The Dirty Truth About Essential Oils

The Dirty Truth About Essential Oils

Written By: John Harper

It seems like essential oils have been trending since the age of the internet began. Although, it hasn’t been quite that long, supporters will tout their proposed benefits as if they are the law. While they do certainly have some benefits, there are some things that people may not know about how they are made.

From skin benefits to aromatherapy, essential oils have been lauded as the cleaner alternative to synthetic scent accords, but how much safer are they? There is a lot of bias and misinformation about them out there, and the purpose of this article is to shine some light on these things. Buckle up and put your thinking cap on as we dive into the world of farming natural plant essences.


People often claim that essential oils are safer than synthetics, and this is not always true. If you take a gander at IFRA standards, they have banned or restricted equal amounts of naturals and synthetics. If you don’t know what IFRA is, they do research into the health and safety of scented oils and their impact on us.

There are essential oils that must be listed on packaging due to allergy concerns, such as atlas cedar. Other chemical constituents of some essential oils, such as the methyl salicylate in sweet birch and wintergreen, along with the coumarin in tonka bean, must also be listed.

It's clear that some essential oils have safety concerns, and even the safe ones have limits that they can be used within. I am not going to list out all of them, but you can look at the IFRA website and the ingredients they have banned and restricted. A lot of them are natural compounds. Natural is not always safe, and that doesn’t only apply to people with allergies.

Note: Certain essential oils have such limited safety usage that incorporating them into soap becomes nearly impossible, hindering the potential for aromatherapy benefits due to their negligible presence. Conversely, some oils are prohibitively expensive to procure, making their inclusion in soap formulations impractical. (edited version)

The biggest issue with synthetics comes back to accords that were made with parabens and phthalates. Most of the fragrance oils being made these days do not have such things, and they are formulated with safer ingredients. However, they still have limits to their safety, but they are generally able to be used more generously than essential oils.


It goes without saying that you must grow plants to get essential oils. One of the issues with this is having to use all that land and water to grow them. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge supporter of farming. However, there are natural habitats that are destroyed to make room for these farms. It can throw the ecosystem off in the area that they are grown in.

The reason for this is that some natural essences yield very low amounts of oil for the number of plants it takes to get the oils. It is said that it takes 10,000 pounds of rose petals to make only a pound of oil, and over 220,000 jasmine flowers to make 30ml of jasmine oil. So, to grow such things, you need massive amounts of land to do so, and it’s also quite expensive to do.

Sandalwood was almost farmed to an endangered status in India. The government had to step in and take control of the trees, and now citizens are not allowed to grow sandalwood themselves. However, there are places in India and Australia that are working on repopulating the legendary Indian sandalwood trees.

While the environmental impact may be minor right now, as demand rises, what will happen? I can’t say for sure, as I am not a scientist, but I can only guess that it may cause some issues with local biomes.

It’s also worth noting that not all essential oils are organic, and some use generous amounts of pesticides to farm them, and those can seep into the oils themselves. These pesticides may also impact bee population and other wildlife in the area, as well as prevention methods to keep rodents out of the area. 

Questionable Labor

If you look ay where many essential oils are sourced from, they come from countries that don’t necessarily have fair labor laws. Many of these farmers are severely underpaid and overworked. While this helps keep prices down, is it ethical?

There are even child laborers in some places that farm these oils. This just perpetuates the poverty in these places, as these children don’t have a chance to get an education. Let me be clear, not all essential oils are farmed in this way, but there is an issue with it in some places.

If you buy essential oils sourced from the US, Canada, Europe, and Japan, then they are much more likely to be more ethical in terms of labor laws and fair compensation for their workers.

Skin Benefits

I am not going to comment on specific benefits due to it being something that a medical professional is suited for, and I am not in the medical field. However, people often cite a list of benefits that essential oils have in their soaps. This is somewhat irrelevant.

The aromatherapy part is true. Essential oils do have smells that simply smell good and can relax us or make us think of nature, and that is an amazing feeling. I am not arguing the aromatherapy part at all.

However, when it comes to some of the skin benefits, soap isn’t on your skin long enough to allow these to reach their full potential. You simply lather up and wash off, so many of these benefits are washed down the drain. Many companies will tell you about all these marvelous things that essential oils can do, but the benefits are scant, if any at all.

The smell lingering on your skin doesn’t mean that the entire oil is still on you and working its magic. It only means that some aromatic compounds are left over after rinsing. The saponified oils and butters in soap matter much more than the fragrance. However, there are still safe dosages to be used in soap for both essential oils and fragrance oils, so be sure that you are using a company that knows about the oils that they are using.


Essential oils are not terrible. Like everything in life, they have their pros and cons. They are just not the perfect standard of a healthy alternative or sustainable sources that many people state. When they are used with a knowledge of safety standards, they are a wonderful thing.

Most fragrance oils are just as safe, if not safer than essential oils, given that they follow the recommended dosages as well. They are certainly more sustainable and have less environmental impact.

Just make sure that you are using a company that follows the standards, like Lathr, and you won’t have any issues with either one. Lathr utilizes both types of oils in a safe way and tries their best to responsibly source their products when they can. It’s up to you to make sure your favorite brands are doing things the right way and to hold them accountable to be responsible stewards of our world.

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