Response to UnWell Documentary - Essential Oils Episode

aromatherapy blog Sep 08, 2020

Have you seen the documentary "UnWell" yet?
Netflix describes it as: "A deep dive into the lucrative wellness industry, which touts health and healing. But do the products live up to the promises?"

The first episode is all about essential oils - it explores the "culture" around the modern uses of aromatherapy.  I cannot recommend this enough to anyone interested in essential oils, for doctors and nurses, parents of young children, and anyone who uses them!

This 54-minute documentary is an eye-opening look into the positives and negatives of aromatherapy as an alternative therapy. It discusses the pervasive and more harmful aspects of Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) companies, the lack of public safety, and misleading practices.

There is so much to dive into that we decided to make this a series of blogs.
This has prompted me to publicly share my personal story about why I became a Certified Aromatherapist, as well as my perspective on this documentary.

This First Blog Discusses . . .

  • My introduction into Aromatherapy in 1999
  • Why Education matters
  • How not to use the oils!

Being curious in nature (especially when it comes to health & wellness) I was invited to a Young Living (also known as YL) meeting offered through a local church I attended in 1999. The woman who invited me was a friend I knew well - I was excited to learn about essential oils. I brought my friend, Shelley, we were both hooked! 

We began attending many events & workshops hosted by my “upline” in YL (my friend that invited us). I signed up as a distributor and helped work the YL booth at a Wellness Expo. 

Our goal at expos was to collect names of interested attendees to send info packets to, and do what I call playing Doctor. This consisted of using their book, "The Peoples Desk Reference for Essential Oils" (PDR), and showing people which oil they could use for any and all ailments...YIKES!! This was my first warning sign.

Extreme Overuse of EO’s

My tipping point came within about 6 months while at a “hands-on” learning workshop. This covered a technique called “Raindrop Therapy”, or RDT for short.
A quote from my original 1999 PDR on page 43 states – “RDT is a powerful, non-invasive tool for helping to correct defects in the curvature of the spine.” It goes on to say “during years of practice it has resolved scoliosis, kyphosis, and the need for back surgery in thousands of people”
The story continues to explain that RDT was taught to Gary Young, the leader of YL, by a Lakota medicine man. This therapy integrates Vita Flex and Massage Therapy techniques with essential oils.
In this treatment,  you learn to layer 7 essential oils, with no dilution (EO’s) - which is a huge red flag - onto your client's spine. It combined relaxation with an extreme dose of EO's many of which are considered dermal irritants and carry dozens of contraindications for use.
By the end of the treatment, you have applied roughly 50 drops of undiluted essential oils onto someones back. Topped off by a few drops of Peppermint to “drive it in”, and add a warm towel over the back for them to cook . . .

RDT - is a primary example of the issue that many Aromatherapists have with MLM's approach to aromatherapy - extreme overuse of undiluted oils and unsubstantiated claims. Essential oils do not cure scoliosis, kyphosis, etc!!!

My last day with YL

On this particular RDT training day, a new Mom was there with her 3-month-old baby, with an issue being treated by the leader of the group and a psychotherapist. The issue? The baby and mom had not bonded.

Somehow a version of the RDT was decided upon as the remedy. I watched while they dripped undiluted oils along the baby's spine, ending with "peppermint to drive the oils in". My own maternal alarm bell was ringing in deep concern for this baby's wellbeing & health. I washed my hands and left YL that day.

Seeking Aromatherapy Certification Training

I knew there had to be a smarter and safer way to work with oils. Though the uneducated overuse was appalling, I still felt called to working with essential oils. I searched for a reputable program and began my studies with a 400-hour “Certificate in Aromatherapy” from The American College of Healthcare Sciences. I learned quickly that I had a LOT of unlearning to do!

For instance, in contrast to my MLM experience of training – I learned that the recommended daily total dose of essential oils for the average healthy adult should be no more than 3-4 drops of essential oil. Compare that to the 50 drops in a single RDT treatment!

Education as an Aromatherapist

There are many schools, and “schools of thought:” in Aromatherapy methods. In the USA, most of the schools teach a well-rounded program based in science, some more conservative than others.

In my program, we learned botanical information and chemical composition of 40 oils most commonly used in Aromatherapy.  We learn how EO’s are absorbed, how each body system responds to, and metabolizes the oils. The dosage and safety guidelines, and modifications based on age,  health conditions,  and each person's unique preferences and needs.  A nice blend of clinical and holistic fundamentals round out the course work, along with case studies and final papers.
There's so much more to essential oil therapies than, "There's an oil for that!"


Continued Education in Essential Oils

My fascination with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) led me to become certified in Shiatsu Massage Therapy and I began integrating essential oils into my bodywork sessions. Eventually leading me to become certified as an Aroma Acupoint Therapist. Expanding my education and understanding of the actions of the oils from an eastern medical perspective. Here, you choose and place an oil onto specific acupoints, and the oil – becomes the needle to activate the desired action of the acupoint! 

