The Oil Rush: How Health Canada has Failed to Regulate Deceptive Health Products

My former roommate was an early adopter of essential oils. Using a diffuser (ultrasonic humidifier) to spread fragrances house-wide, I would come home to aromas of peppermint, orange, and lavender instead of the familiar musty scent baked into our basement apartment. Sold on the efficacy of essential oils in reinvigorating stagnant air, I too became a user. In a rational world, this is where the story would end. Unfortunately, we do not live in a rational world.

Essential oils have taken upper middle class suburbia (and by extension Instagram) by storm. Social media platforms – once the refuge of dank memes and animal pictures – are now home to the blurred line between people’s personal lives and their multi-level marketing schemes. What’s particularly frightening, however, is how quickly each exciting new business opportunity has become the path to true health and wellness.

If you believe everything you read, you might think that essential oils are here to cure cancer, solve world hunger, reverse climate change, and ultimately prevent the impending heat death of the universe. You might think that essential oils have been divinely bestowed on us to empower stay-at-home parents to become entrepreneurs and health gurus while simultaneously enriching themselves, their communities, and the world around them. You would be wrong, but I can’t blame you.

Essential oils have been marketed relentlessly and deceptively by multi-level marketing organizations that profit from our modern addiction to wellness. Although Young Living pioneered the business of deceptive essential oil marketing, doTERRA made it a household affliction through their consultants’ insistence that oils could treat anything from asthma to Ebola.

The natural Ebola cure.
The natural Ebola cure. Retrieved Dec. 2017 from: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-H3OdCWW_0to/VCNtk0PL1LI/AAAAAAAADsM/taC1KjoJLr8/s1600/ebolaoregano.PNG

In reality, essential oils have not been demonstrated to be particularly effective at preventing or treating any disease or condition. It wasn’t long before both the EPA and the FDA took action against this blatant pseudoscience, prompting doTERRA to go on the defensive. Now, rather than instructing their consultants to make unsubstantiated health claims that are illegal, doTERRA provides guidelines for consultants that employ semantics to avoid those pesky science-based regulators:

doTERRA Quick Claims Guide
doTERRA Quick Claims Guide. Retrieved Dec. 2017 from: http://media.doterra.com/us/en/flyers/quick-claims-guide.pdf

Of course, there isn’t even good evidence that essential oils satisfy any of the “Structure-Function Claims,” but the mildness of the claims are enough to appease the FDA. As unfortunate as it is for public health, however, doTERRA advocates are not mild people.

In London, we are home to Canada’s first Presidential Diamond doTERRA representative: Ange Peters. In their not-at-all-a-pyramid-scheme compensation plan, the honor of Presidential Diamond is bestowed only on those who have climbed to the top and profited from those below.

doTERRA Compensation plan
doTERRA Compensation plan. Retrieved Dec. 2017 from: https://www.doterra.com/medias/9841222451230.jpg

Of course, it is unlikely that anyone gets to the top of the doTERRA food chain without being a prolific purveyor of pseudoscience.

Ange Peters is not a doctor
Ange Peters is definitely not a doctor. Image retrieved Dec. 2017 from: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/SsGecufx1rw/maxresdefault.jpg

Although Peters claims to guide women to true HEALTH, her social media is not filled with responsible health advice. Instead, her media is a window into a world where self-promotion, product marketing, unsubstantiated health claims, and even her personal life have become intertwined into a caricature of the social media takeover by advertisers.

Ange Peters Promotion
Are we all just props in a social media nightmare? Retrieved Dec. 2017 from: https://www.instagram.com/hol_fit/?hl=en

But I digress; what troubles me more than the content of my social media feed is the content of Peters’ advertising. The sheer magnitude of misleading medical claims that appear on Peters’ various platforms is staggering. Her own “Getting Started with Oils” guide provides a compendium of medical recommendations for essential oil, which can be accessed by clicking the prominently displayed “Health Concerns” graphic:

HOL:FIT Wellness :: Getting Started with Oils
HOL:FIT Wellness :: Getting Started with Oils. Retrieved Dec. 2017 from: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1FgogIRFosPDLelanNgY5e5Tql1Ygvxu3BrtBdRmsSpY/edit#

