Revealed: The truth behind essential oils - and why you shouldn't take every seller's advice

On Wednesday, The Project shared the first part of their investigative series on the risks of multi-level marketing companies - now, the dirt on essential oils is being unearthed.

The USA-based multi-level marketing company (MLM) doTERRA is one of the big players in the hugely popular essential oils industry. 

The company operates through a direct sales model by hiring representatives to sell products on their behalf. The sellers will then recruit others to also sell the company's products, effectively expanding their "business".

Essential oils can be "high-risk"


Essential oils are highly-concentrated oils distilled from plants - and sellers don't have to know much more than that in order to work for doTERRA. Interested people can simply sign up and start selling.

"I was so desperate to feel like I could control my son's health that I would believe pretty much anything," mum and former doTERRA user, Emma, told the The Project.

"My son, who has quite a few medical conditions and is on the autism spectrum, [and he] has trouble sleeping. He was going through a really bad sleep period."

One of Emma's friends suggested trying essential oils on her son.

"I used a couple of oils to help him go to sleep and it worked, so I was like 'wow, I can get some sleep'," she explained.

Aromascience practitioner Gillian Parkinson said experts are seeing "unqualified resellers" using mass marketing to promote "high-risk methods of use".

"It's an absolute risk to the public," she told The Project.

DoTERRA told The Project they are "committed to the safe use of essential oils", providing "extensive information on the suitable ways to enjoy [their] products".

On their website, doTERRA claim: "This product isn't intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any diseases". The company also does not recommend its essential oils for internal medicinal use - but according to some of doTERRA's sellers, that is not the case.

Not all sellers are trustworthy


A number of representatives have made outrageous claims, suggesting oils can treat everything from mental illnesses to viruses. One post from 2017 went as far to claim that frankincense is "superior" to chemotherapy.

The Medicines Act states that products are medicinal if they are intended as "therapeutic". Brands and sellers alike are prohibited from advertising medicines that aren't approved by Medsafe - such as these essential oils.

The Project showed Medsafe's manager of compliance management, Derek Fitzgerald, a handful of posts from MLM sellers. He said the uploads "pose potential breaches of the Act".

Individual sellers could face fines up to $20,000 - or even time in prison. 

"When we discover or are alerted to Wellness Advocates who do not follow doTERRA policies, including regulatory requirements, we take action to correct this behaviour," doTERRA claim.

However, doTERRA also say their oils meet a quality standard called CPTG - which is completely fabricated. CPTG stands for 'Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade'.

As advertising a product as "therapeutic" makes it medicinal, that means doTERRA could also be breaching legislation.

For companies, the fine can increase to $100,000.

The Ministry of Health has been in touch with doTERRA "about some of the advertising of these products".

It's not the first time doTERRA has had a run-in with a government. In 2014, the United States' Food and Drug Administration [FDA] warned doTERRA to stop claiming their oils could treat cancer, brain injuries, autism, Alzheimer's and ebola. 

Yet despite all the controversy, there's still a lot of money to be made. So much so, that even some medical professionals have jumped on the bandwagon. 

Dr Martha Nessler is one health professional who advocated for essential oils on social media. The Medicines Act says this isn't kosher - Dr Martha can't use her title to sell oils. 

"Natural" doesn't always equate to "safe"


In terms of the danger associated with MLMs and essential oils, the hazard isn't just in choosing oils over chemotherapy. The products can actually cause physical damage.

"[People have] that perception that if it's natural, it's safe," said Emma.

"Well a great white shark is natural isn't it, but you wouldn't cozy up to one," explained Doctor Richard Medlicott, a former medical director at the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners.

"Deadly nightshade is natural. So yeah - natural does not necessarily equate to being safe." 

Emma learned that lesson the hard way. 

"Using all those oils the way I was using them, the way the videos and Pinterest posts recommended to use them... [my son] ended up with a rash on his body... we had some respiratory issues," she revealed.

The more representatives sell, the more they can earn - so vendors suggest using oils in more and more unimaginable ways. Other seller recommendations include putting oils in cleaning products, on the skin, under the tongue, on pets and on babies.

Facebook user 'The Holistic Nutritionist' advised pregnant viewers to have their partner or midwife rub oil over their vagina during "crowning, pushing phase for support there".

She subsequently edited the caption on the video to clarify that new research recommends not doing that - however, the video remains online.

"We are seeing them in everything you can think of to eat and drink - so from water, food, raw food, cakes, chocolates and lollies for children... which is extremely distressing," said Parkinson.

"Even just one dose could burn the mouth, oesophagus, the gut... long-term, it can start damaging the kidneys and liver."

There's also skin irritation, nausea, vomiting, depression, seizures and even coma.

"I speak to people every day now... they either are having reactions they don't understand and they've been told to talk to me, or they are concerned and I'm picking up these adverse reactions. It is really frightening," Parkinson shared.

"You want to protect your kids and keep them safe, you want to do things to help them," Emma said emotionally.

"I thought I was helping him... but I was just making things worse."