Science Mom: Essential Oils Won’t Make You Healthy, But At Least You’ll Smell Good

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science momEssential oils smell nice. I enjoy a dab of lavender behind the ears, or a daub of Vick’s VapoRub when I’m under the weather, as much as the next person. Not because those things are going to cure my irritable bowel or beef up my immune system, but because they smell nice, and things that smell nice make me feel a little happier. If essential oils make you feel a little happier, a little calmer, or a little more able to deal with the way your Diaper Genie smells, then more power to you!

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.

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