Science Saturday: The Art of Research Papers

Did you miss me? With it being Thanksgiving last week, I thought it best to spend the time with family rather than researching and writing a blog post while the kids had a break from school. From here on out for the holiday season, too, I’m suspecting the posts may be staggered every other week so still stay with me (us, when hubby has some spare time)!

So with your newfound knowledge on how to search PubMed effectively from our last Science Saturday post, how about some useful tips to keep in mind when reading through research articles? Sometimes it feels like one is reading one of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays or even a book in an entirely different language (it practically is) but learning to read research papers can be a useful skill if one takes the time to hone and master it.


What is it?

Is it an article describing a well-designed research study comparing a novel treatment to a placebo? Is it a meta-analysis of all there is or systematic review from Cochrane? Or is it an editorial opinion? Each has it’s place in the world of research and you can learn more about the hierarchy of evidence here.


Population and Sample Size

If it’s a study comparing different treatments or a new drug, what is the sample size? Twelve, twenty, two hundred thousand? The bigger the sample size, the more representative and useful it will be. A small sample isn’t necessarily bad, it just means it should be replicated in a larger population before claiming factual evidence of something.

Who and/or what did it include in the test population? Was the population representative of mainly children, females only, or an elderly population? Were tests carried out in a petri dish, mice, or humans? Mice, though also mammals, still have physiological differences when compared to humans. As a favorite comic says, “Keep in mind” that anything that can happen in a petri dish does not translate over to what happens inside the human body.


Replication is Key

Everyone needs to remember the importance of rechecking and replicating results. Just like in scientific research, bakers replicate the recipes of others in their own kitchens. The comments sections of blogs are the peer review section. Sometimes we get similar results and sometimes we don’t. If I try a new recipe and it flops, I’m not always quick to throw it out. I like to look back and see what I might have done wrong. Did I follow the recipe exactly? Oops! I forgot the baking soda! If I did follow the recipe to the T, perhaps I could compare it to similar recipes or read the comments section if the recipe is online and try something different. That’s kitchen science!


Impact Factor

The impact factor of journal is a statistical number determined by how often a journal’s articles have been cited by other journals. Like a grade point average or perhaps even just a popularity score, some love it while others hate it. There are journals that have been around a long time and therefore may have high influence. Others are new and upcoming and haven’t quite developed a good impact factor.

“Pay-to-play” journals is where anyone can get published if they just pay a fee and should be approached with caution. In other words, this is where anyone can get published, even if it’s shoddy research or even has been retracted, meaning published but then thrown out when found to be bad or even false, by another journal. They are considered predatory and may be rank with fake research. One way to think of it is how anyone can publish an ebook on amazon. Whether it will become a best seller is possible but also highly improbable.



Last of all, one doesn’t need to nor should read alone. Find a friend or reach out and make new friends in the world of science! Be patient as some may be socially awkward or come off as rude at first but there are more scientists working more and more on communicating their fields of research to the public. Seek out those reputable and trusting sources for information. I follow a slew of facebook groups run by science-minded folk!

In the end, google may give you thousands of results, scientist friends can help you interpret those results.

Neil-Gaiman-Quote libraries



Bonus reads:

How to (seriously) read a research paper

Evidence hierarchy pyramid

Some Online Journals Will Publish Fake Science, For a Fee

Why A Journalist Scammed The Media Into Spreading Bad Chocolate Science



Science Saturday: How to use PubMed


The use of PubMed has increased these days by those not just in the field of research and medicine. While this may sound good, just attaching a link to the search results for [insert topic] could be likened to taking two coconut halves and banging them together in an attempt to sound like a legit horse…

And now for a blog episode of ‘Alison Ruins Everything’, I present an example I recently came across: While the intentions of sharing these PubMed search results were in hopes to substantiate benefits of using cinnamon essential oil, this is what the first result had to say about the systematic analysis of cinnamon for diabetes mellitus. (Systematic analysis means the comprehensive review of all current and relevant studies).

Generally, studies were not well conducted and lacked in qualityThe review authors found cinnamon to be no more effective than placebo, another active medication or no treatment in reducing glucose levels and glycosylated haemoglobin A1c (HbA1c), a long‐term measurement of glucose control. None of the trials looked at health‐related quality of life, morbidity, death from any cause or costs. Adverse reactions to cinnamon treatment were generally mild and infrequent. Further trials investigating long‐term benefits and risks of the use of cinnamon for diabetes mellitus are required. Rigorous study design, quality reporting of study methods, and consideration of important outcomes such as health‐related quality of life and diabetes complications, are key areas in need of attention. (Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews)

PubMed is a great tool when you know how to use it correctly. Otherwise, it’s more like using a dull knife which has a high chance of slipping and slicing your own finger. Saying this, even I don’t know how to use it responsibly so I often turn to an expert who uses PubMed on a nearly daily basis and just so happens to be sitting on the couch next to me! Together, we’ve developed this post on what is and how to use PubMed effectively by and for the average person.


