Aromatherapy: Sniffing Essential Oils
The essences of certain flowers and herbs produce a pleasing smell, but is it also medicinal?
by Brian Dunning
March 11, 2014
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Also available in Russian
The popularity of essences of aromatic plants appears to have skyrocketed in recent years. Normally they're used as simple fragrances, in perfumes, incense, soaps and candles, or even potpourri. But their recent rise may be due in part to stinkier practices: a lot of people are now turning to essential oils for medical purposes. Some believe they promote general wellness, some believe they boost the immune system, and some depend on specific aromatherapies to treat very specific diseases. Are they right to do so?
Let's look exactly at what an essential oil is. First of all, the word "essential" means that the oil contains the "essence" of whatever plant it's from; it does not mean that it's essential (as in necessary for health). Leaves, stems, flowers, or whatever part of the desired plant is placed in a distillation vessel with steam. The heat releases the volatile organic compounds from the plant matter (volatile means they exist as a vapor at room temperature). Volatile organic compounds are what goes into your nose when you smell a flower. These compounds are then distilled into a liquid, which we colloquially call the "essence" of the plant. Finally, to make a nicely packageable product of desired consistency and concentration, the essence is usually mixed with an odorless carrier oil. Then, voilà: we have what's called an essential oil, strong with the smell of the plant it's made from.
It can be a massage oil; it can be the scent added to incense; it can be added to bath water, to soaps, or to candles; you can put some in your tea; or you can dab some on your skin for the fragrance. Many such aromas are delightful, even pleasurable. For a thousand years, people have been willing to pay a fair price for essential oils. But in recent years, prices have skyrocketed, especially among allegedly "premium" oils. Why might this be? The plants have not become any more scarce, and the production methods have only become more efficient and cheaper (particularly with our global economy providing the best access ever to bargain-basement oils produced in developing countries).
The answer is a resurgence of aromatherapy in the New Age and alternative medicine communities. But before we talk about its resurgence, let's see how it first became a thing at all.
The principal anecdote cited by virtually all credulous articles on essential oils comes from the perfume industry. In 1910, French perfumist René-Maurice Gattefossé was working on a new fragrance when he accidentally burned his hand, and quickly thrust it into what he thought was a jar of water, then realized that it was a jar of lavender oil. This episode is known only from Gattefossé's own account of it, written 27 years later in his 1937 book Aromathérapie: Les Huiles Essentielles, Hormones Végétales.
But it was 40 years later, in 1977, when Americans were going crazy embracing anything and everything alternative they could find, that aromatherapy reached the English-speaking world. Robert Tisserand wrote the book Art of Aromatherapy: the Healing and Beautifying Properties of the Essential Oils of Flowers and Herbs, and Americans first realized that the words "aroma" and "therapy" could go together. Tisserand described 29 essential oils and more than 100 medical conditions he believed they could treat. Essential oils were no longer just a way to make your bathtub smell good; they became an alternative medical treatment for just about any disease you might have thought you had. Similar books have flooded the market ever since he first broke the dam.
Scientific studies on the subject of aromatherapy have been extraordinarily scarce, and it's with good reason. When you smell something, the aroma is triggering your sense of smell. This requires very few molecules. But when we administer a substance with the hope of causing a pharmacological effect, we generally require a much greater quantity. It is the chemical interaction between the compound and the body that produces the desired effect; merely smelling the compound's few volatile molecules is not an effective delivery mechanism. Some aromatherapists have pointed to smelling salts as precedents, but this is an invalid comparison. Smelling salts irritate the nose with ammonia, like slapping someone to wake them up. The ammonia is not intended as a systemic treatment.
So with virtually no valid science or theory supporting the claim that essential oils have medical benefits, why then have they enjoyed a resurgence in the market? It came via a pathway familiar to Skeptoid listeners: multilevel marketing.
There's no need to go into great detail on multilevel marketing here — or network marketing, or independent sales or product consulting, or whatever the given company's term of choice is — because we've already done so, in Skeptoid episode #176. The proposition is always roughly the same: become an independent distributor, and earn a commission from not only your own sales but of those of all other salespeople you also recruit. You can't lose, according to the pitch. But according to surveys of participants and the mathematical modeling that supports those findings, the fact is that you can't win. You usually have to pay the company a fee to become a salesperson (when in the legitimate business world, companies should be paying their salespeople), and you're required to make minimum monthly purchases (guaranteeing the company steady sales of grossly overpriced merchandise, bought and paid out of your pocket). Surveys show that hardly any distributors ever sell a single product to another person, instead having to consume them all themselves; and that 99.95% of MLM participants lose money doing so. Both Consumer Reports and the Federal Trade Commission advise against ever joining any MLM program.
