I recently came across an article on MedicalNewsToday (MNT) about using essential oils for sunburns. I was taken aback by how the article noted a lack of scientific evidence then proceeded to present a list recommended essential oils to treat sunburns with.
Shameful as it is, this article is a great example of how marketing objectives are often given priority over fact-checking in the world on online information. I wanted to use this as an opportunity to share some insight into how these type of articles arise. Spoiler alert: it’s mostly money and convenience.
- There is little to no direct scientific evidence that essential oils help sunburns
- Without dilution, essential oils could very likely make sunburns more painful
- Vitamin E & Vitamin C aren’t generally considered essential oils
- Websites target specific keywords to get more readers
- The articles that appear for these types of keywords are always accurate
- Fact-checking everything you read online is especially important for health-related information.
This article’s first heading is titled “What does the scientific evidence say?” followed by a paragraph that reads such:
“To date, no large-scale human studies exploring the association between essential oil use and sunburn healing have been carried out.”
So far so good. However, this is the next heading:
“Eight best essential oils for sunburn”
At this point, the article reads like “There’s no science to support essential oils for sunburn treatment, but here’s our list anyway!” At the bottom of the article, they cite the following sources:
- Babar, A., Al-Wabel, N. A., Shams, S., Ahamad, A., Khan, S. A., & Anwar, F. (2015, August). Essential oils used in aromatherapy: A systemic review. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine, 5(8), 601-611. Available Online: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apjtb.2015.05.007
- Godic, A., Poljšak, B., Adamic, M., & Dahmane, R. (2014, March 26). The role of antioxidants in skin cancer prevention and treatment. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/860479.
- Jopke, K., Sander, H., & White-Traut, R. (2017, May–June). Use of essential oils following traumatic burn injury: A case study. Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 34, 72-77. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pedn.2016.12.018
Note: I had to look up the first one because the link in the article resulted in a 404 Not Found error.
The first article is a review of several plants often used in essential oils/aromatherapy and related literature. The only mention of sunburns is with regards to Roman Chamomile which states the following:
In aromatherapy, [Roman Chamomile] is extensively used to relieve the pain from physical conditions, menstrual cramps, and tension with its application on lower abdomen. Psoriasis, eczema, boils, sunburn, and cold sores have been treated with it along with its role in decreasing the pain associated with joints, arthritis, sprains, and stings
The author cites a book titled The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils: The Complete Guide to the Use of Oils in Aromatherapy & Herbalism. I couldn’t find a digital copy to verify the reference and did not order a hardcopy.
This paper is a review of research relating to skin cancer. The following terms occur exactly zero times throughout:
- essential oil
Most references throughout this paper focus on means of protecting against UV damage rather than dealing with it afterward. In other words—using Vitamin E as sunscreen rather than treatment for sunburn. Still useful information—even if I don’t consider Vitamin E to be an essential oil.
The third reference, cited prominently at the top of the article, was a case report of two young girls. The author of the article noted the following of the reference:
The girl who received the oil treatment developed only one hospital-acquired infection compared to the other girl who developed two infections in her bloodstream and four hospital-acquired infections.
This is a small study, and more extensive studies are needed, but this does provide some evidence for the use of essential oils in the treatment of burns.
Emphasis added. I’d argue that a case study of two people doesn’t provide much evidence. I’d also point out that a measure of hospital-acquired infection (in the bloodstream no less) isn’t the use-case most people are considering when treating their sunburn. Shame on MNT.
Content Marketing & Shameless Scientific Side-Stepping
After noting the lack of scientific evidence in support of using essential oils to treat sunburns, the article proceeds to recommend several products for doing just that. Shame on MNT again.
The first product—Vitamin E essential oil. I thought that sounded nonsensical as I’d never heard Vitamin E referred to as an essential oil. I admit—I didn’t really know how to define the term essential oil.
Wikipedia had a pretty good definition of essential oils:
An Essential oil is a concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile (easily evaporated at normal temperatures) chemical compounds from plants.
Note the use of the term volatile. This helped tease-out my own working definition for essential oils:
liquids containing concentrated plant compounds capable of dispersing active particles into the surrounding air without mechanical assistance.
I’ve never regarded skin cream to behave in that way.
