Beth Lofgren, PharmD, BCPS
Beth Lofgren, PharmD, BCPS
Beth Lofgren, PharmD, BCPS, received her PharmD degree from the University of Tennessee at Memphis in 1999, after completing a BS at the University of Tennessee at Martin. She started her pharmacy career in retail and has practiced in home health, long-term care, and hospital pharmacy. She has also been blogging as the Blonde Pharmacist since 2004, focusing on education for peers and provider status for pharmacists.

The Fine Line Between Essential Oils and Treating Disease

FEBRUARY 03, 2015
Aromatherapy products account for millions of dollars in yearly sales in the United States.

The website of 1 of the most popular aromatherapy companies, dōTERRA, states that, “For people who care about improving their health and that of their loved ones, we provide simple, safe, and empowering solutions that enhance well-being.”

"Be sure to use only 100% pure, therapeutic-grade essential oils and follow all label warnings and instructions," the company's website advises. "Essential oils should not be used in the eyes, inside the ear canal, or in open wounds. If redness or irritation occurs when using essential oils topically, apply any vegetable oil, such as fractionated coconut oil or olive oil, to the affected area. Consult your physician before using essential oils if you are pregnant or under a doctor's care.”

In other words, ask your doctor first, since the majority of individuals are under a physician’s care.
 
Last fall, the FDA sent a warning letter to reprimand these false claims made by Natural Solutions FoundationYoung Living, and dōTERRA International LLC. According to FDA regulations, neither dietary supplements nor essential oils are allowed to be marketed by the company that sells them in such a way that appears as though the products can prevent, cure, or treat any disease.

If a company does market in that manner, then the product is considered a drug by the FDA. If a product is a drug, then it must be approved by the FDA. So, any product that is marketed to cure, treat, or prevent a disease that is not FDA approved is considered an illegal, unapproved drug by the agency.

The FDA found that Young Living's essential oils were marketed for “viral infections (including Ebola), Parkinson’s disease, autism, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, insomnia, heart disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, and multiple sclerosis.” Meanwhile, dōTERRA consultants made claims that their therapeutic-grade oils could treat “viral infections (including Ebola), bacterial infections, cancer, brain injury, autism, endometriosis, Grave’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, tumor reduction, [and] ADD/ADHD.” Given these marketing claims, the FDA sent out the warning letters allowing the companies 15 days to rectify the illegal marketing and respond before facing any punishment.

Just last summer, a friend sent me a message on the topic through Facebook.

“Essential oils are plant extracts that are more potent than herbs," her message read. "If you’re looking for a natural way to deal with stuff, they’re a great option. My cousin had chronic headaches for 22 years, used peppermint oil, and now she’s not getting headaches anymore. We still go to the doctor when we need to, but if we can handle some things naturally at home, when we do need those antibiotics, then I figure we won’t be resistant because we haven’t used them 70 times on ear infections.

"I'm also attaching a link of a quick news clip for a study a local hospital's wellness committee did diffusing oils in their ER. 67 different hospitals and medical establishments are using essential oils now.

“Lavender naturally lowers cortisol. And it’s great for sleep and calming. It’s good for a lot of things. The citrus oils definitely help with stress. It’s a little tricky with this, because we definitely don’t want to seem like we’re making medical claims, but a lot of pharmaceutical drugs are derived from plants, so I guess it’s not that far-fetched that these oils have therapeutic properties!”

She also claimed that these oils treat ADHD.

One article described how “Another danger of lavender in particular is it can be harmful to skin. The dōTERRA website suggests rubbing some on the forehead to cure watery eyes from allergies. A quick search in PubMed tells me that this is a really bad idea. In vitro tests have shown that lavender oil is harmful to skin cells, with a proposed mechanism of membrane damage. If left exposed to air, lavender oil oxidizes, forming chemicals that are very irritating to the skin–with the study both identifying the oxidized components causing the irritation, as well as showing irritation on patches of skin on test patients.”

I know of another case where an ear infection was treated with essential oils and the child ended up with a more complicated infection that affected much more than her ear.

While the FDA has asked these companies not to proclaim the treatment of disease, their sellers continue to do so both in blog posts, Pinterest pins, and home parties. There is hardly any science behind essential oil use. Yes, Vanderbilt is using essential oils to reduce workplace stress, but the claims to treat illnesses, especially infection, is concerning with no studies to back up such claims.


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