The simple fact is that MLM companies are about fooling their customers into thinking that buying their product will make them into wealthy distributors. They are not about the products themselves. The products, in fact, don't even matter. They are almost always some generic low-end product, mass produced overseas, then marketed with miraculous claims designed to excite the emotions of potential new "distributor" customers who believe they're going to become rich. As a result, we often see that MLM products are actually cheap products. Fruit drinks, soaps and detergents, vitamins, lotions — the product itself is never important in multilevel marketing. An MLM program is just as successful (or unsuccessful) with essential oils as it would be with fruit juice, sneakers, or beer koozies. It just so happens that essential oils are what a particular few MLM companies chose this time around to ensnare "distributors" into monthly buying contracts.
The two biggest MLM companies pushing essential oils are Young Living and doTERRA. Both carefully avoid making untrue and illegal health claims about their products on their web sites; which at first glance might seem counterintuitive, because those health claims are what sell the products. This is one powerful reason that manufacturers choose to go with a MLM model. The products are instead sold by large numbers of independent distributors, who (as independent businesspeople) are free to make any claims they like. (It is just as illegal for independent distributors to make untrue health claims about their products, but in practice, the Federal Trade Commission will never catch up with all the millions of MLM people out there.) In fact MLM companies depend on their distributors to make such claims, because they know very well that personal testimonials and anecdotes from friends are far more effective sales methods than traditional marketing.
But the fact that a product is sold via network marketing does not, by itself, prove that the product is medically worthless. Even the fact that no decent research has ever found it to be efficacious as a medical treatment does not prove it invalid. For my money, the biggest red flag surrounding essential oil claims is that they are so diverse. These personal anecdotes and testimonials are all over the map; beginning with Mssr. Gattefossé's finding that lavender oil cures burns. Other anecdotes have found lavender oil to treat insomnia, and others to produce wakefulness.
There's a great example on Chad Jones' Skeptoid blog article about essential oils. He mentioned tea tree oil, and commenters chimed in with the following uses: It cures warts, it's an antimicrobial, it alleviates shingles, it treats dandruff, oral cancer, staph infection, candida, plaque and gingivitis. Maybe it is an effective treatment for all of those things and has just eluded science so far; but more likely, people reporting the anecdotes were mistaken. As you read accounts of people using essential oils on the Internet, keep in mind that there is virtually no consistency among the reports. The next time you hear someone say that essential oil so-and-so successfully treated their child's so-and-so condition, check the Internet and I can virtually guarantee that you'll find someone who found that same oil equally effective for some condition that's the polar opposite.
However, there is one strong reason why those who like them should go out and buy them. They smell good. Smells are perhaps the most evocative of senses, suggesting fond memories, even contributing to mood. If grandmother's house smelled like lavender, then some lavender potpourri or incense in your own house may well contribute to a relaxing afternoon. But as Steven Novella pointed out in an article, this is not an example of therapy. It's not a medical intervention. He discussed one study that tried to find out if lavender would help patients with anxiety:
Although this study did not show aromatherapy to be effective based on statistical analysis, patients did generally report the lavender scent to be pleasant.
In other words, pleasing aromas are good enough as pleasing aromas. We need not pretend that they also confer medical benefits.
In my research, I found that Harriet Hall's article on Science Based Medicine concluded by quoting Lynn McCutcheon's final paragraph in Skeptical Inquirer. I wouldn't be able to construct a more succinct and effective conclusion, so if I might be so bold, I'm going to follow both of their example:
All of this sounds as though I am strongly opposed to the use of essential oils. I'm not! If it pleases you to put some in your bath water or have a little rubbed on your back once in a while, by all means, go ahead. It is not the odor that arises from these fragrances that is troubling, it is the stench arising from the unwarranted claims made about them.
Whenever you hear a miracle claim for a product that's always seemed ordinary enough to you, be skeptical. It's always more likely that its obvious use is the true one.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Aromatherapy: Sniffing Essential Oils." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
11 Mar 2014. Web.
23 Oct 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4405>
References & Further Reading
DesOrmeaux, P. "Aromatherapy: Does It Pass the Smell Test?" BASIS. 1 Jul. 2007, Volume 24, Number 3.
Fox, S. "Future Clothes Could Use Engineered Scents to Change Mood and Enhance Memory." Live Science. Tech Media Network, 11 May 2011. Web. 8 Mar. 2014. <http://www.livescience.com/14257-scent-emitting-clothes-mood-altering.html>
Hall, H. "dōTERRA: Multilevel Marketing of Essential Oils." Science-Based Medicine. New England Skeptical Society, 22 Jan. 2013. Web. 8 Mar. 2014. <http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/doterra-multilevel-marketing-of-essential-oils/>
Kiecolt-Glaser, J., Graham, J., Malarkey, W., Porter, K., Lemeshow, S., Glaser, R. "Olfactory influences on mood and autonomic, endocrine, and immune function." Psychoneuroendocrinology. 1 Apr. 1988, Volume 33, Number 3: 328-329.
McCutcheon, L. "What’s That I Smell? The Claims of Aromatherapy." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 May 1996, Volume 20, Number 3.
Novella, S. "Aroma Therapy." SkepticBlog. SkepticBlog, 10 May 2010. Web. 8 Mar. 2014. <http://www.skepticblog.org/2010/05/10/aromatherapy/>
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