Essential oils and the art of using pleasant-smelling liquids to cure health problems is enjoying a renaissance in popularity once again. While it could be easy to argue it's just another harmless (if not misleading) health fad, essential oils can pose an immediate danger if you have pets or kids in the house.
Earlier this year, a Facebook post caused a freak out among animal lovers after claiming a cat was poisoned by eucalyptus oil used in a diffuser. Fortunately, Ernie the cat has since recovered, but he reportedly suffered from some fairly worrying symptoms.
"The first couple days I didn't notice any symptoms with Ernie, but on the fourth day, he was lethargic, unstable on his feet and was drooling excessively," the Facebook post (since deleted) explained.
After this post went viral, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) released a statement to back up this account, explaining how some essential oils can cause cats to suffer from unsteadiness on the feet, depression, a drop in body temperature, vomiting, and diarrhea. The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center also lists essential oils as one of the most common toxicologic causes of tremors in cats.
“All pet owners should be careful about exposing their animals to essential oils,” Tina Wismer, the medical director for the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, told Snopes, a fact-checking website.
It isn’t just cats that can be at risk. Pet birds and dogs can also have a rough time if they ingest, inhale, or have skin contact with numerous types of essential oils.
“Cats have more sensitivity to many toxins, including essential oils, than dogs do, because they have fewer metabolizing enzymes in their liver. With that said, dogs can develop the same symptoms as cats,” added Wismer.
Essential oils are also pretty dangerous around young kids. Due to their pleasant scents, young children can be attracted to essential oils and, kids being kids, can injest them and get sick. One US poison center reported that toxic exposures to these oils doubled between 2011 and 2015.
"The rule of thumb in toxicology is 'the dose makes the poison,' so all essential oils are potentially harmful," said Dr Justin Loden, from Vanderbilt University Medical Center's Tennessee Poison Center, according to WebMD.
Besides anything else, essential oils and aromatherapy have little-to-no scientifically backed health benefits. Obviously, there's nothing wrong with using lavender oil to freshen up your house and soothe your nerves. After all, it smells good and there’s some scientific evidence to say it can soothe stress or lightly tweak your mood, but lavender oil and peppermint are not going to remedy any serious health problems.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has regularly scolded online peddlers of essential oil for massively misleading claims about how their products can prevent asthma, autism, PTSD, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, paralysis, dementia, cancer, and even Ebola, to name just a few. None of these claims have any scientific evidence to back them up.
In 2012, scientists carried out a systematic review of 201 published studies on essential oils and concluded: “The evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.”
In the words of satirical news site The Onion: “No oil can cure cancer. You need high-quality crystals for that.”