by Lucinda Staniland
Essential Oils seem to be everywhere in the Yoga world these days: whether via a diffuser, massage or taken internally. That old favourite, incense, has been kicked to the curb and essential oils are riding high as they also offer a myriad of health benefits in addition to the delicious olfactory experience.
But are Essential Oils really all that they’re cracked up to be?
Recently I’ve started hearing whisperings that Essential Oils may be more problematic, or at least more complex, than most of us are aware.
A well-known herbalist, Susun S. Weed, has called aromatherapy “the white sugar of herbalism,” and other herbalists are embracing her perspective, calling for herbalists to reject the use of essential oils, and to utilise traditional methods for working with the healing properties of plants.
Why the backlash?
From the research I’ve done, there are several reasons why Essential Oils can be problematic:
1. More research is required to understand exactly how these powerful substances interact with the human body. Essential Oils are incredibly potent (just one drop of peppermint essential oil is equivalent to 26-28 cups of peppermint tea) and surprisingly under-researched. This is strong stuff, but do we really know what we’re doing with it?
While you can find a slew of Essential Oil related research on PubMed, only a few of these studies have been randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled studies (considered to be the ‘gold-standard’ in scientific research) and the scientific community generally agrees that there is limited scientific evidence to support the use of Essential Oils. This doesn’t mean that Essential Oils don’t work, just that they haven’t been rigorously validated by science and should probably be treated with some caution.
There are definitely exceptions, and some gold-standard trials have shown very promising results for the use of Essential Oils. For example, one randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled study found that tea tree oil was an effective treatment for acne, and another found that inhalation of Lemon Essential Oil reduced nausea and vomiting during pregnancy.
More research is also required on the potential adverse effects of Essential Oils. Skin irritation, allergic reactions and increased sun sensitivity are well documented side effects of Essential Oils, and some Essential Oils are not safe for pets, children or pregnant women. There is also preliminary research to suggest that some Essential Oils may have adverse effects on the olfactory system, the endocrine system (this study proposed that the estrogenic effects of tea tree and lavender oil resulted in breast growth in teenage boys) and the digestive system when used incorrectly.
2. Because of their potency, Essential Oils need to be used very carefully. Unfortunately, safety guidelines and precautions for Essential Oil use (like this one from the Tisserand Institute) are often not widely understood or followed by consumers, and few people bother to consult trained aromatherapists or practitioners when using Essential Oils. Of course, it’s not necessary to be an expert or a trained practitioner to use Essential Oils safely, but you do need to be careful and well-informed.
3. Health claims made about Essential Oils are often unfounded, or at least are not backed up by credible research. A notable case of this occurred in 2014 when Young Living and doTerra, two prominent distributors of Essential Oils, both received a stern warning from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about their claims in relation to the treatment of cancer, Ebola, autism and other serious health conditions with Essential Oils. You can read doTerra’s warning letter here and Young Living’s warning letter here for more specific information)
doTerra still advocates ingesting Essential Oils, saying that “most oils are safe when used internally“. However, it’s not proven that this is safe, and many experts advise extreme caution when ingesting Essential Oils. This article covers some of the research on in the ins and outs of ingesting oils, and advises that ingestion should be avoided unless it is done under the supervision of a certified medical professional or aromatherapist.
4. Producing Essential Oils on a large scale can have detrimental effects on the environment, as it takes hundreds of pounds of plant material to make one pound of essential oil. Production of Essential Oils encourages monoculture-style farming and is often managed by multinational corporations that have little regard for the impact this kind of farming has on local ecosystems (not a good one).
Plus, some of the plant species used to produce Essential Oils are threatened or endangered and are harvested illegally. An environmental scientist who specializes in frankincense told the New Yorker, “If the demand keeps up without proper controls, we risk causing an ecological crash of a rare and endangered ecosystem.” And this doesn’t just happen on the black market. In fact, Young Living recently pleaded guilty to illegally trafficking in oils from endangered plants. That said, it is worth noting that doTerra has an entire website devoted to sharing how they source their products, including outlining the Sourcing Guiding Principles.
5. The companies selling Essential Oils in the Yoga community—I’m thinking of doTerra and Young Living here—are both Multi-Level Marketing schemes that teeter dangerously close to being pyramid schemes.
I want to dive a little deeper here into the inner workings of doTerra because it’s a company that is becoming increasingly influential in the yoga community.
Now, Young Living is just as popular as doTerra and the two companies are very similar (doTerra was founded by a group of former Young Living executives) but for the sake of brevity, I’ll stick with doTerra here and leave Young Living for another day. I think it’s fair to say that much of what I discovered about doTerra could probably also apply to Young Living, but I don’t know that for sure.
Whatever their similarities or differences, it’s safe to say that doTerra and Young Living are quickly becoming a prominent fixture of the international Yoga scene. As Yoga teacher Lucas Rockwood says,
“There are just three type of yoga people: those who hate Young Living and doTerra, those that are actively hawking their essential oils as distributors, and lastly, those who miraculously have not yet been pitched this dubious business opportunity.”
doTerra, already a well-loved name in the yoga world has just released a ‘yoga collection’ of oils in collaboration with yoga teacher Elena Brower, a ‘Presidential Diamond’* in the world of doTerra. The oils come with a list of suggested uses and yoga poses, and marketing lines such as this gem:
“Before starting the day, apply Align over your heart, wrists, and the back of your neck to promote feelings of self-acceptance and fluidity.”
