You’d have to be living under a large, unscented rock to not notice the sudden resurgence of interest in aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is the use of oils extracted from plants, based on the premise that those oils are beneficial. I know this because I actually studied aromatherapy myself several years ago. My course was taught by a couple of aromatherapists with decades of experience. One was also a registered nurse and both had been involved in a small amount of research into the possible therapeutic benefits of certain essential oils.
What I Learned About Aromatherapy
What they taught my class was this: Very few essential oils have been found to have medicinal value. A couple have some known small therapeutic benefits, such as tea tree oil. But, primarily, aromatherapy should be used in a much more basic way. Things smelling nice can help people to feel nice. A lovely massage seems lovelier if it smells super pleasant. A stressful time can seem slightly more bearable if there’s a nice scent on the air. There is value in things smelling pleasant, provided you aren’t sensitive to smells. It can lift your mood, if nothing else. Anyone who tells you otherwise is likely selling a different type of oil- snake oil.
In recent years, aromatherapy has made a massive comeback. So many posts on social media are extolling the virtues of essential oils. Everything from using them undiluted to including them in your cooking (both generally considered unsafe) to treating a spectrum of illnesses with them. Why? Because everyone is suddenly selling them. And this is where two of my pet hates collide.
Multi-Level Marketing Meets Pseudoscience
Multi-level marketing (MLM) typically targets women as recruits AND consumers. They are billed as a way for women to work from home and support their families. The trouble is, they rarely pay well enough to be of any use. The predatory marketing tactics these companies teach their recruits can cost them real-life relationships as well as whatever cash they invest. It’s hard for MLM reps to develop a constant income stream because their products are expensive. If you think about it, they have to be, to allow the recruit, the “uplines” (next tier of sales recruits who generally have “teams” below them) and the company to each take a cut.
When you’re selling products that retail for sometimes well over $100 a bottle, you have to have a really convincing selling point. And that is where the pseudoscience comes in. Misleading and downright dangerous claims about the power of essential oils.
DoTerra has been on the receiving end of formal warnings from the FDA for false claims. This letter details a swag of misleading claims that DoTerra reps made about using their oils to treat a variety of health conditions- everything from autism to cancer to brain injuries and more. Young Living has also been rapped over the proverbial knuckles in the recent past. It seems the FDA took great exception to claims about essential oils and the Ebola Virus- not even kidding. And that was just one of the dodgy, dangerous claims made by DoTerra consultants. See their letter here.
The danger of unqualified people giving out health advice is even more concerning within the MLM matrix. The desire for sales and the reach of social media is over-riding something that should be a primary consideration in health decisions: evidence.
The Evidence Isn’t Convincing
The existing studies on aromatherapy and essential oils aren’t great. They often involve a small number of participants or have flaws in their design and methodology. Resulting data is, therefore, not all that convincing or conclusive. Essential oil MLM consultants, however, don’t seem phased. Many undoubtedly believe their claims and have nothing but good intentions, but that doesn’t change the fact that their products won’t live up to their claims. Call me cynical (I am) but it seems the prevailing attitude is one where sellers often don’t want something like “quality evidence” getting in the way of making spectacular claims that could lead to sales, right?
Who needs a paediatrcian, occupational therapist, psychologist or other mental health professional? All you need in a Young Living oil salesperson to treat conditions that might actually need therapy and medication.
Or how about people struggling to conceive? With the amazing reproductive technology we can access these days, Young Living Essential Oils (another MLM company) founder Donald Gary Young reckons you should buy his company’s oils instead. This one also sets my teeth on edge, since Young was implicated in the death of his own child back when he was running a health clinic and offering birthing services. He had no qualifications in obstetrics or midwifery, but c’est la vie, right? He was also arrested for practicing medicine without a license. I wouldn’t knowingly buy a burger off this guy, let alone trust his recipe to treat infertility.
Depressed? Forget therapy and medication. What you need is a $93 bottle of oil. Yes, that’s the retail price on the DoTerra website! And who needs chemotherapy or surgery, right? DoTerra Frankincense oil will (apparently) get rid of those pesky tumours and cancers! There’s so much dangerous misinformation in this one tiny info-graphic. Check out this DoTerra rep on another post on Facebook:
This is another dubious essential oil MLM claim. Both of the well-known essential oil MLM companies claim their products are “therapeutic grade”.
This lends legitimacy to their product and also legitimacy to the idea of using the oils to treat health conditions. But aromatherapy isn’t a safe or effective treatment for any medical condition. Which is why there is no actual “therapeutic grade” for oils.
The grading referred to by both Young Living and DoTerra refer to standards they have made up. Young Living states that “every essential oil Young Living distills or sources has the highest naturally-occurring blend of constituents to maximize the desired effect. This is our Young Living Therapeutic Grade™(YLTG) promise.” DoTerra also recognised the fact that there was no actual standard for essential oils and created their own certification, claiming that there are “no added fillers, synthetic ingredients, or harmful contaminants in our essential oils that would reduce their efficacy”. Which is problematic in light of the lack of evidence of efficacy! In short, “therapeutic grade” is more of a marketing term for these companies than anything else.
Should you throw out your oil burner?
Aromatherapy should remain a complementary therapy rather than a treatment for any medical condition unless a bunch of high-quality, peer-reviewed evidence can be presented. But that doesn’t mean it’s completely useless. If nice smells make you feel good, you should go for it. Use essential oils in a burner or appropriately diluted for massages. Buy products that contain them already diluted for you. Enjoy it. But think twice before buying an expensive MLM brand. You’re likely paying too much, for starters. What you’re also doing is supporting a dodgy business model that has unqualified people giving out health advice that is poor at best, and downright deadly at worst.