Health & Fitness

Essential oils a booming business

Belinda York teaches a class about essential oils at the Sunflower Shoppe in Colleyville on Tuesday, February 24, 2015. (Star-Telegram/Joyce Marshall) Belinda York teaches a class about essential oils at The Sunflower Shoppe in Colleyville.
Belinda York teaches a class about essential oils at the Sunflower Shoppe in Colleyville on Tuesday, February 24, 2015. (Star-Telegram/Joyce Marshall) Belinda York teaches a class about essential oils at The Sunflower Shoppe in Colleyville. Star-Telegram

When Sharla Trice’s Benbrook home flooded, forcing her family to live in temporary quarters for 11 months last year, she tossed and turned night after night.

“I was under so much stress,” says Trice, who is a preschool director and also works part-time at The Container Store.

Someone suggested that essential oils might help her relax, so she bought a starter kit from a company called Young Living.

“It sat on my dresser, I think, because I just didn’t really believe it would work for me,” she says. “Then one day, I decided to try it out and I couldn’t believe how well the oils worked. I could sleep and rest again.”

Trice started diffusing lavender oil into the air and, she says, was able to stop counting sheep.

Soon, she started counting opportunities. By buying the Young Living starter kit, she qualified to be a wholesale seller for the company. She says she never intended to sell the products, but while she shared stories with friends about how the oils helped her (and got a commission each time those friends purchased them online), Trice was suddenly in the essential oils business.

“I’m one of those people who just can’t say no when it’s something that I really believe in,” she says.

Not just a part of luxurious spa treatments, essential oils — think lavender, peppermint, rosewood and tea tree — are having a moment. Individuals, health-and-fitness-minded businesses and multilevel marketing companies such as Young Living and doTerra are spreading their message — largely through social media networks — that essential oils are viable natural alternatives to traditional medicine for common ailments.

Home-based distributors share testimonials on Facebook and host parties to sell tiny bottles of oil as they would Mary Kay makeup or Tupperware.

And health experts say, for the most part, the businesses are not selling snake oil.

Natural alternatives

Essential oils are natural oils that come from flowers, bark, seeds, stems and roots of plants. They’re among the world’s oldest known substances, having been used by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans for religious, cleansing and healing rituals.

“People are definitely catching up with the benefits of essential oils, but it’s truly nothing new — they’ve been around a long time,” says Miranda Davis, a healthy living expert and owner of PerfectFit Yoga and Pilates Studio in Fort Worth.

Davis, who holds a degree in exercise physiology, has globe-trotted to India, Taiwan and Aruba to learn about essential oils. She diffuses calming, soothing oils in her yoga and Pilates classes to help students relax.

She also teaches and hosts classes to preach the gospel about the products, which she says have had positive effects on her own health. (The description for a recent class at PerfectFit called “Healing Oils of the Bible” says: “It is for us to tune in with [God’s] wisdom and his will and to educate ourselves in how to restore our wellness and maintain our health by the use of his natural creations. Among these divine gifts are the oils of plants.”)

Davis is also a distributor for Young Living, a 22-year-old Utah-based company that makes and sells its own blends of essential oils. Customers who invest in a “starter kit” of Young Living oils (including a diffuser) qualify to sell them and then build a business by persuading those customers to sell them, too.

Young Living’s website touts its three-level approach to its “generous, industry-leading compensation plan” — creating a foundation, building a business and becoming a leader — to help their sellers “achieve [their] dream of independence and security.” Once they have established businesses, the website says, “you’re ready to take the mission worldwide as you lead others to success.”

Most of the oils are in 15-milliliter bottles, with a price range of $10-$200 and the average price being about $30-$35, Young Living distributors say.

Thousands of passionate Young Living representatives are expected to come to Grapevine in August for the company’s 2015 International Grand Convention under the theme “Light the Fire.” The website says, “With our unprecedented growth and hundreds of thousands of members around the globe, we plan to continue sharing the precious gift of essential oils with the world for decades to come!”

Christy Dunaway Smith of Fort Worth is one of those passionate devotees, and a relatively new one. A stay-at-home mother of two and a blogger, she started selling Young Living products in December after essential oils, she says, helped her overcome dependence on medications for postpartum depression, attention deficit disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Suddenly, business was booming.

She immediately recruited about 40 people to buy and then sell oil under her, she says.

“I had so much fun using the oils and sharing the health and well-being benefits with people that it all just kind of took off,” she says. “In December, I had a commission check coming in of around $2,300.”