What is PubMed?

One giant online database,”PubMed is a free [online] resource that provides access to MEDLINE, the National Library of Medicine database of citations and abstracts in the fields of medicine, nursing, dentistry, veterinary medicine, health care systems, and preclinical sciences.” (1)

It generally does not contain full-text articles but instead provides citations and abstracts of journal articles. Access to the complete journal and/or article may or may not be accessible due to a paywall but those in the research and/or medical fields gain access to full articles through the university or hospital they work at or through a personal subscription to the journal. PubMed Health is a specialized sub-database of PubMed for patients and clinicians to use in order to find information and research on medical topics. Searching for the topic of cinnamon in PubMed brought up up 1,977 search results, whereas PubMed health narrowed it down to a measly 11.

PubMed and it’s sub-databases are awesome! But sometimes it can be like searching for a book in the Library of Congress IN THE DARK. You’ve got to know where and how to look in such a vast array in order to find what you’re looking for. So, how does one navigate PubMed? By knowing what to type into the search bar.


How to search PubMed

Questions like, “What to make for dinner with leftover chicken” or “show times for Thor: Ragnarok” (which was awesome, btw) is how one can phrase search queries in Google but not PubMed.

One useful method is called the PICO method and is taught to medical students:

P: Patient or population that is being treated/intervention is being applied to? (ex. anxiety in middle-aged women)

I: Intervention or treatment of interest? (ex. use of lavender essential oil)

C: Comparison? (ex. SSRI anti-depressant)

O: Outcome? (ex. reduction in anxiety symptoms as measured by a standardized scale such as the Hamilton anxiety scale)

Once you have determined the answers to these questions, you can formulate your search phrase. Our mouthful example would be “middle-aged female lavender essential oil selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor Hamilton anxiety scale”.  Note that we did not use the acronym SSRI as PubMed searches do not handle acronyms well.

This specific search brought up one paper, demonstrating how being specific in our search parameters worked wonders!


Search Results

We threw a stick for our PubMed pup to fetch. Did it bring back a good stick or a smelly sock? Here is the result:

This paper evaluated an oral preparation of lavender oil called Silexan against placebo and an SSRI, known as paroxetine, in a randomized, double-blind, double-dummy trial of 539 adults (primarily women) with generalized anxiety disorder over a ten-week period. The study identifies that Silexan is significantly more effective at reducing anxiety symptoms as compared to a placebo and had a greater overall effect than that which was seen with paroxetine. As with any study, replication is the gold standard for confidence in a finding but this study does pose an interesting insight into the potential benefits of some essential oils. It also precisely addresses our example question of interest.

When using the PICO method, if no results are identified, the query can be simplified or altered to allow broader results. If too many results are identified, more specific terms can be included. The method is intended to provide a handful of results that clearly address the question of interest.




MeSH stands for “medical subject headings” and is one way PubMed indexes common search terms into a hierarchical format. It’s like a medical thesaurus. If your search includes a topic such as heart diseases, MeSH will help by pulling together relating results such as endocarditis, arrhythmias, pericarditis, etc. You can search the MeSH database here and see all the crazy complex medical terms doctors must memorize and use.

Another option in MeSH is to assist you in building a search based on subheadings. Say one’s topic is Rheumatoid Arthritis. These are the many subheading options:

mesh sub final

Overall, how is MeSH useful? It helps “to facilitate search retrieval by eliminating (or accounting for) the use of variant terminology for the same concept.” (2) Rather than having to perform several searches with similar terms, including spelling variations, using medical subject headings can pull in all those similar search terms.



When using PubMed, it is important to be concise and descriptive. Develop your search parameters by using the PICO method to efficiently narrow your results. MeSH is a useful net for reducing multiple searches by drawing in similar medical terminologies and spellings.

Keep asking questions and learning new things. As Miss Frizzle always says, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”


miss friz

“Seatbelts, everyone!”


Bonus materials:

Searching the Medical Literature Using PubMed: A Tutorial

Berkeley Library – PubMed Tips and Tricks






Science Saturday: The Placebo Effect (Part 2)

Holy mackerel, last week was a whirlwind! I usually like to spend a week gathering resources, writing, re-writing, and polishing up a post. It being the week before Halloween, the costumes needed to be completed, and the van needed wheel bearings replaced in which one day in the mechanic’s shop wasn’t long enough to finish the job. On top of that, I’ve been sick with a nasty cough that was making my daughter nervous all because she’s reading a book in which the main character’s mother died. The poor dear. It’s just a cold! But I did manage to hire her for $5 to feed her younger brothers breakfast and keep them all entertained for the morning so I could stay in bed and rest. So I apologize for the delay in part deux on placebos.


