health

Please don’t use the words ‘cure’ and ‘essential oils’ in the same sentence.

Geranium is one of my favourite scents.

The rose-like smell fills my apartment, encouraging a homely feel and making me happy.

Indeed essential oils, in general, are great. They are a wonderful ritual used to aid relaxation, alleviate stress and promote self care. They have been used for centuries to help with tension and headaches and improve mood and sleep.

I do not, however, use geranium to treat my endometriosis.

Though when I spoke on Instagram about having the disease I was told by several people that essential oils could help ‘cure’ me. I was also promised essential oils would ‘fix’ the infertility I was experiencing (caused by said endo, low egg quality, natural killer cells and a bicornuate uterus).

The same well-meaning people offered unsolicited medical advice by way of essential oils when I spoke on Mia Freedman’s podcast about my father’s lung cancer, and again a few weeks back when I posted about him being diagnosed with several brain tumours.

And I need to emphasise here that these people are well meaning. I don’t believe anyone would knowingly and purposely ill advise, well, the ill.

Yet some (of course not all) essential oil distributors with absolutely no medical qualifications whatsoever are out there making very real, very false claims as to what the potions they pedal are capable of.

Sweeping claims in relation to illness and disease are declared as fact, often ‘backed up’ by decades-old studies that could, perhaps, maybe, possibly support said claims, but for the most part these studies are inconclusive and clearly declared so in the literature. Still, these official-looking findings are enough for these people to firstly believe, and secondly, to push product onto those around them who are in a vulnerable state.

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When I asked women if they had ever experienced the same I was inundated with responses. Caring friends of these people had suggested ingesting essential oils, or applying them directly topically – both of which are dangerous and potentially harmful ways to use essential oils – to cure and fix serious illness and disease.

“I went to an essential oil party and the lady said ‘I’m not allowed to promote this, but I can happily say we only carry ‘this oil’ around for our son’s anaphylaxis now! We were able to throw out the Epipen for his peanut allergy!’ There was another woman there whose son has a huge reaction to peanuts who thought this was great news. I told the oil lady she should never host another party again as she would be the reason some people die. It was appalling,” Tawnie told me.

“I have been told to use lavender and orange oil to ‘cure’ my son’s autism. I had a very long discussion with the seller and they could not actually tell me at all how it would work. I declined. They also told me not to get him vaccinated anymore as I would make his autism worse,” said Shell.

“Apparently my dad got prostate cancer because he’s stressed and should have been using essential oils. His chemo is also killing him and he should give it up and switch to a ‘curated’ bunch of oils to cure him,” said Sammy.

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hospital-woman
"Apparently my dad got prostate cancer because he’s stressed and should have been using essential oils." Image: Getty.

“I used to work as a case manager with kids with autism. I have seen first-hand how dangerous this is. Having a child with a neurodevelopment disorder, with no cause or cure, is debilitating enough for families. To have a child who cannot communicate, a child who through self-stimulatory behaviour may injure themselves daily, or a child who is repeatedly sent home from school or isolated in the school environment, is an exhausting way to parent. To preach that all they need is some oils to ‘reduce their autism’ is not only insensitive and cruel to the parents, but a dangerous ‘easy fix’ for such a complex diagnosis. There is no easy fix. If you meet one child with autism, you have met one child with autism. You cannot generalise, and to preach that something so simple would ‘cure’ or ‘fix’ their child is discriminatory and ignorant,” said Georgia.

“‘You should start using essential oils, I’ve heard they are great for miscarriages’. This was said to me after losing one baby while pregnant at 10 weeks and my little boy at 16 weeks,” said Zara.

“I am a pharmacist and these oils drive me crazy. One patient with a serious autoimmune skin condition started taking oral essential oils at the suggestion of her hairdresser who sold them. It actually interacted with real medication, reducing effectiveness. But what would I know? I am just a pharmacist. Hairdresser knows best,” said Rebecca.

“I was at a life coach event and they kept making us sit beside new people. I was sitting beside an essential oil rep who got chatting to me about health things and I mentioned I had endo and adeno. She jumped at that and tried to tell me how her oils could cure me. I've tried lots of things and am always open to new things but the fact she used the word ‘cure’ was like a slap in the face. The only cure for adeno is a hysterectomy and I'm currently 23 so please don't insult me like that. Unless you are a gyno or qualified medical professional please stay in your lane,” said Bridgette.

I received hundreds of messages like this in a matter of hours, many from women who didn't want to be quoted or identified because the very people who pushed these products onto them are in their close circles. I received one from a woman who was offered an essential oil cure as her husband was dying of brain cancer.

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I was also sent a screenshot from a woman who was told by a 'health expert' that the flu shot was unsafe during pregnancy and that she could make her own using essential oils. Pregnant women who get the flu are at higher risk of hospitalisation, and death, than non-pregnant women. Risk of stillbirth is reduced by 51 percent in pregnant women who are immunised against flu. Babies are 25 per cent less likely to be hospitalised from flu-related illness if their mother's are immunised against flu while pregnant.

essential oils health claims
A screenshot I received from a woman who was told by a 'health expert' that the flu shot was unsafe during pregnancy and that she could make her own using essential oils. Image: Supplied.

Are these distributors 'allowed' to make these claims? The short and sure answer is NO.

“In most cases essential oils would be listed medicines and are identified by an AUSTL number on the product label. Listed medicines such as essential oils are subject under the Act to restrictions on the use of indications or claims that refer to the treatment of a serious disease, condition, ailment or defect. Claims on therapeutic goods regarding the treatment of endometriosis or cancer are prohibited,” a spokesperson for the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) told Mamamia.

“Sponsors must always hold evidence to support the health claims they make for their product and have it available for TGA review at any time.”

The problem is hard to fix because it’s not the essential oil companies themselves making these claims, and that’s where it gets murky. These brands have almost no control over what their distributors do and say while out there trying to make sales. And making sales is the relentless objective of many of the distributors due to the very structure of these multi level marketing (MLM) businesses.

The situation is only made worse by people with public profiles using their soap boxes to further spread these unqualified claims.

“I’ve seen prominent influencers talk heavily about this despite having no medical training whatsoever. Their podcasts have featured people who speak this ridiculous language too. I have medical training myself and am heavily science and research evidence based in all my decisions so when I hear this I get so angry because so many people are influenced by people who have a profile and say things like this. There has to be accountability,” Felicity* told Mamamia.

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So why do some people swear black and blue that essential oils do work in relation to these extreme claims? It mostly comes down to a simple and yet very powerful phenomenon known as the placebo effect. Perception of pain and efficacy due to the power of belief in essential oils has been proven. The positive outcomes from the placebo effect in itself can be life changing.

Still, we have a very long way to go with relation to evidence being held in as high regard as anecdotes in these circles. And while we make those inroads I worry that trusting people in compromised situations are potentially the road kill.

workplace bullying
"I worry that trusting people in compromised situations are potentially the road kill." Image: Getty.

Thankfully, for every backyard blog making sweeping statements as to the wonder of oils there are experts putting time and energy into dispelling these dangerous myths.

If someone tries to sell you essential oils to treat or cure disease or illness, thank them for their advice but seek out the opinion of a medical professional qualified in that area of science.

And please, if you sell essential oils, educate yourself on the capabilities and limitations of these small glass vials.

To make claims without doing so is not only irresponsible, it is downright predatory. And could be deadly.

I reached out to the Essential Oils Producers Association of Australia and the International Aromatherapy and Aromatic Medicine Association for comment but did not hear back at the time of publishing.

*Some names have been changed. 

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