I’ve been working with essential oils since 2007, making skincare products, studying their properties, and enjoying the peace and healing they bring to us. I’ve purchased books on animal and human healing with the use of herbs and oils. I love the power held in a single drop of oil – the concentrated potential of healing, if you will.
Essential oils are therapeutic when used for inhalation and topical use. However, there came to be a huge surge in MLM’s (Multi-Level Marketing) companies around 2010 and everyone I knew was suddenly selling them. As someone obsessed with Facts not FadsTM for over 2 decades, I watched the trend carefully and started researching the industry.
To responsibly educate people on essential oils, I hosted a “Learn & Play Organic Essential Oil Workshop” at a New York library in 2017. In this interactive workshop, I explained the importance of using ORGANIC essential oils and how to properly research their origin and labeling. Patrons made their own essential oil spray blend to use on clothing, linens, in the car, or just as an air freshener. I also explained the precautions of essential oils, which I find is an often-neglected area.
Why did it take so long to speak out, when I knew about these companies so long ago?
It was a conflict of interest with partners in my business ventures—it was an unspoken area, as they were representatives of the MLM companies I’ll be discussing. There are good people in the MLM chain; I never witnessed my friends acting irresponsibly. I continuously attempted to find the good in these MLM chains during my decade of research. After repeated exposure to a cult-like attitude from others selling the oils, I decided to finally “come out” with my research.
It’s my job to educate you not only on what you eat but what you’re putting on your skin. I still see a host of incorrect information online regarding essential oils and have seen people recently recommend the improper use of oils.
I’ll share my research over the last decade with you—what the clever marketing ploys really mean and how to research any essential or carrier oil company. I’ll also give you the benefits of using essential oils and how to use them safely. As I urge you to do with your food, I implore you to exercise due diligence with researching what you put on your skin.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are highly concentrated liquids that contain the aromatic or volatile essences of plants. As we become more aware of the importance of what we ingest and organic foods, we also need to consider the importance of what we put ON our skin and the ingredients in these products. Clever marketing terms are simply not enough. Knowing the person who sells the oils and trusting that person is, unfortunately, also not enough. You need to understand what you’re buying.
At their simplest level, essential oils are synthetic chemical-free alternatives to perfumes or deodorants. Despite what you may read in some medical digests, there is research to back up health claims of specific essential oils.
This does not mean essential oils replace medicine, medical advice, nor that they cure diseases by themselves.
Despite the health benefits, the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) is aware of the unethical and potentially dangerous behaviour of major MLM brands like Young Living (YL) and doTerra (DT).
Who sells essential oils?
There are several respected, quality brands of essential oils available at health food stores or online. My favorite brands are Aura Cacia, Now, iHerb, and Mountain Rose Herbs. These brands are organic, ethically harvested, and are affordable… traits we want when we are looking to heal everyone and not just the select few who can afford it.
Aromatherapy is an unregulated and unlicensed field both for the practice and manufacturing of aromatherapy products. This leaves a lot of room for misleading claims by both companies wishing to sell more products and innocent representatives who are (often incorrectly) trained to sell these oils. You can find out more about the regulations of the NAHA here.
Before I go any further, here’s a VERY important piece of marketing information. Essential oils are not regulated by the FDA. What the FDA DOES regulate are false claims of the healing of diseases and conditions by such oils.
To be so obtuse as to say an oil can cure cancer (including the new CBD trend of oils) is downright dangerous, irresponsible, and misleading to those who are suffering. It’s never as simple as just ingesting a single compound and saying you’re cured by the use of it. Too many biological, emotional, mental, psychological, and environmental factors go into creating a disease. It requires the same number of factors to reverse that disease.
Can essential oils cure diseases? Perhaps. I’ve had over a decade of success in alleviating skin conditions using specific carrier and essential oils. I am well aware of the healing properties in oils and how they can boost our immune system. I use essential oils to alter moods and also for spiritual reasons. I know they work but under legal guidelines, I will not say they can cure diseases or skin conditions.
I’m also aware that essential oils can kill you if used incorrectly.
