You might have noticed an uptick in articles, posts, and social media chatter about essential oils in the last few years. I know I have. Until a few years ago, I’d never heard of essential oils being touted as a cure or treatment for anything, aside from maybe a stuffy nose. Health food stores sold them in wooden racks, hippies used them as perfumes, crafty types used them to scent homemade candles. Like stone lanterns or Nag Champa incense, essential oils were a home accessory for homes with Tibetan prayer flags on the premises. Especially if the residents weren’t Tibetans.
Fast forward to today. I know at least two women who’ve sold essential oils through Facebook. Both are Christians, with nary a prayer flag in their homes. Because I have small children, I’ve been informed (occasionally by strangers) that vaccines are not as effective at preventing disease as, say, a blend of melaleuca and lemon oils. And sales are booming––up from $55 million in 2015 to $133 million in 2018.
Where is this coming from? How did essential oils make the leap into mainstream (or mainstream-adjacent) society? Why are essential oils so popular now, especially among Christian stay-at-home moms? Most importantly, why are these oils considered a treatment for everything from autism to cancer?
What Are Essential Oils?
An essential oil is an oil extracted from a plant that contains the plant’s “essential” or characteristic fragrance. Essential oils can be made from barks, leaves, rinds, and flowers. They are usually extracted by distilling the plant using steam, though they can also be cold pressed, ram pressed, or slow folded, depending on the plant.
Essential oils are very aromatic. A few drops of oil can stink up a room for hours. Because they’re so concentrated, a little goes a long way. They can be used to scent lip balms, bath bombs, and other cosmetics.
Essential oils can be dangerous to ingest, especially in large quantities, and can cause rashes or even allergic reactions when applied to the skin, especially if they’re not diluted in a carrier oil. The following oils are not safe to ingest:
- Oil of wintergreen is chemically related to aspirin. A small amount of wintergreen oil can be fatal to children. Oils are rapidly absorbed in the body, which can lead to children being poisoned and falling ill very rapidly.
- Pennyroyal oil is poisonous to the liver.
- Eucalyptus oil, camphor oil, and sage oil can cause seizures if swallowed. Camphor oil is especially dangerous, and cause cause seizures within minutes of absorption. According to the National Capital Poison Center, “amphor poisoning also occurred when skin preparations containing camphor were applied repeatedly on children – more frequently than the label recommended and/or covered up with extra clothing.”
- Nutmeg, and nutmeg oils, can cause hallucinations, nausea, and vomiting if too much is ingested.
A Short, Incomplete History of Oils as Medicine
This “trend” is the latest iteration of a phenomenon that spans multiple religions and civilizations. Anointing (≈ blessing, treating) with oil was practiced across the ancient Near East. Ancient Egyptians [PDF], Greeks, and Jews all used oils for a wide variety of purposes: to prepare food, to make perfumes and cosmetics, to treat illnesses, perform religious rituals, and confer status on the anointed recipient.
Anointing with oils is mentioned throughout the Bible. The Book of Exodus includes detailed instructions on how to make oil to anoint priests, as well as “the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant law, the table and all its articles, the lampstand and its accessories, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the basin with its stand.” Several books in the Old Testament, including Leviticus and Numbers, contain painstaking enumerations of when and when not to use oils in offerings to God, how much must be used, and when it should be used during the offering.
Anointing oils are prominent in several of the gospels. The Good Samaritan poured oil and wine into the wounds of the injured man before bringing him to the inn. When Jesus sends out the twelve apostles, they “drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” And when a sinful woman pours perfume on Jesus’ head, he admonishes the Pharisee who scoffs at her, saying, “You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.”
These anointing oils were probably not pure essential oils, which can be caustic when applied directly to the skin. Some of the more elaborate anointing oils, such as the anointing oil described in Exodus, contain ground spices that would have given the oil a strong scent. Essential oils are quite time consuming and expensive to extract, so they would be used for special purposes, which may or may not include healing
Why was oil so widespread as a treatment for illnesses? Have oils proven to be useful in treating illnesses or infections? Generally speaking, no––especially when we’re talking about serious, chronic conditions, such as asthma or cancer.
Anointing with oils never went away. The Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches still use oils to bring comfort and strength to the sick, to anoint clergy, and to bless the newly baptized and confirmed. The Anglican Church still practices holy unction, including royal unction, i.e. anointing a new king or queen with holy oil before their coronation. These rituals are not as prominent in Protestant denominations––many, in fact, do not practice it at all. Perhaps this is why so many Protestants and Evangelicals have cottoned onto the essential oils craze, out of a desire for this sort of ritual in their life.
Anointing and healing oils aren’t limited to the Occident. The Buddhist “eye-opening” ceremony sanctifies a painting or statue by “painting in the sculpture’s pupils, pricking the eyes with a pin, or anointing the eyes with a liquid such as oil.” Oils are also used in ayurvedic (traditional Indian) medicine, e.g. in “oil pulling” mouthwash, where a person swishes oil around in their mouth for up to twenty minutes, in order to “pull” toxins and debris out of the mouth.
Many newer religious movements have adopted oils into their rituals and practices. Mormon priests use oils to anoint the sick. Some neopagans and wiccans also use oils in their spells and rituals, often using blends of different herbs to attract a desired outcome or result. And plenty of new age belief systems and movements have used oils––essential or otherwise––in their practices.
“There is no new thing under the sun.”
Today’s #oilymama may be misguided, but she’s reaching back to something ancient, whether she knows it or not. A Jungian might say this arises from our collective unconscious, an instinctive or primal return to the “old ways” during a time of uncertainty. Some people embrace more ancient treatments and cures, even if they’re far less effective than what’s new, out of a distrust of the medical and pharmaceutical industries.
Why now? I don’t think there’s any one answer. Multi-level marketing companies, such as doTERRA and Young Living, encourage this trend, selling through social networks and close-knit church communities. Political and cultural uncertainty play a role, though it’s hard to tease out exactly how. Growing distrust of modern medicine leads people to look for alternatives, even if they’re not very effective. All these trends combine together to create a perfect storm for essential oils to serve a quasi-spiritual, quasi-medicinal role similar to the one it served in antiquity.
I grew up in a hippie-filled town, and went to Catholic school for nearly a decade. Still the religious, cultural, and medicinal significance of oils escaped me. They were simply not around while I was a kid. The hippies I knew stuck to light Buddhism, meditation, crystals, bentonite clay in a glass of water. Essential oils were around, but not a huge part of day-to-day life. I never remember oils being used during mass, or discussed during religion class. Lorenzo’s oil is the closest thing I can think of––a “miracle oil” that could help young people with chronic, degenerative disease, although clinical trial results have been mixed. Why essential oils are popular now, and weren’t then, is not entirely clear, but in the long run, they’re not going anywhere.