Your Lavender Oil may bring you Peace & Abundance, but it’s kinda Killing the Planet.

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Lavender oil calms our mind and helps us sleep. Sandalwood relaxes us and makes us feel all sensual-like. Rose oil lifts our mood, not to mention our wrinkles. Frankincense relieves anxiety and negative emotions.

These oils and their flowery, fruity, and forest-y counterparts have become staples in spiritual and holistic communities.

And why wouldn’t they be? They’re from the earth. They stick it to Big Pharma. They come in glass bottles, not plastic. They smell seriously tasty.

As with most things, though, there’s a bit more to the story than that.

You can’t have your rosemary-infused cake and eat it too.

On the whole, I’ve never been one for holistic remedies, but that doesn’t mean I don’t indulge my curiosity once in a while.

Do I occasionally treat myself to the dreamiest, silkiest lavender oil bath after a particularly stressful day? Sure do.

Did I go out and buy 100% pure face oil to replace my everyday moisturizer during an especially blemish-prone period of my early 20s? You bet. I even felt a little smug about the lack of chemicals I was putting on my face and the confused-to-mildly-horrified looks I got when I told people I put oil on my skin to make it healthier.

For better or worse, though, I’m a stubborn cynic, and my “belief” in these indulgences never went any further than something I liked the smell of, the feel of, or the resulting dewiness of my skin.

I never believed oils could cure my anxiety (that one is my brain’s doing), the persistent stomach problems I’ve had since I was a child (pretty sure a strict diet of chicken nuggets and bagels is to thank for that), or come anywhere close to having the pharmaceutical competence of cancer-treating drugs (I’ll circle back to that one in a minute).

A few weeks ago, I came across an article in The New Yorker called “How Essential Oils Became the Cure for our Age of Anxiety,” and after the third sentence I grabbed a pen and highlighter and got to work enthusiastically underlining and circling and unnecessarily expressing my agreement in the margins.

To grossly simplify the article, which is worth reading both if you’re a cynic like me or (perhaps even more so) if you’re a firm believer in the power of essential oils, some of the largest companies in the essential oil industry are, at best, pyramid schemes that take advantage of their most active sellers, and, at worst, dangerous and quite literally life-threatening alternative medicine businesses.

But a few sentences in particular caught my eye, and they had nothing to do with the much-debated medicinal uses of essential oils.

Instead, they were about something I’ve rarely heard contested—in fact, it’s precisely what draws many people to oils in the first place: their status as a natural, from-the-earth product that is less harmful to our bodies than mainstream makeup, medicine, and food additives.

According to the article,

“Essential oils, which are made by steam-distilling or cold-pressing plant materials, are incredibly resource-intensive to produce. It takes more than a million rose petals to make an ounce of rose oil.”

And,

“Frankincense […] is derived from the resin of trees that grow only in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. Anjanette DeCarlo, an environmental scientist who specializes in frankincense, told me, ‘If the demand keeps up without proper controls, we risk causing an ecological crash of a rare and endangered ecosystem.’”

My lavender baths and dewy skin didn’t quite feel like the smug-wrapped treats they had before.

I started to do a little more digging about the environmental impact of essential oils.

I wouldn’t say I found an overwhelming trove of the evidence of their evil, but I found enough to make me rethink using them myself, and question the way they are commonly used and marketed in the spiritual community.

Earth Island Journal echoed the sentiments in The New Yorker about the vast amount of plant needed to create a tiny amount of essential oil: 10,000 pounds of rose petals, 250 pounds of lavender, 6,000 pounds of Melissa plant, 1,500 lemons are needed to make one pound of each essential oil.

Additionally, cedarwood and two kinds of rosewood are on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and sandalwood is on the list as a vulnerable species.

So, we might (rightly) be giving ourselves a pat on the back for avoiding plastic tubes of makeup and dangerous chemicals, but have we stopped to consider the ecological cost of going au naturel?

