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Essential Oil Claims - The Dangers Keep On Coming

by Eric Hall

April 5, 2014

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Donate Today I am going to focus specifically on one essential oil blog which came to my attention through a Facebook post about making your own "dry shampoo." Why did I click on it? Sigh. Well, I did. I ended up at an essential oil seller making not just bogus claims, but downright dangerous claims. Of course, this seller protects herself with the standard FDA fake medicine disclaimer. Let's look at a few of the more dangerous suggestions on the site.

Let's meet Dana. Dana says she is doula and certified by DONA international. A doula is basically a coach for the birthing process. It does not signify any medical training. Yes, before you comment, I know there are nurses and other medical professionals that also serve as doulas. But she does not reveal any medical training. So in essence, she is a coach for the birth. She says:
My mission is to provide women with the information they need to make confident decisions about their labor, the emotional support to motivate them to the next level and the physical comfort to embrace their birth experience.
Based on the information on her website, she isn't doing a great job of informing.

Let me also interject here before the comments come about my medical training. I never pass myself off as a medical expert. I teach science, and I am educated in science. I also write about various science. I consult experts in biology and medicine when I need clarification. I would never pass myself off as a place you should solely seek information on a topic in medicine and biology. However, I do feel my science education and experience adds weight to the evidence and conclusions presented. A person's education and experience should always be one part of the overall evaluation process of any writing. Now, back to the blog.

Let's look at the information on how to become a "home healer," which turns out she admits simply means you use lots and lots of the product she is selling. She starts by selling an over $150 "family physician kit." I find this claim to be dangerous, as well as a bit insulting. Being a physician requires medical education and years of training. To call yourself a physician is a bit like calling myself a professional hockey player because I occasionally shoot the puck around. Here are a few of the claims of the oils in this kit:
You may have already heard me talk about how I only ever use doTERRA's essential oils, because they are 100% certified pure therapeutic grade. This makes me feel great because I know that what I'm putting in/on my body and my family's body, is safe and natural. There are no synthetics or fillers in the doTERRA oils and they are highly potent and effective.
What does 100% certified therapeutic grade mean? It turns out the phase is a registered trademark of doTERRA. The great irony is the proponents of these oils claim "big pharma" is shady. I can only imagine how they would feel if "big pharma" reviewed their own science without any FDA or peer review - because that is exactly what doTERRA is doing here. They have no science or any details on what this process means. In other words, it is nonsense.

The next claim is that what you are putting in your body is safe and natural. These are fake (alternative/homeopathic/natural/naturopathic/etc) medicine buzz words. Just because it is natural doesn't make it safe all the time and in every case. And natural is another weird word. Usually in fake medicine circles as "coming from a plant," it has no real meaning since the chemicals in the oils are still processed to make them "100% certified therapeutic grade." So is that natural?

The statement about highly potent and effective is interesting. Because one of my problems with these oils is that because they come from plants, and there is no oversight as to how the oils are processed, the potency is a bit of an unknown. Plants can contain different levels of compounds due to genetics, growing conditions, etc. This is why peppers can vary in hotness and why small batches of beer have different flavors, even if the same recipe is used. Large food companies use extensive testing to ensure a consistent product in terms of flavor. We don't get that same assurance from doTERRA.

This "home healer" also makes this claim:
Oregano, and OnGuard cured us of the flu. Yes it took a good 2 days of feeling pretty crappy and smelling like a pizzeria, but I truly believe the oregano got me through this flu case faster than any antibiotic ever would have. I also used Peppermint for my fever, Lemon to detox, and Breathe for cough and congestion.
Let me ask you, do you want to take medical advice from someone who doesn't understand that influenza is a virus, and antibiotics would not be effective anyway? Likely, the illness was not flu but simply a cold, which would go away on its own in about 2 days with a low fever and some respiratory symptoms.