Essential oils are volatile compounds (even sounds a little dangerous, doesn’t it? Volatile!?!). It can take thousands of pounds of a herb or flower just to make 1 ounce of essential oil—rose oil, for instance, requires about 1200 pounds of roses to make 1 ounce of essential oil. This is part of what makes some oils more expensive than others.
An ounce of oil contains about 600 drops and is equivalent to approximately 30ml.
Using that formula, one drop of rose oil can contain the essence of 2 pounds of roses. The ingestion of essential oils has led to multiple recorded hospital cases of sickness and death. Ingestion requires proper training on YOUR part.
Why use essential oils if they’re so dangerous?
I’ll restate my position on essential oils. They have profound effects on our physical, emotional, and spiritual bodies. They ease skin problems faster than most chemicals, alter our moods, calm anxiety and rage, and help us sleep better. Essential oils are healing powerhouses when used properly.
How can we use them safely?
I’ll start by explaining the “simpling” method I teach people in herbal workshops. Simpling is using one ingredient at a time in a small amount, to test for a reaction. If there is no reaction, you can either slightly increase the amount you’re using or add another oil in a small quantity. Think of an allergy test—you get a little dose of a substance to monitor how you react to it.
Remember that everything we ingest works synergistically, so it’s best to not increase the amount of oil AND add a new one at the same time. If you have no reaction to 2 drops of peppermint oil when you add it to coconut oil and put it on your skin, don’t increase it to 5 drops AND add 2 drops of lavender at the same time. Check each oil individually before combining them.
Therapeutic properties by inhalation and topical use
Inhaling essential oils can alter your mood in many ways and may be pleasant or unpleasant to you. Their effect on another person is not necessarily how they will affect you. This is why the simpling method is so important—to determine your own reaction to a specific oil or blend.
Consider perfumes for a moment, which were originally made from essential oils. On an often unconscious level, we wear scents to alter someone’s mood—musk scents increase libido and arouse us. But let’s also consider how many times you’ve walked past someone wearing a scent you find repugnant. We all react differently to every perfume and oil on the market.
Because of how oils or scents can affect us, humans have used aromatherapy to treat depression, anxiety, anger, grief, and a multitude of other emotions for thousands of years. Almost 8,000 years, in fact! While this is true, sniffing oils is not an alternative to seeking medical advice.
There are important factors to note when making cleaning, skin care, mood-enhancing or spiritual products, such as the “note” and the “strength” of the oil.
Some oils evaporate faster than others and are known as “top note” oils vs “base note” oils, which evaporate much slower. Typically, the flower-based oils such as chamomile, lavender, or rose dissipate faster, while those derived from a bark (sandalwood, vetiver, cedar) are heavier and will dissipate at a slower rate.
The “strength” of an oil describes its intensity. For example, tea tree is a very strong oil, while bergamot is a weak oil. If you mix these two oils together in equal amounts, the tea tree oil will overpower the bergamot… just add less of the stronger oils when you make your own blends.
You can use essential oils to create cleaning products that not only affect how a home or office smell, but do so without the use of harsh chemicals. I worked for an organic cleaning company years ago that made their own glass cleaner and all-purpose spray by mixing essential oils with water and/or vinegar.
A word of caution: adding essential oils to standard or commercially made natural cleaning products can be lethal.
If you’re not making a cleaning product from scratch like my former employer, please do not add essential oils to commercially made cleaning products. No matter how natural they seem to be, it’s impossible to know the interactions between oils and the chemicals in cleaning products. The same rule of thumb we apply to standard cleaning products applies here—they are not to be mixed! We know not to combine bleach and Comet, or Windex and Lysol with one another. Oils are no different and are used as a separate cleaning product.
Some essential oils are highly concentrated versions of spices in your cabinets—clove, fennel, ginger, lavender, lemon, oregano, peppermint, Roman chamomile, thyme are a few of these culinary oils. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) does not advocate ingestion of essential oils, nor do most reputable companies selling them. Advising people to ingest oils puts you as a representative or company in jeopardy for liability claims and issues with how the oils are being prescribed.