In this encyclopedia of serious medical conditions, various criticisms are levied against effective medical treatments. Instead, specific essential oil “Protocols” are offered for every affliction you can think of. Of course, none of them are proven to work in any capacity, hence the inclusion of the Quack Miranda Warning. In many cases, these “treatments” likely do more harm than good.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Although the domain of this site is registered to doTERRA, the content was taken offline some time ago, presumably in response to the crackdown by the FDA. I find it troubling that Peters went to the trouble to link to an archive of the site. I’m further troubled by the vast assortment of dubious health advice Peters offers when promoting her products and services.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The vitamin and mineral comment likely stems from a landmark 2004 study (and similar studies) that saw a small reduction in some nutrients among cultivated crops, likely attributable to changes in soil composition and changes in cultivated varieties. It’s a worrying trend and certainly something to keep an eye on, but to say we need to eat five times the food today for the same vitamin and mineral intake is nothing short of ignorant. The claim grossly overstates the reduction and doesn’t identify which foods or even which nutrients in those foods are impacted. Further, do these changes even impact our health in any capacity? I get the impression that Peters hasn’t read the primary scientific literature.

Ange Peters Learns from YouTube
At least it was much cheaper than a medical degree. Retrieved Dec. 2017 from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=iXIsRSDPWQA

Peters often claims to be “passionate about educating and empowering women to live their best life through natural solutions”. In reality, Peters is empowering her audience to take big risks with their health and their finances. Unfortunately, doTERRA has laid the foundation for Peters and other like-minded practitioners to prosper unabated while organizations like Health Canada have been complicit and ineffective in preventing false health claims. Whether a result of incompetence or ignorance, Health Canada – the organization mandated to protect the public from dangerous and ineffective health products – has failed.

In what is certainly an effort to find a balance between consumer demand and public health, Health Canada allows for the registration of Natural Health Products – products which are supposed to be screened to ensure they are “safe, effective and of high quality.” The problem, however, is that a vast number of registered products have literally no scientific evidence supporting the claims they are permitted to make. So how did they come to be registered?

In place of scientific evidence, Health Canada will accept “Tradition Use Claims. So if someone once used an ingredient, made up a claim about it, and then wrote it in a pharmacopoeia, products using this ingredient can register as natural health products and make the same claims – true or not. This is an ongoing failure of Health Canada that the CBC frequently illuminates. It’s the same flaw doTERRA has exploited.

Let’s look at a specific example: doTERRA’s Juniper Berry Essential Oil. On their Approved Claims List, doTERRA permits Canadian representatives to make a number of aromatherapeutic claims:

doTERRA - Juniper Berry
Retreived Dec. 2017 from: http://media.doterra.com/ca-otg/en/flyers/approved-claims-list-ca.pdf

Here’s the problem: Health Canada’s monograph for juniper essential oil doesn’t contain a single scientific or clinical study supporting its use for anything. Nonetheless, the oil is a registered natural health product, citing juniperus communis as a medicinal ingredient – a compound that also lacks scientific evidence from Health Canada for oral use.

A lack of regulatory controls on health products can have serious consequences. Not everyone is privileged enough with time and resources to conduct a thorough review of health claims. When essential oil companies boast that their products are registered natural health products, it lends legitimacy to the outlandish claims, emboldening proponents to believe that they were right all along about every mystical claim attributed to what is simply an aroma. As a result, listening to doTERRA advocates is like listening to a child talking about all the things Santa’s elves can do. Health Canada needs to be the one to tell her that Santa isn’t real.

I should be clear that I don’t believe Ange Peters acts maliciously. Although I wouldn’t say her business is innocent of profiteering, I get the sense that she feels her beliefs are vindicated. After all, she has amassed an audience of happy and healthy followers. Every successful customer is not just a business win, but a philosophical win. These are the people who I worry about the most.

When one of her clients asks “Does terrazyme help fight against disease?” and Peters answers Yes,” it condemns her audience to spend time and money chasing supplements that have no clinical evidence for preventing disease. Some may seek these products in place of legitimate medical care, but as it stands, doTERRA is not a medical company and essential oils are not medicine.

