Hello and welcome back! Not long ago, in talking about multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs), I touched on the topic of essential oils as modern-day snake oil. At the time, I couldn’t spend long on that topic, but I promised we’d return to it. Today is the day! Let me show you what essential oils are, how they’re legitimately used, and why modern-day scammers love them so much.
The 101 on Essential Oils.
Essential oils are a super-concentrated volatile plant-derived compounds suspended in oil. People distill these plants — among other methods — to extract their essence.
So yes, it’s kind of like the Dark Crystal. In that 1982 movie, the evil Skeksis villains drain Gelflings’ essence to sustain their lives and keep themselves looking youthful. When they exterminate the gelfling race (as far as they know), they turn to the essence of Podlings. It’s not as intense, but it helps them muddle through.
Not all oils are essential oils. Peppermint oil, for example, might actually just refer to a concentrated flavoring used in food. An extract is not necessarily the same thing as an essential oil. I’ve heard various irresponsible advice-givers (like this one) say that essential oil MLMs often claim to be “food grade.” They are absolutely not edible.
To use essential oils safely, they can be diluted in carriers like almond oil, to added specially-made misters, and put into lotions and salves.
They usually come in very small bottles. Lots of companies make essential oils and blend them, then sell them to consumers for wildly varied prices.
Once obtained, people use these oils for all sorts of legitimate things. As just one example, aromatherapists attend school for years to learn to use essential oils safely and effectively.
But a lot of other folks use them for not-so-legitimate things.
In all operating rooms, everywhere in the world, regardless of socialized or privatized, secular or religious, big or small, there is one thing the same: Somewhere, there is a bottle of peppermint concentrate. Everyone in the department knows where it is, everyone knows what it is for, and everyone prays to their gods they never have to use it.
There are some indications that some scents can be beneficial.
Lavender essential oils may help somewhat with anxiety.
Peppermint scents help overwhelm horrific odors. Thus, I hear that a lot of ERs stock their emergency supply cabinets with peppermint extracts — but these are just regular oils. If one rubs a bit of that on the inside of one’s surgical mask, one might thereby avoid some of the truly monstrous aromas the human body can produce (here’s one story, but consider yourself warned: this classic Reddit tale is a doozy). In essential oil form, peppermint and other mint essential oils generally might help with headaches. Too much mint oil can cause big problems.
Though research is preliminary, it seems like tea tree essential oil may help with various skincare complaints.
Note that in all cases, research on essential oils is still early and rudimentary. Nobody’s ever found any diseases or injuries or ailments that essential oils cure, prevent, or treat. And especially nobody’s ever found any medical uses for essential oils in their undiluted form aside from aromatherapy.
As Science-Based Medicine notes, that’s about it. Essential oil woo persists, but reality looks very different.
These Oils Can Be Really Dangerous!
In their undiluted form, essential oils are poisonous.
Without special care beforehand to dilute them, they are not safe to consume/ingest/inhale in any way, shape or form.
Nor are they an adequate substitute for real medicine and treatments.
In fact, even a tiny amount of essential oils can be very dangerous — especially to children, animals, and those with compromised breathing (and especially around tea tree and lavender essential oils).
Because of the dangers inherent in their use, various government pages (like this one from Australia) have warned in the strongest possible terms not to ingest essential oils or to rub them on anyone’s skin without dilution. They list some really intense toxicity symptoms: seizures, coma, liver damage, vomiting, skin irritation, and eye pain, among other things.
And yet tons of people use essential oils for all sorts of totally off-label, illegitimate purposes, and they use them in ways that are flat-out dangerous.
Why People Use Them Anyway.
A wealth of folk-medicine pseudoscience exists — and the amount grows exponentially every year, it seems like. Much of it centers around the use and misuse of essential oils.
For thousands of years, humans have used essential oils. Aromatherapy.com itself claims that the ancient Egyptians first distilled essential oils to use in embalming their dead. They think that the ancient Chinese first started using them as “a mood enhancer” for the living. In 1937, French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse invented the actual term aromatherapy. That site also claims that a French surgeon soon began using these oils in treating World War II soldiers’ injuries with aromatherapy.
That Science-Based Medicine link I noted earlier, relinked here, concerned first responders in Wisconsin using essential oils to treat pain. A number of hospitals are beginning to use essential oils in patient care, which one medical blogger found alarming in 2018.
But by far the largest consumer base of these oils these days seems like laypeople. They deploy their oils in a variety of ways, some of which are dangerous, like ingestion. Many fans of these oils think that they’re preventing, treating, or curing various real or imaginary medical conditions by doing it.