Prescribed? Yes indeed. If a representative tells you to take an oil to cure a cold, that is a prescription. If they say it may alleviate the symptoms of a cold, however, that is not a prescription. Choose your words wisely or in this day of confusion and misunderstandings… avoid telling people to ingest essential oils.
There are 2 main reasons I never recommend ingestion of oils:
- They are extremely concentrated and can be lethal
- We are not aware of the origin and harvesting practice for most oils. Despite clever marketing on websites, we know the reality of online marketing… “My new online boyfriend is a French model!” Many companies cannot legally advise you where their oils are coming from, nor who distributes them.
In “The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy,” Salvatore Battaglia writes “Oral administration does have a number of disadvantages, including the possibility of nausea and vomiting, irritation of the gastrointestinal tract, and destruction of the essential oil constituents by stomach acidity or enzymes in the intestines.”
That being the case, what’s the point of ingesting oils? Remember, this can happen by the ingestion of just a few drops, given the concentration of essential oils. If 1 drop can equal 2 pounds of a herb, you see how easy it is to overdose.
I’d rather you turn to the spices themselves for cooking and obtain clear and safe benefits. Ayurveda and Chinese medicine are excellent tools for the effective use of spices and herbs in their natural form.
Contrary to Mr Battaglia’s writings, doTerra advises that “Certain essential oils have a rich culinary history and can be used as dietary supplements supporting a variety of healthy conditions. When you sprinkle cinnamon on your oatmeal, sip a mug of peppermint tea, or add fresh basil leaves to your spaghetti, you are actually consuming some volatile aromatic essential oil compounds. Essential oil contributes many health benefits as well as flavoring and aroma properties to foods. When in their concentrated form, essential oils can be used as dietary supplements for more targeted and potent health benefits. Internal use is a very safe and effective method of application because of the sophisticated physiologic processes of our bodies.”
This is dangerous marketing meant to sell a product. Internal use is NOT a “very safe and effective” method—it can be lethal. Yes, I know people who ingest oils and survive. Just as with scents, oils will affect you differently when ingested. We don’t know the long-term effects on oils either, as this is a fairly new trend.
Do not follow this advice and add basil essential oil to your pasta. Buy real basil and eat it the way we’re supposed to, fresh and unprocessed.
Always dilute essential oils prior to use—if an essential oil representative tells you it’s safe to put directly on your skin, take that as a red flag that they have been improperly trained or are trying to generate more profit. Just because it worked on their skin many times doesn’t mean it’s safe for your skin. Always dilute essential oils in an unrefined, organic carrier oil prior to application.
I prefer olive, coconut, or sesame oils for my products, as these are typically non-reactive for most people. Essential oils should be heavily diluted, such as 20 drops of essential oil to 4 ounces of a carrier oil (or distilled water for spray blends). Since oils are so concentrated, it doesn’t take much to get a good amount of smell factor. I also recommend doing a patch test on the inside of your arm before making large batches of a blend, just to ensure there is no allergic reaction.
Lavender and tea tree oils can absorb into the bloodstream and cause systemic, estrogen-like effects, causing breast growth in boys.
While everyone turns to soy regarding the dangers of phytoestrogens, those phytoestrogens also occur in many other commonly used ingredients. In addition, not all essential oils are safe for everyone’s health conditions. Consult multiple reputable books at the library or your physician before indulging in essential oils, especially if your health is compromised or you’re on medications. Herbs and essential oils will affect how your medication works.
Some essential oils can be dangerous for pregnancy, high blood pressure, those who sunbathe frequently or have sensitive skin. According to Tisserand and Balacs, cedar, basil, clary sage, rose, peppermint, and rosemary oils are best avoided when pregnant, as they can cause a miscarriage. They also suggest the avoidance of wormwood, rue, oakmoss, Lavandula stoechas, camphor, parsley seed, sage, and hyssop.
Citrus oils such as bergamot and lemon can enhance the power of the sun, known as phototoxicity. Basil, lemon, peppermint, bergamot and cinnamon are oils you want to dilute a lot if you have very sensitive skin. You should never place cinnamon on the skin without being diluted, as it will burn your skin.
