Letter Re: A Beginner’s Guide to Essential Oils

Regarding the recent article “A Beginner’s Guide to Essential Oils”:
I was involved in the Essential Oil industry for a while. There are very limited uses for essential oils, however, and this is important, there are so many scammers in essential oil sales. It is very difficult to tell, without actual spectroscopic and chemical testing, if the essential oils are actually pure, what their purity is, if they’ve been diluted, and what they’ve been diluted with. Most essential oil companies buy from farmers or wholesale dealers overseas, pay be wire transfer, and hope reputation will see them to a good product. I worked for one of the better companies, and they did not do any lab verification of product newly arrived from a distiller. Bottle it, ship it out. I had questions.
“Is this lighter color? Is the viscosity off? Does this smell right?”
The answer: “It’s a different batch! Don’t worry about it!”
Maybe they know best, but I’m often skeptical of blasé claims. Science exists to tell exactly these things, but the cottage industry of essential oils have no reason to do that. They insist their product is Pure and Natural. And just because a bottle of oils passed exam the first time (years back) doesn’t mean the farmer in Africa or India isn’t diluting it in later bottles, knowing you were dumb enough to buy the con the first time. Like salting a mine to get a better price. There is considerable variation and I would not be surprised at all to test a batch and find something interesting diluting it. It is unregulated, at every stage. Buyer beware.
Most of the oils are properly labeled as perfume oils or perfume supplies. They smell good, they get used in perfumes, and that’s fine. Night Blooming Jasmine can be diluted a lot into very nice perfume and has been used as a perfume oil since Babylon was the center of the arts and culture. Frankincense is a piney smell. Myrrh (Oppoponax) is a weaker pine smell, but irritating on the skin so while amusing to own a bit of Biblical History, the two aren’t actually a very nice scent, in my opinion.
Many kinds of Rose oil can be used as a perfume base, though many brands of rose oil are frequently synthetic labeled as organic by unscrupulous dealers. In international trade people don’t always tell the truth. And the buyers in that industry are often not the most discerning businessmen, trusting in relationships rather than verify the goods are pure every time before payment. Trust but verify. Or rather verify, don’t trust. And that’s the perfumes and placebos.
If you decide to stockpile perfume, essential oils deserve to be kept in a cool dark place, like a box in your wine cellar or basement. Some get better when they age. Perfumes are valuable trade goods, and history shows men do many things for the willing and enthusiastic attention of a woman. This is the good side of the Essential oil industry.
Unfortunately, some of the oils sold as “traditional medicines” are actually potent toxins. As in deadly [in sufficient concentration], though not normally considered such because: “They’re natural and that’s the same thing as good!”.
Yes, 90% of them are placebos and make the room smell nice, but the other 10% might stop your breathing, cause brain damage (which starts as a strong headache and nosebleed), and should be treated with extreme caution and possibly need an ambulance and Poison Control Center.
Holy Basil? Nosebleed and increasingly strong headache.
Sarsaparilla? Toxic, despite being used in root beer for a century and a half. Buy a certain beer manufacturer’s Root Beer (non-alcoholic) and drink three in a week. The third one should make your head ache like a persistent migraine. That’s the toxin. Not their fault. It’s the real extract, not synthetic.
Wintergreen oil? Oops! Toxic. This is a major component of Birch Oil, by the way
Clove Oil? Nerve blocking toxin, that will numb skin applied to. So it is popular in “natural” dentistry, but watch out. In higher doses it is like curare or botulin.
The secondary problem of essential oils is dosage. They are meant to be either breathed in or rubbed into the skin. The aerosol dispersal system uses sound waves to raise a mist over the thin film floating over a water bath. This mist is blown out with a fan and wafts around the room. If ventilation is good, you smell the nice or odd smell and its fine, probably. If you’re in a closed room and maybe inhale a bit too much, it gets into your bloodstream in higher concentration. If it’s a placebo, probably no issues other than saturating your clothes and furniture. If it’s a toxin or corrosive/irritant, you might get into respiratory distress or worse. Irritants trigger asthma attacks, even in low doses of passerby or hours later. Sneezing allergy is common with a number of essential oils with no proven effects otherwise.
