The Great Wellness Hoax: How Bad Science and Predatory Tactics Created a Multi-Billion-Dollar Industry
For a particular subset of the American population, the solution (and remedy) to America’s 2020 societal ills is obvious: Essential Oils.
Derived from the distillation of specific plants, an essential oil is a concentrated extract of a plant’s “essence” that some people believe provide health benefits if inhaled (through aromatherapy) or applied topically.
The essential oil market generated $7 billion in 2018, and some projections have the industry burgeoning to $14.6 billion by 2026 — if the bubble doesn’t burst before then. The largest essential oil supplier, Young Living, reported $1.5 billion in revenue for 2017.
The essential oil craze is just one small part of the Natural Wellness, or “Naturopathy,” Movement, a multi-billion-dollar industry bent on convincing healthy people they’re sick, and that the only way to be “cured” is to purchase alternative medicine and natural remedies to supplement a “holistic” lifestyle.
For the record, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being more mindful about one’s health and seeking a more naturalistic lifestyle. At the same time, however, the fact that personal wealth is the largest contributing factor to one’s personal health goes largely ignored in conversations surrounding “wellness.”
In recent years, the Naturopathy Movement has become associated with Multi-Level Marketing organizations (MLMs) that sell diet pills, nutrient shakes, superfood vitamins, skin cleansers, and — of course — essential oils.
Most of these products tap into our cultural insecurities revolving around body image and fitness and are prime examples of “magical thinking.” (For example, any product promoted as a way to “purify your body of toxins” or “detox” is a total scam).
In my opinion, the Naturopathy Movement is a reaction against two pervasive factors in American culture:
- Women’s healthcare in the United States is an absolute nightmare. And the more the U.S. healthcare system fails women, the more “alternative medicine” (and the opportunity to take your health into your own hands) becomes appealing. It’s no coincidence that most naturopathy products (makeup, essential oils, herbal remedies, etc) are marketed exclusively to women.
- In the past century, modern medicine has eliminated dozens of diseases and profoundly extended the average adult’s life span. However, one of the most persistent and seductive myths in American culture is “It Was Better Back Then.” Born out of cultural privilege and collective historical amnesia, a prideful “anti-establishment scientific illiteracy” has come to dominate conversations surrounding healthcare (for example, Vaccines) — that also happens to be easily exploitable by Russian trolls and Twitter bots.
However, it’s also far more complicated than that. From economic instability and fracturing institutional trust, the rise of “wellness” MLMs is also a result of two uniquely American traits: Our affinity for “get rich quick schemes,” and our well-documented gullibility when it comes to quack science and miracle cures.
Nothing New Under the Sun
The term “snake oil salesman” was coined in the 19th Century, and it’s generally understood to refer to a huckster or charlatan who makes a living selling fake medical cures.
For thousands of years, ancient civilizations relied upon medicine men, shamans, and witches for herbal cures and protection against illnesses — which were often thought to be the work of demonic forces or angry gods.
Prior to the development of Germ Theory in the 19th Century, doctors experimented with a bizarre litany of “natural cures” for various ailments and diseases — like “water cures,” bloodletting, and “pelvic massage therapy.”
The original “snake oil” was brought to the United States in the mid-1800s by the influx of Chinese immigrants who sought work on the Transcontinental Railroad. Made from the oil of a Chinese water snake, Chinese laborers wowed their American counterparts with the oil they would rub on their tired joints after a long day’s work.
Packed with omega-3 acids, the oil derived from the Chinese water snake really did contain anti-inflammatory properties. However, once word began to spread, intrepid entrepreneurs quickly found a way to capitalize on the fad.
It wasn’t long before traveling salesmen began offering “snake oil” in small vials from their wagons they claimed could cure everything from typhoid fever to erectile dysfunction. The cures were often (falsely) attributed to “ancient Indian recipes” to drum up their legitimacy.
William Rockefeller Sr. (father of John D. Rockefeller) made a small fortune selling patented “miracle cures,” like a “pink elixir” that promised to cure all diseases. Another famous huckster, Benjamin Brandreth, sold a “vegetable pill” that purportedly cleansed toxins from the blood and cured the flu. Brandreth later became a New York State Senator.
Eventually, the proliferation of patented “miracle cures” got so crazy, the Federal Government had to step in and pass the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906, which prohibited the sale of unsafe and misbranded food and drugs. The act was a precursor to the Federal Drug Administration.
However, the FDA couldn’t end America’s love affair with junk science and magic oils.