My training and research in cooking and herbal medicine have raised my awareness of allergies. I’ve encountered people who have an allergy to lavender, one of the most commonly known and used oils on the market. Apply the simpling method before you assume an essential oil is safe for you.
There’s a reason warnings exist.
Besides the above precautions, always keep essential oils out of the reach of children or pets. Store them in a cool, dark place; use them in a well-ventilated area; do not use them for long periods of time. Don’t spend an entire day making oil blends without a break. A little goes a long way and more is never better!
How to research the origin and labeling of oils
Part of my job in owning businesses was understanding how to market my products. This means studying clever terminology, slang, swag, pricing, and how to get people to buy your products. I became an expert in finding the ploys others are using—researching the competition is par for the course in any business.
The world of natural products is sadly no different. The word “natural” or the color green on a label makes us assume a product is good for us or increases our health. Here are other some labels in the essential oil world that are misleading and potentially dangerous:
Therapeutic Grade / Certified Therapeutic Grade
This is a purchased trademark, not earned. This “certification” process does not belong to the FDA (despite claims to the contrary), but rather the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The USPTO isn’t in the business of certification of essential oils any more than they can certify me as the best scent-maker in the northeastern United States. The USPTO is there to collect money and issue trademarks—it has nothing to do with determining the safety of a product.
Ever heard the “I’m Loving It” slogan? It’s a trademark purchased by McDonald’s. Is it true, just because they’ve made it their trademark? Not at all. A trademark simply protects a brand.
Therapeutic or Certified Therapeutic Grade is a purchased trademark for essential oil companies. It means nothing regarding safety.
According to Marcia Elston in 2009, “This registered word mark has not been provided to them by the FDA as they claim and is meaningless in proving that an outside certifying body has declared or designated that doTERRA’s essential oils are certified pure therapeutic grade.”
Can Treat/Cure Diseases
Whether you find this on a label or spoken by a sales representative, steer clear. If a product heals a specific condition, it must be governed and certified by the FDA, just as calcium and vitamin D are certified for bone health. Past misrepresentation led to the FDA sending warning letters to both doTERRA Essential Oils and Young Living Essential Oils. On September 22, 2014, the letter warned both companies to remove any claim about treating diseases such as Ebola, Parkinson’s, autism, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, insomnia, heart disease, PTSD, dementia and MS. You can read more about it here.
This is often used in marketing to show an oil is “Generally Regarded as Safe.” This certification does not mean the oil is organic, therapeutically efficient, or even plant-derived (oils can be made in labs). GRAS status also implies oils are safe for ingestion, which they most certainly are not.
There have been incidents of deaths from oils being ingested.
The International Federation of Aromatherapists Code of Ethics and the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) warns that some oils are associated with toxicity problems by the risk of accumulative effects. “Internal use is not entirely hazard- or risk-free. Nor should any aromatherapist use essential oils for internal ingestion or internal application nor shall any aromatherapist advocate or promote such use of essential oils unless the practicing aromatherapist has medical, naturopathic, herbalist, or similar qualifications and holds an insurance policy which specifically covers the internal application of essential oils.” (IFA code of ethics. Simply Essential, No. 11 December 1993).
Last, the Pricing of Oils
Essential oils are derived from plant bark, flowers, stems, or seeds. Earlier, I explained that it takes a great deal of plant matter to extract enough oil for our use. For instance, it takes about 600 pounds of roses to make one ounce of essential oil, but only 6 pounds of lavender to get the same amount of oil. This causes the price difference between individual oils sold by each company.
Young Living’s Seed to Seal process describes a basic process: seed the plant, cultivate, distill, test, seal. They mention this to explain the pricing of the oils, as everything is hand-picked (oh, how we love the hand-crafted and personal touch that goes into our products!). YL reportedly has 7 farms and EVERYTHING is hand-picked on these farms.
