The Truth About Therapeutic Essential Oils

Therapeutic essential oils

There is a great deal of confusion and misinformation on the internet concerning therapeutic essential oils.  So, who is right and who is wrong? Well, let us set the truth straight. 

If you look for essential oils on the internet, you may see some websites that claim their essential oils are therapeutic grade or certified therapeutic grade.  Then you may see some sites claim there is only one company that produces certified therapeutic essential oils.  While other sites may tell you there is no such thing as therapeutic essential oils.  And finally, you may see some people on the internet promoting various grades of essential oils such as therapeutic grade, aromatherapy grade, perfume grade, food grade, grade A, grade B, grade C, and so on.   

Who is right and who is wrong?

Before we discuss therapeutic essential oils, it would be helpful to know what government agencies oversee essential oils. 

DISCLAIMER:

Information provided in this description is for educational purposes only.  For possible treatments of physical or mental diseases, please seek a trained and licensed health professional.  Enchanted Aromatics is not responsible for any adverse side effects resulting from the use of any suggestions, products, preparations, or procedures mentioned or from following historical uses of essential oils.

Government agencies regulate the marketing of essential oils

There are primarily three agencies involved in the marketing of essential oils in the United States:

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) creates and enforces safety standards to reduce the risk of injuries or death when using consumer products.

For example, in 2020, they issued a recall order (recall number 20-740) for Wintergreen essential oil products sold by one company between April 2018 – April 2020.  The reason was that Wintergreen contains methyl salicylate, which can be deadly when swallowed or applied topically, especially to young children.  A teaspoon or less has resulted in multiple deaths in children under the age of 6. 

The CPSC requires toxic products such as this to have child-resistant packaging.  Since this product did not have the required child-resistant packaging, the CPSC issued the mandatory recall.  The CPSC regulates products such as essential oils, fragrances, scented candles, household cleaners, etc.

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) makes sure that any product that claims to be a drug has met the requirements for safety and effectiveness.   The FDA does not have regulations or standards defining an essential oil as natural, organic, or therapeutic.  These essential oil products must all meet the same safety guidelines, despite their source.  Fragrances, such as essential oils, are considered a cosmetic and do not require FDA approval.  But if there are claims of treating disease with the essential oil, then it is also considered a drug and does fall under the umbrella of the FDA.  And finally, the FDA regulates the labeling of products such as essential oils.

Since essential oils are generally considered a cosmetic, they are not regulated by the FDA.  But they can act if the essential oil is unsafe if consumers use it according to the directions on the label or in the product descriptions.

During the 2020 pandemic, The Food and Drug Administration sent numerous warning letters to companies claiming essential oils such as eucalyptus “are misleadingly presented as safe or effective for the treatment or prevention of COVID-19.”  Even after these claims were/are removed from websites, new claims continue to pop up. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates the advertising of products including essential oils. For example, if you sell essential oils and claim your essential oils can be used to help fight the cold virus, then you can expect to receive a letter from the FTC and FDA to correct the violations and if you do not, you will open yourself up to civil and criminal prosecution.  Yes, this really happened. 

“There is no such thing as a therapeutic essential oil”

questioning cartoon face for therapeutic essential oilsThis statement is not true.  Any essential oil that is 100% pure, is inherently therapeutic.  But depending on a variety of factors, the quality of some 100% pure essential oils may be better compared to other 100% pure essential oils. 

What most companies who say their essential oils are therapeutic grade are banking on, is that you will think this certification comes from some official-sounding agency such as the Food & Drug Administration or the Federal Trade Commission. By claiming their essential oils are therapeutic grade, these companies want you to assume their essential oils are somehow purer and are officially recognized as curing various ailments and diseases, and are safe to ingest. 

To prove their claim, they may even have a trademarked Therapeutic certification label that no one else can use that proves their essential oils are certified therapeutic.  These labels are merely made for marketing purposes and are not recognized as official certification by anyone other than the company that created the label.  Anyone can create a trademarked label. 

As a result, any company or any person can sell what they call therapeutic grade essential oils without any recognized standard to back up that claim. 

“What is a certified therapeutic essential oil?”

woman asking a question about therapeutic essential oilsA certified therapeutic essential oil can be anything you want.

At this time, the truth is that anyone or any company can say their essential oils are certified therapeutic quality.  They just need to create a set of standards to make that assertion.  As an example, as part of their standards, a company may state that to be certified therapeutic, the essential oils must be extracted from plants grown on farms they control.   So of course, they will be the only company that can have that certification.

As another example, another company (company XXX) could purchase their essential oils from an overseas distributor who tells them their essential oils are 100% pure.  Company XXX can then advertise their essential oils as therapeutic grade without doing any sort of testing to prove their assertion. 