The problems don’t end there.

We also have to consider where these oils are coming from. As stated in The New Yorker, Frankincense is derived from the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, which means it is then imported for us to use in the rest of the world. Similarly, in 2013, 496 tonnes of lavender oil and 88 tonnes of rosemary oil were imported into the U.S. alone.

That means there is fuel, emissions, storage, and transportation cost to consider as well.

Even the glass vials essential oils come in—a far cry from the horrors of plastic containers, to be sure—are problematic.

According to Earth Island Journal, some states require that any glass containers that previously contained flammable or hazardous materials (essential oils are highly flammable) be thrown in the trash, not recycled. The plastic caps and roller balls that are common for application also restrict the ability for many of these vials to be recycled, and once again they land in the regular trash.

Okay, so maybe I should chill with the oil baths, but how the hell am I supposed to relax, naturally?

Moderation is a lovely little antidote to things that are sort of good but can also be kind of bad. Using essential oils sparingly, with an awareness of their production process and contents, and understanding how to properly and responsibly dispose of them is a good place to start.

Still, I’d say we could all do with less external solutions our stress, our sensuality, our moods, and the smoothness of our skin.

What if we tried meditating, taking the time to understand what brings us pleasure (sensual or otherwise), and practicing maitri instead? Smelly-good and silky smooth things might aid the process, but if we’re touting an enlightened lifestyle, there’s a bit of hypocrisy in choosing to enlist something outside of ourselves and that harms our environment to cure our ailments.

There’s one more quotation I stumbled across, and I think it speaks for itself as one final thing to think about before we grab that next cure-all from the shelf:

“As global citizens, we have not learned how to equitably distribute vital resources like food, and water resources are trending toward a crisis of the future,” Green said. “So there are deep ethical concerns about devoting croplands to essential oils destined for use in candles, bath oils, perfumes or lavish massage and spa purposes.” ~ Mindy Green

 

Bonus: 

Relephant Reads: 

A Guide to All-Natural Body Oils.

The right Essential Oils for our Doshas.

 

Author: Emily Bartran

 

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Emily Bartran

Emily Bartran has been a Writer and Editor with Elephant Journal for five years. She has a Master’s Degree in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh and is particularly interested in exploring writing habits, authorship, and how we put the experience of modern life into words. You can find her on Instagram.

Amy Landry Aug 5, 2018 9:52am

Some considerations.... Pyramid Schemes are illegal. And they're NOT the same as direct selling companies. So important to be super clear when doing "research" in this field. But I do share your concern, I appreciate your concern. That's why doTERRA recently put a 12 month complete stop to ALL Frankincense production for 2018, to give the trees a rest. They're the only company to have done this. Additionally, they have taken oils off the market and out of their collection if they've felt it's unsustainable, for example - Rose and Jasmine (they do however now offer these oils in diluted rollers, so that we can access them, but in a much reduced load). I do wish there were a good option for recycling, I really do... and I think it'll come in the future for sure. But since the oils are highly concentrated, it takes a while to get through each bottle. So I suppose it's at the very least a good improvement on alternatives! The industry is NOT regulated, and according to the Essential Oil University, where most companies do their third party testing, approximately 75% of essential oils (even those labelled organic and 100% pure) are adulterated (contaminated or fake). So like all industries, it sadly isn't black and white. I think if we can at least use the best product with the most ethical company then we're doing the best when can at this stage.

Kim Green Patrick-Chapman Apr 16, 2018 1:43pm

I am committed to the use of Essential Oils and living my life as chemical-free as possible. I use oils in multiple ways every day and feel confident doing so. Yes, some oils are resource intensive and come to us from outside of the USA. However, the oils I use are grown on farms owned by our supplier, that employ the local people, and give back to the communities. They are pure, controlled, and ruthlessly scrutinized to meet Seed To Seal standards. There are companies and importers who are more focused on the profit margin than helping people live healthier lifestyles. They do not promote humanitarian efforts or endeavour to give back more than they take. If you are embarking on an oily journey, I believe it is your responsibility to do your research, choose those who set the standards, and strive to improve and enrich this precious gift we have been given, healthy living.

