This post is partly prompted by a documentary I recently watched on Netflix called (Un)well. This isn’t a review of the documentary itself, but it prompted me to write about some things I have been chewing over. I have been getting uneasy with the corporatization of alternative medicine, which is now referred to under a catch all term wellness. Much in the same way I feel about the corporatization of witchcraft. There are definite issues with the American medical system (more on that in a different post) but it feels too often like people are fleeing corporatized medicine and running straight into the arms of corporatized wellness. While I do think it is good that more people are aware of things like herbs and essential oils—those have exploded in popularity—with so many jumping on the bandwagon, a lot of claims are being thrown around that aren’t based on tradition or knowledge.
I am an amateur at best, but I have studied herbalism and essential oils. I am for the use of homeopathic medicine and living sustainably in a way that recognizes humanity as a part of earth instead of believing we somehow have the right to extract what we want no matter the consequences. But I also understand that the advances of quality of life and life expectancy in the modern world is brought by modern science and technology. The scientific method ultimately works, and exists for a reason.
Who is Getting the Money?
This is always the prime question for me. Now you can get essential oils in grocery stores outside of co-ops, and even dollar stores. Anything overly cheap I refuse to buy because I doubt there can be quality ingredients in an oil and it can be sold for an ultra low price. I admit to brand loyalty, more because I have been buying a couple of brands for years and it has been good product, plus it is sold at stores I trust. But I have chosen to keep buying my oils from my favorite Pagan shops. A chain grocery store will survive if I buy that somewhere else. A small business may not.
The Rise of MLMs
Multi-level marketing companies are when products are sold by sellers who get a commission on each sale, and each sale the people they recruit make, rather than from a store. (Here is a good 1A episode discussing MLMs.)I have come to the conclusion that MLMs are a pyramid scheme until proven wrong. Some of them are in a market that has not yet been oversaturated and do offer good products. Yes, the people who have a lot of people under them and have been doing it for a while can make a decent living, but most of the time that is a very small portion.
For MLMs for essential oils, the goal is to sell the oils that particular company sells. . Which leaves me wondering if they spend any time studying possible reactions or side effects.
I don’t want to be too nostalgic for the old times, because there have always been con artists or people who exaggerate to sell a product. But back when natural remedies were a niche thing, people in the field tended to be those passionate about it and not thinking they would make a lot of money in it. There are traditions of herbalism and natural remedies that do have a long history, and the good and bad are known.
But there are plenty of claims being made now that have no basis in tradition, or experience. The marketing of essential oils to treat autism is disturbing. I don’t understand how essential oils can cost two hundred dollars a month, as stated in the linked article. Sure, buying the equipment, books, and oils to get started could get up there. But if you take care of the equipment it will last a long time (I have been using the same dispenser and set of measuring utensils for over 10 years.) A bottle of essential oils can easily last, so it makes no sense to me that it can cost that much per month.
Natural Does Not Mean Safe
There are plenty of poisons that are completely natural. There are also look-alikes, poisonous plants that look like edible plants—this is the reason I am against wildcrafting for anything you are going to ingest. You have to really know what you are doing to be safe, and I am not comfortable foraging in the wild for myself.
Less dramatic, there is no reason why someone can’t be allergic to an essential oil. Allergy might even be more likely, because the oil is more potent. There are some that are less likely to cause an allergic reaction, which I suspect is half the reason lavender is used in everything. When I studied oils, the advice given was to test a new oil you haven’t had contact with to be safe. In general, with oils less is more because they are potent. There are also oils that should not be used directly on the skin. I have a different set of equipment for working with oils that never gets used for food. I don’t understand why anyone is advising people to ingest oils. That was always a big no-no in any of the studying I did, and it was recommended to wash your hands afterward.
Essential oils may come from natural ingredients (as long as they are all natural and not synthetic, there are plenty of synthetics out there) but they are distilled. This means they are at a concentration not found within nature. It is the difference between eating an orange and drinking orange juice—eating an orange will also mean eating the fiber of the solid fruit, so you eat very little of the juice.
Use Oils For What Oils Are Good For
I used to make my own salt scrubs, bath oils, and skin care products. (Ultimately, laziness and the realization I could buy a plethora of good quality products from local farmer’s markets lead me to drop making it myself.) I also use oils in green cleaning, although if I was being honest it is more for the scent than anything. Green cleaning solution is basically vinegar diluted with water, so if you don’t add some oils for scent your kitchen ends up smelling like vinegar (trust me). I have also used a dispenser to cleanse, kill germs in the air after being sick with Covid, as part of a ritual, and put a scent in the air that I enjoyed to put me in a better mood or help me focus writing.
None of these are medical uses. These are also uses of oils that have a long history. While I do see using oils to help relieve pain, anxiety, or bring calm and focus, none of that should replace going to the doctor. If someone suffering from anxiety uses essential oils to help relieve symptoms while they are going to therapy, in consultation with their therapist to make sure there is no interaction with medications, that is one thing (not a recommendation, and note the after consulting with their therapist). If they are just using the oils and skipping therapy altogether, that is harmful, because oils aren’t going to do any more than relieve the symptoms.