Placebos, Nocebos, Do-Si-Do!

A placebo is defined as a medically inert substance or technique, which is administered like a drug. As the staple negative control in clinical trials, placebos play a critical role in modern medicine. The placebo effect refers to the well-documented phenomenon in which patients feel better after receiving a placebo. In other words, the mere thought that a treatment has been received causes a beneficial physical response. (1)

To test a new medicine or treatment, it is generally pitted up against a placebo in a clinical trial and must be able to perform better than a placebo group. This placebo may be a sugar pill, a cream with inactive ingredients, or even just smelly shampoo. (2)

I thought it would be interesting to read the research study I participated in but was unsuccessful in finding it. It could still be finishing up as research studies do take years to complete. As for what group I was in… [drum roll please] … the placebo group. My slow and steady improvements could be attributed more to therapy sessions, but the side affects I thought might be from the medication were my own.

Fascinating how placebos can have effects even when they might just be an inert pill, huh? Our own expectations can influence how a medication works, as seen in this study – Pricier Meds Mean Worse Side Effects, Thanks to ‘Nocebo’ Effect – where those using what looked to be more expensive placebo cream reported more negative side effects than the other cheaper looking placebo group. Both anti-itch were placebos!


What’s the Harm?

So then, what’s the harm in taking a medicine that ends up being no better than a placebo if it appears to be providing some positive effects? Here’s one comic example:

carbon dating placebo

Funny enough, five birth control pills actually are sugar pills. Credit: Carbon Dating

In some cases, a placebo for pain management may be somewhat efficacious without contributing more side effects like an addiction to narcotic pain killers. In other cases, the delaying of or use of a less than effective treatment could have negative effects, especially when suggested by non-certified persons in place of properly trained medical practitioners.

Placebos cannot cure cancer or mend broken bones, but so long as they are of an inert substance (sugar, saline, etc) that cannot interfere with necessary treatment methods (ex. insulin for diabetes management, chemotherapy, antibiotics, etc.), the ethics of a placebo is an interesting topic to explore further. These are suggested guidelines for practitioners when choosing to administer a placebo:

  • The intentions of the physician must be benevolent: her only concern the well-being of the patient. No economical, professional, or emotional interest should interfere with her decision.

  • The placebo, when offered, must be given in the spirit of assuaging the patient’s suffering, and not merely mollifying him, silencing him, or otherwise failing to address his distress.

  • When proven ineffective the placebo should be immediately withdrawn. In these circumstances, not only is the placebo useless, but it also undermines the subsequent effectiveness of medication by undoing the patient’s conditioned response and expectation of being helped.

  • The placebo cannot be given in place of another medication that the physician reasonably expects to be more effective. Administration of placebo should be considered when a patient is refractory to standard treatment, suffers from its side effects, or is in a situation where standard treatment does not exist.

  • The physician should not hesitate to respond honestly when asked about the nature and anticipated effects of the placebo treatment he is offering.

  • If the patient is helped by the placebo, discontinuing the placebo, in absence of a more effective treatment, would be unethical. (5)


Improvement with just the right attention

One hypothesis hubby and I have discussed, is the clinician’s usage of time with patients. It seems like common sense that doesn’t need much research but sadly some doctors still scoff. As was noted in an editorial on aromatherapy, “Some have speculated that it is not the therapy itself but merely the increased time with a caring person that leads to improved outcomes.” (2) If one major goal is to improve patient outcomes, spending just the right amount of time as well as using the right words can have just as beneficial effects. Perhaps this is one reason some patients may choose practitioners of alternative medicine? But let’s leave discussions of that for another time.


In conclusion

After my participation in the study, I still felt the need for an added boost therefore, in addition to continuing therapy sessions, added an anti-depressant to my treatment plan so I could further regain control of myself and be a better mother.

Not all will choose medication for depression and that is okay. Therapy is also a great tool in the treatment box. It’s important that mothers realize that and not feel ashamed to seek help when those feelings of sadness, anger, and/or anxiety become unnaturally overwhelming and burdensome. Be it therapy, medication, or both, don’t ignore the demons of postpartum depression. You don’t have to fight them alone.


Bonus reading materials:

(1) More Than Just a Sugar Pill: Why the Placebo Effect is Real

(2) Editorial on Aromatherapy

(3) Pricier Meds … ‘Nocebo’ Effect

(4) Carbon Dating: Placebo Prophylactic

(5) The Ethics of the Placebo in Clinical Practice

Monday Musings: The Importance of Citations

One of my pet peeves is a lack of citing sources on the internet. These days, it’s not just for college research papers and Wikipedia articles. If you are going to provide information that is not common knowledge (ex. Elizabeth II is the current queen of England; 2+2=4; I like chocolate), citing where you received your information is essential as well as useful. This gives readers the ability go check sources for themselves. Citations can aid in continuing discussions as well as further aid others with a thirst for knowledge. It is also useful in determining whether a source holds credibility or has been interpreted correctly.


