Plant extracts have a long history in healthcare and continue to retain prominence. Distilled botanicals exist in traditional and homeopathic medicines, and can be used to create Western pharmaceuticals. I have a doctorate in the history of domestic medicine, and early modern distilled remedies. I’ve also spent years researching fashionable medicine and quackery. It’s therefore unsurprising that I’ve taken an interest in the multi billion dollar industry of essential oils. In particular, I’m intrigued by the cult-like and quackish claims surrounding multi-level marketing (MLM) companies selling essential oils. The main question I want to address in this post is: are essential oils greenwashing?
For information on MLM companies see: The Anti-MLM Coalition
How should you use essential oils?
Used since antiquity, essential oils are prized for their medicinal qualities. They can be helpful as part of therapy for relaxation, mood, and sleep. Essential oils can also offer a natural alternative for cleaning or scenting the home to conventional products, though they should always be used with caution.
What I find worrying is the dependence on essential oils that now persists in North American households. People are convinced that these vials of essence at $20 each are imperative for their wellbeing, and for the management of their children’s health.
The dangers of essential oils
I agree that essential oils can help with mood. Adding a few drops of jasmine or lavender to my pillowcase helps me relax and fall asleep faster. This is a responsible use of essential oils for wellness. What concerns me is the the multitude of oils that people are rolling on their bodies daily in unregulated quantities; or worse, ingesting. These concoctions are touted as panaceas. Moreover, people are being sold the idea that they need to have every essential oil to make their lives complete. I can’t help but question the impact that this need for consumerism has on people’s mental health.
As some medical experts have acknowledged, society doesn’t have any large medical studies verifying the safety of essential oils for the scale at which we are presently using them. We are now participating in an international case study on the omnipresent use of essential oils for medicine, cosmetics, food, cleaning, and diffused domestic transmission.
You should NOT ingest essential oils. Although many essential oils are used for flavouring in the food industry, the quantities and quality of these product are regulated. Importantly, the FDA doesn’t test essential oils so you don’t actually know what it is them. You should also avoid using any combination of essential oils, diluted or pure, directly on your skin on a regular basis. If you do choose to apply essential oils topically, I suggest a patch test to check for an allergic reaction. Seek your doctor’s advice before considering essential oils for medical treatment.
Are essential oils greenwashing?
It depends. There’s been a colossal increase in MLM brands being promoted on social media. It seems everyone in the US now has a library of Young Living or DoTerra oils in their kitchen cabinet. Below I touch on a few reasons why I call greenwashing on these companies.
Firstly, these types of pyramid schemes are greenwashing in the sense that they are promoting a wellness product, which will inadvertently causes distress through financial loss. A lawsuit has been filed against the Young Living for the accusation that the complex marketing scheme results in members losing considerable sums of money. It’s unethical.
No certifications or standards
There is a lack of transparency and consistency in product standards. As an example, Young Living boasts that their oils are “better than organic” and “authentic”. They also claim to have a “therapeutic grade” range. These claims are meaningless. Moreover, this company, and others, quality test their products in house, so there is no third party testing to ensure that standards are met.
One independent distributor of Young Living called The Good Drop actually has a post about greenwashing on their website. I find it incredibly ironic that the post discusses signs of greenwashing including: packaging with natural imagery, and use the terms organic or natural. The MLM member then goes on to say that you can use Young Living as an alternative to avoid greenwashing. Firstly, Young Living uses natural imagery and meaningless words. They have their own bullshit Seed to Seal Guarantee, which guarantees nothing. This member also notes that the company routinely rejects large batches of oils. How is that sustainable? I call greenwashing!
Natural isn’t always healthy
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, natural does not mean something is good for you. Plants can be incredibly toxic. Even if something is certified as organic, this does not mean it is medical grade. In 2014, Young Living was cautioned by the FDA for false claims that their oils were curing and preventing all sorts of diseases. This was not necessarily the company making these claims, but regular people representing the brand through the MLM scheme. If the public are acting as salespeople freely marketing the product to whomever, there is no accountability that the advertising is accurate. These types of companies also try to dodge any liability for the spread of this misinformation.
Impact on resources and the environment
I’m not the first person to raise an alarm about the health concerns surrounding essential oils. What I haven’t come across, however, is any substantial discussion on the sustainability of essential oils. I did find one article by Storey that touches on sourcing essential oils responsibly. Earth Island Journal also explains that essential oils that can be flammable and toxic to aquatic life.
Creating essential oils is an incredibly resource intensive process. You need to grow all the botanicals, which rely on land, water, and fertiliser use, and consider ethical land use and human labour. There are also concerns surrounding the harvesting of endangered species. All of these plants are then shipped to facilities which operate on industrial scales, again requiring considerable resource input and carbon/pollution output. The distillation of these plants yields a tiny vial of product, which is then shipped globally.
It is greenwashing to suggest that the daily and multi-purpose use of essential oils is sustainable. Yes, adding a drop or two to your laundry or vinegar cleaner is a great option. Using quality, responsibly-sourced oils in small quantities for aromatherapy is also fine. Adding drops upon drops of different combinations of oils to your diffuser every day, making six different types of cleaners, and a roller ball for every day of the week is wasteful.
How can you use essential oils sustainably?
Firstly, avoid MLM schemes. Look for companies that are transparent about their third party certifications and sustainable production. Avoid any company that suggests you need a cabinet full of various essential oils. Companies must be clear that their products should only be used for home fragrance, aromatherapy, and mood aids, not drugs. For example, in the UK, Tisserand has their essential oils certified as organic by the Soil Association and cruelty free by the Vegan Society.
This article from Johns Hopkins also has helpful information on how to source and use essential oils safely.
Essential oils can be beneficial for wellness, but they aren’t a cure-all. Please consult your doctor or child’s pediatrician before incorporating essential oils into your life for medical use.
As for the greenwashing: like all things, if you don’t need it, it isn’t a sustainable purchase. Anything that is mass produced is going to have a negative impact on the environment. From the production of oils at large processing facilities, to the forced purchase of monthly subscription boxes to retain membership, essential oils are a perfect example of how consumerism has deluded us into thinking we are being “greener” and opting for the “safe, natural option”.