Marisa Zocco Jan 8, 2018 4:50am

This story is my jam. I love that it questions the ethics that go into producing things that seem as if they would naturally be responsibly manufactured, and how it gently placed the burden of easing our stresses and treating our "imperfections" on our internal habits rather than our external application of consumed items. Thank you!

Leana Lovejoy Jan 8, 2018 4:00am

This article is incomplete in perspective - honestly - the worst offender in "agriculture" is by far animal farming... many plants grown for essential oils are native plants, that are well adapted to the eco system therefore not needing irrigation or many garden inputs, far more "sustainable" than intensively farming soybeans and corn. Medicines are essential to human health, the bland diet provided by standard produce secitons of any market are not close to providing the complex nutritional inputs that bring peak health in a human body. I'm disappointed in this article and imagine it is somewhat industry driven....

Debrah L. Roemisch Jan 6, 2018 10:24pm

There is an alternative that is safer for you and the planet: infused oils instead. They are much safer, take less resources and are easy to make at home. I used a pint of olive oil with a few handfuls of lavendar from my garden and have plenty of oil for my use. I dry it also and use in sachets or for tea. Same for other plants--peppermint is easy to grow and dry or infuse. Even if you do not have a yard you can grow several herbs in containers in a sunny window. Use herbs the way humans have used them since the beggining of humanity instead of expensive, and potentially unsafe EO's!

Bree Kahmann Jan 6, 2018 10:56am

I usually love your articles but this one I am so disappointed in. The article is poorly researched and just an opinion with no evidence to back up the claims. Before slandering the Essential Oil companies do your research. Majority of oils are produced and sold tor the perfume industry not for essential oil companies. The essential oil companies you targeted without naming actually support the communities in third world countries to have a better quality of life. They provide jobs, fresh water, healthcare and pay decent wages to the growers and don't deplet the supplies. If your gonna target companies target all the one that are producing your fragranced mass consumer beauty products

Melina Powers Jan 6, 2018 3:44am

It is true that some essential oils require a lot of plant materials to make even though it varies greatly with each plant. Roses do require more than most oils (about 60,000 roses are required to make an ounce of oil). This is partly why rose oil is the one of the most expensive oils. However, the distillation process makes other products in the process as well like hydrosols so not much goes to waste. Other essential oils don't require as much plant material to make either. If done organically or wildcrafted sustainably, essential oils are something I stand behind. One drop is often all you may use of a rose oil anyway, if you are fortunate to have some. It lasts for a very long time. I don't stand behind any of the multilevel marketing essential oil industries as I have pointed out several times before on this site because they aren't organic, etc. I certainly will continue to encourage folks to use products like this over chemicals and petrochemical laden products that cause so much actual harm though. Quality essential oils are a huge improvement upon this and are used in such tiny amounts too. When they are used skillfully they are quite safe and medicinal. So I think people can continue to feel smug if they use them instead of products that are made of chemicals and are cruelly tested on animals (I mean more accurately they can feel proud, nourished, and like they made a better choice).

Dorothy Wilson Jan 4, 2018 1:03pm

Thanks for your article. It's making me think about what I use and from whom I purchase.

Roxanne Nelson Jan 3, 2018 4:21pm

Doreen Fleming I am also an RN! Although I am no longer working as one as I am now a medical writer. And yes, I am also skeptical about Western medicine, especially as it is practiced in the US. But unlike in England and Canada, we do not have any sort of universal healthcare, and many people have no insurance or have minimal insurance, or their deductible (out of pocket expenses before the insurance kicks in) is so high that they may as well not have insurance. So at least in the US, many do turn to self care and home remedies, for reasons of cost. The ideal is to be able to work with a practitioner who is open to both schools of healthcare (Western and natural), to help the patient with optimal healing. I see that you are in BC--I am just south of the border in WA.

