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Why health claims about essential oils deserve more scrutiny from journalists

Despite a lack of clinical evidence that they work, essential oils are a booming alternative medicine trend.

As explored in a recent New Yorker article, “How essential oils became the cure for our age of anxiety,” they’re being marketed to tense, health-conscious Americans searching for inexpensive “natural” cures. Often used as aromatherapy, essential oils also can be applied to the skin, or ingested, in an attempt to produce therapeutic benefits.

The New Yorker looks at who sells the products (mostly multilevel marketing companies, which operate a lot like pyramid schemes; some have been fined by the Department of Justice), and how they do so (by an army of at-home distributors trained to carefully make generic health statements– e.g. ”It supports healthy digestion!”–to escape the attention of federal regulators who would flag more specific claims).

But, I realized there’s a whole other side to the story worth discussing–and that’s the free pass many news outlets have given to essential oils. By not critically examining the health claims being made, journalists are leaving readers poorly informed. A small sampling:

I noticed a common framing in many of the articles I read: An essential oil (lavender, peppermint, etc) “may help” with an affliction, or alternatively, it “may support” a person who is healthy. To prove this, the stories then proffer (very limited) evidence for such a claim. This is typically followed by upbeat anecdotal soundbites from sources who almost always have a vested interest in the commercial sale of essential oils. Only rarely do readers get warned about the limitations of the evidence and the possible harms.

Preliminary science props up the claims

Reader’s Digest emerged as one of the top offenders based on my reading in this area. They’ve written uncritically about the health benefits of essential oils for a wide host of conditions, including anxiety, acne, better sleep, cold and flu, sunburn, a sizzling sex life, and on and on.

The science is described poorly, if at all. For example, in the article “5 Essential Oils for Relieving Your Allergy Symptoms,” we’re told that Japanese researchers “found that a drop of lavender oil can put the brakes on allergic airway inflammation and decrease mucus production, suggesting a potential role as an allergic asthma treatment.”

The image we wish would run with every news story about non-human research.

The unspoken caveat? The research was in mice–which is wobbly evidence for any human health intervention, not just essential oils, points out Joe Schwarcz, PhD, a chemist and director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society. 

“To suggest in any way lavender oil could be used to treat human asthma, that’s a light year leap,” he said. “They put the mice in some sort of cage where they inhale lavender oil–we have no idea how much gets in their lungs. Then they kill the mice and take them apart to look at signs of inflammation in their lungs, measuring things like cytokine levels.” While he said it’s an “interesting academic exercise,” it’s “totally meaningless in human terms.”

Conflicts of interest among sources

That’s not where the problems end. Many stories I read were rife with conflicts of interest that aren’t addressed–quoted sources are usually herbalists or salespeople (or both), and there is little to no perspective from sources who don’t have skin in the game.

For example, this New Orleans Times-Picayune piece, “Essential oils: Fact, fiction, recipes for this popular health trend” directly quotes 1) a homeopath who sells essential oils, 2) a registered dietitian who sells essential oils, and 3) a writer and artist who sells essential oils. And for all three, readers are given links so they can click directly to their shops and buy oils. No other sources are interviewed.

I was especially perplexed by a Minneapolis Star-Tribune article, “Does the essential-oil trend pass the smell test with Minnesota hospitals?”. We’re told that essential oils, which were “once disdained,” are now “winning over scientists.” Yet, no actual scientists are interviewed, and deep in the piece we’re confusingly told that: “A recent analysis of 10 studies on aromatherapy’s impact on depression, anxiety, pain relief, dementia and hypertension found that ‘the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.’”

health claims about essential oilsThis information is only relayed after several positive anecdotes are recounted–peppermint oil helped a nauseated stroke patient, a topical “special formula” helped kids with a severe skin disorder, and some patients even stopped taking their pain medications thanks to essential oils.

Unless there is strong clinical evidence indicating otherwise, it’s likely most of these anecdotes–and others–are simply demonstrating the power of the placebo effect, Schwarcz said. 

“When someone doesn’t feel right, they will of course search for any kind of hope,” he said, adding that scientific illiteracy, which he feels is common, makes many people easy prey for dubious health claims.

Examples of responsible reporting

This is not to suggest that all essential oils are proven to be worthless. There is some evidence that lavender promotes relaxation, for example, and tea tree oil is well-known to have antiseptic properties. But in many cases, we don’t know if they work–no authoritative research has been conducted yet. (A good place to start looking for evidence is here.)

Nor am I suggesting that all journalists have turned a blind eye. This piece from ATTN: “The FDA Has Warned Essential Oil Companies” explored some of the shady health claims being made (especially on social media), as well as the risks when people aren’t properly informed:

“Certain essential oil distributors have marketed their products to children, infants, and pregnant women…and that’s cause for concern because ‘essential oils do cross the placenta’ and ‘there’s very little research on those populations.’”

And TIME.com went the extra step of interviewing several scientists who have systematically reviewed the evidence on essential oils. It ended on a note that would be fitting for many health claims related to essential oils:

“…It’s safe to say the science on aromatherapy’s health perks is, at best, inconclusive.”

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Evan Jack