I searced the MNT website for other articles on Vitamin E Essential Oils. This led me to another article dedicated entirely to Vitamin E oils. The word “essential” was not used a single time throughout the main body, headings, or title. It’s as if the author of that article didn’t consider Vitamin E an essential oil.
More Questionable Compounds
The second item on their list was Vitamin C essential oil. That also seemed a bit nonsensical to me. Vitamin C serum is a popular product in the skincare market, with plenty of supportive evidence for its use as an antioxidant. I’ve never heard anyone refer to it as an essential oil before.
Tea Tree oil also made it on their list. I can tell you from personal experience; that it does not feel great on a sunburn. The list continues to mention several other essential oils each with scientific support for health benefits that only connect indirectly to their influence on sunburns.
For example, Essential oil 1 helps treat inflammation and sunburns involve inflammation therefore Essential oil 1 can be used to treat sunburns. That is making a lot of assumptions.
Online Marketing & Keyword Competition
Anyone marketing anything online goes through a process named market research. This is meant to build a working model of market demand to develop a better overall marketing strategy.
In the context of online marketing, market research is often synonymous with another term: keyword research. Tools such as Ahrefs, SemRush, and others provide keyword data reflective of the interests of online users. Of the many datapoints one can get, the following three are used regularly to dictate marketing strategy:
- Keywords: The phrases users type into search engines like Google
- Monthly Volume: How frequently keywords are searched for
- Keyword Difficulty: How hard it is for a website to appear in search results for a given keyword.
Using this data, along with others based on project demand, marketers are able to develop a strategy for selling a product. Below you’ll find a bit more description of each of these parts of online market research.
Step One: Finding A Keyword
The first step is finding keywords. Next is to find keywords that reflect a strong interest in a topic. Terms like “keto diet” get millions of monthly searches whereas terms like “homemade acne wash” get fewer than a thousand. Keto diet would be a more popular keyword to target—but popular isn’t always profitable.
Step Two: Analyzing Interest
The keyword “keto diet” reflects a keyword that has much more general interest than “homemade acne wash.” There are some nuances to consider but keywords with higher monthly search numbers are usually reflective of higher real-world interest. Keywords with more search volume are potentially more profitable. That’s not always the case.
Step Three: Competitive Analysis
The third step is to consider the difficulty (a.k.a. competition) for a keyword. This is how hard it would be to have a website appear to people interested in its subject matter. In many cases, a pilar of keyword difficulty analysis is a consideration for search engines. This is called either search engine marketing (SEM) or search engine optimization (SEO) depending on how one approaches it.
Putting it all Together
The image above shows some keywords related to using essential oils for sunburns. This is data specific to the MNT page, so there is also information like where that page ranks for keywords and how what percentage of their overall traffic comes from that page.
In the case of this article on using essential oils for sunburns, the keyword phrase “what essential oil is good for sunburn” has 5,400 monthly Google searches in the United States alone. That reflects a moderate amount of interest. What’s more, is that it has a relatively small difficulty rating. Popular with little competition—that’s a winning formula.
Shameless Product Recommendations
The end goal of all this keyword research is to find topics that people are interested in. In the case of using essential oils to treat sunburns, there is a decent amount of interest and a small amount of competition.
It’s important to recognize that search engines don’t require fact-checking in order to appear for keywords. An article with incorrect information could very well outrank an article with correct information. There are many other factors that are weighed when ranking pages but—regardless of what anyone says—my experience is that fact-checking at scale isn’t yet feasible.
Essential oils probably are a bad idea for treating sunburns. My best advice is to 1. Not use essential oils to treat sunburns and 2.) recognize that everyone has an agenda. In the case of this particular MNT article—it would seem the agenda is to capitalize on a keyword with little competition and potential to drive affiliate commissions—lack of scientific support be damned.
Personally, I don’t understand why they’d even bother. This article makes them look like real assholes and it’s not likely to earn them more than a few thousand dollars in affiliate commissions over the course of its lifetime. For a site like MNT, that’s less than pocket change.
I hope this article hasn’t bored you to tears and provided a bit of insight into why fact-checking often plays second fiddle marketing. If you want this article to outrank the MNT article—link to it from somewhere!