She started offering lavish breakfast meetings — complete with Veuve Clicquot mimosas — at her west Fort Worth home to pass along information about the oils, and then she provided yoga classes. She offered incentives like free handbook guides to essential oils, free shipping offers and other giveaways.

“It all just took on a mind of its own,” she says. “Now, I have over 100 people under me.”

She is doing so well that she has hired someone to assist with her business.

“It all just happened very fast, naturally and very organic,” Dunaway Smith says. “I didn’t intend to start a business. I just signed up to buy oils.”

Trice, too, says the oils sell themselves.

“I wasn’t planning to sell it, but someone asked me about buying them and I thought, well, yeah, I guess you can order it from me,” she says. “The thing about me is, if I love something, I can sell it and share it.”

Trice now is involved in online classes in which users can chat and ask questions.

“It’s funny, when people are talking to me about things they are dealing with, it’s hard for me not to say, ‘There’s an oil for that!’” she says.

Off the shelves

Health food purveyors and “healthy living” departments of higher-end grocery stores, of course, have carried a wide variety of therapeutic essential oils long before Facebook testimonials were being liked and shared. The Sunflower Shoppe, which has been open since the 1970s, carries its own label of essential oils along with Nature’s Alchemy and Aura Cacia brands.

Belinda York, general manager of the Sunflower Shoppe in Fort Worth, says she has been using essential oils for many years; her experiences have culminated in well-attended seminars she offers at the Fort Worth and Colleyville Sunflower locations.

In the classes, she covers essential oil basics; demonstrates making things like scalp treatments, calming oil combination blends and bath salts; and distributes recipes and other helpful information. She offers a wheel or dial chart to seminar-goers that allows them to match common symptoms with suggested essential oil solutions.

She also cautions consumers about possible dangers and reactions that can occur. Essential oils can be powerful. Deep-heating ointments for soothing sore muscles can often be made with the oil of wintergreen, for example. Oil of wintergreen is found in many food sources, air fresheners, ointments and toiletries. In its purest form, it can be toxic when misused, reports indicate.

“While in most cases essential oils (which are highly concentrated) used as aromatherapy are not harmful for adults, it may be a different story in children, especially those under the age of 6,” York says. “While labels may say ‘natural,’ it may not always mean that it’s safe. Many oils are poisonous if ingested and there have been reports of accidental overdoses in children with several different oils.”

Diffused essential oils also should be used with some awareness about respiratory allergic reactions, one pediatrician says.

“Any small particle that can be inhaled can be a trigger for asthma,” said Dr. Justin Smith, pediatrician and medical adviser of digital health at Cook Children’s Medical Center. “This is of particular concern for parents who are told to use oils when their child is having issues with their asthma, which could make the problem worse.”

Smith says parents should consult their children’s doctors when considering using essential oils.

“I believe that oils should be considered just like any other medication,” Smith says. “If oils work, then they must have to have effects on cells and organs in the body. Because of this, they can cause interactions with other medications and their use should be discussed with your child’s pediatrician.

“The main thing is that we should use caution with any product or medication we are using in children. We should weigh the risk versus the benefit and should attempt to minimize treatment for things that are normal or will resolve on their own. I don’t think oils should get a free pass just because they are natural.”

It’s also important to find quality oils, York says. Some oils are labeled fragrance-grade, food-grade or therapeutic-grade. Some are harvested stateside, and some come from the countries where they are made. Like herbs and supplements, oils typically fall under the loose guidelines of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994.

“It really needs to say ‘100 percent therapeutic-grade essential oils’ somewhere on the label,” York says. “Essential oil is not a regulated market in the U.S. like it is in Europe. A lot of times it will say ‘therapeutic-grade,’ but it may not be that.

“So, try to find a company of integrity. Take time and do the research to figure out where companies are farming their oils and ask questions like, is the land where they are farmed treated with chemicals?”

Oils for everyday use

Like Trice, many enthusiasts are attracted to using essential oils not because of serious medical issues but by the promise of a better quality of life — deeper sleep, better relaxation and stress reduction.

“Stress is definitely on everyone’s radar, and I think essential oils can be so helpful for stress,” says Trisha Shirey, director of flora and fauna for Lake Austin Spa Resort in the Texas Hill Country. “Lavender, of course, is one of the best for stress, but all of the citrus oils can help to lift spirits and create a good mood.”

People go to the resort to relax and recharge, and in many spa treatments, essential oils are lined up and ready to help achieve these goals. Shirey also teaches classes about essential oils. If a client comes in with a cold or allergies, she’ll mix up a lotion called “Wellness” to apply to the body. Her tips include sprinkling drops of essential oils into unscented creams, into bath water and even on tissues to be tucked into a pillow at night.