Source: xkcd

Who has played the telephone game? You whisper something in one person’s ear and they pass the information on to the next person until it comes full circle back to you. How often does the information come back in the original form? Not very often! Of course as a game it’s fun to mess around but when it pertains to reality, some information you hear goes through a similar distilling and distorting process as it passes from person to person. Some may tweak a few bits to fit their needs, others may forget or leave out a part or two, and sometimes it might even be just a false rumor started to cause an emotional ruckus or personal damage (ex. microwaving charges iphones).

So when I read something like “essential oils can regenerate DNA”, I’d like to see where this information is coming from. I’m nerdy like that. If that isn’t provided, I have to google it myself only to discover it isn’t true.  Some things in life I can take by faith but in my quest for knowledge, I dismiss articles or information without readily accessible sources.

I could summarize and parrot all the cool things I find on the interwebs for you. Or I could share them in the bonus materials so you can go check them out yourself. Who knows? Like me, you might expand your horizons and find some new pages or blogs to follow. Learn something new everyday!


the more you know

Source: Google Images


Bonus Materials:

Ironically, I have none right now!


Science Saturday: Placebo Effect (Part 1)

The placebo effect is quite fascinating as well as complex. To begin with, a personal experience. Some parts are cloudy after several years but I’ve done my best to recall the important details.


If you think this mom looks too happy acting silly & couldn’t possibly have PPD, remember how deceiving looks can be.

After my second child was born, the demons of postpartum depression crept in. This wasn’t just the typical “exhausted, sad, anxious, have someone help out and just get a little extra rest” baby blues many mothers (and some fathers) experience. My own mind was clouded over and darkened with feelings of extreme sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety, and so forth. At my six week post-birth check-up, I nuked the depression screening. Seriously, postpartum depression is nothing to fool around with which is why I’ve become more open in talking about my own experiences so as to help others realize the importance of seeking help.

My doctor mentioned a study enrolling mothers with clinically diagnosed postpartum depression in order to study differing treatment methods. Monetary compensation and therapy sessions at no cost to me through the clinic had me interested. Besides, being married to a medical scientist in training, I know the importance of research in the fields of medicine. I would be randomly sorted into one of three groups – A) medication and therapy, B) placebo and therapy, or C) just therapy.

I don’t recall how long participation in the study was but during enrollment, I went to weekly therapy sessions and was mailed medication. My psychiatrist monitored the dosage but the study was double-blinded so neither I nor she knew whether I was taking actual medication (Sertraline) or a placebo (simple sugar pill). I answered phone surveys every so often on how I was doing. Those were slightly irksome as I often fret over questions that require ranking on a scale of 1 to 10.

I continued through to the end of the study and it was finally to be revealed whether I was in the medication or placebo group. Through much of my therapy, my doctor, my husband, as well I suspected I was on the real medication. I had been steadily making improvements but still had some way to go before being able to say I had vanquished the demons of depression. I had also felt a few side affects, one of which were chest pains and breathing troubles severe enough to warrant a trip the the ER. It was a panic attack; one I’d never felt of such a forceful magnitude.

So what group was I in? Take a guess while I attempt to define this complex phenomenon. Placebo is Latin for “I shall please” whereas nocebo is “I shall harm”. (1) A placebo effect is a substance (like a sugar pill) or a collection of effects that provide therapeutic benefit which arise from no known biological mechanisms. This does not dispute that the therapeutic effects are real and of true benefit to the patient but that we are still in the beginning stages of determining where they arise from.

Now, to be clear, there is no evidence that a placebo can shrink a tumor or heal a broken bone, but when it comes to ailments grounded in self-awareness, such as pain, the placebo effect can be tremendous. In the 1980’s, neuroscientist Jon Levine conducted what is now considered one of the quintessential analyses of the placebo effect. In this study, postoperative patients received either a secret dose of 6-8 mg of morphine, or an overt dose of a substance described as a powerful painkiller (but was actually saline solution!). The results were remarkable: patients in both groups reported the same degree of pain relief. (2)

This quote comes from More Than Just a Sugar Pill: Why the Placebo Effect is Real, which is included in my bonus reading materials. I’d like to think providing this resource is better than just regurgitating them like a mommy bird. Stay tuned next Science Saturday to discuss more as well as reveal which group I was in.


