Today, I kept seeing “verbena oil” mentioned on various lists of ingredients banned or restricted in cosmetics due to their toxicity. Since I remembered seeing the verbena fragrance in my household products and I like lemon verbena tea, it caught my attention. Apparently, it’s prohibited from use as a fragrance ingredient or as an ingredient in cosmetics in the European Union and unsafe for use in fragrances according to the International Fragrance Association Codes & Standards. Wikipedia only mentions this in passing in the Lemon Verbena entry.
My curiosity (and hypochondria) still peaked, I decided to find out more. What does this restriction mean for my tea drinking or for my detergent? I decided to attempt to answer these question doing what anyone in my generation would – googling “verbena oil”. Summary: I gave up before I could find an explanation of the scares and almost bought some essential oils in the process. Here’s an account of the failure.
The first result, something on ezinearticles.com, tells us that lemon verbena helps to ease exhaustion, relieve anxiety, and boost concentration, and also helps with insomnia. It does recommend that you “do your research” when using it during pregnancy, but lists various benefits such as increasing stamina. (Good thing I’m not pregnant, because “doing your research” proved quite difficult). It also mentions that there might be skin sensitivity in some people.
The second result, a website on a South African domain name selling essential oils, admits that “There is not much safety data regarding lemon verbena oil, but since it has a high citral level it may cause sensitization and is phototoxic.” It also lists various therapeutic properties such as “antiseptic, antispasmodic, aphrodisiac, digestive, emollient, febrifuge, hepatic, insecticide, sedative, stomachic and tonic.”
One of the top results is the “Contraindications” section of a website selling aromatherapy products. It’s listed as a “sensitizing oil” and an ingredient that might cause “severe sun damage”.
The rest of the top 10 results cover various topics such as why and how to use it in aromatherapy, or what food to drizzle it on (vegetables and fish).
Answers.com has a brief blurb on its benefits such as “it is very good for clearing acne and spots also if massaged into the stomach during pregnancy it reduces stretch marks as it improves the elasticity of the skin”.
Nahziryah Monastic Community is simply selling it, noting its aromatherapy uses are “calming, improves concentration, protection, purification”.
wiseGEEK lists a variety of healing properties of lemon verbena oil ranging from its soothing effect on the digestive system to healing the liver.
florapathics is selling it as “calming” and “balancing” but does list the following potential safety issues: “Possible sensitization, phototoxicity due to high citral levels. Otherwise nontoxic.”
By the way, “sensitization” is “an increased effect of drug following repeated doses (the opposite of drug tolerance).” (wikipedia). Phototoxicity means (in humans) that the chemical in question becomes toxic when exposed to sunlight (wikipedia). Notice that neither of these claims tell us anything about the actual nature of verbena’s toxicity.
How does this square with claims like “known human immune system toxicant” listed on the Environmental Working Group website? The reference for this claim is “EU Banned and Restricted Fragrances” cited as SCCPNFP (Scientific Committee On Cosmetic Products And Non-Food Products). 1999. Opinion Concerning Fragrance Allergy In Consumers. . SCCNFP/0017/98 Final, December 1999; and SCCPNFP (Scientific Committee On Cosmetic Products And Non-Food Products). 2000. An Initial List Of Perfumery Materials Which Must Not Form Part Of Fragrances Compounds Used In Cosmetic Products. SCCNFP/0320/00, final May 2000. I failed to find the original text.
This is where my research runs out of steam. There is a link to scientific publications potentially addressing the verbena issue. Surveying this literature is far beyond my ability. I was hoping someone already has. And I was hoping that someone would rank decently in the Google search algorithm.
Conclusions? The information available to me thus far can only lead to some sort of a stupid conclusion like “cook tea in absolute darkness”. The larger conclusion is that responsible health information regarding substances all around us is under-researched, under-published, under-explained and under-available.