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Essential Oils, The FDA and What You Need to Know


One of the biggest recent trends in natural health is the use of essential oils. Maybe you’ve heard about using essential oils for aromatherapy, massage oils, in beauty products like shampoo, even to help flavor certain foods.

But many people have more questions than answers. There are critics who say using essential oils for health is nothing but pseudoscience – like snake oil being peddled by a traveling salesman. Others are concerned about the safety of essential oil products – especially since they are “not regulated by the FDA.”

Perhaps you heard the news this year about the FDA targeting popular distributors of essential oils for making certain claims about diseases the products could treat or prevent.

Let’s clear some things up about essential oils so that you have a better understanding of what they are, how they work and whether or not you should use them in your home.

What Are Essential Oils?

To put it simply, essential oils are a concentrated liquid containing the aroma compounds of certain types of plants. You may hear essential oils referred to as the “Oil of [Fill in the Blank]” – like oil of peppermint, oil of clove, oil of oregano etc.

Essential oils are not literally essential to your health in the way essential vitamins and minerals are. In fact, essential oils aren’t exactly oils either – meaning they usually do not contain fatty acids or lipids like typical oils. Rather, the liquid botanical extract often gets added to a carrier oil, which can be applied to the skin or diffused into the air of a room.

The so-called “plant’s essence” is usually extracted through distillation. Raw plant material is heated over water. Then the steam is captured and the vapor condensed into liquid again. Other essential oils, such as citrus peel based varieties, are mechanically cold-pressed – similar to the way olive oil is extracted. Some flower-based essential oils need to be extracted using a chemical solvent like carbon dioxide, hexane and ethyl alcohol.

Why Some Companies Caused Controversy

doterra-youngliving-logosLike supplements, essential oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. This means that essential oil products do not need to gain FDA approval before they are brought to the market and sold to consumers.

However, this certainly does not mean that the FDA has no power over makers and distributors of essential oil. The FDA still works to enforce guidelines and restrictions concerning how essential oil products are marketed – specifically the health claims made in connection to the product. In general – no natural health product marketing can say it is intended to treat, prevent, cure or mitigate any disease or other health condition – even when there is scientific research to back up the validity of the claims.

  • Find out more about How Supplements are Regulated

When the FDA feels that a company is making unfounded claims about a certain natural product, it will often send out warning letters. That’s what happened in mid-2014 to a couple of popular essential oil manufacturers.

You may have heard of the companies doTERRA and  Young Living. They both sell essential oil and aromatherapy products to consumers through independent consultants. It’s similar to multi-level marketing programs like Mary Kay, Pure Romance or Tupperware. You’ll have a friend or relative who sells to people they know – usually as a side-job to generate income while also getting discounts on the products.

The independent consultants are what got doTERRA and Young Living into hot water. Both companies received warning letters indicating that consultants or distributors were making claims about using essential oils to help fight or prevent the Ebola virus. Yep – you read that correctly…Ebola!

It does not seem that the companies themselves ever made the claim. However, some consultants were writing about essential oils and Ebola on their own websites and social media accounts.

Those consultants probably made the somewhat logical conclusion that if many essential oils have anti-viral properties, then perhaps they could target the Ebola virus. True or false? It doesn’t matter. There is absolutely no evidence of any known cure for Ebola. Making claims like that – especially during a time when there are global fears about the virus -  is pretty sensational and irresponsible. In this case, the warning letters were probably deserved.

Do Essential Oils Work?

Rosemary-essential-oilNatural health product makers may not be able to tell you that essential oils are “effective.” However, that doesn’t mean these botanicals don’t provide you with any health benefits.

Civilizations throughout history have used aromatherapy and essential oils. That includes the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, as well as in Chinese and Ayurvedic practices.

If you really want proof that essential oils can work – just look at modern-day products already on store shelves. Of course, major beauty brands like Olay, Herbal Essence and Paul Mitchell, use essential oils to benefit your hair and skin. Citronella oil is used in many types of common insect repellents. But what about real health problems?

Ever hear of Vick’s Vapor Rub? The stuff you rub on your chest or diffuse in the air when you are dealing with respiratory issues contains oil of eucalyptus, camphor oil, nutmeg oil and cedar oil – all essential oils. People also use Vick’s for muscle pain – and there are even people who say it has helped with toenail fungus, hemorrhoids and skin problems like rosacea. That is likely because of anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory properties in the essential oils.

Besides over the counter medicines, at least one major drug company uses an essential oil ingredient as an important part of a well-known, FDA-approved flu treatment.

You’ve no doubt heard of Tamiflu – aka oseltamivir. It made news headlines several years ago during concerns about avian flu, swine flu and SARS. It is still often described as the world’s best defense against a possible pandemic. The United States alone has invested more than $1.3 billion stockpiling Tamiflu.