Bonus reading materials:

(1) The Placebo Phenomenon (a long but interesting read)

(2) More Than Just a Sugar Pill: Why the Placebo Effect is Real

The Placebo Effect and Complemetary and Alternative Medicine

Editorial on Aromatherapy

Misconceptions of Essential Oils #1-3

It is amazing how many myths and misconceptions there are surrounding essential oils! They just keep going around the interwebs like an old meme. Now, before anyone decides to leave before even finishing reading, please remember I’m not trying to bash essential oils. In essence, I am interested in filtering through the useless, wasteful, and possibly even harmful information to find safe beneficial information – like separating dross from silver – and passing on what I find. If you have something for me to look into, let me know in the comments and I’ll see what I find.

stack of books


#1 “Therapeutic grade” essential oils are the best of the best

Upon looking into it, “therapeutic grade” appears to just be another marketing buzzword that needs to be tossed onto the rubbish heap of meaningless product labels. There are no unifying standards for essential oils nor is there an independent, non-biased third party with a standardized grading system companies can be held accountable to. Most are self-regulated, some even with specially trademarked terms no other company can use, thus leaving consumers to be tossed about in the cacophonic waves of endless buzzwords in the marketplace. Does this help the consumer? In my opinion, no.

Some would say the lack of such a meddlesome system of governance is good but here are a couple of examples why it is not. Have you ever had to convert between two units of measurement? Before the standardizing of measurements, a foot could be determined by the the length of the current king’s foot or a yard by the tailor’s own arm. If the tailor was small, one could get easily gypped! Or, there is the history of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 to protect consumers from buying contaminated or adulterated goods. So until there is an organized standardizing body to regulate essential oils, one can ignore some of the fancy buzzwords.

Encyclopedia – Food and Drug Act of 1906


#2 Essential oils are safe to ingest

Inconclusive. When it comes to ingesting essential oils, unless you are receiving personally tailored recommendations from a licensed medical practitioner with extensive training and education certificates from verifiable sources that you have met with, don’t. Many actually advise AGAINST ingesting essential oils, even if the bottle has a GRAS label on it. Essential oils are, after all, highly concentrated chemical compounds and therefore can pack quite a punch. And, though they may not cause harm right away, the damage caused through daily ingestion may not become apparent until some time later.

Rather than me blathering on, here’s a good read by The Hippy Homemaker:  The Case for Ingestion – Is Ingesting Essential Oils Safe

Safety statement –  Alliance of International Aromatherapists – Aromatherapy Safety

Another safety statement – National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy


#3 Essential oils are most beneficial when applied to the feet

Not true. If I had a nickle for every time I heard this over the years, I could finally buy that Noonday purse I’ve been patiently saving up for! This is one misconception that really needs to be stomped on for good (pun intended). Feet have calloused, thick, and toughened skin. They also are one of the most sweaty places on the human body. The pores are also only exits, not entrances. Slower, if even any, absorption will occur and any benefit will only be coming from the aromatic inhalation via your nose and a relaxing foot rub.

Another good blog resource –

And –


Thanks for sticking around to the end! Still wondering how I’m using the two essential oils I’ve purchased so far? I’m still loving my wool dryer balls with just a drop or two of lavender essential oil!


Time to Roll Up the Sleeve

Influenza viruses should not be confused with common cold viruses, both of which bring on sneezes, sniffles, running noses, hacking coughs, and a myriad of other irritating symptoms as your body fights back. Neither should influenza be confused with the “clutch a bucket/pray to the porcelain gods for 24 hours” stomach flu. In all actuality, the stomach flu should be properly called gastroenteritis or norovirus. There are no cures but many home remedies or over-the-counter products exist to help ease and/or shorten the discomforts and duration of these illnesses, if only by a tiny fraction. All viruses must run their course and frequent hand-washing and following other useful hygienic protocols help to slow or prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria.


My ouchie!

For influenza, there is a the yearly flu shot. It’s not 100% perfect but it’s better than 0%. So why does my entire household now roll up their sleeves to get their yearly flu vaccine, no matter how difficult it may be to endure a tiny poke? Because we have seen the alternative and it wasn’t fun.

Let us travel back to January of 2015 – big sis awoke me late in the night to inform me me little brother was crying, coughing, and gasping for breath. It had only been a day or two since he’d fallen victim to the yucky sickness all of us were already dealing with in varying stages (runny nose, coughing, aches and pains, etc.). After trying to cuddle and calm him in front of the humidifier and much fretting over by doctor-in-training daddy, I bundled him up in the van, opened the windows a crack, and drove 30 minutes into town to the hospital emergency room. By the time the two of us arrived, I wondered if my mommy instincts were just over-reacting as he was still coughing but there was less gasping and wheezing. Within 5 minutes of sitting in the warm waiting room, the gasping was back in full swing.

