Health and Science News for Parents

FDA cracks down on essential oils distributors and other “natural health” peddlers

written by Tara Haelle

If you can think of a disease or medical condition, somebody somewhere out there will declare it can be treated or cured with an essential oil. Athlete’s foot, candida, gastrointestinal problems, Alzheimer’s, depression, cystic fibrosis, cancer, MRSA, ringwork, staph, anxiety, tuberculosis, sinusitis, shingles, pertussis, flu, lupus, ADHD, pneumonia, herpes, high cholesterol, measles, arthritis, bronchitis, inflammation, diabetes, insomnia, Hashimoto’s disease, gum disease, thyroid problems, ulcers, autism, Crohn’s disease, asthma irritable bowel syndrome, kidney stones, joint pain, Bell’s palsy…the list never ends. Even Ebola can supposedly be cured by cinnamon bark and some other combination of oregano, lavender, tea tree, clove, eucalyptus, frankincense, lemongrass, peppermint, rosemary… Again, the list goes on.

The way some essential oils are peddled to cure any disease is reminiscent of the snake oil claims of the past. Photo by Jeremy Weate from Abuja, Nigeria, courtesy Wikimedia

The way some essential oils are peddled to cure any disease is reminiscent of the snake oil claims of the past. Photo by Jeremy Weate from Abuja, Nigeria, courtesy Wikimedia

But hopefully, this nonsense all over the web will soon stop, or at least slow down considerably. The FDA issued Warning Letters last week to three individuals regarding their health claims for essential oils and related “natural healing” products. The letters – sent to Young Living, who manufacture and distribute Young Living Essential Oil products; dōTERRA International, another essential oils distributor; and the Natural Solutions Foundation, who sell “nano silver,” hemp oil and other products – were all pretty similar to one another.

The letters warn that the way the products are being marketed on websites and on social media means those products are “drugs” under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. Therefore, “The therapeutic claims on your websites establish that the products are drugs because they are intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease. As explained further below, introducing or delivering these products for introduction into interstate commerce for such uses violates the Act,” as the one to Rima Laibow and Ralph Fucetola at Natural Solutions Foundation states. Each letter is worth reading in full simply to see how extensively the FDA documents the ridiculous claims made by these businesses.

It’s about time. It’s not as though essential oils or the bogus health claims associated with them are new. Indeed, the claims are not much different than the snake oil claims of bygone eras. But the Internet has made distribution even easier, the claims more widespread, and regulation much tougher. Both Young Living and doTerra are multi-level marketing companies, AKA pyramid schemes, and those tend to grow quickly before (eventually, usually) crashing and burning. The FDA already has a massive job, so it can’t be easy or even possible to go after every person making such claims, but the essential oils industry has exploded in recent years, exceeding $1 billion in annual revenue. And alongside that growth, claims of what these oils can cure has gotten out of control.

Certainly essential oils can be used for a variety of things, ranging from aromatherapy for headaches to skin allergic reactions from bug bites. But they can’t cure cancer. Or Ebola. Nor can nano silver cure “every pathogen against which it has been tested, worldwide, without exception,” as the Natural Solutions Foundation claims. Or perhaps that much is true if we consider that nano silver has not been tested for too many things in randomized, controlled trials, though apparently it may be helpful in fluoride for fighting tooth caries. Such a thought must make pseudoscience believers’ heads explode considering those who promote essential oils’ use for treating conditions such as cancer are in the same communities who believe fluoride is a dangerous neurotoxin. And while nano silver does have antibacterial properties, it cannot cure Ebola. (If only it were so easy.)

I suspect it’s the Ebola claims that eventually pushed the FDA over the edge in issuing these letters. (I don’t know that for a fact; it’s just a hunch since claims about Ebola proliferated on these websites as the public health crisis in west Africa grew.) Whatever it was, I’m glad to see the agency finally addressing these claims. Essential oils in and of themselves are not harmful, but the way they can be used – especially when administered to children undiluted or if ingested – can certainly cause harms, including death, as pediatrician Roy Benaroch describes here. There are many responsible manufacturers or distributors of essential oils that issue appropriate guidelines and warnings, such as not ingesting them and using them on babies, children or pets. Let’s hope that the FDA is successful in shutting down these harmful claims and that they can keep up with the others that will inevitably pop up.

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9 Responses to “FDA cracks down on essential oils distributors and other “natural health” peddlers”

  1. George

    Good Article. Need more like this. It’s not just essential oils, it’s a whole bunch of crap marketed with claims that it will cure almost anything. People who believe that crap are putting their lives and health at risk. We need more lights in the darkness.

  2. Nope

    You do MLMs a great deservice and demonstrate an obvious area of ignorance by calling legitimately stuctured MLMs “pyramid schemes”. There’s a large difference between a fly by night direct marketing scheme that comes and goes quickly to the likes of Amway, Mary Kay, etc. Do a little research before opening your mouth about a business structure you clearly know nothing about to avoid looking ridiculous.

    • Tara Haelle

      As a former Mary Kay consultant, I’m VERY familiar with MLMs. And I stand by what I said.

      • Carrie

        This is the dumbest article to date. I have a family member who is a medical professional. She used essential oils long before being a distributor, and still does 12 years later. When speaking on them, she uses testimonials and doesn’t make claims such as the above. You are part of the problem – wanting more “regulation” from government sources.

        Your article is a joke.

        • Tara Haelle

          I’m glad you find my article amusing since you call it a “joke.” I don’t find it a joking matter that some people would attempt to cure cancer or Ebola with essential oils. Certainly — as I note in the article — essential oils can be used for many things, including therapeutic uses. But there are people making ridiculous claims that they can be used for many others. That doesn’t mean every person using or selling essential oils is making those claims. I would expect — certainly hope — they are the minority, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and that doesn’t mean they don’t cause harm. If you wish to pretend they don’t exist, that is your right. The FDA and those in the medical profession who must deal with the consequences, however, do not have that luxury.

  3. it is worth noting that often times people buy that “all natural” label to mean “completely safe” and that just is not the case. Look at what happened with Hyland’s teething-I know there have been claims about the recall that are not accurate for sure….but my daughter’s former pediatrician actually told me not to use them because of the sedating effects of bella donna….apparently, they had an baby come into that practice after having been sedated 18 hours….it can be very misleading to well meaning parents.

  4. […] FDA cracks down on essential oils distributors and other “natural health” peddlers […]

  5. Rachel Clark

    Thank you for this! DoTerra and the like is all the rage in my very affluent neck of the woods. First world problem solution to feeling out of control in a very fast paced world and a desire to return to a simpler time while still having the safety net of 21st century conveniences. It’s maddening to listen to all of the claims about essential oil and the scanners they use to determine the client’s problem. Insert eye roll here.

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