If only I had a dollar for every time someone said to me, “it’s safe because it’s natural.” I would be a very rich person. I also wouldn’t have a job, because let’s face it, if essential oils were as safe and harmless as people are being led to believe what would you need an aromatherapist for?
The truth is, while essential oils are natural and fantastic tools for improving your overall well-being, they still carry heavy risks. This “appeal to nature” is nothing more than flawed logic. “Appeal to nature” is actually the name of a very common logical fallacy. What is a logical fallacy? A logical fallacy is faulty reasoning within the construction of an argument. If the same type of flawed argument happens at an often enough rate, it’s given a name. There are numerous logical fallacies that exist, but the purpose of this post is to go over “appeal to nature,” and later I’ll briefly touch on “appeal to authority.”
When used as a fallacy, the belief or suggestion is that “natural” is always better than “unnatural.” Example:
X is natural.
Y is not natural.
Therefore, X is better than Y.
That which is natural is good, right, beautiful, etc.
X is natural.
Therefore, X is good, right, beautiful, etc.
That which is unnatural is bad, wrong, destructive, etc.
Y is unnatural.
Therefore, Y is bad, wrong, destructive, etc.
There are many things that are natural and very bad for you. Cocaine is natural. Arsenic is natural. Poison ivy is natural. No one will argue that any of these things could be good for you because they’re not, even though they are natural. There are also many unnatural things that are good for you. Most pharmaceuticals fall into the “unnatural” category because they are man-made in a lab. Despite their “unnaturalness,” they were created out of necessity. Many of them have life-saving capabilities. They may have side effects, but the benefits outweigh the risks. There are many natural things that are better than unnatural, but they must be evaluated based on other criteria besides naturalness.
In 2007, American Spirit cigarettes ran an ad titled, “It’s Only Natural,” advertising that their cigarettes were additive free and that their tobacco farmers used organic farming methods. Despite a disclaimer on the box stating that this did not mean a safer cigarette, a 2016 survey by Truth Initiative found that 64% of American Spirit smokers believed the “natural” cigarettes were less harmful. They fail to understand that the carcinogens in cigarettes that cause cancer are natural components of tobacco. But it’s natural- isn’t it?
Another major problem with this argument is that the concept of “natural” is vague. Each individual has their own “rules” as to what qualifies as natural and what doesn’t. So how do we define something so ambiguous? Despite this difficulty, the word “natural” continues to carry positive connotations, while “unnatural” carries negative connotations. So much so, that “chemical” and “toxin” have become synonymous with “unnatural” even though they, too, carry very vague and ambiguous meanings.
Scientifically speaking, chemicals are any substance consisting of matter. What did we learn in elementary school? EVERYTHING is made of matter! That means everything is a chemical. Air, water, earth, all things necessary for life are chemicals. In excess, they can all seriously harm or kill you. Essential oils are chemicals, and made up of individual chemical constituents that contain the therapeutic properties we love. In excess, they can cause reactions ranging from a simple rash to anaphylaxis. We can never escape chemicals, and we cannot escape their associated risks.
Yet, this is exactly what multi-level marketing companies are trying to sell you on. Essential oils SO pure, SO potent, SO natural that they have zero risks. Every oil is safe for every person in any modality. Chemical-free. Cure-all. The idea almost seems to contradict itself. How can such a pure, potent substance (if it is in fact as pure and potent as they claim) carry no risk? No other substance on the planet exists. There is a catch. The only people making these types of claims are multi-level marketing companies. That is, Young Living and doTERRA. They will actually claim that their oils are so pure, that they are exempt from safety standards because they are designed for “lesser oils.” The professional aromatherapy community is already well-versed on the risks that essential oils carry. For decades, we have been attempting to educate the general public on those risks, and constantly updating our own information to reflect the most current safety standards. Speaking personally, at times it feels as though I’m swimming upstream in the rapids due to the sheer volume of sales reps and “wellness advocates” peddling their bad information.
Even more unfortunate, people are still more likely to believe the information from the company because they’ve managed to hire doctors, nurses, veterinarians, and even certified aromatherapists to reassure their reps and customers what they’re doing is safe. This is where “appeal to authority” comes in. Appeal to authority is a logical fallacy in which a person is claiming that something must be true because it is believed by someone who said to be an “authority” on the subject. In this case, it is a fallacy because the claims they are making can easily be refuted by scientific evidence. It makes perfect sense that a doctor, who was hired by a major essential oil company, would tell you that it’s safe for you to drink essential oils despite all of the evidence saying otherwise, because he gets paid to say those things. People will continue to believe him because he’s an authority figure for that company. Status and authority can be helpful and meaningful, but you should always check their information with sources outside of the company they work for. Ask yourself, can the person giving me advice and information make money off of what they’re telling me?
Natural can be good. Natural can also be bad. In order to judge accurately, we need to set clear standards that evaluate a substance’s value beyond it’s naturalness. Failing to recognize the very serious risks associated with essential oils does you a disservice and only puts you in more danger. Do your research, be empowered. I hope this has been immensely educational. If you have any further questions or concerns, leave them in the comments below!