Diffusion of misinformation about essential oils potentially dangerous

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MADELINE MONROE / THE FLAT HAT

Recently, the College of William and Mary’s McLeod Tyler Wellness Center offered a class on essential oils. If you haven’t heard of them before, essential oils are concentrated aromatic compounds from plants, which are often used as a form of aromatherapy. I went into the class with an open mind, but I have some major concerns that I just can’t shake.

Simply put, the claims surrounding essential oils are out of control. Research supports the use of essential oils in managing anxiety, and if the claims stopped there, it would be perfectly fine. However, the claims regarding essential oils’ potential do not stop there nor anywhere in the ballpark. In fact, if you believed what some people said online about essential oils, you’d think they were a panacea. Naturopaths attribute all sorts of properties to essential oils, everything from preventing the flu to treating chronic illnesses such as cystic fibrosis. They say that a few drops of peppermint oil can bring down a fever, that frankincense oil can reduce cancerous inflammation or that orange oil can prevent arthritis. None of these statements are even remotely true.

Unfortunately, these claims reared their ugly heads in the class at the Wellness Center. The presentation largely focused on oils made by doTerra, a multi-level marketing company that produces essential oils and oil blends. Leaving their predatory business model aside, doTerra often makes outrageous claims about their overpriced oils. In 2014, the Food and Drug Administration issued doTerra a formal reprimand, citing overblown claims about the efficacy of their products. They now sell over 150 products, only a few of which were on display during the class.

Although the presentation started off with the aromatic properties of essential oils, we quickly transitioned to their topical and internal uses. Or that a mix of oils  taken in a veggie capsule can prevent flu symptoms? Who knew that peppermint oil on the bottoms of the feet regulates fever? Certainly science didn’t know, because none of these claims are substantiated. Even on doTerra’s website, the properties of their oils come with a heavy asterisk saying that none of the claims they make are supported by the FDA. During the class, the presenter promoted one of doTerra’s proprietary oil blends, called “OnGuard.” DoTerra’s description of this blend, heaving with dotted with asterisks, touts it as “immune-boosting” and “cleansing.” They say to take it in pill form for an immune boost. I say, maybe consider taking actual medicine instead.

This is not to disparage the people who attended the essential oils workshop. There are legitimate uses for essential oils, and I hope that everyone who attended the workshop with me has found these oils to be helpful in one way or another. However, I am deeply uncomfortable with this oily gray area: the area in which claims are not quite true, not quite untrue and profoundly misleading. Maybe some people will stick to the aromatic properties of these oils or use them in conjunction with modern medicine. Unfortunately, it is inevitable that someone will take these claims to the extreme, using essential oils to replace legitimate medicine. When we allow pseudoscience to flourish and  faulty claims to remain unchecked, we are partially responsible for these harmful consequences.

Frankly, the Wellness Center can do better. Through this class, they are promoting the lie that a $45 bottle of oil can make all of your illnesses disappear. They are encouraging students to buy oils from a predatory multi-level marketing company, one that  faced legal trouble in the past. They are furthering the dangerous idea that you can replace modern medicine with plant oils and face no further consequences. This needs to stop.

So, the next time you put oils in your diffuser, pause and think. Are you doing it because you like the smell, or because you expect grand health benefits, most of which are not at all supported by the scientific community? In essence, whenever you use essential oils, take them with a grain of salt.

Email Claire Hogan at

cahogan@email.wm.edu.aroma