Since practitioners of herbal medicine are not licensed doctors because Essential Oils are not FDA-approved drugs and have highly variable purity, this can be a very risky and unsafe, to say the least. Thankfully, most are placebos so people rarely die from overdosing. I make specific note of the NOT FDA APPROVED part because real doctors have sworn an oath (Hippocrates oath: “first, do no harm.”) An unlicensed herbal medicine clinic doctor may cause your accidental death using drugs with uncertain potency, on patients with unknown allergies with impure sourcing and no serious testing. Sellers of essential oils do zero allergy testing for patients because most sell in new age shops, by phone, or web site, or multi-level marketing so the one taking the blame in court isn’t the maker in many cases. This is the downside of the “wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more!” crowd. Deflecting blame if something goes wrong.
Oils meant to be rubbed on are generally used after diluting in a carrier oil like almond oil or jojoba (which is another frequent synthetic sold as natural and pure). One of the popular oils meant for sleeping is actually a strong toxin and an overdose can risk your life. Oops. I imagine people who die using that can’t complain, and since none of these are FDA approved, companies which sell it DO NOT ever refer to it as medicine, nor may they legally describe the effects. It’s all inferred to avoid FDA regulation violation fines. “Oh, this is really RESTFUL, okay! Its calming!” It’s a potent toxin which in small doses is a sedative but large ones may kill you. There are several like this and gushy sales people pretend to not tell you what its supposed to do, according to some culture’s traditions. Unfortunately, modern techniques of steam distillation and stainless steel means the oils are far purer (if the source is actually pure), than ever obtained in stone or bronze age cultures. This means the traditional guidelines aren’t right, to say the least. And you might get way more exposure than they ever used.
Some more examples of essential oil effects that aren’t directly stated but inferred with a wink. Quotes to paraphrase their indirect claims:
“Carrot Seed Oil is a natural sunscreen.” Nope. Multiple tests with multiple people and correct concentration in appropriate recommended carrier oil: result was bad sunburns all around.
“Rosemary oil repels mosquitoes.” Nope. They’re attracted to CO2 from your breath. The oil just repels other people.
“Eucalyptus oil prevents colds.” Placebo.
“Marigold oil repels insects when sprayed on plants.” Might work. Don’t get it on you though. Planting marigolds is a known and sometimes effective bug deterrent in gardens. But it doesn’t stop all bugs. Sometimes buying ladybugs and praying mantises is better, since they actively hunt pests down.
“Sunflower Essential Oil improves skin.” Placebo. Oils reduce dryness, generally improve skin anyway. Almond oil is cheap at health food stores.
“Neem oil is an antibiotic and antifungal.” Smells foul enough. The trouble with antibiotics is bacteria adapt and overcome. They’re like the Marine Corps. So it might work once but repeated use often breeds superbugs and most doctors recommend people do not use antibiotic soaps. Neem has similar issues.
Citrus oils cause severe sunburns on any contaminated skin exposed to sunlight. They’re called phototoxic. So Orange Oil in cleaning products isn’t just irritating and corrosive, it also gives you sun burn which could become skin cancer. Nice. Same with Lemon Oil, Lime Oil, and Grapefruit Oil. They smell nice though.
All in all, having the chance to be exposed to that industry and deal directly with those products, I can’t seriously recommend them. Most are Schumer, some are poisons, others might work once but harm afterwards. Few are proven tested to be what they claim to be so you’re taking a heck of a chance. That’s not a very good success ratio, particularly since they are so expensive. And there is no good reliable guarantee of purity or quality other than some person’s promise. Even if they believe it doesn’t make it true.
Focus on the Three Bs instead. And use more traditional means to care for your health. Proper nutrition and exercise. Split some firewood or till the garden or shovel off your driveway. It’s much safer. And probably a far better use of your time and money.
Sincerely, – InyoKern