The rampant BS in essential oil marketing

…because I always come away from a Pinterest trip with something I have to write a PSA about! I’m sure this will piss off at least some of my readership, but this stuff has been ridiculous for a while now.

Y’all, there is no such thing as “therapeutic grade” essential oil. There is no governing body that grades essential oils and there is no standard definition of “therapeutic grade” or any other grade. Any company can decide to put “therapeutic grade” on their bottles. It’s totally freakin’ meaningless, and in fact, just speaking for myself, when I see a bottle of essential oil labeled “therapeutic grade,” my trust of the company goes down several notches, because it’s bullshit and they either know it, or they don’t know enough about what they’re selling to take their word on anything.

And if you see a blog telling you there are four grades of essential oils, I will bet you cash money that they are shilling for one of the big multilevel marketing setups that typically price their oils at least four times higher than typical quality retail brands. They use language like “therapeutic grade” to try to justify the markup, but I promise you, this is just marketing crap. Those oils are not some kind of ultra-elite anything, and they aren’t worth what they want you to pay for them. And the claim that “grade A” is organic and therapeutic grade, and “grade B” is food grade and could contain synthetics and contaminants… just click out when you see that bullshit. That’s garbage. People are just making shit up.

Now I believe those bloggers probably believe what they’re saying. There’s a lot of psychology going on here. I’m not saying it’s the bloggers necessarily who are lying to you – at least not on purpose. They have faith in this company or else they wouldn’t go to all the trouble. But that doesn’t mean they have the slightest idea what they’re talking about. The rhetoric that floats around, too often with bad advice, is dangerous. And if you believe these companies are angelic entities with humanity’s best interest, and not their corporate bottom line, at the heart of what they do, well, you’re drinking the Kool-Aid, and I suggest you put it down.

I also took a tour through the first 25 Amazon reviews of an essential oil set from a reputable and recognizable essential oil retailer. Absolutely zero percent of those 25 reviews were written by someone who knew enough to justly evaluate an essential oil. The criteria by which they judged the oil were nearly universally stupid and all over the map. Reviews like this are worse than useless as real data or any kind of yardstick of quality.

Also, don’t consume essential oils because some random website told you to. (Or at all.) No, that is not how your ancestors overcame illness. Your ancestors used the *whole plant* – not necessarily the whole thing from root to flower in every case for every blend, but the point is they did not use isolated compounds or massively concentrated distillations of only part of the plant’s constituent profile. They used the actual plants with their actual phytochemicals to make teas and salves and liniments and baths and such so that the infusion, decoction, etc. contained numerous active components that *worked together synergistically* in ways we still only barely understand. That is so far away from taking an aromatherapy essential oil internally that my head just about explodes when I see people recommending you ingest essential oils. That can kill you.

(I’m going to save for later the rant about how the trendiness of essential oils has contributed to some massive sustainability problems and ecological crises and exploitation, because that rant needs to come along with specific and practical discussion of alternatives as well as some historical, agricultural, and *chemical* context, and that’s gonna require significant time and research. But for now I’ll just say that the essential oil craze has actually been devastating to the environment, and I think everybody interested in rootwork needs to spend some time thinking about things like ethical sourcing as well as whole-plant infusion as an alternative to all-essential-oils-all-the-time, and choosing native/regionally available herbs and roots. Your great-great grandparents most certainly were not using essential oils to make up their medicines or condition oils or baths, and it’s unlikely that were they importing expensive, rare resins and spices from other countries. They were using what they could go out and gather. We’ve really developed a kind of perverse concept of essential oils as some “pure essence” of a plant, and this related idea that one plant is the Ideal for a certain thing and there’s nothing better anywhere, so we should get it by any means necessary and totally ignore what’s growing right under our noses in our regions. Nothing could be further from the truth.)

Bottom line: there’s a lot of freakin’ garbage out there. Some of it is just common obfuscation for the sake of marketing, but some of it is straight up dangerous. Some of the BS being circulated comes from well-meaning but gullible people who have believed a bunch of hype and overestimated the ethical character of the companies they shill for. You shouldn’t take their advice and you probably shouldn’t follow their recipes without doing some of your own research with reputable sources, either (esp. if they talk about “toxins” and “chemicals” a lot in really vague, sweeping terms, think you should put essential oil in your kid’s pancakes, and don’t think body products need preservatives).

And don’t just take my word for it, either. After all, I’m not a an aromatherapist or herbalist or a botanist or a scientist of any stripe at all. Go see what credentialed experts have to say about this stuff – not “momwithablog74” who wants you to buy a certain brand of incredibly expensive essential oil. Go see what trained aromatherapists think and how naturopaths feel about all this and what medicinal plant conservationists recommend, and while you’re at it, what the FDA and the Better Business Bureau have had to say.