The next claim is in a blog titled "Drink up! It's good for you." Of course, there is not a shred of evidence for any of the claims in the blog. One section in particular bothered me, and it is the one on grapefruit oil and the suggestion to drink tea with a few drops of this in it. Grapefruits and the juice contain an enzyme which interacts with dozens of drugs. Because we do not have a good idea of the manufacturing process, we have no idea if this enzyme is present or in what amount. This, along with the usual "immune boosting" claims for virtually every oil, shows there is a bunch of medical nonsense and a few dangers in this advice.

Another claim that shows up in several posts is the "mood enhancing properties." In this blog post selling you an intro kit, both lemon and lavender are claimed to either cause calming or enhance mood. Pretty much every post claims some sort of mood improvement. There is some evidence - though years of studies still only show small, preliminary results without any larger follow-ups - that the scents of some oils can help reduce anxiety. Again, these are small studies, most without good controls, and no plausible mechanism has been found other than the placebo effect. The setup to use the oil could be the thing causing the relaxation (such as putting it in a warm bath).

The dangers in this claim are a bit more subtle. My concern is when people are told something will make them feel better and they trust that, it could prevent them from seeking real help if it is needed. If someone is depressed and seek legitimate medical help, the doctor knows and understands a particular medicine or a single session of therapy is not going to be enough in some cases (probably many). So the doctor might adivse the patient to follow-up to evaluate the effectiveness of the treatment plan in a specified amount of time and can adjust if necessary. Will modern medicine prevent every bout with depression or suicide? No. But at least there is an admission of this limitation. If we were to believe the oil claims, the cure is 100% effective every time (it's not - not even close).

Another danger of lavender in particular is it can be harmful to skin. The doTERRA blogger suggests rubbing some on the forehead to cure watery eyes from allergies. A quick search in PubMed tells me this is a really bad idea. In vitro tests show lavender oil is harmful to skin cells, with a proposed mechanism of membrane damage. If left exposed to air, lavender oil oxidizes, forming chemicals very irritating to the skin - with the study both identifying the oxidized components causing the irritation as well as showing irritation on patches of skin on test patients. Sounds like a bad idea for your skin.

The claims that really bother me the most are the ones for children. Like most essential oil proponents, they think because the word "natural" is involved it is OK to just apply this stuff to your kids. For example, there is a post with instructions for homemade baby wipe solution that includes Melaleuca (tea tree oil). Much like lavender, when exposed to air and/or light, other products form that can be harmful to the skin. It can also be poisonous when ingested. It is generally not advised to use tea tree oil on children or pregnant women. It can may cause hormone disruptions in boys before puberty and lead to gynecomastia. Any of the claimed benefits such as treating nail fungus have had mixed results. Just don't put this on your kids. Do not.

Another claim for children is to not use Tylenol to treat a fever and instead use peppermint oil applied to the forehead. Once again we have possible skin irritation issues. Ignoring that for a moment, we have another issue with the science here. It isn't "curing the fever" as claimed while "allowing the immune system to do its work." A fever is part of the immune response. By treating it, you are in a sense suppressing the immune system. But of course, fevers are uncomfortable, and above certain levels can be dangerous. The mechanism employed by the peppermint oil is evaporation - the same effect you could get from a damp washcloth. Peppermint gives off a strong scent, which is due to the relatively higher vapor pressure of the oil - meaning it easily evaporates. When something evaporates, the remaining material and/or the surface it was in contact with cools - because evaporation is a phase change that absorbs a significant amount of energy. So avoid the cost and possible irritation and use a damp washcloth. And if needed - use the Tylenol. And please, don't delay treatment because you think the oils will fix your kid's illness.

The anti-science bend to these essential oil pushers is disturbing. The claims made are bogus at best, and can be dangerous in many ways. The sad part is the oils do have some legitimate uses. They smell nice - so as a scent for a relaxing bath or just to provide a pleasing scent in the home is a nice treat. In concentrated forms, they can kill bacteria on surfaces and even repel bugs. The constituent ingredients have the possibility of being good pharmaceuticals. But none of that justifies the misapplication of science to the point of being dangerous. Of course, they might not sell well enough to support the MLM structure if they stuck to just the legitimate uses. And as we know, pseudoscience sells.

by Eric Hall

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