Emily Bartran Jan 3, 2018 2:27pm

Maryanne Bower you are correct ;)

Doreen Fleming Jan 3, 2018 7:32am

Roxanne Nelson I agree completely with you about the article which is why I commented in the first place. I have been an RN in the UK and Canada with over 25 years of bedside nursing in all areas including critical care , med/surg and gerontology. I have also worked a number of years in various administrative positions. I am lucky in that my GP listens to me as I sometimes have information and perspective that he doesn't and so I am involved all the way in any medical intervention I need, which has not been a lot mind you. I am sceptical of western medicine although I have great respect for the ability they have with acute illnesses. I just don't think we do well with chronic ailments. Researching medication side effects is a scary business and I know that e.g. the push on statins is now showing to be damaging in the lates research and not the panacea promised. However, I also get worried when I see people asking what oils to use for cellulitis, kids eye infection and other things that do need a physician to be involved. The amount of people putting forward remedies without asking if it has been seen by a professional is quite alarming.

Doreen Fleming Jan 3, 2018 7:20am

There are companies that sell organic essential oils which at least have a measurement. doTera sells "therapeutic grade" and although they do testing, there is not an actual standard for what this grading means. Prices from doTerra are overall up tp 100% more than other reputable sellers such as Rocky Mountain Oils (RMO), Mountain Rose Herbs, Florihana and Aromatics International. And, e.g. RMO allows you to input batch numbers and obtain all of the information on GC/MS testing. I researched around 10 companies, including doTerra and Young Living, and found 4 others that I would order from as their standards are high and testing results readily available on the web pages. They sell organic or wildcrafted from sustainable farming producers. Overall, if you were to spend $600 to $750 on certified organic or wild crafted oils in those companies, the doTerra price runs to $1,350 (based on 25 common essential oils, same sizes) for what they term therapeutic grade, and they didn't have all of the info on the oils that the other companies provide on tests on their web sites.

Maryanne Bower Jan 3, 2018 5:40am

Emily Bartran ...ERM...it's "impetus".. just saying.

Kara Louise Jan 3, 2018 1:18am

This is exactly the reason to select your EO company carefully. My chosen company, YL, has a very thoughtful sustainable approach. Detailed info here: https://www.youngliving.com/en_US/discover/seed-to-seal#sourcing%3Fsponsorid=1714914&enrollerid=1714914 Your information about pyramid schemes is also incorrect. Pyramid schemes, are for one, illegal. It means the person "on top" makes the most money. There are many individuals in direct sales/multilevel marketing who are making more than people in their team who came before them.

Nathan Hall Jan 2, 2018 11:17pm

Responding to a few comments regarding the sustainability practiced by some companies. That is great, and we should all support companies practicing sustainability, but regardless a lot of resources are used. Just the water alone to produce "10,000 pounds of rose petals, 250 pounds of lavender, 6,000 pounds of Melissa plant, 1,500 lemons", just to produce 4 pounds of oil is significant. A different way to look at it came up in a conversation I had with a vegan friend. I said that I mainly ate locally produced, ethically treated, organic meat as my justification for being a meat eater. He reminded me that though it was comendable, the other big issue is the significant amount of resources used to create a very small amount of food. He was right, but I still eat meat, though I do try to limit it.

Roxanne Nelson Jan 2, 2018 8:14pm

Janelle Knotts I also use peppermint oil for headaches! I have a "peppermint want" which lets me press the oil against my head at specific pressure points. I use a lot of essential oils, and I take time to research the company and source. This type of article is extremely unhelpful at best and misleading at worst.

Leslie Knotts Jan 2, 2018 8:09pm

When I say professional health, I do not mean to say it's not natural to seek counseling. By all means, if it's necessary, please seek professional health, but don't be quick to reach for the pills when there are more natural and unharmful ways of overcoming.