If you’re going to use essential oils, you should know what the deal is, both in terms of the quality and ethics of the company whose product you use and in terms of the global status of the plant the oil comes from. Don’t contribute to ecological crises (or cultural theft) and don’t give your money to dishonest companies who use misleading marketing techniques. They are trying to swindle you.

recent reading roundup: Mithridates’ Universal Antidote and St. John’s Wort

Adrienne Mayor, “Mithridates of Pontus and His Universal Antidote,” in Toxicology in Antiquity (2nd ed.), 2019, 161-174.

Mithridates hypothesized that tiny doses of poisons could be ingested over time in carefully increasing amounts and thus ultimately make the body capable of tolerating larger doses that would normally be fatal – a dose-dependent protective mechanism, akin to modern vaccines. (He was right, about some chemicals at least – we call it hormesis, if you’re keen to learn more.)

Mithridates’ recipe for his inoculating toxin brew reportedly contained tons of things, from herbs to toxic skink skin to blood from a breed of poisonous ducks. It most likely also contained St. John’s Wort (hypericum). Mayor writes:

“Molecular scientists have recently discovered hypericum’s remarkable antidote effect, not yet completely understood. The herb activates the liver to produce a potent enzyme that is capable of neutralizing a great many potentially dangerous chemicals—as well as prescribed drugs for various conditions.”

Well, Mithridates lived into his 70s in an age when the life expectancy was around 45, surviving numerous assassination attempts, taking his toxin brew daily, and thriving, by all accounts — at least until he commited suicide in 63 BCE.

Thea Summer Deer and Wisdom of the Plant Devas, chicken poop, Ghost Pipe, Emily Dickinson

I don’t really have time for a real blog post, never mind a book review [*], but I wanted to make a quick recommendation for Thea Summer Deer’s blog and book, Wisdom of the Plant Devas. This is going to sound like some woo-woo stuff to some folks, and I freely admit to being one of those who was extremely skeptical about flower essences and homeopathy and such for a very long time. And despite my work with and interest in herbs, I don’t write about herbal medicine much because I’m not qualified to and I don’t want anybody taking my advice on anything when it comes to *consuming* herbs. You need to get that information from someone with formal qualifications whom you have vetted. Herbs can heal but they can also kill.

But I’ve taken the long way round to giving some of the more woo-woo-sounding stuff a second, slower look over recent years, and I’ve backed way, way up on my tendency to scoff and think “can’t be bothered” when I encounter it. And I recently stumbled across her blog, and from there her book, when looking for information on the very rare and very weird Ghost Pipe,[**] which my mother recently called to tell me she found growing on her property.

I also don’t have time to quote or really review the book right now, but I’ve never seen anything quite like it. While I regularly bristle at Westerners co-opting concepts like karma and devas and using them shallowly and irresponsibly, what emerges from her work as she’s talking about the spirits of the plants is authenticity, a hell of a lot of knowledge and experience, and a deep, deep respect. She talks about and works with these plants like an old-school rootworker who happens to be conversant in Chinese medicine. Don’t be turned off by the occasional New-Age-seeming imagery or mentions of contemporary Wicca-esque stuff. This book is a lot deeper than its cover. She cites her sources even on the blog like an actual scholar instead of a typical lazy blogger, though both are very readable and never stuffy or dry; the blog has lots of thought-provoking and free info; and the book itself is surprisingly affordable.

Definitely worth a look if you’re into this kind of thing at all.


[*] Still scrambling to deal with twingey back, hurricane recovery, communication backlog, order backlog, injured rooster (who hates people), sick hen (whose most visible symptom is extraordinarily stinky and runny poop, and the chicken hospital is inside our house, so I’m scrubbing in there multiple times a day), a partner who’s thrown *his* back out now, the usual everyday garden/land/home maintenance, my own trainwrecks of grief (please, loved ones, stop dying), and supplier issues (when pandemics, hurricanes and such happen, the stuff I need to make the things folks order doesn’t always show up when it’s supposed to, or at all in rare cases, and this is an aspect of my shipping/handling times, too).

Sorry there’s poop in the picture, but she did that after I stabilized the camera but before the photograph was actually saved on my phone. And it startled me, and I unstabilized the camera, hence the lousy photo quality. But Hi Top the Usually Genial, Now the Seriously Grumpy Mascot of Seraphin Station lives. Not exactly in splendor at the moment, but God willing, in gradually improving health. Really, really smelly gradually improving health.

[**] Also known as ghost plant, corpse plant, or Indian pipe, it seems like kind of a wildflower and kind of a fungus. In fact it’s technically a mycotrophic wildflower, which exists only in a three-way symbiotic relationship. It has no chlorophyll but gets nutrients from tree roots, but it does so indirectly via myccorhizal fungi growing near the roots. It’s ghost white, but if you pick it, it will turn black. Basically, it’s weird as hell and extremely cool. Read more about its medicinal uses at American Herbalists Guild. Emily Dickinson even wrote about it in an unpublished poem you can see at the Morgan Library and Museum’s website. Read a bit more at the blog Emily Dickinson’s Garden. For a scientific but very readable explanation of how the nutrient situation shapes up, see Tom Volk’s Fungus of the Month for October 2002.