Defeating Pain

One Person's Battle Against Chronic Pain


Are Essential Oils Whack? Is Therapeutic Grade a Ruse?

Talking to my favorite blogger in the blogosphere, the Ascenscion House (cause she’s the best <3), she set me on a path to re-examine my oil use. Thanks to her I looked a bit more into essential oils, grades, uses, and the labeling. I read a great blog series that makes some great points, she did some great research on what “therapeutic grade” is (technically nothing I found to my dismay), and puts it in a nice concise way for everyone to read. Which I suggest you do. Yes, the whole 6 entries. I like a lot of what she has to say, and she has changed my mind on a few things. But, I don’t totally agree with all her points, I will go over that further down, though she did firmly cement my belief that doTerra is not so great based on the behavior of some of its affiliated people and they will never be getting my money.

So here is my views.

First off, I love herbal remedies, and herbal medicine, since like, always. I blame my reading of Clan of the Cave Bear in Junior High, and wanting to be Ayla when I grew up. Only recently, due to my issues, have I begun to really learn and use these in earnest. Before it was just fun facts to know, and for cooking. But now things are serious, and once I realized I had a concentrated way to use these great herbs, and they were even more effective, I was hooked. Essential oils are great! I think they are a great addition to any pain management arsenal, and everyone should have a bottle of lavender just for bug bites, burns, scars, and abrasions. Once you start pretty soon you become a lot like this –

I mean seriously people, its the best.

I mean seriously people, its the best.

But essential oils are an unregulated product, the FDA does not police them. Which that means there are no government constraints around labeling and packaging. Now I must point out the FDA frequently won’t even consider things that would be extremely beneficial for the population, despite scientific tests at times, and will approve things that they then recall. I have experienced for myself the fear and anxiety you get when you call your pharmacist back after a mysterious voice-mail telling you they won’t fill your pills, and their reason is the FDA has recalled them due to causing heart issues. They had been approved, and on the market since 1955. Also, some oils in Europe are tested with Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry, which I am very familiar with. The problem with the Euro testing though is, they are only looking for certain things. If you are looking to find seed beads in sand, and you are using a sieve with inch wide holes, you won’t find a lot of beads but it doesn’t mean they aren’t there. These tests are sort of the same, since these are only testing for flavorings, or perfumes, the tests aren’t going to be as precises, or looking for the same things, as a more in depth test. This could be a great way to help identify and be able to set known grades of oils in the future but it is sadly not utilized to its fullest in Europe and not at all in the US.

Personally, I feel the point of essential oils being strong since they are usually condensed versions of the oils that make most herbs “work,” is sort of an obvious thing. Which since common sense, isn’t as common as it should be, I guess I should point that out. These are really strong, and not to be trifled with. You are using phenomenal, cosmic amounts of biological matter, to make an iiiiiiiiitty bitty amount of oils.

Yup. Exactly.

It takes 10,000 pounds of rose petals to make 1-7 pounds of oils, depending on the technique used. That is a lot of mass with a very small output of oil as you can see, and is part of why rose oil is so ridiculously expensive. The usual process for extracting the oils is called distillation. The best way to distill or extract the essential oils is with steam, there are other methods like chemical extraction but this introduces chemicals to the mix and means that the oils are not only what the plant itself produces.

So, oils are the condensed plant, and made through a process called distillation, preferably done with steam. The oils are extracted by the heat vaporizing them (why you should keep the lid on your tea if you are making herbal teas), and then cooling them so they condense into their oil state. Early European Alchemists and early Middle Eastern Islamic scientists, thought that vapor was the spirit of the liquids, hence our still calling hard liquor “spirits.” Just like distilled alcohol (derived from the Arabic word al-kuḥl) is stronger than if you were drinking a normal fermented beverage. Think beer’s strength vs brandy (distilled wine). So you need a lot of stuff to do it, and of course there will be an expense for higher quality ingredients (which again you need a lot of), as well as labor, and specialized equipment (since this is not something you can normally do in your back yard). What all this all boils down to for you is, that this is something where you will (generally) get what you pay for. Expensive will usually (but not always) mean better quality. I have found that the less you pay, the less effective it is with some oils. I try to test a few before going with one I like, and I have found my more expensive oils do much more for pain than the less expensive. Now, brains lie, so this could be entirely the placebo effect, so in all honesty I don’t know how accurate that is, but that’s what I have found.

