Science

Sorry Boss Babe! New Study Says Essential Oils May Cause Seizures

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The other day I wandered into a shop I hadn’t seen before that seemed to sell high end spa and massage products, as well as offering massages. These products do not appeal to me whatsoever but I was wasting time waiting for my partner so I figured what the hell. The very nice, very strange owner called me over and without asking first, took my hand and dripped some smelly oil on my forearm and then gave me a full on arm massage. Guys…it was weird. I do not like massages. I do not like strangers touching me. But while I am very loud and aggressive and opinionated here on YouTube, in person I am actually very nice and non-confrontational. Hard to believe, I know, but I swear I just stood there while this woman kept insisting I relax and massaged some smelly things into my arm. Eventually my partner walked past and I called to him and he walked in looking extremely confused about what he had just interrupted. We ran away without buying anything. I made him smell my arm. He agreed that it smelled nice.

And that, my friends, was my first and only personal experience with essential oils. An essential oil is an oil that is extracted from a plant — the word “essential” here refers to the “essence” of the plant’s fragrance, not the idea that we somehow “need” the oil. It just smells nice. I have no idea what the nice crazy lady massaged into my arm because there was no discussion before she attacked, but some common essential oils include lavender, tea tree, and lemongrass.

I’ve never sought them out before because first of all I’m not that into smells, and second of all I associate them with MLMs. That’s “multi-level marketing” companies, which are basically pyramid schemes that have a product added to nudge it over the line into “legal” territory. If you wanna know more about that, I made a whole video about it in the blissful beforetimes of 2018 where I called out two shady essential oil companies: DoTerra and Young Living. Fun fact I mentioned in that video, the latter company the average Young Living seller lost $1,175 in 2016. Great company, good job “boss babes.”

While I did talk about how essential oil MLMs are not a great investment, I didn’t get into the pseudoscience pushed by some of the “huns” (so named because they overuse “hun” and emojis when petitioning future victims to sign up). But the fact is that essential oils are ripe with pseudoscience: people claim that they can cure cancer (they cannot), or control diabetes (no…just, no. Please see an actual medical professional to control your diabetes). But research shows the only thing that they are good for is maybe relaxing you because it smells nice, which you can also achieve with, like, a candle.

In a previous video I talked about one other bullshit claim made by essential oil peddlers — as California burned to the ground in 2017, DoTerra claimed that diffusing their essential oils could “clean” the air of wildfire smoke. Spoiler alert: it does not. If anything, diffusing essential oils puts more shit into the air, because tiny droplets of the oil cling to the steam coming from your diffuser and float through the air, where you breath them in. Like, you are literally breathing in little bits of oil that go into your lungs. This can be SERIOUSLY dangerous to your pets: diffusing oils like eucalyptus, tea tree, cinnamon, citrus, pennyroyal, peppermint, pine, sweet birch, wintergreen, and ylang ylang can hurt or even kill dogs and cats.

Essential oils can also be bad for your health. Several studies now have shown that lavender and tea tree oils can seriously throw off your hormonal balance, which may not be a huge deal for adults but can trigger breast growth in children as young as 8. That’s both boys and girls, if that sort of thing matters to you but it’s bad either way considering that research has linked prepubertal breast development to an increased risk of cancer.

Now there’s a new study out with more disturbing evidence against essential oils: whether you inhale them, eat them, or apply them to your skin, eucalyptus and camphor oils may increase your risk of seizures. This was an overview of four years of data from 350 patients who experienced their first seizure or their “breakthrough” seizure (the first seizure in a very long time for a patient who had previously experienced seizures), finding that 15.7% were connected to essential oil exposure. And so that’s not just in patients diagnosed with epilepsy, that’s for everyone. 40% of the patients in the study who experienced what the researchers call an “essential oil-related seizure” had never had a seizure before, and the majority were adults. Over an entire population it’s going to be pretty rare, but it still means that for me, an adult who has never experienced a seizure, I will take on some increased risk of having my first seizure by exposing myself to eucalyptus or camphor oil, with the only “benefit” being a little relaxation that I could also get from a hot bath.

All those patients were asked to stop using essential oils, and for the next three years all of the people who had experienced their first seizure didn’t have another one, and 94% of the epileptic patients didn’t have another one, which is pretty good evidence in favor of the idea that the oils were actually causing the seizures as opposed to just being coincidental.

Here’s the slightly scarier thing: the researchers point out that they only studied these two essential oils but there are many more that are used on a regular basis but there’s no research on them, and they’re completely unregulated so who even knows what this stuff is doing to us?

And in case that didn’t freak you out enough, here’s one more thing: you can’t just avoid using essential oils in your diffuser or slap it out of the hand of the weird massage lady when she comes at you. Eucalyptus and camphor are in loads of products sold in drug stores around the world, like Vix Vaporub, which we rub into children’s chests when they have colds.

Does this mean you should avoid anything with these ingredients and panic if you accidentally get some on you? No. Remember, this study looked at patients who had already had a seizure — 16% of them had just ingested those oils, which is a BONKERS amount. But, this was a relatively small study and when you look at how many people in the world use these products all the time, it’s probably a pretty low risk.

But still, why go out of your way to take on that risk? The next time you have a cold, or want to relax, or just want your house to smell nice, maybe think twice before you drop essential oils in your diffuser. And maybe don’t let strange women massage unknown things into your skin.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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2 Comments

  1. What’s supposed to be the mechanism for this ‘relaxation?’ Does Ylang-Ylang induce relaxation by some method different from the relaxation caused by, say, cooking bacon? Or relaxing by just inhaling slowly through to nose for any reason at all?

    1. Years ago, on discovering that my health insurance covered aromatherapy treatments, I vowed to start my own alternative aromatherapy company, for people of a like mind – and insurance coverage – to myself. “Today’s aroma is fresh pesto pizza and beer. It is best absorbed by getting it right back into your mouth-nose cavity…” I never did, because I already had a job, and because I was too relaxed by all that alternative aromatherapy. I’m keeping it in mind for my retirement though.

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