Essential oils are all the rage among people seeking alternative ways to heal themselves from everything from a common cold to chronic and fatal diseases.
However, medical doctors and the Food and Drug Administration say consumers should be wary of misleading marketing campaigns by essential oil companies.
In fact, the widespread use of the oils could be causing new allergies to pop up.
Tea tree oil is the fastest growing skin allergen out there, said Sonora dermatologist Scott Maury, PA, of the Tuolumne Me-Wuk Cedar Road Health Clinic.
According to the Mayo Clinic, skin reactions from tea tree oil range from mild contact dermatitis (skin inflammation) to severe, blistering rashes. Ingestion of it is not recommended and can cause problems like bad breath, bad taste, depressed behavior, diarrhea, drowsiness, ear damage, fatigue, inflammation of the mouth, muscle tremors, nausea, skin irritation (burning, drying, eczema, fluid build-up, itching, rash, redness, scaling, warmth, and toxicity in human skin cells), slow or unsteady movements, stomach pain, uncommon blood changes and weakness.
"The essential oils in general can cause a lot of irritant, allergic reactions," Maury said. "In general, I tend to encourage people to stay away from them."
The efficacy of essential oils hasn't been studied in-depth in clinical trials nor is there much literature out there in peer reviewed medical journals, local physicians say.
"I tell patients to be skeptical when it comes to claims that are lofty," said Dr. Dean Kelaita, Calaveras County Public Health Officer and private practice physician.
When drugs come out and are approved by the FDA, they must have undergone extensive research and study, including large clinical trials with thousands of patients for a long period of time, Kelaita said.
There aren't any clinical trials to back up the claims of essential oil manufacturers, users or distributors. Since they aren't regulated by the FDA, there are also no controls on the ingredients, Kelaita said.
Some alternative medicines and herbal supplements, including essential oils, can be expensive, and there's no science to back them up, Kelaita said.
Not to mention the fact that a lot of conditions the companies claim to "cure" go away on their own anyway, so it's impossible to say the product had anything to do with it, unless there's a clinical
trial with control groups in place, he said.
A common cold goes away in a few days, so how could someone say that echinacea or an essential oil combination, had anything to do with it? he asked.
Back in September 2014, FDA began a campaign aimed at companies that market essential oils, including the top brands - doTERRA and Young Living. Both companies sell essential oils to "cure" or manage a variety of symptoms from headaches to anxiety to hyperactivity. Many essential oil users claim to have eliminated the need for over-the-counter medications after using specific combinations of essential oils to target common maladies.
The FDA sent warning letters in September 2014 to both companies and cited instances in which their representatives claimed that essential oils can cure conditions from Alzheimers, dementia, paralysis, tetanus, Parkinson's, erectile disfunction and even the Ebola virus.
Despite the federal government's warning of unfounded therapeutic claims, consumers are embracing the use of essential oils for a variety of ailments and chronic conditions.
Concentrated extracts of plant material, essential oils have long been used in aromatherapy, but thanks to successful multilevel marketing companies, they've become a juggernaut of alternative medicine.
Evidence of the trend can be seen in the growth of Utah-based doTERRA, which distributes its oils through "wellness advocates." Bend, Oregon, wellness advocate Elizabeth Mara said that three years ago, doTERRA had 100,000 wellness advocates nationwide. Now there are 2 million.
Aficionados place a few drops of oil in a diffuser to create a mood-enhancing mist or to disinfect a room. They add the oils to homemade lotion, or rub them directly on their skin. In a more controversial trend, they ingest the oils with water, food or in gel capsules.
As essential oils and their paraphernalia graduate from natural-food stores to Walmart, people may think they're safe and effective.
Even within alternative medicine, practitioners disagree on the appropriate use of essential oils.
"There's no double-blind placebo study on any of this," acknowledged Bend, Oregon, naturopathic doctor Azure Karli.
She does not think essential oils are as effective as pharmaceuticals, and Karli doesn't widely recommend them. Yet she sells them in her office because some of her patients like to use them, and she thinks that for the most part, they're harmless. She pointed out that the oils people commonly ingest, such as lemon and orange, are also found in food and beverages.
Karin Parramore, an acupuncturist who teaches a class on essential oils at the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, holds the opposite view. She believes essential oils are very effective in killing airborne germs, soothing chronic conditions such as arthritis and restoring mental and emotional balance. But she thinks the mass-marketing of essential oils as medicine is dangerous.
Essential oils can cause allergic skin reactions, worsen respiratory conditions and damage mucus membranes, Parramore said. "When it comes to medicinal use, I think it takes more than a pamphlet from a company, or an hour-long course," she said.
What is clear is that essential oils don't meet U.S. drug standards.
DoTERRA responded in July 2015 with a letter to its members, explaining how to present the products in a "legal and compliant manner."
"While we have devoted significant additional resources toward compliance and made progress to address the FDA's concerns about our wellness advocates' disease and drug claims, we need to see much faster and more far-reaching improvement with our efforts to eliminate inappropriate claims.
"We want to reiterate our longstanding policy that doTERRA products are not drugs and may not be promoted to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. No one should make any such claim about our products."
The FDA did not respond to a request for more information about the status of doTERRA's compliance.
Mara acknowledged the FDA action while giving an essential oils workshop at Hawthorne Healing Arts in July. She said she hoped the government would police exaggerated claims, but at the same time, she said people are needlessly fearful of ingesting essential oils.
The best oils to ingest are "hot" oils, such as oregano and wintergreen, Mara said during her Friday evening workshop. Wintergreen has the same constitution as aspirin, so it works as a blood-thinner, and it's good for supporting the immune system, she said.