“Getting a good night’s sleep is elusive for some of our guests,” she says. “Many guests have told me that the frankincense oil that I recommend has helped them when they wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. I tell them to put a drop of frankincense on a tissue inside their pillow so they are smelling it when they lie down. Some guests tell me that tip was life-changing for them.”

Those making businesses of essential oils say they are implementing dramatic lifestyle changes toward health and wellness — and so are their families.

Trice’s son was a skeptic at first and joked that she was selling “snake oils” until he had a painful mouth ulcer. Trice dropped some Young Living “Thieves” oil, a type that is safe to be ingested, on it. After two applications, the ulcer was healed and he was an instant fan of the oils. Now he comes to her for oil solutions.

When the family recently brought a new puppy home, he asked her to help the new pet feel calm and relaxed.

“He said for me to diffuse something really calming that day,” she says.

Likewise, Davis says her family is reaping benefits of her newfound passion for essential oils.

“My husband was a person who was regularly taking antacids, and so I put a peppermint water by his bedside to drink every night,” she says. “He stopped taking the antacids and used the peppermint water instead. Now he really doesn’t even need the peppermint water anymore.

“Women enjoy learning about essential oils, but there are a lot of new blends and essential oils just for men. There are fragrances for men and special blends that can help boost performance with exercise.”

Davis applies essential oils onto her 5-year-old son’s neck, spine and wrists before he starts his day.

“It helps keep him calm and more focused,” she says.

As an extra bonus, she says, her son enjoys the attention he gets during their morning ritual: “He says, ‘These are MY oils.’”

Essential oils safety 101

The Sunflower Shoppe provides these precautions to keep in mind while using essential oils:

▪ Treat essential oils like you do medications. Keep all essential oils stored away and out of reach of children and pets.

▪ Stay out of the sun or tanning booth for at least 24 hours after treatment if photosensitizing essential oils were applied to the skin.

▪ Avoid prolonged use of the same essential oils.

▪ If you have any sensitivities or allergies, it’s best to perform a skin-patch test.

▪ It’s important to consult a doctor and use caution when using essential oils if you are pregnant or are trying to have a baby.

▪ Avoid essential oils in the eye areas and always have good ventilation in the area where you are using them.

▪ Essential oils are very flammable and should not be around or in contact with flames, candles, fire, matches, cigarettes or gas cookers.

Learn more about essential oils by visiting the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy website, www.naha.org.

Luxurious, comforting bath salt

“Lavender supports a healthy cardiovascular system,” says essential oils expert Miranda Davis. “It is calming and relaxing to the mind, body, spirit. Lemongrass supports a healthy respiratory, digestive and muscular system. It is wonderful for boosting mood. Peppermint supports a healthy respiratory, digestive and muscular system. It is invigorating to the mind and body.”

▪ 1/2 cup Epsom salt

▪ 1/2 cup sea salt

▪ Fractionated coconut oil

▪ 10-15 drops lavender essential oil

▪ 5 drops lemongrass essential oil

▪ 5-10 drops peppermint essential oil

Combine salts and lightly coat with coconut oil until moist. Add essential oils. Mix well and put into container.

— Miranda Davis, PerfectFit

Sweet coconut-honey hand-softening treatment

▪ 2 tablespoons cocoa butter

▪ 2 teaspoons honey

▪ 3 to 5 drops of essential oil (lavender, rose, sandalwood or lemon are recommended)

▪ Moisturizing lotion

▪ Latex gloves

Mix together first three ingredients in a bowl. Wash hands and apply lotion. Apply the cocoa butter mix liberally and cover the hands with latex gloves. Leave gloves on for at least 15 minutes. Your body heat will allow the cocoa butter to soften and deeply moisturize the skin inside the gloves. Remove gloves, rinse hands and apply moisturizer again. Repeat several times a week for severely dry hands.

— Trisha Shirey, Lake Austin Spa Resort

Bathing beauty bath bags

▪ 1/4 cup powdered milk

▪ 1/4 cup Epsom salt

▪ 1/4 cup sugar

▪ 1/2 cup dried herbs of choice

▪ 10 drops essential oils of choice

▪ 1 muslin bag (with a drawstring to pull it tightly closed)

Stir ingredients together and place in a muslin bag or in several layers of cheesecloth secured with a rubber band. To use, add to the tub and add hot water to steep the bath tea bag for several minutes before bathing.

Notes: Use the softened herb bag to gently exfoliate the body. The entire bag may be added to your compost pile after use. Seal unused bath bags in a glass jar for up to several months if desired.

— Trisha Shirey, Lake Austin Spa Resort

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