How essential oil sellers are trying to profit off COVID-19 fears

The FDA and Twitter push back on essential oil MLMs and other novel coronavirus scam 'cures'

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published March 17, 2020 6:30PM (EDT)

Selection of essential oils with various herbs and flowers in the background (Getty Images/Madeleine Steinbach)
Selection of essential oils with various herbs and flowers in the background (Getty Images/Madeleine Steinbach)

This piece has been updated to reflect Twitter's March 18th announcement that they would expand their safety rules to "include content that could place people at a higher risk of transmitting COVID-19."

Starting in early March, about a week before the World Health Organization characterized the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic, a series of similar photographs featuring essential oils began appearing on social media. In these pictures, products featuring oil blends that are advertised as having "infection-fighting" capabilities, like doTERRA's "On Guard" or Young Living's "Immupower," are laid out on a white background. As the weeks passed, the photos would be edited to show an "X" marked over the products that were out of stock. 

"With the flu and coronavirus spreading throughout the US, things are selling out," one doTERRA seller wrote. "And not just toilet paper and hand sanitizer at Costco. Our On Guard stock is getting low as well. If you are running low on these immune boosting and protecting items, now is a good time to replenish your supply." 

The basic On Guard blend, which is intended for someone to ingest or diffuse and retails at $45.33 for a 15 milliliter bottle, was the first to sell out, shortly followed by the On Guard sanitizing mist and hand wash. The On Guard toothpaste, mouth wash, and laundry detergent remained in stock. 

Many essential oil companies, including doTERRA, operate by using a multi-level marketing, or MLM, approach. "Consultants," or sellers for these direct-sales companies, solicit new recruits to sell products online or through house parties (think Tupperware or Pampered Chef), and then, in addition to their own sales, those consultants then earn a percentage of their recruits' sales.

A lot has been reported about how MLMs often exhibit the same three markers, as defined by the Securities and Exchange Commission, as pyramid schemes: a big emphasis on recruitment, a promise of high rewards in limited time, and an insistence that the participant can quit their day job to "work from home" while choosing their own hours. 

This can lead to a predatory work environment and leave consultants with a backlog of unsold product and little profit. A  recent report from the AARP Foundation found that only 25% of people who participate in direct sales companies make money, and of that 25%, more than half make less than $5,000.

But as individuals across the nation are facing isolation and fears about COVID-19 — and misinformation abounds — it appears that consultants for essential oil MLMs are themselves preying on consumers' health anxieties by advertising their products as ways to prevent or cure the virus, despite the fact that there is no research to back those claims. 

After surveying dozens of public essential oil sale groups on social media, I found multiple instances of customers asking a variation of the question, "What is everyone doing to protect yourself from the spreading novel coronavirus?" The answers from consultants ranged wildly, but included the ingestion or diffusing of lemon oil, frankincense, oregano oil, On Guard and melaleuca oil (often referred to as "F.L.O.O.M." in the groups). 

When contacted for comment regarding their consultants selling their products as a way to combat COVID-19, doTERRA public relations director Kevin Wilson said the company's chief medical officer, Dr. Russel Osguthorpe, is an infectious diseases physician. 

"And he is recommending that everyone follow the following evidence-based procedures to manage any concerns and reduce transmission of germs and other bacteria," Wilson wrote via email. 

The recommendations include washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. 

"If soap and water are not readily available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, can be used," Wilson wrote. "doTERRA On Guard Sanitizing Mist contains 64% alcohol." 

Per Wilson, Osguthorpe also recommends staying home when sick, unless it's to receive medical care, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, avoid touching your face, and cleaning frequently touched surfaces and objects often. These suggestions are in line with the latest preventative measures published by the CDC. 

"doTERRA recognizes essential oils have profound health and wellness benefits," Wilson wrote. "But we do not claim that our products prevent, treat or cure illnesses or diseases, including COVID-19." 

But their consultants do.

Many of my requests to speak with individual doTERRA and Young Living consultants about their claims were denied or ignored. But Dallas-based essential oils representative Linda Bain's response to why she was selling the oils as a way to prevent COVID-19, despite no science-based evidence to support that claim, was succinct: "If it makes people feel better, I don't see the harm." 

Yet, like other pseudoscientific remedies that are positioned as alternative disease treatments, claims like this can result in people forgoing important medical treatment with proven, demonstrable health benefits. 

So why are people drawn to claims like this in times of medical crisis? Dr. Michael Cunningham, a social psychologist and professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Louisville, says that the answer is twofold. 

"The basic issue is that when people are under stress, they are not as efficient cognitively, their judgment isn't as good," Cunningham said. "They tend to be much more impulsive. In addition, when people are anxious, they look for ways of regaining control." 

And, Cunningham said, if someone offers them something with a great deal of confidence, they may gravitate towards it exactly because it offers them a momentary feeling of control and prevention. 

It's because of precisely this phenomenon that the FDA sent out letters to seven companies last week warning them to stop selling products that claim to cure or prevent COVID-19, saying such products were a threat to public health because they might prompt consumers to stop or delay appropriate medical treatment. Quinessence Aromatherapy LTD, one of the cited companies, offers essential oils. 

Their website includes the claim: "The most powerful anti-virus essential oils to provide defence (sic) against coronavirus include: ● Basil ● Bergamot ● Cajuput ● Cedarwood Virginian ● Cinnamon ● Clove Bud ● Eucalyptus Globulus, Radiata and Smithii ● Juniper Berry ● Lavender Spike ● Laurel leaf ● Lemon ● Manuka ● Niaouli ● Peppermint ● Ravensara ● Ravintsara ● Rosemary ● Sage ● Tea Tree ● Thyme Sweet and Thyme White."

On March 18, Twitter announced they would be expanding their safety rules to prevent users from posting misleading information about the new coronavirus — including tweets "encouraging the use of fake or ineffective treatments." The new guidelines also prohibit the posting of misleading content purporting to be from experts or authorities.

According to the FDA, there are currently "no vaccines, pills, potions, lotions, lozenges or other prescription or over-the-counter products available to treat or cure" COVID-19. So while many consumers who are feeling anxious about their health may be on the hunt for a miracle drug, it won't be found in an essential oil bottle. 



By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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