If you are just looking for something just for its aroma, the less expensive is definitely the way to go. For bath time, for diffusing, and things like that, I will always reach for my cheap oils. That way I feel I can use as much as I like, and they aren’t just going down the drain when they are just there for the smell. The reason the cheaper oils don’t always work as well is they tend to have additions, adulterates or differences in processing (done with chemicals or too much heat breaks down the active chemicals in most herbal medicines), even if the bottle says 100% pure. This is why I would suggest avoiding cheaper oils if you are considering ingesting your oils. Mostly since you don’t know what they could have added, and that can be dangerous. You should always talk to a doctor or some professional before taking anything that WebMD doesn’t say is perfectly safe to ingest in large amounts. Again, common sense!

So, if they are condensed, logically, that means the oils are super condensed form of that plants medicinal chemicals, and that means they are super-duper strong stuff. To think that all oils, or anything that is strong enough to work, is 100% “safe” to use just willy-nilly, is just absurd. Anything that can have an effect on you, should be taken with respect and care. Just like fresh or dried herbs, use them with common sense, do your research, and it is always a buyer beware situation. It is the responsibility of the purchaser, that means you, to make sure they are using their purchases wisely. And it is up to you to ensure your own safety. One should never assume that anything at all can be taken in any amount and be safe, even water and vitamins become deadly poisons in certain amounts. Everything, like I love to say, should be taken in moderation, but since they are so potent it can be easy to over do it with essential oils. Even easier to go wrong if you don’t understand the plant itself in its natural state. You should also always start with small amounts, internally or externally. If you are applying it to your skin it is best to dilute it first. I may be a wild west lady that shoots from her hip, and generally applies a lot of them neat (undiluted), but that may not work for you. I always apply them to a test patch, and then diluted, before I ever attempt a neat application. If you are planning on ingesting the oils, start with 1 drop, and if more is required step up drop by drop to find the point where symptoms subside. I used this method to work out my dosing for my lactose intolerance with fennel, 3 drops for me for most things milky, but heavy cream, fresh cheeses, and cheese sauces (oh I love you evil Alfredo sauce!) needs 5 to prevent the intense cramping. 

I have mentioned a few times that you want to avoid adulterated oils. That means, oils containing chemicals that were not part of the plant. The adulteration issue is an old story in human history, and is usually found hand in hand with a product that is unregulated. Then because of lack of regulation, there is a far larger chance of issues with quality of the products, like possibly toxic chemicals. You can even read a great, well written history of how foods have been adulterated in the past in the book Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud. Or if you feel more contemporary, just look at the current example of unregulated e-cigarettes. There are already studies coming out, saying that there is a possibility they are worse for people than traditional cigarettes. If there isn’t some sort of way to ensure quality, there will always be dishonest sales people that will take advantage of this to adulterate and make more off less. 

Personally after all the information I have read, I will continue to use Young Living, if I am considering ingesting my oils, or if I am wanting to get maximum pain treatment effect. I base this currently wholly on personal experience, since I have used a few cheaper oils and they just don’t seem to compare for pain treatments, but again, that could all be in my head. I also am ingesting them at my own risk, so if I develop some sort of weird issue later because of this I feel it is worth that risk to alleviate my daily pain. Also YL, does note on their site, in their handouts, and on the bottles the ones you should not take internally. A few of the really bad ones to ingest have child-safety lids as well. I don’t have children, but this is still a good feature as I can identify them by touch if needed. They also stress to not use them neat, and dilute them more than even I agree with. Currently the YL bottles you can take internally are labeled as such. Now, while they (YL) are the more “upscale” oil vendor (read as: expensive), while they do have great customer service, and reward points you can spend, they definitely don’t carry a wide enough range to have everything I need. So for everything else I happily will be giving my money to, (as always local first) my local herb store (if you are in the Austin TX area I highly recommend Garden of the Ancients), Mountain Rose Herbs, and thanks to Whole New Mom, and her great detective work, Native American Nutritionals (I just put in an order and I am excited to see how well they work 🙂 yay!). 

So now you know!

And you know how I feel about essential oils, their labeling, and use. Hopefully this will encourage you to look more into essential oils and what they could be doing for you. But don’t just take my word for it, do your own research, and decide for yourself!

Side note: I have also come across some documentation of YoungLiving and the FDA on classifying some of their products as supplements, so it is possible they may come under FDA regulation soon. I also did my own gum-shoeing, and sent a few inquiries out to see if I could get responses on this, hopefully I hear back and can share the info. Also they are starting to label their bottles with “Therapeutic Grade Essential Oil Supplement.” Which I have been trying to get the whole story on, and hope to hear back on what that exactly means.