For example, in the 1990s, emu oil became all the rage in Texas. Supposedly, the oil from an emu had the ability to treat arthritis, lower cholesterol, and slow the effects of aging. Ranches in Texas rushed to stock their farms with the large, flightless bird. The emu oil bubble eventually popped, and farmers were left with flocks of annoying and destructive birds than no one wanted to eat.
In a 2017 article for The New Yorker, Rachel Monroe chronicles Young’s rise from obscurity to Naturopathy guru. It’s essential reading.
According to Young Living lore, Young suffered a debilitating spinal injury and claimed to have healed himself by drinking water and lemon juice over the course of several months.
In 1982, Young opened a health clinic and birthing center in Spokane, Washington. That year, Young attempted to deliver his own daughter in a whirlpool at his birthing center, but the infant died after “spending an hour underwater.” Young was arrested, but the charges were dropped and the death ruled an accident.
The next year, Young pleaded guilty to practicing medicine without a license, and he shut down the Washington clinic. He opened another clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, that specialized in a “$2,000-a-week detox program.” He also founded a clinic in Chula Vista, California, that was later shut down for promoting fraudulent medical practices.
Young became infatuated with the medicinal properties of essential oils, and he spent time in France learning how to distill lavender oil. When he returned to America, he purchased land in Idaho and began growing lavender and peppermint. Along with his third wife, Young founded Young Living Essential Oils in 1993.
Young opened the Young Life Research Clinic in Utah in 2000, but it was closed in 2005 following multiple controversies including the hiring of a pediatrician who had previously pleaded guilty to manslaughter and a lawsuit regarding a woman who claimed an injection of Vitamin C almost killed her.
In another incident in 2000, a distillery tank at Young Living Farms in Utah exploded and killed a Young Living employee. An investigation by Utah’s Occupational Safety and Health Division found none of the distillery tanks had been built with pressure release valves. The UOSHD fined Young Living $10,280 for seven safety violations.
Within the context of Young Living’s business endeavors, these setbacks were relatively minor. Between 2007 and 2017, Young Living saw a ten-fold growth. Its revenue has grown by 800% over the last five years, and the company has posted four consecutive billion-dollar years since 2015.
Never a man to slow down, in 2009, Young founded the Young Living Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the living conditions of people in developing countries.
Young stepped down from his role as CEO in 2015, and he died in May 2018 following a series of strokes. As of the last count, Young Living claims 2 million “active” consultants, though 63% of its total members aren’t considered “active.”
The Nectar of the Gods
Okay, so let’s get this out of way: Some essential oils can provide temporary relief for certain conditions.
A peer-reviewed study on Lavender, for example, showed that post-surgery aromatherapy could mildly increase pain tolerance. And a double-blind study on the effectiveness of Lemon Balm indicated it could help ease agitation for dementia sufferers.
But there’s a huge difference between alleviating symptoms and treating infections and preventing disease.
For example, while some oils contain mild anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties (like Clove), none of them contain anti-viral abilities. Or, to put it more succinctly, essential oils don’t kill or prevent viruses. So, if you’ve been cleaning your house with a spray bottle of Thieves, you may be slowing the growth of some bacteria, but you’re not killing any viruses.
Because they exist in an unregulated purgatory, companies that sell essential oils aren’t supposed to market them as drugs that treat known conditions. (This is why essential oil companies rely heavily on meaningless “New Agey” words like “balance,” “wellness,” “vitality,” and “wholeness” in their marketing materials and item descriptions — those words are subjective and relative, meaning they can’t be legally disputed).
In 2014, the FDA issued an official warning regarding Young Living’s marketing when some consultants made the outlandish claims that specific combinations and concentrations of oils could prevent Ebola. (The essential oil company doTERRA received a similar warning the same day).
However, in our conspiracy-laden world, that’s exactly what the Pharmaceutical Industry would want you to believe, right?
But, if there did exist any provable health benefits to essential oils, I guarantee Big Pharma would’ve already swooped in and found a way to capitalize on the supply and demand.
One of the most common uses of essential oils is aromatherapy, in which an oil (or combination of oils) is diluted in water and diffused into a breathable mist.
In one 2012 peer-reviewed study on aromatherapy, the effects of essential oil aromatherapy were tested on afflictions like depression, hypertension, anxiety, and pain. However, responses in treatment weren’t substantially different than patients treated with placebo scents, leading the researchers to conclude “the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.”
However, this doesn’t mean essential oils are without merit. If you find a particular scent pleasing (Lavender, for example) and you cross-associate that scent with feeling relaxed (or expect to be relaxed), you’ll naturally be soothed by the scent of Lavender in the future.