Despite not living up to their hype, I don’t hold anything against essential oils. In fact, I still use them nightly in my diffuser. Why? They smell nice and I enjoy it. What I won’t do is purchase from unethical companies like Young Living and doTERRA that have profited from misleading health claims and a predatory business model.


8 thoughts on “The Oil Rush: How Health Canada has Failed to Regulate Deceptive Health Products

  1. Chantal Reply

    What brand would you recommend?
    I hate the BS those two companies put out there.
    I just want something for aromatherapy LOL but feel like a hypocrite if I buy from one of those companies.

    1. Ryan Armstrong Reply

      Great question! Since the oils last me so long, however, I actually haven’t had to purchase any since I’ve become a more informed consumer. You could always try looking for a place locally and ask about their products. My ideal product would be sourced ethically and environmentally friendly, not make absurd health claims, and not be part of a multi-level marketing scheme. Cheap would also be nice. Unfortunately, that seems like a lot to ask in this industry. I would also suggest looking at the alternative to essential oils: synthetic fragrances. As long as you are happy with the aroma, these are generally much more ethical products and are usually safer in terms of their toxicity profile (especially if you have pets). Cheers!

  2. Fran Reply

    Your article was painful to read. Clearly you have no background in natural nutrition. You’re just as bad as all the people out there claiming essential oils will be your miracle cure, except you are worse because you are turning people away from natural methods that can help, perhaps not cure but help with symptoms and induce a more positive and healthier approach to self care. Should claims be made that essential oils can cure, no, that hasn’t been proven. But might i add that centuries of natural plant based medicine has resulted in significantly healthier individuals than the current and very sad state of allopathic medical in western medicine. We have never seen individuals as sick and unhealthy as we do now in countries dominated by western medicine. Pharmaceuticals have numerous side effects including death, yet people keep reaching for those because they are told by drs that they are proven. The very same drs that literally have 4 hours of training on nutrition, one of the most influential things for our state of health. The lack of information in our very egotistical westernized medical system is to the point of idioticy. Please stop spreading your uneducated and very one sided opinion to those that are trying to learn and improve their health with natural methods.

    1. Ryan Armstrong Reply

      I see a number of baseless claims, insults, and misunderstandings. Perhaps you could take the time to actually read the article and respond with at least one relevant and coherent point that addresses my original content.

    2. Darby Reply

      LONG:
      This blog should be called “postopinion”, not “posttruth”. Ryan, you are calling Fran out for not stating facts or evidence but the only fact that you have stated is that some people take it too far. There are proven benefits from using oils derived PROPERLY from plants and herbs which is something that you have stated as a non-truth. If you have ever experienced the relief of a stomach ache from peppermint or stopped a muscle spasm with lavender you might not doubt the benefits so strongly. Have you ever applied them topically? I hate to state the obvious but some people legitimately don’t know that some of the oils have to be applied to the affected area in order to receive the expected benefit.
      I’m sorry you feel this way because you have shut the door to another option for you; which is what most (no, not all) of the people advocating EOs are trying to do: offer people options! For the record, I’ve never heard of a condition becoming worse with the proper use of EOs, but use your brain- if it’s not getting better, try something else! In my OPINION, this article is one-sided and written by someone with limited experience with oils and a grudge against the structure of these companies, which by the way doesn’t invalidate the oils themselves. It’s fine if you don’t like the companies, it’s fine if you don’t like the oils, but to make a blanket-statement that they are basically a hoax and overpriced air fresheners makes you no better than people making outlandish health claims because neither are the truth!

      Ps. Switching to synthetic fragrances may be cheaper but I doubt it is more environmentally sustainable, and even so, they are made of SYNTHETIC chemicals… Which you are breathing in and absorbing through your skin. If you really believe that this is better than a plant’s natural oils, then you should probably do more research on what’s in them and the potentially carcinogenic chemicals added, many of which are found in the creation of fragrance for household products. Please check out those facts before recommending that people switch to synthetic fragrances just to save a buck.

      Also, YL just released a statement about their 5 year plan to become more environmentally friendly and sustainable, just for your info.

