Essential oils have become a huge part of the herbal products business. One recent estimate put the global market in this products at $7.5 billion in 2015. Another report postulates that the global market could hit $14 billion by 2024. And thriving multi-level marketing companies have been founded on the ingredients. Young Living, based in Lehi, UT, was recently listed at No. 22 in the annual Global 100 list assembled by the publication Direct Selling News of the world’s largest network marketing companies. DSN pegged Young Living’s 2016 annual revenue at $1 billion. It’s the largest MLM on the list that focuses on essential oils. Doterra, which is a member of the United Natural Products Alliance, is another Utah-based MLM in the essential oils space that is rumored to be of similar size to Young Living (not all privately held MLMs choose to respond to the questionnaires sent out by Direct Selling News).
Divided in the regulations
But in the United States these products are often thought of separately from dietary supplements, even though botanical ingredient suppliers sell into both markets, and some of the active molecules are the same in both cases. This has to do with the regulatory definition of a dietary supplement in US law, which specifies these products are meant to be absorbed in the GI tract. The active constituents of essential oils are absorbed through the nasal mucosa, through the lungs, or, when properly formulated, through the skin.
The recent meteoric growth in essential oils is only the latest installment in a very old story in the history of herbal products, said Mark Blumenthal, founder of the American Botanical Council. Essential oils were a starting point even for Blumenthal himself, who at one time several decades ago marketed a line of oils under the Flower Valley trademark (which is what ‘Blumenthal’ means in German).
Part of the early history of herbalism
Blumenthal said the very name—essential oils—comes from the founding of Western herbal medicine. Paracelsus, an influential physician of the 1400s, postulated that these aromatic, volatile fractions of medicinal plants that exerted health effects were something beyond the elements of earth, water, air and fire.
“Paracelsus believed they contained a fifth element, which became the origin of the word ‘quintessence.’ And from that we get the term ‘essential,’too,” Blumenthal told NutraIngredients-USA.
Safety margins differ
Another way in which essential oils differ from dietary supplements is in their safety outlines. Essential oils are super-concentrated lighter fractions distilled from the plant, and in some cases do not enjoy the huge safety margin that some supplements do. Most dietary ingredients used in supplements have safety margins that are an order of magnitude or more in size. In other words, once you reach the efficacious dosage level, huge additional quantities of that ingredient would need to be ingested to approach toxicity. While a blanket statement can’t be made for essential oils given that there hundreds if not thousands on the market, this same huge spread does not always apply.
“My Flower Valley products where packaged in a display case with an information booklet. You opened the booklet up and the very first page was a warning. Among the things it said was that you should not put an undiluted essential oil directly on your skin. Some of the retailers didn’t like it because they thought the warnings scared customers away. But I said I didn’t want the kind of customer who wouldn’t take the time to educate themselves,”Blumenthal said.
Mindy Green, a member of the Alliance of International Aromatherapists, was at one time an expert in the category for Aveda, the natural cosmetics giant founded by the late Horst Rechelbacher.
“We were at one time said to the largest buyer of essential oils in the world,” Green said. She now consults and teaches through her own firm called Green Scentsations.
Chemistry differs between oils and extracts
Green said the chemistry of the oils—only molecules with a molecular weight below 300 can be extracted via the method—means that the active constituents will be different from that of many extracts used in dietary supplements. Polyphenols, which figure large in many dietary supplement extracts, have molecular weights between 500 and 4,000. But there is some crossover, particular in case of lavender preparations marketed in association with depression. Germany company Schwabe has a capsule product as does Nature’s Way.
“I think that’s a really unique product in the dietary supplement world. Euromedica makes one, too, but they only sell to doctors,”Green said.
In the case of these lavender preparations, there is a long history of internal use and human clinical trials have been conducted on the ingredients. Green said where she takes issue with this formulation crossover is when it is done in a cavalier fashion.
“Some people in network marketing companies are telling consumers to put a few drops of an essential oil in their bath, and then they can put a couple of drops in their tea. You really can’t market a product as a cosmetic and an ingestible product at the same time,” she said.
“There has been considerable concern among professional aromatherapists because a lot of the essential oils that have been marketed for internal use. Their concern is to make sure that consumers are micro dosing in a responsible manner (one or two drops might be good, four or five might be too much, in other words). With that being said, I’m not aware of any spate of adverse event reports connected to the internal use of essential oils,” Blumenthal said.
Potential for market synergies
While direct internal use of an essential oil is rarely called for, the conditions for which they are marketed do provide a lot of overlap. Both Green and Blumenthal said there could be more marketing synergy for these categories of products than currently exists in the marketplace. An essential oil marketed for its calming properties could be recommended in the same breath as a adaptogenic herbal dietary ingredient like ashwagandha, for example.
“I do classes on that all the time. From my background as an herbalist I can see that there is a tremendous amount of potential crossover. If you have someone who is self medicating for a cold with echinacea or black elderberry, you could also recommend to them to also take a bath with some eucalyptus oils diluted in the bath water, or use frankincense with a diffuser,”Green said.
But that regulatory divide has also affected the knowledge base of the companies in the market, she said. Essential oil companies tend to focus on what they do, and dietary supplement formulators do the same, and to some extent never the twain do meet.
“Aromatherapy is a little younger than is the clinical practice of dietary supplements,” Green said. “They each have each been living in kind of a vacuum. I am doing a lot of classes in both of those communities, and what I have seen in a lot of the companies marketing herbal products is that they are not as well educated about aromatherapy as they ought to be.”