Switzerland-based pharmaceutical manufacturer Roche is responsible for making Tamiflu. Roche uses an essential oil of the plant star anise to obtain shikimic acid or shikimate – an important ingredient in Tamiflu. The drug-maker used so much of it, in 2005 there was a temporary world-wide shortage of star anise.

Roche has been very secretive about the process it uses to make Tamiflu. Governments around the world were calling for the company to release it’s patent (which will expire in 2016), but they did not. Forget the fact that we could be facing a pandemic, right? It’s all about the almighty dollar – or Euro as the case may be.

On the other hand, while it may contain a plant-derived ingredient – most natural health advocates will tell you about the potentially dangerous chemical ingredients in Tamiflu. That goes for many other mainstream products as well. They may contain some natural ingredients like essential oils, but what else is going on and in your body?

While there are conflicting studies about its effectiveness, this is what the FDA says about Tamiflu…

“Tamiflu is also approved for the prevention of influenza in adults and children aged one year and older.”

So the FDA will approve a pharmaceutical made with essential oils – even though clinical studies throw plenty of doubt on Tamiflu’s actual ability to do anything to fight or prevent influenza. (Roche disputes the findings of these studies)

Yet despite clinical research on certain essential oils, any claims about them helping to prevent or treat a problem are not allowed. For instance, some studies show tea tree oil is “as effective” at fighting the so-called superbug MRSA when compared to typical antimicrobial treatments. Plus, tea tree oil appears to be “more effective” at clearing staph infections in the skin.

But try mentioning that when you want to highlight the benefits of tea tree oil products and see what the FDA thinks. Technically, you aren’t even allowed to use the word “effective.”

Are Essential Oils Safe for Your Family?

mom-and-babyIn most cases, you should not have to worry about the safety of essential oils – as long as you are following recommendations for use.

However, it is important to remember that natural does not always mean safe.

For instance, quite a few types of essential oils should not be used in or around children – especially those under 2 years old. That includes one of the more popular essential oils – Tea Tree Oil – which should not be used on a young child’s skin. Find out more and get a list in an article from LearningAboutEOS.com.

Dosages, how much you dilute the essential oil, and the way you use the product, are all important considerations. You can find out more about Essential Oil Safety from the University of Minnesota.

Different oils have different uses, as well as potential side effects. Many essential oils are only meant to be applied topically, and only some are food-grade and can be ingested. Some can benefit your skin, while others may cause skin irritation.

Plants are powerful. In fact, according to the book, Botanical Medicine in Clinical Practice, what we might now call “alternative medicine” has contributed to 40% of all pharmaceuticals used in Western medicine.

Plants are medicine. It’s just that the FDA prohibits natural-health-promoting companies from describing them that way. Misuse or abuse of products like essential oils could certainly have health consequences.

You need to do your own research and make your own decisions. It’s important to keep in mind that these oils can have different results for different people. That’s because we all have different bodies with different needs, complications, sensitivities or allergies. The active ingredients in certain supplements and essential oil products could also interact with other medications you are taking.

For those reasons, it’s always wise to discuss anything you are taking for health reasons with a healthcare practitioner that you trust, like your doctor or a licensed nutritionist. Find someone with the knowledge you need and ask a lot of questions.

That doTERRA or Young Living representative who lives in your neighborhood may not have all the answers. And despite their best intentions and whatever training they’ve had, it’s possible they could give you incorrect information. It all depends on the individual.

There’s no doubt that essential oils can provide value and positively benefit your health. The problem – as usual with natural health products – is that more research needs to be done to determine effectiveness and specific uses. When a supplement manufacturer sponsors the research, it is usually discredited. But if these plant-based treatments have been around for so many centuries, why haven’t we taken the time to test them more extensively?

Even a skeptic, like blogger and science professor Eric Hall at Skeptoid.com, admits that while he is frustrated by the lack of science-based evidence in the marketing and selling of essential oils, there are also obvious benefits:

“The anti-science bend to these essential oil pushers is disturbing. The claims made are bogus at best, and can be dangerous in many ways. The sad part is the oils do have some legitimate uses. They smell nice – so as a scent for a relaxing bath or just to provide a pleasing scent in the home is a nice treat. In concentrated forms, they can kill bacteria on surfaces and even repel bugs. The constituent ingredients have the possibility of being good pharmaceuticals. But none of that justifies the misapplication of science to the point of being dangerous.”

Essential Oils at Natural Healthy Concepts

Natural Healthy Concepts does offer a variety of essential oil products from trusted natural health brands. That includes food-grade essential oils from NOW Foods, Wyndemere Essential Oils, and aromatherapy products from Aromafloria – just to name a few.