Essential Oils: One Weird Workshop

Susan Gould

Continuing education is part of most professional jobs. Having been a social worker for twenty years and an elementary education teacher for the past sixteen years, I have experienced ongoing training throughout my professional careers. However, nothing prepared me for the workshops my colleagues and I were required to attend this past winter. This continuing education day was billed as a “health day” and was different from any other of the professional workshops I have attended.

My colleagues and I were given many options to choose from, including courses on topics such as self-defense, cooking in healthy ways, mindfulness, and essential oils. Having been a skeptic my entire life, one of the courses I knew I had to sign up for was essential oils. I am constantly hearing about people who claim that essential oils have changed their lives, cured many ailments, and provided overall physical and mental happiness. I wanted to experience what all this buzz was about.

In conducting some research in the days before the workshop, I found that aromatherapy and essential oils can be defined as using plant life to improve well-being. These two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, and I found this a rather vague definition, so I decided to hold back the rest of my research until after the class.

Upon entering the classroom where the course was taking place, I couldn’t help but notice the softly lit diffuser in the back of the room. The instructor, “Anne,” identified this as an “immunity booster” combination of oils. She explained that she chose this due to the enormous number of germs found in schools during the winter months.

Anne introduced herself to the crowded all-woman class, explaining how she began her career as an aroma therapist by making lip balm and soap. She described how soaps sold commercially in stores contain bar detergent—which, apparently, is not a good thing—adding how all her soaps are vegan and contain essential oils. She went on to describe the many uses she found for essential oils, including anti-itch creams and teething remedies.

Anne also distributed a handout that included many more uses for her essential oils. The top eight claimed to help with ailments such as insomnia, pain, acne, migraines, depression, and nausea, to name a few—as well as help with cold and flu prevention.

In a Time magazine article (Heid 2016), Dr. Edzard Ernst, a former chair of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter in the U.K. (and a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer), said that he found no “convincing” evidence that aromatherapy does any good when it comes to calming hypertension, depression, anxiety, pain, and symptoms of dementia. “Aroma therapists claim that specific oils have specific health effects,” Ernst said. “This, in my view, is little more than wishful thinking.” Ernst has published two review studies that closely examined the health effects of aromatherapy (Ernst and Cooke 2000; Ernst et al. 2012).

Given my curious nature and my scientific aptitude to not accept things at face value, I began asking Anne questions—starting with scientific research and where to find it. Anne responded that she “didn’t know of any” and could not answer my question. Obviously sensing my immediate skepticism, she followed up by saying, “There are two sides to everything.”

Anne continued her presentation by discussing the various companies that sell essential oils, including how they are sold and what she prefers to buy and use. One of these companies is doTERRA. In an entry titled “The Controversy and Hypocrisy Surrounding Essential Oils,” blogger Jessie Reimers, who describes herself as a doTERRA “Wellness Advocate,” states:

It is about taking a proactive role in our health and that of our families. It’s about getting rid of toxic, endocrine disrupting, health damaging household chemicals and cosmetics, cleaning with something pure and natural, supporting ourselves on a physical, cellular, and emotional manner to assist the body in doing what it does best, maintaining homeostasis. … I think we all really need to calm down, look at the situation sensibly, and work together to have as many options as possible available to people. (Reimers 2015)

This sounds good at the outset but relates to another question that was asked in the workshop. A colleague of mine asked, “Why are people suspicious of these pure things but will buy medicines from the store?” I couldn’t help but respond to that question with “Because the medicines from the store have gone through scientific studies with results that have been replicated over and over again. This has not.” Sadly enough, there were no other responses either supporting or denying my answer, and the instructor continued with her presentation of the various concoctions she uses to treat a menu of ailments.

It was surprising to me that so many well-educated attendees seemed to accept the remedies at face value; many even bought numerous products at the end of the session. Several people chimed in with anecdotal evidence about their own positive experiences using essential oils.

What came to my mind while listening to these comments is well-stated in the Time magazine article: “If you believe sniffing rosemary or eucalyptus is going to perk you up or mellow you out, your expectations can result in placebo benefits that stem from your brain—not the plant essences you’re inhaling. These variables are common in aromatherapy studies.”

Going back to my initial definition of aromatherapy, I found much of the advice given about its uses as vague as its definition. My presenter continuously made comments such as: “It could work one day and not work the next day.” “It’s all individual.” “It depends what you’re using them for.” “As an individual, you have to know what works best for you.” “Not everyone is a believer.” And my favorite, quoted by both my presenter and Jessie Reimers, the wellness advocate: “… never claim to cure, diagnose, treat, or prevent any specific condition.” Then why was I sitting here for two hours listening to a presentation about the uses of essential oils suggesting that they cure, diagnose, treat, or prevent specific conditions?

Although I found the presentation quite entertaining, there appeared to be absolutely no solid scientific evidence for spending money and using these products. I guess it’s hard to resist when you are told that you are “investing in your health.” I would rather save my money and wait until actual useful evidence is found. To quote the Time magazine article, “… it’s safe to say the science on aromatherapy’s health perks is, at best, inconclusive.”