As a final example, a company could claim their essential oils are certified therapeutic because the plants were harvested during the full moon. 

The point is, that there are no regulations, requirements, or legal classifications that make an essential oil therapeutic grade.  Each company can create its own rules.   Having a designation of therapeutic essential oil sounds good on paper, but it is a meaningless designation.   

But in defense of some of these companies that do make these claims, they usually follow strict guidelines to make sure their essential oils are 100% pure (as possible).  If what they are telling you is the truth, then you should be receiving a superior product from them. 

The problem is they regulate and certify their products themselves instead of an outside agency.  Certification should come from an outside agency and the rules to receive that certification should not preclude any other companies from being able to receive the certification.  Any industry that relies on self-regulation always results in abuse.

100% pure essential oils or all-natural essential oils are the same as therapeutic grade essential oils.  If these companies are advertising their essential oils as therapeutic grade, then there must be other companies selling other lesser grades of essential oils.   How many times have you seen an advertisement for non-therapeutic grade essential oils or essential oils that are not 100% pure?   Go do a search for these other essential oils and see what you find.    

“Is there only one company that makes therapeutic essential oils?”

student asking a questionSince anyone can claim their essential oils are certified therapeutic grade, this statement is not true.

First, I am not bashing any company and I have nothing against these companies.  I have used some of their essential oils and they appear to be of excellent quality (if not expensive since they are an MLM company).  I only wish to clarify the claims being made. When talking about one company claiming their essential oils are therapeutic grade, we are usually talking about dōTERRA.

Since there is no official government body that has created a standard for essential oils, they have created their own excellent standard for purity (therapeutic grade).

Because they are a large company, they can create standards that are difficult to follow for most other companies because it would be cost prohibited.  But the biggest problem with their therapeutic certification is they have created a certification that requires an exclusive network of growers and harvesters.  As a result, they automatically preclude any other company from receiving the therapeutic certification.

You would be hard-pressed to find another industry in which a company can create a standard that is impossible for other companies to match. 

Because of how dōTERRA created its standards, their Wellness Advocates can truthfully say their essential oils are the only oils that can receive the certified therapeutic grade seal of approval.   Of course, this is misleading; but from a marketing view, it is genius. From an ethical viewpoint, not so much.

“Are therapeutic essential oils safe to ingest?”

a cartoon of a thinking personSome essential oils can be administered orally if supervised by a person who has been professionally trained in pharmacology, aromatherapy chemistry, and physiology.   Not by a person who read somewhere on the internet that they could ingest the essential oil to treat a certain ailment.

Certified therapeutic does not automatically mean the essential oil is safe to ingest.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 prevents individuals from making unfounded claims in their marketing and labeling of products meant for consumption.  Before this date, the snake oil salesmen would sell their patented potions and tonics that could cure just about any ailment.

In a famous case, in 1917 federal investigators confiscated a shipment of “Stanley’s Snake Oil”, sold to cure arthritis.  After analyzing the oil, investigators found it was made of beef fat, red pepper, and turpentine.  Hundreds of consumers had been using this concoction to cure their arthritis. 

Essential oils were made for one purpose, Aromatherapy.  This is a holistic healing treatment using the aroma from natural plant extracts to improve the health of the body, mind, and spirit.  Aromatherapy uses essential oils through the sense of smell and skin absorption, not from the ingestion of essential oils. 

There are some companies, mainly the multi-level marketing companies, that actively promote the ingestion of their therapeutic essential oils for various medical conditions without proper clinical evidence or testing.  Getting individuals to ingest essential oils will of course increase these companies’ profits.

Just because an essential oil comes from a plant and is classified as therapeutic, does not make it safe.  If ingested, many essential oils can cause severe side effects including death.  Some of these negative effects may not show up right away.

Each essential oil is made up of dozens and sometimes hundreds of compounds.  Many of these compounds have not been studied enough to know what effect they may have on our health.  Because of this, promoting an essential oil as safe to ingest is dangerous and unethical.  Even if you have ingested an essential oil and had no known side effects, does not make that essential oil safe.  You do not know what long-term effects ingesting that essential oil may do on your health. 

Plus, an essential oil that is safe for you to ingest may not be safe for others because of their body chemistry, medications they are taking, allergies, etc.

If ingested, many essential oils can irritate the gastrointestinal tract mucosa.  Digestive enzymes can also destroy much of the essential oil’s constituents. 

Since essential oils are not regulated, you do not know exactly what is in the essential oil. The peppermint from one company can be completely different compared to another company.  Because the industry is not regulated, even within the same company, the constituents can change from batch to batch.  That means a drop of essential oil from one bottle may be slightly different from another bottle. 

