About a month ago, a woman named Elise Nguyen took to Facebook to share images of distressing burns on her skin, in a now-viral post that rapidly made its way through the online health and wellness community, and no doubt found its way into the halls of hospitals around the country.
It turns out that Nguyen had applied doTerra essential oils to her neck and wrists before heading off to a hot yoga class, and finishing her day in a tanning bed, which caused the irritations. “Over the next couple of days, I developed nasty blisters due to a chemical burn,” she wrote. “Turns out, there is a teeny tiny caution on the oil that states ‘stay out of sunlight or UV rays for up to 12 hours after application’ or something like that. I developed second and third-degree burns from the oils.”
While that ‘teeny tiny caution’ on doTerra’s label is indeed small (it’s a small bottle, after all), and while I’m not going to talk about doTerra’s oils specifically, this entire incident with Nguyen’s skin acts as its own cautionary tale on why it is so, so important to read those instructions carefully, and, most importantly, to not assume that just because a product is 100% natural, that it is automatically 100% safe.
I’d be remiss if i didn’t say that this story left me a little disheartened: As a very science-minded nurse anesthetist who has spent the better part of a decade finding ways to bring medicine and natural remedies into a harmonious and symbiotic relationship (and working to have essential oil therapy to be taken seriously as a complementary practice) stories like Nguyen’s, and the stories that spread like wildfire through an already info-addled social internet, serve to undermine that fight for legitimacy. And here’s why:
In the modern, western society, age-old conventional medical wisdom and the medicines that are produced on the basis of that wisdom very often get a free pass when these sorts of accidents occur, and that’s because it’s common understanding that any pill you take that has been recommended by a pharmacist or prescribed by a doctor carries the possibility of adverse side effects.
Natural remedies are an entirely different ball game. This is a new area with uncharted territories. There’s also an immediate assumption that the term ‘natural’ is synonymous with ‘good’, which is synonymous with ‘safe’, and that’s just not the case. Just like any other thing that affects the body, whether it be food or medicine, natural remedies can have adverse effects. These are often very rare, and very, very dependent on either an individual’s unique body chemistry, or a freak sequence of factors (like in Nguyen’s case, hopping from undiluted oil application to hot yoga to a concentrated UV ray bath).
Another problem too often associated with ‘natural medicine’ is that it is populated with uninformed practitioners and devotees who lack even a basic scientific foundation, causing them to act with abandon, sometimes with deadly results (remember the mother who starved her infant to death on a vegan diet?). The internet is inundated with bogus claims that can be accessed instantly, anywhere, and for free — which means that misguided information gets into the water and undercuts the credible information that legitimate practitioners are trying to convey.
At Soothing Scents, we know how important communicating all of this is. When I sit down with my communications team, we always specifically state that our products are “100% natural”, but I draw the line at “100% safe” because that’s a claim I can’t promise of anything, in the medical field or otherwise.
Before we started this company, which creates essential oil products and advocates inhaled essential oil therapy as complementary care practice, we spent a year researching the chemical nature of essential oils, and another full year researching suppliers and locations that would provide us with the absolute purest and best essential oils, because we know what a difference the quality of what you use makes, for safety as well as effectiveness and longevity.
Even then, I must reiterate how very important it is to be a responsible consumer and check your labels, even if something does say it is ‘all natural’. Our society has done a great job of creating safety nets (insurance, antidotes, your parents) and it is the conscious practice of the consumer goods sector to create products that don’t require people to think, or read, or check instructions. But this is nature – wild, unpredictable, inconsistent, beautiful nature – and in this case, its coming into contact with an equally mysterious and unpredictable masterpiece: the human body.
I encourage all of you to not lose faith in the truly wonderful benefits of essential oils (that have helped countless people manage their health, happiness, and wellbeing) and remind you that you must always, always, ALWAYS read that teeny, tiny cautionary text – because it’s there for a reason, and it matters.
Until next time,