      Lastly, just wanted to state that there is a big difference between oil quality based on how the oils are distilled/extracted. Some companies may say “steam distilled” but they basically boil them in a pot and collect the vapor; this is not effective for anything other than fragrance. Properly distilling or cold-pressing oils allows you to get the full benefit of the plant.

      I am sorry if this response sounded aggressive, I have no bad feelings towards you but I believe that there is more to this conversation than what you have stated. I also am a firm believer in representing both sides of a matter as thoroughly and truthfully as possible when posting “truth” to people who are searching for answers. If you cannot remain objective then perhaps you should not be writing this kind of article.

      1. Ryan Armstrong Reply

        Thank you for your reply; however, I wish you had a least read the article before deciding to comment. I cited multiple sources via embedded links, including a systematic review that concluded: “the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.” Ironically, you have ignored the evidence and instead supplied your own opinions. You have stated that “There are proven benefits from using oils” and yet you have not supplied any evidence to substantiate this.

        Your claim that you have “never heard of a condition becoming worse with proper use of EOs” is troubling, because it demonstrates that you have not even performed cursory research into the safety of essential oils, which have not only not been proven to effectively treat any condition, but pose many potential side effects, even when used “appropriately”. Even worse, if anyone with a serious condition were to attempt treatment exclusively with essential oils, they may be forgoing necessary medical treatment. Not only is the structure of these companies predatory, but I have yet to come across anyone caught up in these scams that sells the products honestly and objectively. Until proven otherwise, these products are overpriced air fresheners.

        Regarding sustainability, you are making more claims without performing even basic research. In many cases fragrances are more sustainable (see this Guardian article for starters). Further, there is nothing inherently different between a “SYNTHETIC” chemical and one that is “natural”. These are arbitrary labels that have nothing to do with the safety or efficacy. Indeed, many essential oils are highly toxic and many are irritants, especially to pets and individuals with respiratory conditions. You know what else is natural? Smallpox.

        Thanks for disclosing that you sell oils for Young Living.

        You claim that properly distilling or cold-pressing oils will “get the full benefit of the plant”, but – again – you have not supplied any evidence of this.

        I must admit I find it tiresome to respond to essential oil pushers who have no real training or education and consistently fail to distinguish between opinion and scientific information.

  3. Emma Reply

    [Long comment warning] This article is EXACTLY what I’ve been thinking for months now! I diffuse some EO’s too, because they make my home smell nice and I just like it. I believe that they have some benefits, I’ve been using lavender at night before going to sleep and I enjoy it. But I agree that some people and companies just take this WAY too far and are making loftly (and irresponsible) claims left right and center. I began to get into Young Living before doing a lot more of my own research, and what really got me was SO many distributors were proclaiming that Young Living is the best because they’re completely natural and non-synthetic, and all other brands are lower quality. But who decides that???? My favourite encounter so far was a YL rep who said that the oils don’t need to be Certified Organic because they’re “Therapeutic Grade” which is better than Certified Organic, and that’s why you can trust YL oils. Then, I did a little googling. I found that I can buy a six pack of essential oils for $20 at Wal-Mart which claim to be all natural, non-synthetic, and “Therapeutic Grade.” So if having those things on the label makes an oil the best, why would I spend so much on Young Living or DoTerra when I can get SIX at Wal-Mart for a fraction of the price that say the exact same thing???
    I’m all for keeping healthy but so many of these wellness trends going around just make me roll my eyes. Yes, plants can be beneficial for you. Some can also kill your pets or make you sick or are unsafe for pregnant/nursing moms.
    Do your thing, which may be essential oils, but mine sure isn’t going to be spending loads of money and putting my health into the hands of trendy products that are not regulated or scientifically proven. I realize that essential oils have been around for a LONG time but people have been living perfectly normal and healthy lives without them too.
    Eat a balanced diet, exercise, get some fresh air. We all get sick sometimes. A little bottle of oil won’t stop that.

    1. Ryan Armstrong Reply

      Thanks for the long comment! Personally, I’m going to look into fragrances when our essential oil supply runs out (which seems like it will be an eternity since they last so long for us). In the absence of proven health benefits, I’m happy to go the synthetic route if they’re cheaper and less of an environmental burden. I have heard, however, that many do not quite match the aromatic quality of essential oils, but we’ll find out!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.