The Science Behind Essential Oils – Man Versus Oils Investigates
Hey dudes, welcome back. Now, in the spirit of having an oily bro’s back, I have to warn you that this one is gonna be a bit wordy and long so if this is an area that tickles your man-fancy, keep reading. If not, I have put the highlights in the Conclusion at the bottom of the page.
This topic was triggered last week when I was in the departure lounge for a return long haul flight. The guy sitting beside me (let’s call him Steve) noticed me applying some essential oils to my wrists and neck. He turned up his nose and asked me what it was that I was rubbing onto my skin. I told him it that I suffer heavily from jet lag and that my little essential oils mix was aimed at alleviating that.
“Piffle” – He said (well words along those lines) before heading into a looooooonnnnngggg tirade into the science behind essential oils and how it has been proven that they are all a crock and that there is absolutely no empirical evidence that they actually work (I see the lopsided logic here but was not going to argue). He asked me how I knew my remedy was working. I honestly told him that I didn’t. I knew that whenever I felt the dreaded jet lag haze on my trip that I applied this and it seemed to alleviate it a little. “Could all be in your head”, he responded. I agreed, he could be right! I started telling him about this blog and he told me he would read it if I was honest about the research I did into the science and posted it onto my site. He insinuated that I probably wouldn’t as it might be detrimental to my attempts to sell the stuff…
Ah Steve… How little you know me…
Why do we use them?
In one of my first blogs on this site in regards to the creation and uses of essential oils, I outlined that oils are extracted from various plant and/or fruit/vegetable matter to form a volatile compound based on the elements of the source. People who choose to use Essential Oils use them for a number of reasons including:
- Chemical free living options
- Alternative medicines such as aromatherapy and mood adjusters – and for some, to treat far more serious ailments
- Food enhancers and flavours
Now, in the spirit of full mans-closure, I choose to sell Young Living Essential Oils with sales links located in most of my manly oil blogs. I have and do use them from a chemical free living and mood adjustment point of view. In my personal use, I have never hidden the fact that the jury is still out as some of their uses work, and some don’t… Much of which I have, or will be posting on this site – mainly via my mansperiments. I say this not to sway my findings rather I just wanted to be clear on my side of the fence to start with. My findings below are however written without bias.
What research is out there?
Thanks Steve! What a minefield. I have spent the better part of two days researching everything I can find about essential oils. There are thousands of pages dedicated to whether they work or not! These are not pages talking about diffuser recipes, benefits of this oil or that oil, the best oils to get into the Christmas spirit (oh, will have to do that one) or even how they kept fleas off a cat – yearp. There are pages specifically outlining whether they actually work. Now, rather than subject you all to my pain, I have decided to take the manly approach to reporting information – bullet points. This is a summary of my findings:
- There really is not a lot of real, hard evidence as to whether they really do work or not.
- Most pages are militantly for or against the benefits of oils depending on the opinion of the author.
- Sites such as PubMed do contain a lot of real scientific research. However, this research is generally undertaken utilising specific compounds with very long scientific names mixed in a petri-dish to determine whether they will kill another specific germ.
- Further to this point, there is not a lot of evidence of research on humans – this is due in part to this type of research is often tainted by whether the subject likes the odour of the particular oil being tested.
As I continued to wade through all of this however, I did manage to find some matter-of-fact information.
The manufacture and trade in Essential Oils are governed in the United States by the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and in Australia by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). If you live in a different country, try this search – governing body essential oils [country]. Again, there is a lot to read but here are the highlights:
- There are no essential oils products approved by the FDA as drugs because they haven’t met the agency’s standard for safety or effectiveness
- Under TGA legislation, Essential oils are not considered drugs and it is illegal to promote their use to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent an actual designated disease.
Proponents of Essential oils argue in a number of pages that I have read that Essential Oils have been used for centuries to do just that, treat and cure disease. However, both the FDA and TGA have outlined that until there is real hard evidence that this stuff works, then to the doctor we go!
The only real evidence I could find (which, I am told is currently being lobbied by the manufacturers to the FDA) is that Peppermint Essential Oils has been proven in some preliminary studies as a treatment for irritable bowel syndrome.
However, both the FDA and TGA have determined that the use of essential oils is generally safe for adult humans both in application topically (on the skin), via inhalation (diffusers) and ingestion (via the mouth). This is due to the fact that via these methods, the concentration levels are low and therefore not a real threat.
