Whether you’re applying perfume before a night out or mosquito repellent this summer, you might use essential oils in the process. The concentrated extractions from plants are used widely in the home and not only for wellness bloggers – they freshen up your laundry, treat your acne, and fend off fruit flies. Yet under EU new rules pushed, essential oil use could become severely disrupted. The Swedish presidency of the European Union has the chance to keep insect bites away from our summers.
The EU’s Chemical Agency ECHA has announced plans to shift its assessments of chemical compounds (which includes even simple plant extracts) from a risk-based assessment to a hazard-based assessment. The difference is not merely semantic. In risk communications, “risk” and “hazard” mean different things in the English language.
Let’s use the example of just being outside. The sun represents a hazard, because outside of giving you a sunburn through its UV light, it can cause more severe conditions such as skin cancer. People manage this hazard by limiting their exposure, such as standing in the shade, bringing in a parasol or applying sun cream. The equation thus becomes risk = hazard x exposure. The question of any risk assessment is therefore: how likely is it that a certain product will negatively affect its users?
If you applied a hazard-based approach to life, you would fear cars on roads you are not crossing, duck under planes that are flying at a normal altitude, or, quite frankly, not go outside at all. Unfortunately, ECHA intends on applying this overtly overcautious approach to essential oils, by labeling them as dangerous. The agency is incentivised to assess essential oil under the Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP) Regulation ((EC) No 1272/2008), meaning it would require them to carry warning labels pointing to its danger or be restricted from sale.
As with anything, dosage makes the difference. While a glass of water is perfectly safe, consuming more than five liters in under an hour could actually kill you through water intoxication. The same applies to essential oil: while mosquito-repellent is perfectly safe for humans to use and (fortunately) very unpleasant to mosquitos, it can be toxic if you drink it. While this fact seems obvious to consumers, who are also advised to keep essential oils or chemicals such as cleaning products away from children, it appears to escape regulators who believe it is a hazardous substance.
If consumers do not have access to essential oil products or are disincentivized from their use, they are likely to shift to artificial and possibly more harmful alternatives, such as bug repellents containing diethyltoluamide, known as DEET, which can affect the human nervous system and negatively impact plants and animals.
Warning labels can have a lasting effect on how consumers view the products they buy. If essential oils are subdued by unwarranted danger labels, it could shift consumers to worse alternatives, and impact an industry that is also important. In 2022, the global market value of essential oil surpassed €24 billion. In 2021, France exported over €450 million worth of essential oil products. This means that regulation currently supported by the Swedish presidency would not only affect consumers in the EU and Sweden alike, it would also undermine this country’s own vibrant and developing industry.
Chemical policy is nerdy, and it’s certainly not as appealing as the essential oil used to make our perfumes. Yet it is important to remind regulators that a paternalistic and hazard-based approach to their classification is neither necessary nor practical. Policy-makers need to weigh the risks and benefits of each product and act accordingly. In this case, acting accordingly means NOT labeling everything that contains essential oils as dangerous, most importantly… because in moderate use they aren’t.
Originally published here