Multi-level marketing has been around for a long time. But it seems to have recently kicked into full gear in the essential oils market.
For those of you that don’t know, essential oils are simply oils obtained from common plants. Rose, Basil, Cardamom, Lavendar, Clove, Black Pepper; things you either see growing in your garden or that you have in your spice rack.
They have been used by quacks and neo-shamans for a while now. Some of them do actually seem to have some benefits. Lavendar oil sprinkled on a pillow seems to help a lot of people sleep better. There’s no evidence of a concrete relationship, and no mechanistic explanation for the effect, but it does work well for a lot of people.
Apart from that, they really don’t seem to do much (apart from making your apartment smell like Basil that is).
However, a lot of people are making increasingly bold claims about what essential oils are capable of doing.
Oils that were once sold as pleasant fragrances are now being pushed as miracle health cures.
The manufacturers are usually very vague about what they promise, yet they still push oils as having a wide range of health benefits: reduced inflammation, fewer migraines, better circulation, fewer respiratory problems, lower incidence of illness, and even a lower incidence of serious disease.
This kind of hokum is a problem – no doubt about that – but it isn’t serious. Snake oil has been around for a long time, and it will be around for a long time after this. The real problem lies with the people who push these essential oils. This brings us to the horrendous world of Multi-Level Marketing.
Multi-Level Marketing Scams
Multi-Level Marketing is simply when a company charges people to sell their products, and then encourages those recruits to convince other people to sign up to sell their products as well.
If this sounds suspiciously like a pyramid scheme to you, that’s because IT IS A PYRAMID SCHEME!
The vast majority of people who join a Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) scheme make most of their money from finding new recruits rather than from selling the products. The vast majority of their sales come from supplying new recruits with a bulk order. At some point, they will run out of willing suckers, and the pyramid collapses. Whoever is at the bottom will find themselves with a lot of worthless product on their hands and probably a mountain of debt to deal with.
Today, essential oils are synonymous with these kinds of scams.
Certain companies are employing the methods of MLM to expand their business and make a quick profit.
Their target demographic is usually middle-aged, middle-class suburbanite mothers who haven’t worked in a while. They sell these woman the “run your own business” line, give them impressive-sounding titles like “regional buying consultant”, and so on. They then part them with a big chunk of their savings and dump a load of product on them.
They also dump a load of bogus science and marketing spiel on them, which leads to them spreading that same bogus science around their friends, family, and colleagues.
Bogus Science & Unverified Health Claims
The claims made by the individuals working for these companies are usually outright lies. They also sometimes verge on the dangerous.
Here are some examples taken from the anti-MLM subreddit:
As you can see, there’s really no low these despicable won’t stoop to in order to sell their garbage oils, absolutely none of which should be called “essential”. There’s nothing “essential” about rose petal oil; you’ll be fine without it.
Basically, these idiots fell for the high-flying lifestyle promised to them by the people above them in the pyramid. They bought in for a few thousand dollars, and now they’re lumbered with oils of herbs you can find in most people’s kitchens. They probably believe the things they’re saying, not because they’re convincing or scientifically sound, but because they don’t want to believe that they spent $6,000 on rubbish they can’t sell.
So, they turn to lying.
They peddle false hope to people with serious illnesses and diseases.
They swindle old people who don’t know any better and who will pay anything to get rid of their back pain.
They prey on the vanity and stupidity of their friends and neighbours to make them some quick cash.
All in all, a pretty horrific bunch of people.
However, the manufacturers themselves are not blameless here.
They do their fair share of lying and misinformation spreading. They just go about it in a more subtle way (most of the time at least).