Leslie Knotts Jan 2, 2018 8:07pm

I agree, Roxanne. Although I'm nowhere close to being an expert on essential oils I am an expert on MY anxiety and what helps me. I hear a lot of people say that it's important to get prescribed medication (get professional health) but it's not natural. And we don't know what harmful chemicals are being added. Honestly, I stopped taking aspirin because my boyfriend told me it's thinning my blood and that's why I'm cold all the time. I am prone to headaches. So now I'll reach for my peppermint essential oil and I won't feel guilty about that. I'll only feel relief since I chose to make a healthier choice.

Nicole Wubben Jan 2, 2018 7:31pm

Thank you for pointing that out Todd. Both doTerra and Young Living, based on my understanding, have stringent sustainability practices in place. Often an oil will be unavailable for long periods of time largely due to sustainability practices. The earth provides everything we need for our health and vitality, essential oils are a gift provided to us; the earth takes care of us if we take care of the earth. That is why I would only buy from either DoTerra or Young Living, taking care of the earth is part of their production practices. (I'm sure there may be other legitmate providers but I have not researched others as completely as these 2)

Roxanne Nelson Jan 2, 2018 6:18pm

You can't just dismiss all essential oils as bad for the planet, or that everyone is using bad practices. Its like anything you buy--some companies use organic or wild sourced. Much of it is sustainable practice. Consumers need to pay attention to what they buy, and that goes for any product you buy. Articles like this are extremely one sided and rather than being helpful, just may dissuade people from using a valuable product. Perhaps a broader view, and offering information on how to choose the best essential oils, and the ones that are not detrimental to the environment, would have been a much better angle.

Todd C Schuett Jan 2, 2018 6:00pm

Aside from the hyperbole of the title (toxic masculinity will likely destroy the planet long before essential oils), I'm glad you've brought awareness to this issue. I'm a wellness advocate for doTerra, one of the "pyramid schemes" mentioned in your article. I use EOs every day, and I am also very concerned about the sustainability of their production. What I found unfortunate is that neither you nor the New Yorker article mentioned that at least one of the major essential oils producers is also concerned about sustainability and has practices in place to ensure that the plants, flowers and trees used to produce the oils are not over-harvested. Sadly, not all oil producers are the same. If the sustainability of EO production is important enough to write about, rather than a one-sided flippant dismissal of EOs altogether, why not call for people to pressure the producers to adopt sustainable production methods?

Elizabeth Pickett Gray Jan 2, 2018 5:18pm

Thank you Emily for your intresting article, and an opening into all things green are not always good for us. Your thoughts on "some of the largest companies in the essential oil industry are, at best, pyramid schemes that take advantage of their most active sellers, and, at worst, dangerous and quite literally life-threatening alternative medicine businesses" is a concern of mine as well. I own a company called PHbotanical and make small batch organic skin produts by hand, and it is important to do the research, finding the right as well as ethical company to buy from is formost in my mind as well as the list of threatened species of oils. I cringe when people tell me they are selling (and why don't I buy) essentail oils from the pyramid companies that claim to be the best on the market. And I say to them, just because it's in a pretty package does not make it good for you.

Doreen Fleming Jan 2, 2018 4:01pm

Emily Bartran I think you mean “impetus”

Valerie Jabin Alon Jan 2, 2018 2:50pm

Interesting article, Emily. I am a sceptic to begin and "there is no free lunch". I relax with a glass of wine in the evening--so shoot me :) By the way, the expression is "You can't eat your cake and have it too." Techincially, it is possible to have your cake (for some period of time) and then eat it, but not the reverse. Happy New Year !

Emily Bartran Jan 2, 2018 2:11pm

I agree, Doreen! This is by no means an extensive study, just something that will hopefully be an impetus, like you said, to get people thinking about these questions, doing the research before purchasing, and being mindful consumers :)