Before I start, I want to thank the people from whom I learned. I am not a scientist, so shoutout to all the people that are! I have linked those sites throughout this blog post. Okay, to the good stuff.
Ah, “natural”, my least favorite descriptor of anything. If you want a longer rant on that, read my blog on understanding greenwashing. Essential oils are largely marketed as the “natural” alternative to “harsh chemicals” that you find in other products (eye roll times a million). Sure, they may not contain synthetic chemicals, but are they any better for you or the planet than their factory-made cousins?
According to popular multi-level marketing brand Young Living, it takes 75 lemons to make one 15ml bottle of lemon essential oil, their lavender oil requires 27 square feet of lavender fields, and their peppermint oil takes one pound of raw peppermint (which may not sound like a lot, but when you hold peppermint in your hand it’s extremely light). That is extremely resource intensive for a very small amount of output.
By contrast, manufacturing a synthetic fragrance is done in a controlled lab, and can produce much higher quantities for much fewer resources. If you’ve heard the greenwashing myths on all the reasons fragrance is terrible for you, I recommend this YouTube video from the Eco Well. Obviously, the consumer is the one who gets to decide whether or not they’re comfortable using it.
Back to the environmental impact: Most essential oils are highly flammable, especially common ones such as lemon, tea tree, lavender, and peppermint. If your oil is flammable, it’s considered hazardous waste, so the bottle can’t be recycled unless fully cleaned because it could pose a risk to the recycling plant workers. [Source]. With an $11 billion industry, that’s a lot of small glass bottles to be throwing away.
In addition, many of the oils (especially the same ones that are flammable) are toxic to marine and aquatic life, and can have impacts on marine ecosystems. All of that is spelled out in an oil’s Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). In the UK, all oils sold are required to include the MSDS because it contains important instructions saying that oils should never come in contact with ground water or a water supply, and that it could damage marine life. In the US, those aren’t required, and most of the multi-level marketing companies like Young Living don’t voluntarily include them; consumers have to email the company if they want to see them. [Source].
It’s not just marine life, either. Many essential oils are toxic (the ACTUAL definition of toxic, not the overused colloquial term) to house pets when applied to the skin or used in diffusers. There are reports of some oils causing vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, and more. [Source].
I liked the following quote from the Eco Hub:
“If we consider ‘sustainability’ from the environmental lens of ‘the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time’, then essential oils by nature are simply not sustainable.”
My take? The environmental resources required aren’t a sustainable solution. Sure, they may be a natural remedy or a wholistic medicine alternative, but they’re not worth the cost on the planet and its animals.