During the talk, Mara was careful to use the words "assist" and "support," rather than "treat," and at one point corrected her use of the word "treat."
Parramore thinks the FDA's attempt to rein in the sales pitches is too little and too late. "There's now thousands and thousands of people out there talking about essential oils and aromatherapy in the language that was presented by these multilevel marketers," she said.
DoTERRA created an essential oil usage guide, which covers common conditions, such as acne, that people can self-treat with any number of commercial products. It also includes serious illnesses, such as hepatitis. "Try: geranium, frankincense, Detoxification Blend," the doTERRA guide recommends. "Take a few drops internally in a capsule or use with a warm compress over the kidney area, or apply topically on the right and left side of the throat daily."
The guide also includes common illnesses that can progress to more serious problems if left untreated, such as strep throat. Strep throat, most common among children and teens, can lead to rheumatic fever, which can result in damage to the heart. DoTERRA's guide recommends trying the company's proprietary Protective Blend, oregano or thyme oil. "Diffuse into the air and inhale or gargle a few drops mixed with water or take internally in a capsule several times daily. Oregano is very strong, dilute as needed."
The guide directs users to pre-recorded phone messages for more information about treating certain conditions. The message on strep throat notes that essential oil is more cost-effective than taking a child to the doctor and buying prescription antibiotics.
Dr. Dawn Nolt, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland, said several of her patients report using essential oils, mainly for stress relief, and she's fine with that. "To use it in lieu of proven medical intervention against infections, I think would be foolhardy," Nolt said.
She's aware of studies of essential oils that were applied to germs or cells infected with germs, and they appear to have had an effect. "My understanding is these have not been tested on people. It has just been tested in the lab in a petri dish," she said. "To say it must work when a person actually has a live infection in their body is a stretch."
As with any alternative medicine, people who use essential oils are often looking to take control of their health.
That was the case for Linda Kurtz of Sisters, Oregon, who discovered essential oils and aromatherapy 20 years ago. At the time, she said she was battling a serious inflammation of the eye tissue, uveitis, which took several years to resolve through traditional medicine. "I think aromatherapy helped me deal with the emotional fallout and the stress."
Now Kurtz, 64, keeps lavender and tea tree oils in her medicine cabinet, and she uses tea tree oil on wounds to prevent infection.
While she buys high-quality oils from a company in Portland, she said she would never ingest them. "I would not recommend ingesting anything without working with a professional," she said.
Melinda Linss of Bend recently began taking a couple of drops of frankincense oil in water every day in hopes that it would help with arthritis. She said her fingers have been less stiff than they were at the onset of winter last year, but it's hard to tell whether that's attributable to the essential oil alone because she also started following an anti-inflammatory diet.
Linss, 51, said she hasn't consulted a doctor about her arthritis. "I just do a lot of research."
She began using essential oils because, when she hit menopause, her skin became incredibly sensitive. She couldn't use her usual makeup or other skincare products and switched to coconut oil as a post-shower lotion. She started making her own soap and added in lavender and geranium oils. "It seems to calm my skin," she said.
Topical uses of essential oil raise fewer alarms with medical professionals, but dermatologist Tanya Kormeili said she recommends that patients proceed cautiously by doing a test on the inside of the forearm with one oil at a time.
Kormeili said essential oils are in high demand where she practices in Santa Monica. She uses high-grade lavender oil in addition to antibacterial soap on her patients, and she uses a compounding pharmacy to create custom skin-care products with essential oils.
Growing up in a Persian family where herbal medicine was the norm, Kormeili said she's comfortable with the ambiguities of natural medicine. "When you take an aloe plant from your backyard, how do you know it has as much active ingredient as my aloe plant? Or a cat didn't pee on your aloe plant?"
In the face of those unknowns, she said, "A little bit of common sense will go a long way." If something doesn't work or causes an irritation, stop using it, she said. "Being willing to be wrong is important."
Quality equates to safety?
Essential oils have been available in health-food stores for decades, but the multi-level marketing companies seem to have popularized their use.
DoTERRA's main marketing claim is that its products are of a higher quality than what one might find at a chain retailer. That plays into the message that essential oils are safe for medicinal use. "Because they're so pure, they're very safe," Mara said.
The quality claim is based on product testing by independent chemist Robert Pappas. While he speaks at doTERRA and aromatherapy conferences, he also maintains a Facebook page in which he addresses common myths about essential oil.
"If you follow it at all, you can see what kind of ignorance I'm up against," said Pappas, whose testing lab is in Indiana.
Pappas became an independent consultant after working for a large essential oil and fragrance company. Many of his clients are fragrance and flavor companies, which use essential oils in products from toothpaste to tobacco.
A key point that many people in the aromatherapy world don't understand, Pappas said, is that essential oils are not natural products. "They are manufactured products. I've never in the wild seen a plant distilling itself."
To produce most essential oils, the plant material goes through a high-temperature steam distillation process, which, combined with the metal in the distillation equipment, causes various chemical reactions, Pappas said. The oil that's collected at the end is "not 100 percent like the oil that was in the plant to begin with."
While Pappas prides himself on the fact that his lab can detect synthetic substitutes that others can't, he said that for most of his clients, purity is not as important as chemical profile, which is what guarantees the desired flavor or fragrance.
Purity is important in aromatherapy, because additives that are used to dilute or imitate an essential oil could trigger an allergic reaction, Pappas said. At the same time, the purity of an oil, which is really a collection of chemicals that includes the desired active ingredient, is no guarantee of safety.
"I can give you pure arsenic," Pappas said. "People that say that stuff make my head spin."