Plus, like the 1917 Stanley Snake Oil example, you have no idea if that essential oil has been adulterated.  As an example, Tea tree oil is often adulterated with eucalyptus oil because of its high price to produce.  Do you know what essential oil results in the most emergency room visits – you guessed it, eucalyptus? 

In summary, in some cases, if supervised, essential oils can be safely ingested.  But the average person should not be ingesting essential oils because they read about them on the internet.  And just because an essential oil is labeled as therapeutic grade does not mean it is safe to ingest.   

To learn more about the safety of ingesting essential oils, check out our article

Ingesting Essential Oils: Myths & Truths

“Are therapeutic essential oils purer than food-grade essential oils?”

cartoon of a man thinkingTherapeutic essential oils are not purer than food-grade essential oils. These are just marketing terms.

 A food-grade essential oil is an essential oil that has received an FDA classification of GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) for food consumption, generally as a flavoring.  This does not automatically mean these essential oils are safe to ingest for any other purpose.  Food-grade essential oils are usually 100% pure, just like therapeutic essential oils. 

Once again this is all just marketing.  These companies that use terms such as “Certified Therapeutic”, or “Therapeutic Grade” want you to believe these essential oils are somehow better than the competition.  For this reason, you need to pay a premium price for these oils.  Their followers will even try to convince you that essential oils from any other company are adulterated because they have not passed the certification process.    Yes, companies are selling adulterated essential oils, but there are many other companies out there selling 100% pure essential oils.

“Are therapeutic essential oils safe for the skin?”

cartoon woman asking yes or noIn general, many essential oils (not just therapeutic oils) are safe to use on the skin when used properly and in concentrations that do not exceed 5%.  Of course, there are exceptions, even if they are classified as therapeutic.

Some essential oils can cause significant skin reactions and chemical burns in certain people, even when the essential oil is diluted.  Any essential oil can have an adverse reaction, but the ones to specifically look out for include black pepper, cassia, cinnamon, clove, lemon grass, and wintergreen.

Then there are essential oils known as phototoxic.  These oils can react when exposed to sunlight, causing serious sunburns.  For these essential oils, they should be diluted at no more than .5%, (a half percent).  These include any citrus-based essential oils. 

To complicate matters, some citrus oils are phototoxic if they are cold-pressed but are not if they are steam distilled. 

Massage therapists commonly used a mix of various lotions, essential oils, and blends on their clients to decrease physical aches and pains, and improve their mood.  It is believed some essential oils have the potential to enhance these effects.

“Are there different grades and classifications of essential oils?”

A thinking woman with an ideaThere is no national or international governing body that regulates the classifications of essential oils or classifies essential oils by grades.  There is no required testing or certifications to distinguish whether an essential oil is 100% pure, organic, or has been adulterated in some way.  That is left up to each company.

The only official classification that essential oils have by the FDA is whether the essential oil is classified as a cosmetic or a drug, based on their intended use.    

Related Questions

“What tests can be used to determine if an essential oil is 100% pure?”

There are a few tests that can be done to verify the purity of essential oils.  We are not talking about placing a drop on a piece of paper and waiting for it to evaporate to see if it causes discoloration or putting your essential oil in the freezer for a few hours and seeing if it is frozen.

Although the paper test “may” indicate if some essential oils have been diluted with some type of impurity.  But I am certainly not going to rely on this sort of test to determine if an essential oil is safe to ingest.

 To verify the purity of essential oils, the following scientific tests can be conducted:

  • Refractive index
  • Optical rotation
  • Specific gravity
  • Gas Chromatography (GC)
  • Inductively Coupled Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS)
  • Organoleptic evaluation
  • And less accurate tests including appearance and odor

“What factors affect the quality of essential oils?”

Even if an essential oil is 100% pure or classified as a therapeutic essential oil, many factors can affect the quality of the essential oil.  Some of these factors include:

  • Botanical origin of the essential oil
  • Part of the plant used
  • Climate where the plant was grown
  • Cultivation and harvest techniques
  • Time of harvest
  • Method of oil production
  • Method and length of storage after production.

Conclusion

There are therapeutic essential oils, but there is no standard on what makes an essential oil therapeutic.  Because of this, even an essential oil that has been adulterated can legally be classified as therapeutic grade.  So, when you see this designation, take it with a grain of salt. 

Essential oils are expensive to produce.  If the essential oil is being sold inexpensively, it is most likely not a 100% pure essential oil.  And most of all, do not assume that an essential oil can be ingested if it is classified as therapeutic. 

Just use a little common sense and stay safe.  Enjoy your essential oils for what they are made for – their aroma.

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