Updated: May 29
Essential oils have gained significant popularity in recent years, touted as natural remedies for various ailments and celebrated for their aromatic properties. Derived from plants, these concentrated "oils" are widely used in aromatherapy, personal care products, and even household cleaning solutions. They are volatile oils that are extracted from various parts of plants, such as flowers, leaves, stems, and roots. The extraction process involves steam distillation or cold pressing, which separates the oil from the plant material. However, despite their widespread use and positive reputation, it is crucial to understand that essential oils can also pose potential risks and toxicity concerns.
In this blog post, we will explore the reasons why essential oils can be toxic and the better alternative. The picture below is the reaction I experienced after putting just a few drops of an essential oil into my bathtub filled with water. After getting in my bath, I almost immediately broke out into a full body rash that was very itchy, red and lumpy and did not go away for hours. This is what pushed me to research essential oils more as I know my body wouldn't react this severely to something that is natural and 100% plant matter.
6 Reasons Why I Don't Use Essential Oils
1. Highly Concentrated Isolates
Did you know that the majority of the pharmaceutical industry is derived from plants? Yes, the 'medicine' we are so familiar with is largely based around plants but the problem is, these drugs are being created by taking only one small part of the plant, isolating it and concentrating it to a degree where it becomes toxic and no longer natural. Does this sound familiar? Well... essential oils are doing the exact same thing.
Willow Bark is an excellent example illustrating this concept. Willow Bark contains salicin, a compound that is converted to salicylic acid in the body and known for its pain-relieving properties. In fact, salicylic acid is the active ingredient found in aspirin. However, salicin can be harsh on the stomach when taken in isolation, which is why excessive use of aspirin can lead to gastrointestinal issues. Fortunately, the herb in its whole form possesses a natural demulcent quality. As a demulcent, it naturally forms a protective coating on the stomach lining upon entering the digestive tract. This coating serves as a safeguard, preventing salicylic acid from causing any irritation or harm to the delicate stomach lining. Therefore, by using Willow Bark instead of Aspirin, the potential stomach-related problems associated with salicylic acid can be avoided altogether.
Ultimately, essential oils and pharmaceutical drugs aren't that different. They both are billion dollar industries that are profiting off your illness, not your health. Theres an essential oil for every symptom just like there is a drug. There also is a long list of side effects and warning labels for both. Essential oils and pharmaceuticals do still possess medicinal properties BUT they change the way the plant affects us drastically. If we extracted and used the entire plant instead, we would have all the medicinal properties while minimizing the risk and side effects as everything is in its proper forms and quantities- just how nature made it! However, because essential oils are highly concentrated (to a toxic degree) and isolated from its plant counterparts, they can do damage to your bodies and create reactions like what I experienced above. It is basically impossible to dilute them back to the amounts that are naturally occurring in nature.
2. Cytotoxic & Phototoxic Properties
Essential oils can be cytotoxic due to their high concentration and chemical composition. Essential oils are highly concentrated extracts containing potent bioactive compounds. Using them can damage skin cells and even cause skin cell death. A study discovered that these compounds exhibited cytotoxic effects on human skin even at a concentration as low as 0.25%. This explains why many individuals, including myself, experience severe reactions to essential oils. Essential oils contain various constituents like terpenes, phenols, aldehydes, and ketones. Some of these compounds, such as phenols like thymol or eugenol, have cytotoxic properties. Furthermore, ingesting essential oils increases the risk of cytotoxicity. It is important to exercise caution and avoid consuming undiluted or excessive amounts, as it can lead to cell and organ damage. Essential oils can also be phototoxic to human skin meaning they break down your protective skin barrier which allows UVA/UVB light to penetrate the cells and may cause damage, aging and burns when exposed to sunlight.
3. They Aren't Oils
Essential oils are referred to as "oils" due to their oily consistency. However, it is important to note that essential oils are not true oils. Essential oils do not contain fatty acids. Instead, they are volatile organic compounds derived from plants. These compounds carry the characteristic aroma and properties of the plant they are extracted from. This means they do not contain any vitamins or minerals because those are either water soluble or fat soluble and essential oils do not contain water or fat. Therefore, all the vitamin, antioxidant and mineral contents of the plant are discarded during distillation so essential oils are missing out on a large portion of the plants medicinal properties. Hydrosols on the other hand are whole plant extracts meaning they contain the water soluble constituents from fresh plants so they have loads of nutrients.