It’s a textbook definition of a Pavlovian Response. Ivan Pavlov was the early-twentieth-century Russian physiologist famous for getting his dogs to salivate simply by ringing a bell. In other words, it’s not the oil that’s doing the soothing; it’s the neural association/anticipation your brain has made with the product.
And, while some essential oils offer topical relief (usually through a “cooling sensation” at the joints or temples), those oils aren’t entering the bloodstream, fighting bacterial infections, or neutralizing viruses in the human body.
In other words, if essential oils help you unwind after a busy day of work or if you enjoy the scent of Digize, then go for it! Just don’t fall for the myth that they’re a more effective alternative to antibiotics, the flu vaccine, or an ionized air filter.
For example, we’ve known for centuries that Peppermint can help alleviate nausea (while also creating other digestive issues), and it’s possible certain scents may temporarily reduce the severity of a headache. But rubbing a bit of Thieves on the heel of your foot will not cure the flu or a sore throat.
(And, never forget, anecdotal confirmation bias is one hell of a drug).
In the Naturopathy Movement, there’s no enforceable definition of “natural.” The FDA doesn’t regulate those claims. After all, rattlesnake venom, poison Ivey, mercury, and carbon monoxide could also be advertised as “natural.”
“Sometimes people think that if an “essential oil” or other ingredient comes from a plant, it must be safe. But many plants contain materials that are toxic, irritating, or likely to cause allergic reactions when applied to the skin.”
Most essential oils are considered safe if used in moderation, but because they’re often “self-administered” with zero oversight, high concentrations of certain oils have been known to cause allergic reactions, chemical burns, and respiratory issues. At least one study by the New England Journal of Medicine found that topical exposure of Lavender and Tea Tree Oil could induce breast growth (prepubertal gynecomastia) in young boys.
In Denialism, journalist Michael Specter writes,
“Any chemical, whether it comes from the root of a tree or the shelves of your medicine cabinet, can cause serious harm. It depends how much you take. That is why one of the fundamental tenets of medicine holds that ‘the dose makes the poison.’”
It’s true some people have sensitivities or allergies to certain chemicals used in everyday cleaning supplies, laundry detergents, underarm deodorants, and body wash. And it’s important to be mindful of what we put into and on our bodies.
But, at the end of the day, essential oils are just another chemical compound. They’re not a miracle product, and they’re not going to cure any diseases. They can have their place in your daily routine — just don’t overstate the benefits or fool yourself on the basis of anecdotal evidence.
The Mystery of the Pyramid
Even though they’re often used interchangeably, multi-level marketing companies (MLMs) and Pyramid Schemes aren’t exactly one and the same.
And this is an important distinction because, in the United States, Pyramid Schemes are illegal. In a classic Pyramid Scheme, new recruits pay an “entrance fee” and are encouraged to recruit more members to establish a “downline” (bottom of the pyramid) so more money flows to the “upline” (top of the pyramid).
MLMs like Mary Kay, Amway, Tupperware, Avon, Herbalife, and Young Living skate around the legal definition of Pyramid Scheme by framing themselves as “Direct Sellers.” In a direct seller organization, representatives (or consultants/distributors) are the primary way in which a product is transferred to the consumer.
In most MLMs, a consultant is expected to purchase the product (sometimes called a “starter kit”) they’ll need to sell to other customers. Often times, becoming a consultant comes with some perks — like a personal online discount, early access to convention tickets, and the ability to earn commission on the sales of consultants you recruit. And the more product you sell or consultants you recruit for your downline, the more benefits and/or commission you receive by rising through the ranks.
(To see this process in action, take a look at Young Living’s labyrinth compensation plan).
The line between an MLM and Pyramid Scheme is incredibly blurry. But, in a nutshell, an MLM places more emphasis on product, and a Pyramid Scheme prioritizes recruitment. A lot of popular MLMs aren’t technically Pyramid Schemes because more product is purchased externally by customers than internally by consultants.
But, yes, as this classic moment from The Office illustrates perfectly, selling products and recruiting sellers are characteristics of both MLMs and Pyramid Schemes.
MLMs are incredibly popular — and risky. About 1 in 13 Americans have participated in an MLM, and approximately half drop out within the year (90% are out by year five).
According to a 2018 study by the AARP, 73% of people who participate in MLMs “lose money or make no money” (and, of the quarter who make money, 53% make less $5,000 a year). In a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) analysis, 99% of participants lose money over the long run when one takes into account the amount of time and effort required to run and maintain a successful recruitment campaign.
(According to Young Living’s 2018 Income Disclosure Statement, 88% of their consultants made, on average, $4 for the entire year).