Folk-medicine claims for oils would run for many pages, if I were to list them.
Everyone, Meet the Oily Mamas.
There is literally no condition, injury, disease, or sickness under the sun that essential-oil fans won’t treat with essential-oil quackery.
Their rallying cry is I have an oil for that! And they really do. Often, they wear clothes or carry swag bearing that slogan. And they do so very proudly.
Another popular slogan: “I’m silently assessing your oil needs.”
Often, these fans — most of whom are women — call themselves oily mamas, which is a phrase I could have gone my entire life never having heard. Their friends and loved ones soon learn that they can’t ever talk about feeling under the weather or sore or tired or anything else around them, because that inevitably sparks a sales pitch for essential oils or an offer of a “free sample” of something that the oily mama promises will help.
(It’s a lot like being around a yoga fanatic if one suffers from arthritis.)
And social media has helped these oily mamas find each other and brainstorm evangelism techniques in ways that were simply impossible in previous years.
Why So Many Christian Women Gravitate to Essential Oils.
When I look across the demographics of essential-oils fanaticism, I notice immediately that it skews almost exclusively female. Very few men seem to get involved with this pseudoscience. And those women tend to be really fervent Christians.
I don’t know for sure why that is, but I can make some guesses.
First and foremost, “home medicine” has long been the purview of women — the literal keepers of the hearth for most of recorded human history. Through much of history, women performed healthcare tasks for other women and for children. In disadvantaged areas they still do, as this paper by Sharon A. Sharp tells us.
Atlas Obscura hosts a similar essay emphasizing women’s role as healers in societies that lack access to comprehensive medical care. Even in extremely Christian-dominated areas, this kind of pseudoscience enjoys wide popularity and a huge fanbase — of almost entirely women.
Fundamentalist Mormon families, in particular, use essential oils in lieu of real medicine. One young Mormon woman’s father referred to them as “God’s pharmacy.” Fundagelicals in general may like essential oils because of the religion’s traditions of laying on of hands and anointing with oil. Essential oils slot neatly into fundagelicals’ worldview.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of MLMs’ head offices are located in Utah, the Mormon homeland. A lot of essential-oils companies (like this one) also prefer to base their operations there. It’s just a really woo-friendly state.
The Profit Margin.
To aspiring scammers, essential oil scams must seem like the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
As a start, it’s not hard to set up manufacturing facilities for these oils. Heck, you can set something up at home to do it! These guys used a slow-cooker. Obtaining the raw materials to distill isn’t too hard, especially if you’ve got FU money and don’t care about the environment, obeying laws, or the exploitation of human beings.
In fact, that was the exact situation of Young Living (YL), a popular MLM. In 2017, its owners pleaded guilty in federal court to illegally trafficking various trees and plants from other countries. YL did it to obtain rare, endangered, or otherwise legally-protected raw materials like rosewood and spikenard. The company paid over USD$700k in fines and restitution. That sounds like a lot, perhaps — until one knows that in 2017, their sales exceeded $1.5Bn.
Once produced, essential oils can be sold for many times the cost of production. That kind of profit margin appeals mightily to manufacturers. Plus, essential oils carry with them a huge long list of woo claims, making them suitable for many advertising campaigns.
Why MLMs Deal In Essential Oils.
Multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) love essential oils.
In general, these scams tend to focus on goods that are inexpensive to make and that can be sold for massive markups. That’s why we see so many MLMs based around shakes, supplements, and cosmetics. Supplements, in particular, don’t get a whole lot of oversight. It takes a lot for the FDA (Food & Drug Administration) even to notice them.
As for essential oils themselves, MLMs prey upon fundagelicals more than any other demographic. The ideas underlying MLMs and fundagelical Christianity are all but identical, as are their recruitment tactics and their leaders’ rhetoric.
Thus, if fundagelical women already tend to like, trust, and use essential oils, then they will absolutely flock to an MLM that centers on these oils!
The Two Main Oily MLMs.
The two main essential-oil MLMs are Young Living and doTerra. Other MLMs offer essential oils as well, of course, but these are the big dogs in the ring.
As this New Yorker article discovered, both companies are sketchy in the extreme. Both companies claim to use pure, natural sources for their oils with no synthetic ingredients, which independent testing has challenged and sometimes refuted. Both companies claim their products are safe to ingest, which is absolutely not confirmed by any research whatsoever.