Fast forward through… my 8-month pregnant belly trying to snuggle next to my poor sickie on a skinny ER bed as I closely monitored his raspy breathing as he fell asleep after a fever reducer and breathing nebulizer thingamabob… through those moments when I nearly wet my pants when I coughed because I, too, was still sick… The nasal swab tested positive for influenza and due to complications of croup that could not be completely resolved in the emergency room, he was admitted to the inpatient pediatric department of the hospital for a day of more treatments and observation. Thankfully, it was only for a day but it could’ve been worse. Influenza kills.

The next winter, December of 2015, my daughter came down with a little cold as we traveled out to visit extended family for Christmas. Due to being out of network, we put off taking her to a doctor until about Day 5 of her fluctuating fever, aches and pains, and nearly nonexistent appetite. When daddy finally took her to the ER, her blood oxygen levels were borderline hospital admittance and an x-ray revealed pneumonia in her lower lungs. While this was not influenza, it still shows how nasty viruses can be on kids with compromised immune systems. She has asthma. We all get a flu shot to help protect her.


Wash your hands. Stay home when you’re sick. Rub essential oils on your feet for all I care. Protect the young. Protect the old. Protect the sick AND healthy. Protect yourself. Please help prevent the spread of influenza by getting a flu shot.



Bonus reading:

Mayo Clinic

NPR: Flu Myths Busted

Johns Hopkins flu shot rumor

AAFP: Miscarriage risks and the flu shot


Full disclosure statement: I received no payment nor compensation in any way for this post by anyone.


Science Saturday: What is a Chemical?

Sure, not all of us may use the Pythagorean theorem in our everyday lives after graduation but science is is all around us and improving education and communication between researchers and the rest of us is becoming even more of a necessity. Research done well can create useful advancements and research done poorly (ex. Doctor Wakefield’s now retracted Autism/MMR study) can hinder progress.

“A lie can travel half way around the world before the truth can tie it’s shoes.”         — Unknown

This is where I hope to be of some help with my mad librarian skillz, bridging the gaps between scientists, doctors, and my fellow peeps. So this week, for Science Saturday, lets talk about CHEMICALS.


Me: Hey, honey. What are chemicals?

Hubby, yawning: Chemicals are the foundation of all life. They are the basis of all things in this universe. Goodnight.

Me: Oh, okay. Google, what are chemicals?


Google fetched me about 91,300,000 results in 0.63 seconds…

inigo montoya

The word “chemical” often carries with it an unnecessarily negative connotation. There is a lot of talk these days about chemicals. “Don’t count calories! Count chemicals!” Fear seems to sell and companies are jumping on the shoddy marketing bandwagon to make a tidy profit. A notion that, if a kid can’t pronounce it, it must be avoided? My kid is an advanced reader so she sure can pronounce some humdingers! Or, nature makes better chemicals than a lab… Cyanide, arsenic, belladonna,  poison ivy. Or there’s the “chemical-free” lifestyle. No. Just, please, no.

The Definitions of a Chemical

So let’s start off by answering the question “what is a chemical?” A blogging chemistry teacher considers her current working definition of a chemical to be, “any substance made of atoms, molecules and/or ions which has a fixed composition.” (1) This definition goes down to the teeny tiny, itty bitty, microscopic foundations. The food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breath, the planet we live on are all made up of elements found in the periodic table. Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur are the six most common elements found in living organisms, like us. (2) Thus, all things with a physical basis are made up of chemicals.

Another science student blogger (with several posts on this topic you should go read instead of me) has this simple infographic to explain further what IS and what ISN’T a chemical (3):


Mmmm! Cupcakes are a delightful mixture of sugar, baking soda, and other chemicals and chemical reactions. Such a treat can create happiness, which is not a chemical although chemical reactions in the body contribute to the creation of those feelings in us as we savor the cupcake. Our body needs chemicals and we get those from the food that we consume, all of which are made up of chemicals.

Alas, how I wish hoping and dreaming of a clean house were enough but, again, thoughts are not chemicals and therefore do not work well on killing norovirus (a very unpleasant stomach virus easily passed around that doesn’t care what you think about it). So yes, I want and need my cleaning supplies to contain chemicals and so should you.

Even essential oils are made up of complex mixtures of chemical compounds. Here’s a graphic made by one of my favorite chemistry communicators, Compound Interest, on the compounds that contribute to the aroma of one of my favorite scents (4):


Safety and Toxicity of Chemicals

Next, let’s address the safety and toxicity of chemicals because if all things are made of chemicals and compounds then how can we tell what is safe and what could be harmful? It all comes down to amounts. Paracelsus, a Swiss doctor back in the 1500’s, is oft quoted when it comes to this issue:

