Earlier this month, a major manufacturer of essential oils, which are concentrated liquids extracted from plants, announced that its sales for 2015 surpassed the $1 billion mark.
While Young Living Essential Oils trumpeted the feat as the first essential oil company to reach the milestone, it underscored the growing interest in the products, which are used via topical application, inhalation and, more carefully, ingestion, for health reasons in the Western world.
The use of oils for perfumes and health is nothing new. Think of wise men bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But the marketing of it is more of a recent phenomenon and raises questions about effectiveness, quality and safety.
Last week, locals responded to an inquiry on social media, noting how they use diluted essential oils for an array of remedies.
Kathleen Gorman of Mount Pleasant uses lavender oil in a diffuser in the bedroom of her young sons to help them calm down before bedtime.
Likewise, Mount Pleasant Mayor Linda Page uses a diffuser in her town hall office, commenting that the smell of the oils help her relax and focus.
Beyond the “aromatherapic” benefits, Cynthia Wahl of Mount Pleasant used a blend of clove and lavender topically, along with acupuncture, to ease the symptoms of Bell’s Palsy, which was caused by a viral infection in September 2014.
“I’m not one of these holistic, eat organic, people, and I don’t like perfumes or other flowery smells, but a friend at work wanted me to try it,” says Wahl, adding that an acupuncturist later recommended therapy with oils.
And while she was initially treated with an antiviral medication and steroids, she credits the acupuncture and oils with helping her return to nearly normal health.
Psychotherapist and children’s yoga teacher Judith Gatto Greenfarb uses essential oils for an array of health reasons for both herself and her son, who has mild autism and asthma, including lavender oil for calming, oregano oil for cold prevention, peppermint oil for stomach distress and rose oil for facial cleansing.
“I use them primarily for preventive uses,” says Greenfarb, who reorders oils from doTERRA on a monthly basis, spending about $50 with each order.
In a greater realm, “communities” of people are popping up, thanks to social media, who share a passion for essential oils and the latest information about them. One that started in Charleston is called Rooted Essentials.
Earlier this month, Research and Markets published a report, “Aromatherapy and Essential Oils Market 2016,” that analyzed the market for the U.S., China, Japan and South Korea for the next six years.
A release on the report noted that “2015 saw the aromatherapy and essential oils market gain mass popularity, leading to record-setting revenue for key participants.”
“The megatrend of health and wellness will continue to propagate. Consumers are becoming aware and actively seeking natural options. Aromatherapy and essential oils flourish in a direct selling environment. Consumers can experience and learn about the oils,” the report said.
It also noted a recent change in the terminology from “aromatherapy,” or the use of aromas for their healing properties, to “essential oils,” a broader description of using the products for internal and topical uses.
The takeaway from the report was that using essential oils is a “megatrend of health and wellness that will continue to propagate. Consumers are becoming aware and actively seeking natural options.”
As is usually the case with hot, new “alternative” and “holistic” therapies, the evidence-based medical community urges caution as some of the claims of product purveyors have not been fully studied, particularly in cases of ingesting the products.
“The long and short of it is that there’s not a lot of evidence supporting many of the claims,” says Dr. Rod Schlosser, director of the Medical University of South Carolina Nose and Sinus Center.
But Schlosser does acknowledge the connection between smell and medical issues such as depression and memory loss. Whether the pleasant smells of essential oils can help ease symptoms of certain conditions is a matter of more study.
“All sorts of things make you feel good,” says Schlosser. “A warm blanket on a cold night makes you feel good.”
Dr. Travis Wilkes, a Roper St. Francis physician partner with Mount Pleasant Family Practice, taps into evidence-based holistic practices in his work with patients and says there is growing evidence that oils ease symptoms of illness and can be “supportive” of medical treatments.
But he draws the line at oils being used as a treatment for conditions ranging from heart disease and diabetes to acne.
“Be dubious of any claims that essential oils can treat a disease,” says Wilkes.
He also cautions about ingesting oils because of the potential toxicity of the concentrated products.
Lisa Abernathy, an acupuncturist who is trained in Chinese medicine, uses essential oil medicinally with clients at Blue Heron Acupuncture & Apothecary and sees the value in treating an array of ailments, from colds, insomnia, aches and digestion.
Abernathy, though, says learning how to use them correctly is important and that Blue Heron often offers classes on the subject. She adds anyone who uses essential oils internally should be under the supervision of a professionally trained expert.
“Most people aren’t aware of using them internally,” she says.
And while the worst risk of using diluted essential oils topically is skin irritation, Abernathy says people should do their research on that as well. For example, citrus oils, especially orange, used in a hot bath or in the sun can be particularly harsh on the skin.
Kyle and Ryan Radaker live a healthy lifestyle. Kyle is a popular personal trainer at ECO Fitness in Mount Pleasant and Ryan has worked out there years before they met, married and merged their families with seven children.
Like many in of their circles, they exercise and eat a healthy diet, but felt like there could be more ways of living healthier lives.
“We wondered what else we could be doing, other than exercise and nutrition, to affect positive change in our bodies,” says Kyle.
They started using essential oils by using supplements and then the oils, using them in other areas of their lives, including toiletries, cleaning agents and laundry supplies, along with the other therapeutic uses.
Some examples include using essential oils as alternatives to products made with synthetic chemicals. They combine drops of peppermint and rosemary oils in a homemade shampoo that makes it a “repellent to certain organisms you don’t want in your children’s hair.”
Laundry formulas and wool dryer balls, with drops of lavender oil on them, make gym clothes than can often be hard to freshen up wearable again.
They loved the products from the company, doTERRA, which features third-party “certified pure therapeutic grade” oils, that they started selling and marketing oils.
Both, however, stress that essential oils are not a replacement for medicine.
“None of these things in and of themselves are a cure. They are not to be substituted for other things. They are supportive of how your body works to aid in helping you with some of these things.”
Reach David Quick at 937-5516.