Essential Oils and the Law

Essential Oils (1)


If any of you are like I was, you began your essential oil journey in an earnest attempt to find the best ways to care for yourself and your family. Maybe you didn’t. Maybe you just like the way they smell as air freshener, personal perfume, or additives to your cleaning supplies. No matter what you use essential oils for, it’s important to understand the laws surrounding them.

U.S. regulations regarding natural products are unclear, ambiguous, and often confusing. The European Union (EU) has more specific definitions but even so, still lacks total clarity. I’ll try my best to break this down and make it easier.

Let’s look at some legislative definitions.

“Natural”

This word is easy for us all to understand, right? This is the most challenging and complex of the definitions.

“Natural” by U.S. standards means that all of the materials used to create something are derived from nature (that “derived from” part is the loophole). This looser interpretation of natural means that so long as a product contains all natural ingredients, it can still be considered a natural product, i.e. essential oils, smoke based flavors, etc. EU standards have a more restrictive definition of the term “natural” and apply it to the manufacturing process, as well as the component ingredients. The chemicals used for extraction, as well as the exact temperature that can be used are highly regulated. Many things that are “natural” by U.S. standards would not be deemed so when applying the EU standard.

The U.S. has the Flavoring Extract Manufacturer Association (FEMA). The EU has a comparable group, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). They also have the European Flavors and Fragrances Association (EFFA). The EU has new regulations that further restrict ingredients by implementing a list of positive ingredients that are much easier to regulate.

“Organic”

The USDA “Organic” seal is protected by federal law (7 CFR Part 205.311). In order to use it companies must comply with a set of USDA standards and have official certification (USDA Organic Factsheet). Pay close attention to the labels. If a product says “organic” it means that 95% of the ingredients meet organic criteria. The only way that you know the product is totally organic is if it says “100% Organic”. Non-agricultural products are broken down into: soap (self-explanatory), cosmetic, or a drug (FD&C Act, sec. 201 (i).

“Cosmetic”

The Federal Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) defines cosmetics as “articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body…for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.”

Cosmetics are things like: moisturizers, hair products, lipstick, deodorant, makeup remover, nail polish, etc. If your cosmetic products claim to cure you of something then it is also a drug (or known as a “cosmeceutical”).

“Drug”

This is where it gets scary, folks, pay attention. Drugs are classified by their intended use. The FDA classifies drugs as “articles intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease” and “articles (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals”. Why should you care? Well, your essential oil products (and some cosmetics!) may actually fall into this category.

Now, why do you care?

Whether you use, purchase, or sell essential oils, listen up. If you sell someone an essential oil and tell them that the oil, peppermint, for an example, will restore hair growth, lower a fever, treat indigestion, etc, you are breaking the law. Those are considered medical claims and it makes the product a drug. Unless you are a licensed physician, you are now practicing medicine without a license (hence the breaking the law part). Is it always fair? No. There are plenty of times we all eye-roll because we know peppermint tea helps an upset stomach. Is it necessary? Yes. I will give you a very real example. If you are offended, then you are exactly the person that needs to be reading this article.

Sellers/associates of both DoTerra and Young Living were caught making egregious and unqualified medical claims. These individual sellers were stating on social media, in sales “parties”, and on their personal blogs and websites that their products could cure all manner of diseases, to include Ebola. Yes, you read that correctly! These well-intended, but grossly unqualified people were making profits by telling the world they could cure a disease that is closely regulated and has not been tested against any of those products. The result was that both companies received warning letters from the FDA, advising them of the violations and directing them to remove all marketing materials related to the claims. If not, the FDA will initiate regulatory actions. You can read the DoTerra letter here and the Young Living letter here.

I use that situation as an example of why regulation is important. It is not to pick on either company. They happen to be the largest essential oil sellers in the U.S. so it’s natural that they would get caught for violations that I’m sure many smaller companies make, as well. I am a huge advocate of people choosing to buy their products wherever they want, based on educated choices.

To be clear, I am no fan of the FDA or the USDA and have a fair amount of distrust when it comes t the motives and honesty of both. Either way, essential oils are tricky but we are still ultimately responsible for compliance. If you don’t sell essential oils or essential oil products, knowing the regulations is still worthwhile. Pay attention to who you buy them yours from and what their qualifications are. If you are purchasing from someone that does not know the law, you may want to reconsider where you source your products.

Chemical-free products

stockmen (1)

Let’s talk about chemical-free products.  Type “chemical-free” into Google. Go ahead.

All kinds of companies and products will pop up, touting the “chemical-free” wares that they are pedaling. They will sell you on the perils of applying chemicals to your skin.  Go throw away ALL of your products immediately because they contain chemicals!