Aromatherapy in Health Care Settings

Essential oils' popularity grew substantially since I began in 1999. While teaching Aromatherapy thru the state colleges continuing education programs from 2002 until 2018,  I was excited when I started to see healthcare professionals attending my classes. Many of which were introduced to EO's, as I was through one of two large MLM companies. A recurring challenge I faced as a teacher was helping my student 'unlearn' how to use the oils.

My intent was to provide a basic set of skills to safely and intelligently use essential oils. How to be more strategic and effective in your oil choices, dilute before you put EO’s on your skin, be very careful with babies, children, pets, and frail or medically fragile people, as key points.

Today, my work has evolved into teaching healthcare organizations on how to bring aromatherapy into a wide variety of medical settings, within the best practices of clinical aromatherapy.

Now, I am able to reach a wider range of people, many of whom would never have tried aromatherapy to help them with stress, anxiety, pain, or nausea. But because they were given my aromatherapy patches by their nurse in a medical setting and found relief,  they continue to want to use them on their own at home.

My Take of UnWell

Alternative therapies all come with benefits and risks,  as does western medicine. 
I think Netflix produced a reasonable overview of what I have experienced from both perspectives – from within the MLM approach, and as a responsible practitioner for 20 years.

Full disclosure, I am very good friends with Lora Cantele, the “authentic” aromatherapist interviewed in the docuseries working with the autistic family, and Dr. Joy Bowles who developed the chemistry classes at my school and in many ongoing educational programs. In future blogs, I will vlog with Lora and get her insights!

True Aromatherapy v. MLM's

There have been online “disagreements” between Aromatherapists and MLM reps since I started in 1999.  A primary example is YL's s claim that “our oils are therapeutic grade" a marketing term created by the company not a standardized international measure of quality. "Therapeutic Grade" isn't a thing!!!

For me, the issue with the MLM culture is their methods of:

  • Recruiting well-intentioned people to sell highly concentrated essential oils for health conditions
  • Recommending to use extremely high dosages
  • Encouraging the idea of ingesting the oils on a daily basis because they are used in food and flavoring
  • Taking no responsibility when someone's health has been damaged 
  • Being unable to recognize when someone is having an adverse reaction, and calling it a detoxification symptom

These are my concerns.  I stand by my statement - "Aromatherapy is a skilled therapy and should be treated as such".

Extreme Overuse - An Example in My Career

A few years ago, I had an Aromatherapy consultation with a married couple who I knew were FULLY invested in their MLM oily lifestyle.  I asked them to bring with them a list of all the oils they had, how many drops they were using each day, how and why they were using them.

They arrived with a two-page list of all the oils they owned. (MAJOR red flag!!!)

We reviewed what their average day of EO use looked like which included...

  • Diffusing into the air
  • Applying topically to their skin
  • Ingesting supplements with oils & drinking oils in their water bottles
  • Using oils in soaps, lotions, & in their cleaning products (laundry, counter spray)

I estimated their daily exposure to EO's at about 200 drops of EO's on any given day between the two of them. Remember the suggested daily range of EO's is about 3-4 drops!

As I explored their health history and concerns, and to understand what their rationale was to use this much EO in a day, it was clear they had drunk a few glasses of Kool-Aid from the MLM culture of extreme overuse.

For years, Aromatherapists have collected reports from individuals who've had adverse reactions from overuse. These reactions ranging from:

  • Rashes
  • Burns
  • Toxicity
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Esophageal damage

. . . sadly more cases are reported every year.

One of the worst-case scenarios from overuse is something called "sensitization"  rendering the person who has overused essential oils over time to become sensitized and reactive for years, to the chemical compounds naturally occurring in the plant's oils.
The other is Anaphylaxis (an-a-fi-LAK-sis) shock, an extreme and life-threatening allergic reaction, rendering the person who has overused essential oils over time, to become sensitized and reactive for years, to the chemical compounds naturally occurring in the plant's oils.

Read this article on WebMD about Rachel Armstrong's case. Here is a photo of her allergic reaction - photo courtesy of WebMD


To keep enjoying and benefitting from essential oils follow a few basic guidelines:

  • Learn what the therapeutic uses, dosages, and safety guidelines are for each oil you use.
  • 3-5 minutes of inhalation is effective for shifting moods, supporting sleep, or for respiratory uses
  • Any topical use, the essential oil should be diluted to 1-10% depending on age, issue, oils used.
  • EO's are meant to be used "as needed" and for enjoyment. Not as part of a daily intense regimen of internal, topical, and inhalation
  • For the treatment of illness - find a licensed health professional, who is also a Certified Aromatherapist that can advise you.

In part two of this blog coming out later this month,  I want to share more about trials and research, basic safety guidelines methods of use anyone can do at home.

Until then - breathe, enjoy, and dilute your oils!

Reach out if you have questions - [email protected]





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