This is not to say that there are not risks. And as I have outlined previously, if you are allergic to citrus, I would probably avoid lemon essential oils. Same goes for those with sensitive skin. Both entities however state that essential oils should only be used with great care on children and that they should never be allowed to swallow them. They also state that essential oils should never be used on babies (of course I did find a number of sites with a very different opinion on this topic).
Warning letters to manufacturers
One of Steve’s issues with essential oils was actually not so much about the oils themselves, rather the language used by distributors in their marketing materials. In 2014, both Young Living and doTerra received letters from the FDA outlining evidence of improper suggestions, promotion and claims by their distributors in regards to the abilities of essential oils to prevent and cure disease.
It should be noted that both doTerra and Young Living (I picked on these two as they are the two major manufacturers of Essential Oils worldwide) have addressed these issues on their websites and continue to police such matters. Sadly, and in Steve’s defense, I still found a LOT of sites making outrageous claims about the abilities of essential oils to cure disease.
Again, I have found no scientific evidence to back these claims up so again, if you are sick, go the doctor!
As part of these compliance regulations, you will find many sites (mine included) will use vague and, at times wishy-washy wording such as soothing, cooling, relieving, calming, cleansing, beautifying, cleansing etc. This is designed to do two things:
- Outline more of what essential oils do actually supposedly do which is to provide some relief without actually curing anything
- Reduce the risk of illegal or unethical statements of actual medical interventions
Whether this is a valid means of describing the benefits of essential oils or not is totally up to you and your opinions and something that was debated at length in my research findings.
This is where it gets murky. Let me start by saying that I found absolutely no real evidence to suggest that the use of essential oils will adjust mood, calm you down, help you sleep, invigorate or even help you concentrate. On the other hand, I also found absolutely no evidence to say that they don’t. And therein lies the problem. My jet lag cure works for me – well I think it does anyway. Steve doesn’t. Has he tried it? No. Will he? I would say not as there is no proof that he should spend his hard-earned on something that may not work (this goes against the mantra of being a man I think but that is an argument for another day).
A dissection of the documentation I found on this subject seems to make this definitely a case of believers believing and non-believers not. If you want them to work, they will, if not then not. A friend of mine swears that if her kids are playing up that a drop of lavender oil applied directly to the crown of their heads will calm them down almost immediately. I could not find a single page outlining this as even a use. Does this mean it works? Science says no. She says yes.
Clear as mud? Thought so… Sorry….
And now we come to the next contentious and most violently debated issue I found – the consumption of essential oils. In their defense, most who do it do so simply as a flavour enhancer. The web is choc full of recipes where a couple of drops of basil and thyme essential oils will add new flavour dimensions to your favourite Italian dish. Sounds fair… and if I was being skeptical I would ask why you don’t just add real basil and thyme to the dish, but that’s just me (and Steve).
The other side of the fence – the eating oils is bad side – lists a whole lot of risks inherent with consuming essential oils. Interestingly, it was almost like reading the opposite to what the FDA etc. are fighting in the invalid promotion of the benefits of oils. Some sites stated with ferocity that the consumption of essential oils will cause all sorts of diseases – the same ones that others claim to cure.
Both the FDA and TGA have stated in their documentation that the ingestion of essential oils, as with other applications is generally safe due to the small amounts administered. Again, if you are allergic to the plant, it is probably not a good idea to swallow the oil.
Essential oils as a flavour enhancer
One interesting fact I did find is the increased use of essential oils in the food industry as a natural flavour enhancer. This appears to be on the rise due to the banning of other chemical based enhancers (which are totally banned in Australia and New Zealand). Other reasoning was due to the anti-fungal and preservative qualities of the oils – something that does have limited evidential proof.
Due to the cost of good essential oils, my own personal concern here centres on the quality of the oils being used however again, I have no evidence of this.
Hmmmm… just reread that… I will leave it up to you I guess as to whether I really provided any real information here. In the interests of providing the quick summary promised in the intro however, the following is what I found:
- There is no evidence to suggest that essential oils can diagnose, treat, prevent or cure disease and many countries have instilled legislation prohibiting their promotion as such.
- The FDA and TGA have found no evidence to suggest that essential oils are generally unsafe for use in any manner including ingestion – in small doses
- There is no evidence to suggest essential oils can or cannot assist with mood and/or emotional adjustment – there is very strong opinion on the validity of these types of claims however.
- Essential oils as a food flavour enhancer is a growing industry.
Basically, the jury is definitely still out but I will keep looking and post more as I find it. Sorry Steve.
Oh, and my jet lag mixture:
10 drops Cedarwood essential oil
10 drops Lavender essential oil
Add to a roller bottle and top up with grape seed oil.
Until next time
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