A stay-at-home mom recently e-mailed me. She is a former CAM user who once treated her infant’s colic with homeopathy but has since seen the light and is now thinking skeptically. She asked that I look into the dōTERRA company, seller of essential oils: concentrated extracts distilled from plants, containing the “essence” or distinctive odor of the plant. She said:
…moms, well educated and seemingly rational moms, will believe anything. This isn’t a big deal if we are talking about sugar pills trying to cure crying that has no cause. However, I recently attended a dōTERRA “talk” (aka pressure to buy) about how essential oils can cure everything and anything, including one woman’s mother’s skin cancer. I didn’t want to offend this mom by calling her a quack, so I walked away spending 60 bucks on oils to be polite (this was the least amount I could spend and I used these oils to make my home smell nice, even though they were intended to solve all sorts of skin and digestive problems. I didn’t want to use them without knowing if they actually worked).
Instead of stressing the aromas, the focus was on the need to spend hundreds of dollars on these products to keep your family healthy. A handout showed how you could replace everything in your medicine cabinet with an essential oil alternative. She said:
The reps talked about how conventional medicine failed them and how they never go to the doctor anymore because the oils are a better cure.
The company’s website, www.doterra.com, doesn’t claim to cure cancer. It is rather vague. Instead of making specific claims for their products, they talk about the use of essential oils in history for anti-bacterial properties, to heal burns, and for “wellness.”
In addition to their intrinsic benefits to plants and being beautifully fragrant to people, essential oils have been used throughout history in many cultures for their medicinal and therapeutic benefits. Modern scientific study and trends towards more holistic approaches to wellness are driving a revival and new discovery of essential oil health applications.
They say modern science is validating “the numerous health and wellness benefits of essential oils” but they don’t identify those benefits or offer any evidence. No clinical studies are cited, and there is no research section on their website.
Their products are intended to be used in various ways: to smell, to apply to the skin, and to take internally. Claims for individual oils are vague: to soothe sore muscles and joints, to ease breathing, as a cooling agent for the skin, for calming, cleansing, mood-enhancing, to relieve menstrual discomfort, to supply antioxidants, digestive support, supporting a healthy insulin response, supporting localized blood flow, beautifying legs and hips, immune support, cleansing the air, regenerative properties, fighting off seasonal bugs, “calming the skin” (?). Any claim that begins to sound specific is asterisked to the usual FDA disclaimer. (“These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease.”)
Since so many of the oils are supposed to do the same things, how does a customer decide which to use? They conveniently offer mixtures of oils designed for specific purposes: to promote restful sleep, disinfect countertops, to apply to areas of the skin affected with blemishes, itchy scalp, unsightly nail beds and feet, etc. One mixture is a roll-on for troubled skin spots. Others are for achy joints and sore muscles, to calm, purify, relieve tension, eliminate and control pathogens, help manage hunger, cleanse the body’s organs, enhance focus and support healthy thought processes… there is even an anti-aging blend.
Rose Essential Oil: dōTERRA says rose essential oil has traditionally been used to help with skin problems, depression, stress, anxiety, and is supportive to the organs in the body. It supposedly works as an aphrodisiac, and has commonly been used for its antispasmodic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and sedative properties.
The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database disagrees. It says “insufficient reliable evidence to rate” and lists a number of adverse reactions and interactions with drugs.
Jasmine Oil: Dabbing a little jasmine essential oil over your heart at bedtime will provide a deep sleep filled with positive dreams. It helped six White Sox players improve their batting average. The NMCD disagrees. It says “There is insufficient reliable information available about the effectiveness of jasmine.” Anyway, I can’t help but wonder how something that makes you sleep could improve batting prowess except in a dream.