“All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy.”  — Parecelcus

At just the right amount or if used incorrectly, anything can be toxic. Or, even on the opposite side of the spectrum, too little may not even have any effects (good or bad). LD50 (lethal dose) is one method of measurement that can be used to determine the toxicity of a substance, or, the amount needed to kill half of the test population. The higher the toxicity, the lower the LD50 will be (i.e. it takes a smaller dose to cause harm or even death). (5) The measurement is often given in milligrams per kilogram of body weight. Even everyday substances humans consume could be harmful or even deadly in just the right amount, as presented here (6):


How does this apply to us consumers in our everyday dealings? Many methods of measurements like the LD50 and other research factors are used in determining the safety and efficacy in a variety of items such as medications, makeup, cleaning solutions, and food and drink. Safety and toxicity is quite complex, really. The advent of phone apps monitoring chemicals in products could be more of a hindrance as they feed into the unwarranted fears over chemicals. These apps are widely available on smartphones (except mine because it’s a dumbphone) and designed to be used by consumers to scan barcodes on household items ranging from makeup and shampoo to canned foods and produce and assigned scores.

While yes, it is important to take into account what we use and consume, sometimes one has to leave a good portion of it up to experts in the fields of science. The presence of a chemical compound does not equal hazardous. Remember, the dose makes the poison. Choose facts over fear.

Summary or TL;DR version:

Chemicals make up the substances we use in everyday life, including our own bodies. The dose of a chemical makes all the difference between whether it is harmful or safe.

Class dismissed. Go enjoy the weather.

(For those not in Iowa, it’s a rainy Saturday.)


Works cited and highly suggested reading materials for bonus points:





(5) Assessing Toxic Risk: Student Edition, Chapter One: The Dose Makes the Poison


Yet another DIY Dry Laundry Detergent the internet doesn’t really need but so what?!


DIY dry laundry detergent:

  • 1 bar Fels Naptha, grated
  • 1 & 1/2 cups borax (I accidentally measured in 2 cups, oops!)
  • 1 cup washing soda
  • 3/8 cup baking soda
  • 20 drops essential oil 

Mix all ingredients in an air tight container (pictured is 7 c. capacity Ziploc) and store up out of reach of children. Stir before each use and add between 2 tablespoons to 1/4 cup per load, depending on the dirtiness of laundry.

Before I lose potentially new readers because some might think I’m on the bashing side of essential oils, I have just shared with you the DIY laundry detergent recipe I just mixed up yesterday in which I added a few drops of essential oil to. See? I’m not all poo poo on them! I’m just in the more cautious camp. I’m on a fence post, surveying the shore, and dabbling a toe in the water.

I’ve made my own laundry detergent off and on over the past few years. Don’t fall for the “chemical free” cleaning lifestyle “perks” though. It is absolutely impossible to lead a chemical free life. Seriously. A post on “What are chemicals?” is in the works so I’ll leave it at that for now.

I make my own detergent because of the cost efficiency perks. And I just ditched the dryer sheets for wool dryer balls. Sure, I can’t resist the sirens of a good sale on my favorite scent of Tide every once in a while but I’m still working through the same boxes of borax and washing soda I bought five some odd years ago! (Note#1: store them in air tight containers, NOT in their cardboard boxes, once opened. Lesson learned. Note #2: don’t use a cheap food processor to pulverize bricks of washing soda…)

Grating a bar of soap by hand sure gives your arm a work out! And there’s the excitement of trial and error as you decide what works best in your washer. I noticed with liquid batches of homemade detergent, it lost cleaning potency as it aged so I tried reducing the giant recipe. It’s a fine DIY project for those interested in saving a few bucks.

This week, I went with a new dry detergent mix from One Good Thing By Jillee. Her trial size version looked like a good fit with what I already had on hand. I always skim the comments section of recipes and, after seeing a few suggestions about using more bars of soap, I halved the cleaning chemicals except the bar of soap. I also skipped the oxygen bleach and fabric softener crystals because I had none. It’s been working well so far as I’ve had 4 loads come out fresh and clean; no powdery residue and no worries of it losing it’s potency while in dry form.

The fun part is I sprinkled in the essential oils at the end to make it smell nice just like store-bought detergent. I chose a blend called Purify from Rocky Mountain Oils as it was available on Amazon and I have Prime so free-two day shipping for the win! It has a lovely lemony fresh scent with it’s aromatic mixture of lemongrass, tea tree, rosemary, lavender, myrtle, and citronella (btw, no affiliate links or perks here, just telling you what I used.) The kids did think their sheets smelled a little funny last night with the new scent when daddy put them to bed but they still slept well. I have a bottle of lavender on it’s way to try out, too, but that is all I’m allowed for the next few months as these things are not cheap to get on a med student family dime. It takes a lot of plants to make just one 15 mL bottle.

By the by, I put the recipe at the top of the post because one of my pet peeves is having to scroll through the, though interesting, yackity yack and slow loading pictures on days when I just need quick reference to a recipe. You’re welcome! Maybe the trend will catch on with more bloggers…


If you have a favorite DIY detergent mix you use, drop it in the comments so we can compare. Maybe I’ll try it out when this batch runs out.

