Essential oils (but are they, really?)

An introduction to essential oils

This review of essential oils won’t go into much detail but might help establish a basic familiarity with the topic. I’ll provide background and guidance regarding essential oils. I’ll also include a little bit about the doTERRA company. Key questions answered here are:

  • What are essential oils as they relate to health?
  • Should I use essential oils, and how?
  • What’s important to know about the company doTERRA?

What are essential oils as they relate to health?

In simple terms, an “essential oil” is a liquid taken out of a plant that smells like the plant it’s from. The word “essential” is used because the oil has the essence of the plant. For example, “lemon essential oil” carries the fragrant chemicals that give lemons their main scents. Various methods are used to get the oil out of the plant, but most commonly the oils used for health today are distilled or pressed. Essential oils can be used in food, soaps, and makeups, and–as I’m covering today–as health remedies.

Should essential oils be used for health? How?

It depends. “Should” is a funny word when it comes to health. What a person “should” or “shouldn’t” do depends on what his or her purpose is. One purpose may be to smell nice. For this article, let’s instead assume our purpose is to improve our own health and that of loved ones by introducing them to essential oils. Therefore, we need to answer certain questions before claiming essential oils “should” be used. Here are those questions and my answers to each one:

Can essential oils promote health? Possibly; well, probably they “can”, technically. Keep reading.

If so, would different oils provide different benefits? Almost certainly (assuming any oils provide benefits)! It’s also almost certainly true that different claims have all sorts of levels of evidence to support them. In other words, the claim that lavender oil reduces stress may have great evidence for it, but the claim that Frankincense supports “healthy cellular function” (?!?!) might be less-supported by research. So, I recommend you stick to the claims made by the company you’re using. You might as well trust the company you’re willing to give money to, because the only reasonable alternative I’ve seen would be to only trust companies that have earned FDA approval for their health claims. And if you’re into the whole FDA approval thing, you’re not going to find it anywhere near this area of heath products.

What’s in essential oils that makes them “work”? Simply put: certain chemicals from plants can have certain effects on bacteria, viruses, fungi, or human cells when they contact them. This is where things get tricky for achieving our purpose. “Contact” is important to note because some of the health benefits we’re trying to achieve might not happen if the chemicals don’t get where we want them to go, or they change inside our body on the way there. Remember “there” is wherever they come into contact with the cell they need to effect. This leads to the next question…

Does it matter how I use essential oils? Most definitely! I can think of at least two factors that could determine how effective your use of the oil would be, if there are any possible benefits at all:

  • Dose (how much of the active chemical are you getting into your body, not just how much of the bottled liquid are you swallowing?)
  • Delivery method (breathing, consuming, or rubbing on skin)

We must make sure that the dose and delivery are both correct before we claim there’s a benefit.

Let’s take an example. The nasty bacteria E. coli really hates a certain chemical in oregano oil. When they contact each other in a petri dish, the E. coli doesn’t grow well. Now assume we have E. coli in our intestines, and we’re considering using oregano oil to treat it. Three questions come to mind if I want to figure out the right dose:

  1. How much oil do we need to use to get enough of the active chemical to touch the E. Coli (that’s where we need it)?
  2. What if we have “a lot” of E. coli—do we need to take a “lot of” essential oil?
  3. What’s the potency of the oil we bought, since it can vary depending on how it was extracted, shipped, and stored? 

Then, regarding method, the biggest question I have is, what if the helpful chemical from oregano oil doesn’t even reach our intestines when we use the essential oil? If we breath it, maybe it’s absorbed into the blood and broken down before it reaches wherever the E. coli is. If we drink it, maybe the stomach acid breaks it down. If we rub it into our skin, maybe it doesn’t get absorbed at all, goes rancid due to oxidation, and causes inflammation.

The key here is to avoid assuming an essential oil behaves the same inside our body as it does in a laboratory petri dish. Even if oils are shown to be active when applied one way, their activity likely changes depending on the way we use them. Lavender oil might only relieve stress when inhaling it, which gives it direct access to our brain. Rubbing it on our forehead would require an entirely different pathway to get the job done.

You can see how many unanswered very important questions exist. So the decision is ours whether to ignore those questions and hope it works, or to invest our time and money into other ways to improve health.

Do essential oils benefit everyone? Almost certainly not everyone equally. What this question really asks is, “do my genetics, epigenetics, and health status matter?” That’s too in-depth to cover well here, I’m nowhere near qualified to cover it, and it doesn’t really matter if you try an oil and it simply seems to work.

Are there any situations in which they wouldn’t work or would cause harm? Yes, but from what I’ve seen the symptoms appear soon and mildly enough to warn you to stop using them before things get bad. Keep in mind that, especially with the “stress relief” oils, there can be a placebo effect. Thus, if you feel less stressed while using oil, but you experience itching, redness, or other irritation-like symptoms it is probably a good idea to seek other stress-reduction methods.

Even if they work for me, is there an easier/cheaper/better way to achieve my purpose? I thought about putting this question at the beginning, but I thought it would reduce the benefit from thinking through the other questions. Again, our purpose here is to improve our own health and the health of our loved ones. With that in mind, while I’d love to evangelize for essential oils like their fans do, I have to say that I am definitely aware of easier, cheaper, and more effective ways to achieve the same health claims. I don’t know what your health situation is, but I do know that our loved ones have much more impactful changes they could make to get the benefits expected from inhaling essential oils. Your doctor probably has some ideas for you, too. Speak with them, read other posts on this site, comment or reach out if you want to discuss what I would recommend ahead of spending time and money on essential oils.

Still, that’s not to say essential oils have no place in adopting new healthy habits. I would actually support their use if you enjoy them, if you have the budget for them, and if only reputable brands are purchased and are used as suggested by the manufacturers. Don’t rub lemon oil on your skin if the bottle says to only diffuse it, and limit your usage to the recommended dose.

What’s important to know about doTERRA?

  1. They operate as a “multi-level marketing” company. There are reasonable concerns with this type of structure, but mainly it just means you need to be on-guard and skeptical to avoid falling into common marketing traps, specifically the fact that it’s your friend/family who’s selling to you (they wouldn’t lead you astray…right?). It doesn’t necessarily mean anything bad about the products themselves, though.
  2. The company has been warned by the FDA about claims made by its products. The FDA also warned the company Young Living, which was the company that doTERRA founders came from. While the “corporate” leaders might not be directly responsible, it’s an example of why we should be skeptical of the “Wellness Advocates” who do the in-person selling of their products. Honest, diligent salespeople have no issue with skepticism. Why would they?
  3. They created the term “Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade (CPTG)”. CPTG is, therefore, simply a word the company created to convey quality, and does not indicate any official, third party quality standard, nor certification that has been met and tested beyond the company. It’s a trademark, like McDonalds’s “I’m loving it” slogan and BMW’s “ultimate driving machine”.
  4. Regarding price, a company called “NOW” and other companies seem to offer equally high-quality products for much cheaper. And as of 2017, some of them like NOW are more reputable than is doTERRA.