4. Damaging To Our Microbiome & Hormones
Essential oils can disrupt your beneficial skin microbiome that maintains healthy skin. When applied topically, they kill both good and bad bacteria, compromising the skin's protective barrier and microbiome. This can lead to dysbiosis, infections and skin conditions like psoriasis, acne, rosacea, eczema etc. Your body can develop allergic reactions and extreme sensitivity due to long term essential oil use making them immunotoxic. The fragrant components of plants that contribute to the antimicrobial properties are extracted and used in higher concentrations compared to the whole plant. This lack of discrimination between good and bad bacteria can result in imbalances in the gut, the development of resistant bacteria, and damage to gut cells. Not only have essential oils been linked to skin and gut microbiome disruption but also, endocrine disruption. Certain essential oils, such as lavender and tea tree, may have estrogenic and anti-androgenic effects due to their volatile compounds. Whole herbal extracts can have a beneficial effect on your hormones but when you are isolating certain components of the plant and highly concentrating them, they can create unwanted hormone imbalances.
5. They Aren't Good For The Planet
For every drop of essential oil, there is an INSANE amount of plant matter being thrown away and sadly a lot of the medicinal parts of the plant is what is getting discarded. That’s the part I really don’t like! Why do we always have to mess with nature? We would be way healthier as a society if we learned how to be in sync with nature! Essential oils require a sh*t ton of water, resources and farming to extract from a plant (more than just utilizing the whole plant) which obviously is not good for the environment. I’m no sustainability expert but this doesn’t make any sense given the fact that you are basically just extracting the fragrance of the plant, concentrating it to a degree that is toxic to humans, selling it to make a profit but then leaving most of the medicinal properties of the plant to go to waste? Let’s just use whole plant extracts like hydrosols instead.
6. Manipulative Marketing
The essential oil industry is very sneaky with their marketing and they are able to get away with a lot because it is an unregulated industry. For example, many essential oil companies use the statement, “certified pure therapeutic grade” but this is simply a trade mark phrase, its not actually a certification. If there was an available certification for pure therapeutic grade, any company could pursue it. However, the phrase "certified pure therapeutic grade" is actually a trademark owned by Doterra. They paid for exclusive rights to use it, preventing other brands from making the same claim. It's important to note that Doterra's certification is self-assigned through their own company called CPTG. While they claim third-party testing on every batch of essential oils, the specific company conducting these tests is the Aromatic Plant Research Center. The head scientist at this research centre is Anjanette DeCarlo, who has a work history with Doterra. This highlights the fact that a large and influential company like Doterra has the resources and influence to shape consumer perception in a way that appears reliable and trustworthy but is not.
In addition, every plant extract is assigned an INCI name, which serves as a unique identifier for its ingredients. However, companies are not legally required to disclose the specific preservatives used in their extracts. This means companies can get away with not listing all the ingredients in their formulas on the product label, they only have to include the INCI name. Manufacturing is often outsourced to China on a large scale, and product owners have limited control over the sourcing of ingredients. Manufacturing plants have contracts with various ingredient suppliers that offer wholesale discounts. The main concerns in this process are purity, undisclosed ingredients, diluted extracts, and potential contamination with industrial toxins.
After having a bad reaction to essential oils and intensely researching the toxicity of them, I personally try to avoid them as much as possible. This can be very hard as they have dominated the holistic health space and are in almost every skin/body care product and a lot of supplements. My best recommendation is to always check the ingredients (medicinal and non-medicinal) and look for terms like 'extract' or 'resin' as those encompass the whole plant. You can also make most personal care products yourself out of regular kitchen ingredients. I know not everyone is up for this but it tends to make the holistic lifestyle significantly cheaper and you can find loads of easy DIY recipes online. To some peoples surprise, I don't recommend diffusing essential oils in your environment either. Although diffusing essential oils is better for you than those fragrance wall plug ins, they can still be quite damaging to your health because they pollute the air with harmful VOCs. Not to mention, your nasal and oral pathways are the frontlines of your immune system and have their own microbiome to protect you from pathogens. By breathing in essential oils, you are exposing those pathways to strong anti microbial and risk pathogens making heir way further into the respiratory and digestive tract risking serious illness. Just diffuse hydrosols instead!