Or don’t.

Take a deep breath and let’s think about this logically, scientifically.  What is a chemical?

If you do your own search you may see references to chemical weapons, chemical reactions, and so on.   If you want to head over to dictionary.com  you can see how they define a chemical. A chemical, simply put, is anything made from matter.  See more here.  If a chemical is anything made from matter, then water is a chemical.  So is oxygen. So are humans.  We are like big walking bags of chemicals.  EVERYTHING is a chemical.  Wait, what?

If chemicals aren’t necessarily evil, and are completely unavoidable, then why do so many companies market chemical-free products?

Simple.  It works.  The natural/organic skincare market is booming.  The “chemical-free” trend obviously extends far beyond skincare but that’s what we are really concerned about here.  Some estimate that the natural skincare market will command $13.2 billion by 2018.  Think about the other applications: food, cleaning products, etc, and it’s clear that this marketing trend is a smashing success.

These companies know they are not selling chemical-free products.  After all, cosmetic companies hire chemists to do their formulating.  What they are marketing are products free of synthetic chemicals (and that’s sometimes true).  Since synthetic chemicals have been demonized in the media, these companies are capitalizing on our collective fear and ignorance of ridiculously long scientific names on labels.  It isn’t just big, nameless companies.  It is well-meaning, and not-so-well-meaning, bloggers, moms, entrepreneurs, and wannabe scientists propagating this misplaced fear of scientific nomenclature.  Some believe that their intent is good and that we are too literal if we make a fuss.   I believe that a product manufacturer should a) understand the chemistry of their products and b) have some integrity.  As professionals, we want consumers to be informed so that they can make the decisions that are best for their needs.

It’s difficult to know which chemicals are safe and which aren’t given the opposing views and often contradictory claims of organizations such as the U.S. FDA and EPA.  First, apply some critical thinking.  Do you believe that there is conclusive scientific evidence (such as peer-reviewed double-blind studies) on every chemical? Who funds safety studies?  Is there bias that render the findings untrustworthy (we could talk about this all day long)?  There is not sufficient scientific evidence to conclusively prove or disprove both the short and long-term safety of every chemical that could possibly be included in your products.  There is even less chance of this if it is a natural substance since companies just don’t make as much money off Mother Nature as they do things concocted in a lab.  So what can be done?

Ultimately, we must educate ourselves.  We must use critical thinking and extend our knowledge beyond the label in front of us or the claims being made.  Instead of mindlessly handing over your hard-earned dollars, think about what your money is supporting.  Are you purchasing a product made by a reputable company?  Are they known for quality products?  Are their business practices in line with what they claim to care about?

As far as the labels go, start reading them.  In the U.S., Canada, and Europe, cosmetic companies are required to list ingredients using the International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI).  Some folks claim that if you can’t pronounce it, it must be avoided at all costs.  INCI standards require that ingredients be listed by their scientific name.  That isn’t to confuse the costumer, it’s actually for their safety.  Scientific names such as tocopherol and butyrospermum parkii sound pretty intimidating so it’s easy to be scared off.  Don’t be intimidated.  It’s just Vitamin E and shea butter – which we love.  Other things, such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) are associated with some awful side effects.  Maybe you want to avoid those.  Maybe you don’t.  Read scientific literature and decide if the evidence is convincing enough for you.

There are some pretty scary and frankly, unnecessary, chemicals out there that should be avoided.  We each owe it to ourselves to decide what we will tolerate and support with our money.  We should treat ourselves well. Here is a great article debunking the whole “chemical-free” thing.

You can peruse the links provided in this blog for more information or, if you are serious about learning a bit of science, head on over to here for an Intro to Chemistry.

If you have no interest (or time) in doing research, you’re in luck.  It’s already been done for you!  There are databases that provide ingredient/product information.

First, visit the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database to get a full listing of ingredients, what they mean and how harmful they are.  They have a great app that you can download on your phone and have all the knowledge at your fingertips.  The database is offered by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a self-proclaimed nonprofit environmental advocacy group.  Since it is an environmental group, it should come as no surprise that not everyone agrees with their findings or that there isn’t always a substantial body of scientific evidence available.  You can read all about that here.

CosmeticsInfo.org serves a similar purpose and is run by the Personal Care Products Council, which is a trade association for the cosmetics and skincare industry.  The information on the site is extremely useful, thorough, and detailed.  It offers loads of information, to include citations for the information.

Those two databases will quite often contradict each other, so as always, read, synthesize, and form your own opinions.