The essential facts about essential oils

Reviewed by our expert panel
The essential facts about essential oils

Niki Bezzant finds that the latest health craze doesn’t smell so sweet.

Social media feeds in the past year or so have become more fragrant.

Have you noticed?

More and more people – typically women, and often women with kids at home are getting into essential oils; using, recommending and selling them.

You’ll see lots of social media content about oils for diffusing in burners in the home, for making your own cleaning and household products, and for using in recipes for everything from baking to raw treats and smoothies.

The oils are the latest in a long line of products sold by multi-level marketing (MLM) companies. You might recall the supplement company, Herbalife, which was all the rage a while back.

There are make-up companies such as Avon and Arbonne, and long-established outfits such as Tupperware. And now there are multi-level companies promoting oils, such as doTERRA.

The way these companies work is by recruiting people who want to make part-time income as their sales force.

It’s a model that appeals to stay-at-home mums; they can work flexible hours in between their home commitments.

There’s a problem here, though. Well, several problems, particularly when it comes to these essential oils – that have experts sounding warnings.

The first is that the oils sales people are, in practice, making recommendations about using essential oils therapeutically. But few of these sales people are health professionals or trained in the proper use of oils as therapy. Lay people giving health advice are, of course, all over social media – but it’s a recipe for potential disaster.

This has many trained aromatherapists, as well as medical professionals, really concerned.

Essential oils are highly concentrated extracts of the plants from which they’re derived. One drop of oil is far stronger than a leaf of that plant. Contrary to what some claim, using cinnamon oil, say, is not the same as sprinkling ground cinnamon on your food.

Of particular concern for aromatherapists are the constant recommendations from MLM oil sellers to use essential oils internally. Oil sellers will often suggest drinking a few drops in water, for example, or putting oils into baking as flavourings.

While professional aromatherapists do sometimes prescribe oils to be taken internally, this is usually for very specific reasons – the treatment of illness, for example – and for very limited periods of time. Internal use of multiple oils on a regular basis is not recommended by anyone – except the essential oil MLM companies. And professional aromatherapists would very rarely recommend kids be given oils internally.

Furthermore, neurologist Gareth Parry recently warned that burning essential oils in diffusers can cause seizures in children with epilepsy.

Professor Parry’s comments were in response to an Auckland school being challenged by parents for using oil diffusers in its classrooms. He warns eucalyptus oil and rosemary oil are two of 11 essential oils that could cause seizures. While the school probably thought it was doing a good or, at least, benign thing for its pupils by using aromatherapy, it looks like a case of a little information being a dangerous thing.

Poisons centres around the world are increasingly warning against the inappropriate use of essential oils, including over-use, undiluted use, and ingestion. In Western Australia, there has been a recorded increase in poisonings as a result of essential oil ingestion in children. The Department of Health there warns: “Essential oils are not safe to consume and can cause significant poisoning even if small amounts are ingested.”

The bottom line here appears to be: essential oils are not food. They smell lovely but keep them out of the kitchen, and be wary of using multiple oils in multiple ways (a kind of ‘layering’ of oils all over the house) unless you have proper advice from a trained professional.

First published: Jun 2019

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