Many of these organizations target young women and stay-at-home moms, and prey on the insecurities of parenthood and womanhood (according to one popular joke, MLM stands for Moms Losing Money). Approximately 78% of direct sellers are women. In the eye-opening Huffington Post article “MLMs Are A Nightmare for Women and Everyone They Know,” journalist Casey Bond writes,
“Perhaps the most sinister marketing tactic MLMs can employ with stay-at-home mothers, according to Burnside, is preying off loneliness. It can feel isolating to be home with the kids all day, and MLMs promise an upline of sponsors who will support them as they launch their business.”
The Instagram feeds of most MLMs feature soft natural light, clean architectural lines, pastel color palettes, minimalistic aesthetics, and upbeat feminist slogans. Consultants are sent copy-and-paste social media posts, email templates, and are encouraged to set up a personal Facebook business page and host parties to demo products (which they have to purchase).
In an effort to soften the crass commercialism and cold capitalism of the MLM, the sales pitches are reframed as empowering invitations: “Join my team!” “You were the first person who popped into my head!” “Be a part of a movement!” “I want to share this exciting opportunity with you!” “Be a #GirlBoss and earn income at home!”
And the benefits of joining an MLM are sometimes couched in pseudo-spiritual language that has nothing to do with the product being sold: “Be the best you!” “Live Life to your fullest potential!” “There’s nothing holding you back but yourself!” “Join me on a journey to physical and spiritual wellness!” Big budget annual conventions (which consultants pay to attend) feature trendy motivational speakers (and opportunities to purchase more products, of course).
In a lot of ways, the insular self-improvement culture of MLMs mirrors religious fundamentalism: Banish doubt and critical thinking from your thoughts. Surround yourself with people who think just like you. If there’s a problem, the fault lies with you, not the system. And, above all else, bring more people into the fold.
Unfortunately, all of this passive-aggressive evangelism takes a toll on the consultant’s relationships. In a Washington Post article titled “How MLMS are Hurting Female Friendships,” Laura Richards writes,
“The structure of MLMs is to blame for many of those “Let’s catch up!” Facebook messages piling up in your inbox. The more recruits or team members your friend pulls in, the more money she makes. It’s what the MLM industry calls “building a downline,” which is lingo for bringing in another recruit as part of your team who sells under you.”
In short, MLMs hijack pre-existing social relationships in an attempt to transform them into profitable streams of income. And churches and religious communities are particularly susceptible to their influence.
In a Relevant Magazine article, Rachel Givens writes,
“In fact, Multi-Level Marketing thrives in religious communities, where trust and relationships run deep — and promises made are expected to be kept. Churches, with their tight-knit communities and trust-dependent hierarchies, are perfectly poised to allow multilevel marketing companies to flourish in them.”
(With its high percentage of stay-at-home moms and family-focused Mormon community, this is one of the reasons so many MLMs are based — and thrive — in Utah).
I don’t mean to imply all MLMs are illegitimate business schemes that sell fake products. It’s certainly possible to earn a supplemental income through an MLM (though it’s rarely worth the time and effort), and there’s nothing wrong with purchasing legitimately helpful products from friends and family members.
And, at the same time, it’s important our criticisms of MLMs don’t dovetail into the demonization of the people ensnared by them. For some people, their MLM “tribe” might be the only supportive community they’ve ever known. And, for others, it may simply be a harmless hobby to break up the monotony of stay-at-home life.
In the age of the “side hustle,” MLMs are unfortunately just one way in which people try to stay afloat amid increased costs of living. And, in my experience, people involved in MLMs often truly believe in the products they’re selling.
However, in most cases, MLMs represent predatory economies of scale, in which a staggering majority of participants lose money or make zero profit. They prostitute friendships and peddle a lifestyle fueled by pseudoscience and magical thinking. They’re a bad math formula encased in a self-improvement shell.
In the mantra-heavy world of MLMs, it might be beneficial to add one more mantra (originally coined by astronomer Carl Sagan) to the list to keep you on your toes: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
For Further Exploration
The Sickening Business of Wellness — Yvette d’Entremont (The Outline)
How Essential Oils Became the Cure for Our Age of Anxiety — Rachel Monroe (The New Yorker)
MLMs Are a Nightmare for Women and Everyone They Know — Casey Bond (Huffington Post)
Heaven and Sell — Rachel Givens (Relevant Magazine)
“How To Spot a Pyramid Scheme” — Stacie Bosley (TedTalk)
“Dr. Oz and Nutritional Supplements” — YouTube (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver)
“Multi-Level Marketing” — YouTube (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver)
“Vaccines” — YouTube (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver)
“Why Detox Cleanses Are a Rip-Off” — YouTube (Adam Ruins Everything)