Essential Oils: Medicine or Marketing?

It seems there is an essential oil for everything. Oncoming cold? Use peppermint. Anxiety or trouble sleeping? Use lavender. Troublesome acne? Use tea tree oil. The cure for cancer? Ask some people, and they will say essential oils. As essential oils’ popularity has grown, so have the claims surrounding what they can do.

Still, even with all this hype, most people will agree that it’s highly unlikely essential oils are going to do much against something like cancer. But, if you’re anything like myself, you’re probably left wondering, what can essential oils do? With this much talk, it can’t all be nothing, but it’s also hard to figure out where the limits of essential oils’ benefits are.


Separating the Fact from Fiction

The first thing to know about the healing benefits of essential oils, is there is actually very little research into what they can really do. Many of the tall claims you hear about their amazing, life-altering properties don’t have substantial research to back them up. The second thing to know is that this doesn’t mean all the proclaimed benefits are fake. The reality of essential oils lies somewhere between crackpot medicine and a magical cure-all.

Part of the reason so many messages are floating around about what essential oils can and cannot do, is how they are marketed and distributed. Rachel Monroe discusses this system in-depth in an article for The New Yorker, but suffice it to say, many essential oils are sold by individuals working for a couple large companies. What this means is there are a lot of people who are really into essential oils saying a lot of things without much regulation. When it comes down to it, claims that essential oils can cure complex ailments like depression or cancer shouldn’t be taken as fact. This shouldn’t deter you from what you can get from essential oils, however.


So, What are the Benefits?

Essential oils aren’t about to solve the most serious of issues, but they do still have benefits. Herbal medicine and aromatherapy have been around for a long time for good reason. Just like a hot toddy truly does soothe symptoms of a cold, the scents and compounds of essential oils have legitimate benefits. Scent is a powerful thing and there is a definite link between stimulating the right smell receptors and reaping some emotional and even physiological benefits. For instance, if you love the scent of lavender, smelling it will give you a pick-me-up as the smell can trigger chemical messages that make you feel happy and calm. Will it cure depression? Probably not. Can it calm you down, relax you, and help set you up for sleep? Certainly.

Beyond the connections of smell and mood, there are some studies showing certain connections between essential oils and physical ailments. For instance, tea tree oil has been linked to helping with acne and peppermint oil might ease symptoms of digestive issues and IBS. These studies are still early and neither claims the oils are a cure, but there are true benefits when it comes to easing moods and symptoms.

Ultimately, there is a reason traditional herbal remedies and aromatherapy are still around, and it’s the same reason essential oils are popular: for the right situation, they do work! While you shouldn’t look at essential oils as a cure-all, there are many things you want them on hand for, from adding scents to soaps and lotions to using diffusers or creating home versions of vic’s vapor rub or natural sleep aids. At best, you’ll find some scents that soothe aches and help lift your spirits, and at worst, your home and life will smell really great.




For an in-depth read on the distribution system of essential oils, check out:

“How Essential Oils Became the Cure for Our Age of Anxiety” by Rachel Monroe, The New Yorker, October 9, 2017.


For more information on the science of essential oils, check out:

“The Science of Essential Oils: Does Using Scents Make Sense?” by Cari Nierenberg, LiveScience, September 2, 2015.


Myths About the Paper vs. Plastic Question

You’re at the grocery store and you get asked, “paper or plastic?” Most people have a standby option they believe is better, whether that’s thinking paper is more recyclable or plastic can be reused for garbage bags. But, is one actually better than the other? To settle this debate, I debunked two myths about the plastic vs. paper debate to help you decide, once and for all, which way to go.


MYTH: Paper is better than plastic

Over time, paper bags have garnered the reputation of being the better alternative when asked the perennial question “paper or plastic?” However, the reality is that paper bags really aren’t much better. While paper bags are easier to recycle and have about 50% more capacity than a plastic bag, the energy it takes to make a paper bag is more than the energy required for plastic bag. Just making the paper alone consumes huge amounts of energy (including fossil fuel based energy) before it even gets to the stage of becoming an actual bag, outweighing some of the benefits of recycling.


MYTH: Plastic bags aren’t recyclable

Luckily this myth is false! There is nothing in plastic bags that prevents them from being recycled. However, before you get too excited, recycling plastic bags is an arduous process that requires re-melting and re-casting the bags. This process uses less energy than making new bags, but the quality of the plastic is “downcycled,” meaning the plastic is not as viable and is therefore rarely made into new bags. Just because the bags do not turn into new bags does not make them entirely useless, as they can be turned into raw materials for other plastic-based products, but recycling plastic bags is not a perfect fix.


Ultimately, experts almost unanimously agree that reusable canvas bags are the way to go over plastic or paper! Beyond the obvious that they can be used again and again, reusable bags are stronger, sturdier, and carry more than paper or plastic, meaning less trips to get all the groceries in from the car. Reusable bags are not the solution to all plastic waste, but using them can be a small step in reducing the nearly 380 billion plastic bags we use every year in this country.


For more information on the “plastic versus paper” debate, check out:

"Paper of Plastic? A Look at the Facts, Myths and Numbers of Shopping Bags" by Collin Dunn, Huffington Post, July 16, 2008