Essential Oils Aren’t Essential

June 4, 2018 at 10:07 pm Leave a comment

Essential oils are popular in all sorts of alternative medicine practices—everything from aromatherapy to oil massages. The name sounds rather scientific as if these are important chemicals for everyday health. In reality, essential oils aren’t so essential after all.

What’s so essential about these oils?

Essential oils sound as if they’d be vital for health just like vitamins and minerals. In reality, the name is a bit of a misnomer. In chemistry, “essential” means “essence of”. In other words, peppermint essential oil is the “essence” of peppermint—it’s a super-concentrated form of the peppermint scent. The terminology does, unfortunately, make it easy to market essential oils as must-have health products. Everything from sandalwood to sage oil can be purchased and some of these products are quite popular. For example, some people buy lavender oil to relax or help with headaches. Eucalyptus oil is used to treat coughs. There are even tips about using oregano oil on your feet to boost your immune system! However, essential oils are volatile chemicals and not cure-all health products.

lavender

Do any of them work?

A few of these oils are actually backed by science. Tea tree oil can treat or prevent specific types of infections and it’s been used this way for a long time. Citrus oil has similar properties, leading some scientists to recommend it as a food preservative due to its bacteria-killing ability. The majority of essential oils have no scientific evidence backing up their uses, however, and this can be dangerous. Waiting for an essential oil to work, rather than going to the doctor right away, can make an illness worse.

Dangers

Since essential oils are super-concentrated volatile chemicals, there are potential dangers. Many commonly-available essential oils are highly flammable—this list includes lavender oil, tea tree oil, and lemon oil. Flammability isn’t the only issue. Some essential oils become dangerous when directly touched or ingested, causing burns and allergic reactions. Others are poisonous to pets, especially cats, birds, and other animals with sensitive respiratory systems. Although purported as “natural” treatments, these are super-concentrated versions of aromatics and should be treated with caution.

Some essential oils are just plain toxic. According to the National Capital Poison Center, wintergreen oil is fine in very small doses but taking too much is equivalent to “swallowing a large number of adult aspirin.” It’s pretty easy to overdo it, especially if not using accurate measuring tools. Doctors generally recommend that pregnant women avoid essential oils completely since they haven’t been tested for safety. This is part of what can make essential oils dangerous—we don’t know the safe dosage for most of them. Essential oils are largely untested and unregulated.

In short, essential oils are by no means essential and they shouldn’t be placed in the same category as vitamins and minerals. Most of their uses aren’t backed up by science and they shouldn’t replace traditional medicine. If you’re going to use essential oils (and a handful do work!), treat them like you would any other volatile chemical—take accurate measurements and use gloves.

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Photo: ka2rina (cc)

Sources: webster, davidwolfe.com, acs.org, wiley, naha.org, poison.org

 

 

Entry filed under: Despite Popular Belief, Health and Beauty. Tags: , , , , .

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