A Doctor’s Take on Essential Oils
Essential oils are all the rage these days. You know the ones I’m talking about. In fact, you’ve probably been invited to a product party where colorful vials with expensive price tags promise a wide range of health benefits. You’ve also heard the stories. Essential oils cure warts and ear infections. They sooth rashes and bellyaches. They help kids sleep and improve attention. Virtually any ailment you suffer has a corresponding dose of liquid magic.
You’ve probably also wondered if essential oils really work. Are they safe? And is buying into the movement a waste of money or an effective use of a natural remedy?
What are Essential Oils?
Essential oils aren’t really oils in the true sense of the word. They are complex mixtures of aromatic compounds extracted from plant material. They have distinctive odors, poor solubility in water (a trait they share with true oils), and are extracted from plants by distillation and cold pressing. Common examples include lavender, peppermint, tea tree and eucalyptus, but you’ll find hundreds more.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies essential oils as food supplements, not drugs. This means producers of essential oils are not allowed to market the compounds as medicine. In fact, they must clearly state the product is “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”
According to the Dietary Supplemental Health and Education Act of 1994, this classification also means the FDA is not allowed to regulate the sale or use of essential oils unless they can prove a particular product poses a serious threat.
Do Essential Oils Work?
When you use an essential oil and expect a specific outcome, you are relying on the biochemical activity of the compound in question. Many plants are biochemically active in humans and classified as drugs. These natural products have undergone rigorous scientific study to prove they work and to determine what dangers they pose.
Essential oils have not been subject to these same methods of study, so we don’t have reliable and reproducible evidence on efficacy and safety. Distributors of essential oils (you may have seen this at a product party) are quick to show “studies” demonstrating a compound’s effectiveness, but this data is unlikely to stand up to scientific scrutiny. After all, if the producer of an essential oil truly believes the compound has a reliable effect, why not rigorously test it, submit an application to the FDA, and sell it as an actual medicine?
At the end of the day, essential oils are chemical compounds, and people who use them for medical benefit are counting on the compound’s biochemical activity. This begs the question: Which do you trust more… compounds proven to work with known side effects (so you can make an informed decision with regard to benefit and risk) or compounds whose efficacy and safety aren’t really known?
Nothing New Under the Sun
Today’s essential oils are yesterday’s herbal remedies. They’re your grandmother’s swamp root, your great-grandmother’s liver pills and your great-great-grandmother’s snake oil (hey, at least we made it back to oil). And like in those days, somebody’s getting rich selling their wares. Why? Because there will always be folks who have seen them work and others who buy into the claim looking for a quick fix.
My question for believers in the crowd: How do you know the remedy really worked? Runny noses tend to get better. Coughs and bellyaches go away. Rashes clear up, skin heals and behavior fluctuates.
As an aromatic food supplement, essential oils are a playground for the nose and probably safe in small quantities. But if money is tight or symptoms severe, you’re better off pursuing the known. Why? Because there are plenty of good reasons approved and regulated medicine is mainstream.