There’s Hardly Any Science Behind Essential Oils
I first heard of essential oils years ago in connection with Gary Young, described on Quackwatch as “an uneducated huckster with a track record of arrests for health fraud.” Gary Young and his Essential Oils are still in business despite the devastating critique that has long been featured on Quackwatch. The record of misdeeds there makes for painful reading. Among other things, he practiced medicine without a license, was arrested repeatedly, did bogus lab tests, and contributed to the death of his own child by performing an underwater delivery and holding the newborn infant underwater for an hour. His judgment about medical matters is obviously not very trustworthy.
The published evidence is sparse to nonexistent. There are clinical studies to support a few of the recommended uses, but they are generally poorly designed, uncontrolled, and unconvincing. Research is difficult, because patients can’t be blinded to the odors, and mental associations and relaxation could account for most of the observed effects.
The claims for essential oils are handily summarized and debunked in articles like these:
- “Essential oils and aromatherapy: A rebuttal to bunk science and the healing power of odors.”
- Entry on aromatherapy by Robert Carroll in The Skeptics Dictionary
- “Aromatherapy: Does It Pass the Smell Test?” (answer: no) by Paul DesOrmeaux for the Bay Area Skeptics
- “What’s That I Smell? The Claims of Aromatherapy” by Lynn McCutcheon in Skeptical Inquirer
Multilevel Marketing (MLM)
Multilevel marketing is a system of direct sales through a hierarchy of individual distributors, where sellers get a cut of the profits from sales by other distributors they have recruited. It’s also called network marketing. There is a whole website dedicated to critiquing it: MLM Watch, affiliated with Quackwatch. At the top levels, people who got in early have sometimes become millionaires, but the great majority of distributors lose money. In a typical company, Quixtar (formerly known as Amway), 99% of distributors made no profit, and 70% quit in the first year. Stephen Barrett’s article “The Mirage of Multilevel Marketing” concludes:
Consumers would be wise to avoid health-related multilevel products altogether. Those that have nutritional value (such as vitamins and low-cholesterol foods) are invariably overpriced and may be unnecessary as well. Those promoted as remedies are either unproven, bogus, or intended for conditions that are unsuitable for self-medication.
Why Does MLM Appeal to Manufacturers? It allows them to sell a product that could not compete in the open marketplace, at least not at those prices. It allows the big players to get filthy rich. It allows distributors to make claims the company can’t legally make in its advertising, such as: “It cured my mother’s skin cancer,” “It cured my child’s tonsillitis,” and “It keeps my kids from catching colds.” And that kind of testimonial from a friend is far more powerful than any advertising.
Why Does MLM Appeal to Distributors? It offers the promise of direct income from sales; the chance to piggyback on the sales of others; the dream of making it rich; the opportunity to sell a product they believe in; and a way to make money in a pleasant way, at home, with their own hours, with a lot of social contact, and no need to apply for a job.
Why Do Customers Buy? Imagine a typical customer experience. A friend or acquaintance invites you into her home, provides refreshments, a party atmosphere, and a social opportunity to visit with other old acquaintances and meet new friends and neighbors. You get free samples. People you know and trust tell you about their personal experiences, providing persuasive testimonials of apparently miraculous benefits. They vouch for the quality and manufacturing standards of the products. They offer discounts and the opportunity to join the community of distributors. It all sounds so good! The hostess has given you refreshments and goodies, so you feel a social obligation to reciprocate. There is the peer pressure of all the other attendees who are buying the products, and you don’t want to look like a Scrooge or an ungrateful oddball. You might end up, like the person who e-mailed me, spending $60 for something you didn’t want and don’t believe works.
There is no good evidence to support the use of essential oils for health purposes, and exposing yourself to deceptive MLM sales tactics is a bad idea. Lynn McCutcheon said it best:
All of this sounds as though I am strongly opposed to the use of essential oils. I’m not! If it pleases you to put some in your bath water or have a little rubbed on your back once in a while, by all means, go ahead. It is not the odor that arises from these fragrances that is troubling, it is the stench arising from the unwarranted claims made about them.
This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine blog.