicinal Properties - This is actually the only study I found on PubMed of an essential oil with a real effect – and it has only shown weak antimicrobial and anti-inflamatory properties in vitro. I could not find any research that showed clear antifungal, antiviral, antimicrobial, or antibacterial activity in vivo.
The real problem I have with essential oils is the exaggeration of their effects. If the only claim that proponents of essential oils made was “this smells good, I think you’ll enjoy it” I wouldn’t be writing this at all. That’s not the case, though. The benefits of essential oils are exaggerated because exaggeration sells. Websites like this one make extraordinary health claims like curing colds, asthma, bronchitis, hypertension, liver congestion, heart palpitations, depression, and boosting your immune system (what does that even mean?). Other websites make fanciful claims like “restore your body’s natural energy balance” – a claim so bad it’s not even wrong.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t use essential oils. As with any pseudosciene, I’m of the opinion that you are free to waste your money on whatever you choose. I just wish those selling alternative medicine products were more honest with themselves and their customers. Trying to sell a sick person something that in the end won’t help them is at least unethical, if not criminal.
Edit: In this article I made a tongue-in-cheek comment about life-span during the middle ages. As this article explains, life-spans are averages so a large contributing factor is obviously infant mortality rate.
Also, I feel the need to emphasize that I am not saying that essential oils have no use. Instead I am saying that their effectiveness is exaggerated.