However. If you are one of the people, like this shockingly credulous columnist for the Atlantic, who believe that essential oils are basically the new antibiotics - or worse still, one of the people who goes around shilling do'Terra to people suffering from lice, leprosy, or lymphoma? Sit down. We need to have a talk.
Distilled plant juice, which is what essential oil essentially is, does have some benefits: some of these oils are mildly antibacterial, some of them are relaxing and calming (possibly because we associate them with being relaxing and calming rather than any biological action on their part). And if the claims for essential oils' health benefits stopped there, this would be a very short article - but of course, they don't.
Back during the height of the Ebola panic, the FDA had to come down hard on some essential oil sellers who claimed that their product could protect people from the virus. This website recommends frankincense oil under the tongue as an alternative to the infertility drug Clomid, because of course a greasy mouth will help shake some eggs loose from your ovaries. The do'Terra website flogs its oils with vague claims like "builds healthy immune system" or "balances hormones". There are anti-bedbug essential oil sprays (spoilers: they don't work). And there are even essential oils that claim to be able to "erase or reprogram miswritten codes in the DNA" - for the low, low price of $19 per half-ounce! (That's close to $5,000 per gallon for those playing along at home. Clearly, I'm in the wrong business.)
These are some extraordinary claims, which means they need some extraordinary evidence to back them up. But instead, the proof that proponents usually offer is a heap of shady studies and vague appeals to these cures being 'natural' or 'ancient' - if they have any proof at all.
But what about the scientific evidence backing up essential oils? The Atlantic article links to a number of studies, which I perused until blood started coming out of my eyes. (Please let me know if there's an essential oil that can help me with that.) For one thing, some of the studies didn't even have enough participants to field a football team. This one 'proving' the benefits of tea tree oil in wound healing featured a total of ten people, between the test group and the comparison group combined. In a group that small, there's no way to tell whether tea tree oil is having a meaningful effect, or if you just ended up with a few people with mutant healing abilities. It's like comparing my height to my best friend's and then concluding that people named Aimee are always shorter than people named Crystal. Science does not work that way.
Here's another issue: a lot of the studies touted as proving essential oils anti-cancer and anti-bacterial properties are 'in vitro' studies: meaning they were done in test tubes instead of in living animals. Here's the thing about finding a chemical that works against cancer cells in a test tube: it is no big whoop. It is the smallest of whoops. A few cells floating around in a petri dish are not remotely the same thing as a bunch of cells connected together to make a living creature: they do not act the same way, they do not need the same things, and cells in a human pancreas can certainly not be submerged in a constant essential-oil bath like pancreas cells in a glass jar can.
And here's another important question for all the essential oil lovers out there: how would it even work? How does enough of it get diffused into all the cells of your body - when eaten, or worse still, when steamed and inhaled - to make any kind of meaningful physiological difference? And when those few oil molecules do find themselves bashing around inside of you, what exactly are they doing in there? How is it that they repair DNA? What do they do to regulate hormone levels? The only molecular explanation that makes any sense to me at all is, "The smell of that essential oil tickled the neuron in my brain that remembers how Mom's perfume used to smell, or the cinnamon cookies that Aunt Gretchen used to make, and that makes me feel happy." Which is nice, but unlikely to cure anyone's leukemia anytime soon.
You can think what you want to, and if essential oils make you feel good, congratulations. But don't use them to treat your child's severe burns, and don't offer them to people with cancer or diabetes or hepatitis. If you're happy with your money uselessly going into the pockets of the people on the upper echelons of multi-level marketing schemes, good luck with that. But the whole thing smells a little off to me.