Some of the claims made on the doTERRA website, for example, are extremely misleading. For example, if you go on the product page for the ambitiously named Lifelong Vitality Pack (priced at $79.99), you’ll see the following in the product description:
“Our lifelong health and vitality depend on many factors including diet, physical activity, weight management, rest, stress management, exposure to toxins, and inherited genetic predisposition for disease or wellness. While some of these variables are beyond our complete control, breakthrough scientific research is revealing many ways we can influence—and even control—significant factors of aging and wellness. A long life full of vitality and healthy aging begins with providing your cells with essential nutrients and metabolic factors to help them perform optimally.”
The insinuation is that this “breakthrough scientific research” is in some way related to essential oils. But of course, no references are given, nor are any details about what this research is saying exactly.
We certainly see no hint of what this research is on doTERRA’s general essential oil page. This is exactly where they should be explaining what essential oils actually do to make you so healthy. Instead, we get this gibberish:
“The physical and chemical properties of the volatile aromatic compounds that compose essential oils allow them to quickly move through the air and directly interact with the olfactory sensors in the nose. Such unique properties make essential oils ideal for applications inclusion in aromatherapy – using these compounds from plants to help maintain a healthy mind and body – as well as other applications. “
The fact that a compound moves quickly through the air means that it is perfect for helping you maintain a healthy body?
That isn’t even bad science or poor logic; it’s downright stupid.
We did a lot of digging around on the doTERRA website and found no trace of any hard, scientific studies backing up the claims they make about their products. They even have a dedicated research partnership page, where they list all of their collaborative studies with universities, researchers, labs, etc. Visit it, and you’ll be greater with this:
No links to published papers.
No word of on-going work with universities or respected researchers.
doTERRA are not the only essential oil manufacturer making these completely baseless health claims. Not by a long shot.
If you look at the image above you’ll see how the people of Young Living essential oils compare to modern medicine. According to them (or at least to their approved affiliates), their oils are just as capable of treating diseases and conditions as cutting edge pharmaceuticals and proper medical care!
If you think that’s outrageous, check out this widely circulated ad:
This was taken from an article in the Washington Post about essential oil companies being warned by the FDA to stop making outrageous, unfounded health claims.
You can actually read a very lengthy letter from the FDA to Young Living in which they lay out all of the unfounded health claims the company has either made or implicitly endorsed over the years. It makes for some shocking reading:
They have been encouraging their affiliates to tell people that their oils cure or prevent cancer.
That is beyond under-handed and dishonest; it’s immoral and cruel.
We’ve more than demonstrated the lengths that these scammers will go to in order to sell you their products.
But this entire article has gone on the assumption that their claims are false.
They are false, but it’s worth looking at what evidence there is behind these claims so you are fully equipped to combat the propaganda and lies should you encounter it.
Essential Oils – The Facts
The reason the doTERRA website failed to list any research collaborations or studies on their website – even in the “science section” – is because there is no solid research supporting the use of essential oils to promote any aspect of health or wellness.
There have been studies showing benefits from the use of essential oils. However, they are few and far between. Generally speaking, the results are never replicated in further studies.
There are no studies even hinting at the possibility that essential oils can cure, prevent, or help with the curing of cancer.
There are no studies showing that it helps with infections – viral or bacterial.
For general health care, it is worth skipping the individual studies and looking at some of the many good meta-analyses conducted on essential oil clinical trials.
In particular, this 2012 paper does a good job of covering the limitations of trials purportedly showing essential oils as having significant health benefits. The authors write: “Of 201 potentially relevant publications, 10 met our inclusion criteria. Most of the systematic reviews were of poor methodological quality. The clinical subject areas were hypertension, depression, anxiety, pain relief, and dementia. For none of the conditions was the evidence convincing. Several SRs of aromatherapy have recently been published. Due to a number of caveats, the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.”
These sentiments have been echoed in other extensive literature reviews, such as this one published in a 2004 edition of the Journal of Advanced Nursing. The authors here were similarly unimpressed by the available data on essential oils as a clinical intervention: “Despite calls for more research in the 1980s and 1990s, there is still little empirical evidence to support the use of aromatherapy in nursing practice beyond enhancing relaxation.”