The science of essential oils from your average mom

love science

First off, what makes my blog posts about essential oils different from others? Probably not much. What are my credentials? Also not much. I am a mom. I am a library clerk. I do not hold any science degrees from any university. I like looking at the butt of science when it walks by. I am a perpetual student of MOOCS and am married to an MD/PhD student studying genetics and psychiatry. I have no affiliations with any essential oil distribution companies. I have many “oily” friends as well as friends in the fields of science. I am fascinated in the improving of communications between scientists, doctors, and the average layperson like myself. I do roll my eyes/facepalm/headdesk but will do my best to keep it to myself because such public displays of vitriol or insults of persons only do more harm and widen the gap.

So, with basic introductions out of the way, the first discussion topic is:


What is an essential oil?  

I would love to find some plant biologists or chemists to answer this but you’re stuck with just little ol’ me. Simply googling this question brought up many hits. I am not one to choose the first link provided nor go with just one source and neither should you. And remember, I’m trying my best to avoid information coming from possibly biased sources (i.e. no  DoTerra, Young Living, Rocky Mountain, etc. affiliations). Of course, as humans, we all have inevitable biases we must deal with. Google also doesn’t always help as, over time, it’s algorithms will pay attention to your search parameters and tailor to you. What I get vs what you get will vary. Hubby calls it google-fu.

Wikipedia was the eighth down in the results for the basic question of “what are essential oils?” During my college days, professors often would say “don’t use Wikipedia in your research papers!!!!!” Even Wikipedia says it needs more citations to reliable sources on the essential oils entry but it’s a decent jumping off point:

An essential oil is a concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants. Essential oils are also known as volatile oilsethereal oilsaetherolea, or simply as the oil of the plant from which they were extracted, such as oil of clove. An oil is “essential” in the sense that it contains the “essence of” the plant’s fragrance—the characteristic fragrance of the plant from which it is derived.[1] The term essential used here does not mean indispensable as with the terms essential amino acid or essential fatty acid which are so called since they are nutritionally required by a given living organism.[2] 

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Hydrophobic means it is  repelled by or will not mix with water. As for volatile, it easily evaporates. Meaning yes, your bottle of essential oil will not last forever. I know this because I had a small sample vial and it evaporated before I could use it all. I can still smell a residual but of essence but there is no oil in the vial.

In essence (haha), essential oils are the odoriferous liquid essence of a plant. That answers that question from a biological standpoint.

Are essential oils really the life blood of plants and what role do essential oils play in plant biology?

This is shared mostly by bloggers, distributors, and the companies who market essential oils. I’m looking for a more scientific source to answer this question as it sounds somewhat implausible. (Spoiler alert: it is implausible.)

One website in my search was Essential Oils University, put together by Dr. Robert Pappas, who holds a PhD in chemistry and teaches at Indiana University. (Acceptable credentials, in my opinion.)

…essential oils do not have the same function in the plant that blood does in the human body. Our blood primarily performs the function of circulation and transport of oxygen and nutrients to the all the cells and organs of the body. Essential oils do not play this role in the plant.

The truth is that essential oils are an end product of the plants metabolism and emitted by the plant not circulating within the plant like blood in the body (see magnified picture of oil glands on Roman chamomile leaf). Think about what some of the end products are from human metabolism and, if you want a more accurate analogy, well you get the idea. I realize it wouldn’t be as marketable to use a tag line like “the excrement of the plant” but that would be more accurate than the “life’s blood.”

So… essential oils, thus named because they are the volatile essence of a plant… could be compared to excrement? I can see how that wouldn’t market well! I can see how complicated the physiology of plants can be but to say essential oils are the lifeblood of the plant would be incorrect.

Essential oils in plants can serve diverse functions, depending on the plant – aromatic attractors or repelants, injurious excretions (sap), or simply byproducts of waste. ( From Britannica Encyclopedia’s entry:

The function of the essential oil in a plant is not well understood. Odours of flowers probably aid in natural selection by acting as attractants for certain insects. Leaf oils, wood oils, and root oils may serve to protect against plant parasites or depredations by animals. Oleoresinous exudations that appear when the trunk of a tree is injured prevent loss of sap and act as a protective seal against parasites and disease organisms. Few essential oils are involved in plant metabolism, and some investigators maintain that many of these materials are simply waste products of plant biosynthesis.

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In conclusion (or my TL;DR)

Essential oils are aromatic oily essences from plants. Their physiological purpose to the plant in which they come from may be to attract, repel, or repair, or simply be the byproducts of plant waste.

Stay tuned as I continue my search to learn more about the science behind essential oils. Feel free to leave me a comment!