And both companies’ sales agents make outrageous medical claims for their products, which earned them both legal smackdowns from the American government in 2014.
- Young Living. Claims: Prevention/treatment of Ebola, all the cancers, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, eczema, dermatitis, tetanus, Parkinson’s, erectile dysfunction, asthma, autism, multiple sclerosis, paralysis, tachycardia, diabetes, hypertension, and insomnia.
- doTerra. Claims: Prevention/treatment of influenza, chicken pox/shingles, herpes (several types), colds, fungal infections, warts, MRSA, ringworm, Ebola, whooping cough, staph infections, lupus, pneumonia, hepatitis C, measles, neuritis, tuberculosis, sinusitis, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, bronchitis, endometriosis, diabetes, Grave’s Disease, Hashimoto’s Disease, gum disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s Disease, hyperthyroidism, ADD/ADHD, anxiety, depression, brain injuries, and athlete’s foot.
Other essential-oil manufacturers get nailed by the FDA sometimes on false medical claims just like MLM companies do. In addition, these other companies face accusations of problems with production safety. I haven’t seen any FDA letters regarding production safety from the big MLMs yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they also cut corners there.
The Practical Side of Bad Essential-Oil Advice.
More than once, I’ve wondered if MLMs tacitly encourage their unpaid sales force (nicknamed “huns” or “hunbots” for their persistence, robotic behavior, and aggression) to use their products in off-label ways to help move product more quickly.
After all, if huns are chugging and chowing down on their stock of essential oils and applying them to heal every ailment in the world real or imagined, then they’re definitely going to run through those little bottles quickly. Using them safely involves way less of their products!
(I have the same suspicion about those weird “makeup challenges” that Younique huns do all the time, in which they create “looks” that coincidentally use tons more makeup than just regular wear entails.)
Since an MLM’s huns tend to account for the vast majority of an MLM’s product sales, it behooves these scams’ owners to help their customers blow through purchases as quickly as possible!
The Scam of Essential Oils.
In this time of growing anxiety and desperation, the misinformation around essential oils could get people seriously hurt. The danger involves way more than simple financial predation.
No, it’s worse. It’s literally life or death for the most vulnerable people and critters around these fanatical “oily mamas.”
Here’s a heartbreaking story about a cat who died a miserable, painful death thanks to lavender essential oil. His owner’s cleaning lady had begun using it in his litter box. Despite the risks and dangers, increasing numbers of misinformed veterinarian offices actually sell and recommend the use of these oils. Here’s one that proudly recommends Young Living of all things, though they’re also okay with doTerra! (Wanna bet an overjoyed YL hun recruited this vet or the business’ office manager?)
The number of children poisoned by essential oils has skyrocketed in recent years, doubling between 2011 and 2015 alone. But “oily mamas” continue to use these products around children. Here’s one Redditor, who, as a teen, almost died from an asthma attack brought on by his mom’s new essential-oil spritzer.
The huns selling this poison don’t care about those deaths and injuries. They’re too busy creating “baby roller blends” to apply essential oils directly onto babies’ delicate skin, and sneaking their oils into people’s food without telling them.
The Problem of Wingnuts.
Wingnuts only spiral in one direction. They can’t dial it back. They must increasingly push the fringes forward.
Thus, once a bad idea takes hold in wingnut groups, it becomes part of their canon forever. Very, very seldom does someone in these groups awaken to exactly what harm they’re doing to themselves and their loved ones. When they do, often they feel overwhelming grief over the damage they wreaked while they were true believers. But by then, they’ve often alienated themselves from their former social support network.
MLMs in general are insidious and cruel, but when we add pseudoscience peddlers to the mix that just makes a bad situation a hundred times worse. I’m truly hoping that the United States’ powers-that-be start cracking down hard on both predatory groups.
Until then, we must protect ourselves and our loved ones with solid information and basic security measures. For instance, if your co-worker shills essential oils on the side with an MLM, don’t eat anything they bring in for potlucks. Don’t let them pet-sit your animals or babysit your small children. No matter what an oily mama claims, never ingest essential oils or rub them on anyone’s skin. If you feel like these products might benefit you, then a consultation with a licensed, registered aromatherapist might be a good idea.
If our government won’t protect us, then we’re going to have to be vigilant for ourselves.
NEXT UP: Tomorrow, I’ll take you on a tour of dancing in the Spirit! Then, Monday, Lord Snow Presides. Tuesday, I’ve planned a peaceful virtual walk for us through liminal spaces. See you soon!
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