After advertisements for products I would never consider and the full spectrum of opinion on police tactics, one of the most frequent features of my news feed the past few months has been essential oils and Facebook Friends attesting to their power.
I set out to determine if essential oil claims were backed by the gold standard of research: A double blind reproducible study proving effectiveness. A friend of a friend suggested one site, which had a lot of information, though it was about the process of extraction, the chemistry, and the history, not the research I was looking for.
I later found other sources that had some positive double blind study results for essential oils. But they were far fewer and far narrower in scope than what would be needed to justify the industry’s claims.
On the recommended site, armoaticscience.com, there were some pseudomedicine red flags. Featured prominently is the appeal to irrelevant ancient authority, specifically, “The use of plant-based therapies has been recorded as far back as 3000 BCE with the Egyptians.” Also noted was its use by Romans, Greeks, Indians, and Chinese. But none of this attests to the product’s effectiveness. A treatment is based on its efficiency, not its antiquity.
Another red flag came from conflicting ideas about the basics of the field, such as this sentence: “There are many opinions about how essential oils should most effectively and safely be used.” Science is continually questioning and challenging itself, but the primary knowledge, tactics, and techniques are accepted because they have been proven in repeated studies and experiments. Essential oil purveyors present their internal disagreement as a positive, pointing out that everyone’s body chemistry is different and won’t be impacted in the same way. This is taking a veracious idea and twisting it into a falsehood. Not every Hodgkin’s patient will respond to chemotherapy, and Tylenol might work better on my back pain than on my neighbor’s. But the Hodgkin’s patient will not be helped by Tylenol, nor my neighbor given chemotherapy for his aches. By contrast, jasmine might be used for aggravated sinuses by one essential oil user, for anxiety relief by another, and for arthritic flare-ups by a third. This is a strong sign that it’s useless for all these ailments, and any seeming successes are owed to the placebo effect, post hoc reasoning, and the tendency of symptoms to fluctuate. This will be compounded by communal reinforcement and selective memory.
A third red flag is the trumpeting that the field is almost there: “Scientific publication on essential oils is accelerating as researchers continue to study both individual aromatic constituents and whole essential oils.” This is preferable to the purveyors of tachyon treatments or the Joy Touch, who just make stuff up, but it’s still different from having data on your side. Again to its credit, the site acknowledges this by noting that “Finding accurate, validated, and applicable scientific literature pertaining to essential oils can be a major challenge.”
I accepted this challenge and did unearth some double blind studies that suggested the effectiveness of some oils for specific conditions. Peppermint oil seems to be good for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, eucalyptus helps with Rhino-sinusitis, and copaiba does the same with acne. Could have used me some of that when I was 14.
Another potential validation for essential oils came in Iran. Guess the country has given us more than the Iron Sheik and apostate beheadings. In a study, 47 migraine sufferers were divided into a test group and a control group. When a migraine struck, patients were instructed to record its severity in 30-mintue intervals for two hours. 92 of the 129 headaches that were treated with lavender met with significant relief. In the control group, 32 of 68 headaches were lessened after taking a placebo. This means 40 percent better results were achieved with lavender over a placebo.
Assuming this study was conducted with proper prescribed protocols, this is strong evidence that lavender works. If this study is repeated 50 times, with 43 of them reaching the same result as in Iran, this would be metadata double blind study evidence, and I will champion lavender’s effectiveness in migraine mitigation. I am a skeptic, not a cynic or hardheaded mule. My view of a very limited number of essential oil products has altered upon investigation. What has not changed is my view of claims lacking scientific backing.
Essential oil purveyors should not be promising health benefits that are not supported by empirical evidence. It is wrong to tell someone their sore throat will be made better by rosemary if it won’t be. And it is highly unethical and criminal to sell someone myrtle with the promise that it will take care of their Parkinson’s. Marketers of Young Living Essential Oils have made such claims, even saying their products would cure cancer, PTSD, and Ebola, before the FDA put a stop to it.
While aromatherapy seems to have some benefits, the field remains rife with nonsense and shady marketers. They give undue relevance to oils’ use among ancient cultures and to the scores of anecdotes they have to cull from. Young Living boasts that its products reside “at the intersection of cutting edge research and traditional wisdom.” Put another way, they are a hybrid of stuff not yet proven and stuff that may have never worked, but is touted because of its antiquity.
With regard to modern research, most claims by essential oil marketers are vague and focus on an oil’s potential, not its potency. They lack empirical data backing and credit an oil’s ability to assuage a wide variety of ailments, which is not how medicine works.
Moreover, pseudoscientific jargon such as “immune booster” and “restoring of the body’s natural energy balance” are seen in some advertisements. Another flaw is they will sometimes highlight in vitro results, which fail in vivo.
The most frequent defense I hear for essential oils is that, “They work for me.” But it is faulty thinking to assert that coriander cures a rash because a friend said it worked once. Or because 50 friends said it worked 50 times. The plural of anecdote is not data, and the relative lack of studies leaves the essential oil field resting on post hoc reasoning, such as, “I had a stuffy nose, used some sage, and ta da.” Peer-reviewed, replicated research and double blind studies are needed to eliminate bias, pet beliefs, the regressive fallacy, and selective memory.
Another common justification is that there is nothing to lose, except for maybe money. This is also unsound thinking. I have nothing to lose by hopping on one leg to increase my thriftiness, but that doesn’t mean it will work.
Essential oils are not hogwash to the extent that astrology or telepathic communication with Inner Earth inhabitants is. There is at least one essential oil product, Vicks VapoRub, that is backed by empirical evidence, and the studies noted earlier, if replicated, would establish the field’s use for other maladies. Furthermore, the industry somewhat acknowledges its deficiencies, owning up to the scarcity of validating research.
However, the relatively few success stories are not keeping essential oil purveyors from claiming their products have the ability to cure and mitigate almost anything. Some of these supposed treatments could eventually be proven. If lavender does indeed zap migraines, someone using it 10 years ago would have gotten the same result then. Likewise, someone may get flu relief from basil oil, with this connection being verified by science 10 years from now.
But marketers should not attribute unproven abilities to their products. And essential oil users should not use them in lieu of traditional medicine and methods. If you want to slap on frankincense for that lump on your neck, lather away, but do so before heading to the doctor.