Is this collection, and the collaboration with a well-respected and much-loved yoga teacher, a highly strategic grab for the yoga demographic?
And does it matter if millions of yoga practitioners begin using the oils because they smell great and promise things such as…:
“At moments when discouragement and opposition affect your ability to reach your goals, doTERRA Arise Enlightening Blend can provide a joyful, encouraging aroma to uplift and help you rise up.”
The thing is… doTerra is a multi-level marketing scheme.
What is multi-level marketing (MLM)?
Well, The Federal Trade Commision has this handy document which outlines the difference between a genuine multi-level marketing (MLM) plan and a pyramid scheme.
“In multilevel or network marketing, individuals sell products to the public — often by word of mouth and direct sales. Typically, distributors earn commissions, not only for their own sales, but also for sales made by the people they recruit.
Not all multilevel marketing plans are legitimate. If the money you make is based on your sales to the public, it may be a legitimate multilevel marketing plan. If the money you make is based on the number of people you recruit and your sales to them, it’s probably not. It could be a pyramid scheme. Pyramid schemes are illegal, and the vast majority of participants lose money.”
As you can see, the line between pyramid schemes and legitimate MLM schemes is pretty blurry, but according to this definition, doTerra could be a pyramid scheme if many of its members were losing money.
Although there doTerra clearly has a product and if therefore not a ‘pure’ pyramid scheme (a pure pyramid scheme does not sell any products and is based solely on new members buying into the scheme) if a doTerra Wellness Advocate can make more money from recruiting new members than from selling the product itself… Well, that’s getting dangerously close to pyramid territory.
As one unfortunate doTerra employee accidentally let slip to a New Yorker reporter when explaining the company’s structure,
“You have the two legs of your pyramid… I mean, not a pyramid, but, you know, it has a triangular shape.”
That said, you don’t have to join doTerra’s ‘triangular’ MLM scheme to buy their products. You can buy them directly from their website or from a doTerra Wellness Advocate albeit at a higher price.
Another key issue with doTerra is that their products are consistently more expensive than other Essential Oil distributors and are not necessarily of a higher quality.
Here’s an example of the price difference between doTerra and other brands taken from this article:
“You can pay ~$68 for 1.5 ounces (45ml) of DoTERRA lavender oil or spend the same amount for 16 ounces of NOW Lavender Oil. The NOW Lavender product is extremely well-reviewed showing that it is quality product and not a cheap knock-off. Your money goes more than 10x further with the non-MLM/pyramid scheme version.”
Does the quality of doTerra’s products justify their price tag? Proponents of doTerra products claim that the oils are of a high quality because they are Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade (CPTG) and FDA approved. However, that official-sounding phrase Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade is nothing more a marketing slogan: It’s a commercial trademark that doTerra owns and pays for.
There is no official external body ‘doing’ the certifying to award the CPTG grade and it’s not FDA approved. This article provides an in-depth look at the CPTG issue.
In this article, a former doTerra Wellness Advocate speculates that doTerra’s products are so expensive because of the money spent on marketing and “fanfare”. She says,
“Look, I don’t mind paying for quality. I’ll gladly reach deeper into my pockets for products that support my values (fair wages for workers, earth-friendly practices, etc). I’ve written before about how I’m willing to pay a premium for organic, local foods, for example. And doTerra does sell really excellent products, I won’t deny that.
However, I just felt like doTerra seemed to be spending too much on marketing. Too much was spent on rewarding top sellers, on fancy galas and conventions, on luring in new distributors, etc.”
She has since found another source of high-quality Essential Oils that are 40 – 60% cheaper than the doTerra products.
So, given all that I’ve learnt about the ‘dark side’ of Essential Oils—the health risks, the dodgy business dealings, false claims and environmental costs—would I still use them?
The answer, for me, is “Yes, but carefully, and probably not from a company with a multi-level marketing scheme.”
I’ve never been particularly careful with my use of Essential Oils. I didn’t know that I needed to be.
I have been known to apply undiluted Essential Oils directly to my skin and was once accidentally doused in eucalyptus oil by my half-asleep boyfriend. I didn’t think it was a big deal. I didn’t even get out of bed to wash it off.
Now I know how incredibly potent Essential Oils are, I don’t think I’d be quite so zen about soaking for hours in something potentially toxic to my body…
Happily, there are alternatives to Essential Oils, and they may be kinder to both our bodies and our environment.
Rather than opting for the quick-fix that Essential Oils offer we can make use of more subtle therapies: Hydrosols (the aromatic water that remains after the steam-distilling or hydro-distilling of botanical material), infused herbal oils and surrounding ourselves with living plants are three herbalist-endorsed options that require more patience, but that may have safer and more profound results.
As Yoga teacher Rachel Pearson puts it,
“Essential Oils are so so potent. But accessing their absolute distillation is not our only option.
Regular consumption of lesser quantities of the whole plant as whole herbal infusions are as effective.
Surrounding our homes inside and out, in the living vibration of these coveted plants is as effective.
Cultivating a connected, reciprocal relationship as brothers and sisters and as guardians of the plant kingdom has long-standing efficacy and outcomes, generations deep.”
Might not be as sexy, immediate and accessible as an essential oil, but sure as hell sounds more real.
*According to doTerra, the average earnings of a Presidential Diamond are over a million dollars annually. (Figures from 2015 Opportunity and Earnings Disclosure Summary)