Young Living also audits their own facilities, meaning there is no outside agency monitoring any of the claims on their website. Between the Seed to Seal process, marketing, testing, and the multiple reps I know selling all their essential oils, we should have little to no unemployment. That’s a great deal of job openings all over the world, given the popularity of this brand—unless there’s more to the process and pricing than what’s being claimed.
Most of the oils from the two major MLM’s are often 2x the price or more than that of Mountain Rose Herbs or iHerb. The latter two companies are certified organic and also focus on fair-trade, ethically harvested oils. For example, 5ml of Black Pepper Oil is $25 with YL and $29 with DT vs 15ml for $15.50 with Mountain Rose.
Let me be very clear… the cost difference is not just with quality, as claimed. The cost difference is necessary to pay the chain of MLM representatives.
Let me break down the price structure above for you:
- 15mls of Black Pepper Oil would cost $75 with YL
- $87 with DT
- or $16 with Mountain Rose, an organic company
It makes no sense to spend the 5x difference for 1/2 the product for clever marketing that doesn’t even include organic certification.
This price difference makes even less sense when you realize Mountain Rose is a certified organic company. Organic certification isn’t cheap by any means and requires a great deal of paperwork and control measures by employees. If they can afford to go through that process and still sell oils at a cheaper cost, why wouldn’t we spend less for an organic and safer product? And why are the other companies not interested in organic certification?
Here are the qualities to look for in a supplier, MLM or regular retailer:
- Dedication to supplying essential oils to the aromatherapy practitioner market, and the educated public (not just relying on sales reps to make the sale)
- A company on the smaller size and not a large corporation
- Owned by an aromatherapy practitioner or essential oil specialist
- Has relations with their distillers, if possible—this isn’t always possible because of distribution chains, but it is something to ask
- Can readily supply a batch-specific MS/GC spec report on each essential oil it sells?
- Can readily provide material safety data sheets (MSDS) as needed?
- Has a strong, unquestioned noncontroversial reputation in the field—Google is your best friend in this regard
- Has preferably been in the field for several years and is well known to other aromatherapy practitioners and/or educators as being reliable and ethical
- Follows the guidelines of NAHA and doesn’t contradict the laws of the FDA
- Advises you to not ingest oils, nor use them solely to treat diseases or conditions
Here are the qualities to look for in an essential oil:
- They list common name and Latin name (exact genus and species)
- Country of origin and the part of the plant processed
- Type of Extraction (distillation or expression)
- How it was grown (organic, wild-crafted, traditional) & chemotype (if relevant)
- YOUR OWN REACTION TO THE OIL! You are your best doctor or demon. Just because lavender works for everyone else for sleeping, doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. Apply the simpling method listed above and make sure there’s no reaction to any of your senses.
While I didn’t mean for this article to detour you from using essential oils, I want you to be clear about how to use them safely. I’ve spent years studying oils and companies and using essential oils for skin care products and spiritual products. I have a profound love for their healing power, as well as the healing power of herbal medicine.
I’ll close with additional resources for you, should you wish to research this further. Please do not fall for clever marketing from friends—do diligent research. Do not ingest essential oils nor put them directly on your skin without proper dilution. The choice is obviously yours in where you purchase your ingredients and products. My goal is to educate you on clever marketing, so you know what questions to ask and what to look for—this applies to all the companies I mentioned, not just YL and DT.
Disclaimer: If you are a representative of one of the 2 major MLM’s mentioned in this article, understand the information isn’t meant against you personally. If you have helpful feedback or can answer questions about the policy of the companies listed, share your comments. Do so constructively, however; I’ve carefully researched answers to my concerns prior to writing this.
FURTHER LINKS FOR ADDITIONAL RESEARCH:
- https://www.consumersadvocate.org/essential-oils – a comprehensive report on the essential oil industry; it dives into 10+ companies that sell oils, including 3rd party testing of the oils
- https://www.mountainroseherbs.com/resources/herbal-education – a list of various schools for studying herbal medicine
- https://naha.org/assets/uploads/The_Quality_of_Essential_Oils_Journal.pdf – a deeper look at the therapeutic grade claim and what to look for in essential oils
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