Warnings by the Food and Drug Administration don't seem to have slowed down doTERRA, the company that has made essential oils the latest craze in alternative medicine.
Enthusiasts proclaim the natural products solve everything from muscle pains to migraines to weight problems. The advocates — most often women — swear the oils, from lavender to peppermint to oregano, are saving them from antibiotics and expensive doctors visits.
What's behind all the fuss is doTERRA, a Utah direct marketing company that entered the natural lifestyle market seven years ago and has grown to employ more than 1 million distributors who harness the power of peer marketing on social media, especially Facebook.
"Just realized it's been 2 years since I've stood in ANY pharmacy line," doTERRA distributor Hollie Silberhorn recently wrote on her Facebook wall. "As mom with 4 little kiddos, any guesses on how much time I've saved over 2 years? #doterra."
"Heaven in a bottle," another fan wrote on doTERRA's Facebook page.
Google searches of the term "essential oils" have tripled in the last two years and searches for the company's name have quadrupled. Some 18,000 people attended the company's convention in Salt Lake City last year and this year, 27,000 are slated to be there. While the privately held company doesn't release financial information, it says earnings have been doubling each year.
"It's going crazy," said Robert Pappas, an Indiana chemist who inspects the oils offered by doTERRA and similar companies. "I'm just a chemistry geek, and I've got 57,000 people following me on Facebook just because of essential oils."
The enthusiasm attracted the attention of the FDA, which found last year that individual sellers were making illegal claims — such as suggesting the oils could treat serious illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and even Ebola, the disease that killed thousands in East Africa in the fall.
The agency issued a stern warning to the company, saying those kinds of claims cannot be made about natural products and warning it to rein in the sellers making them.
"Your consultants promote your above-mentioned doTERRA Essential Oil products for conditions including, but not limited to, viral infections (including Ebola), bacterial infections, cancer, brain injury, autism, endometriosis, Grave's disease, Alzheimer's disease, tumor reduction, ADD/ADHD and other conditions that are not amenable to self-diagnosis and treatment by individuals who are not medical practitioners," the agency wrote.
McKay Brown, the company's marketing director, insists the crackdown hasn't since changed the way his company talks about its products — although he acknowledged that sellers "may have been using terms incorrectly."
"Really it was just an opportunity for us to reconfirm with FDA that we have processes in place to talk to distributors about how to talk about the products," McKay told the Washington Examiner.
Yet sellers say DoTERRA has been doing some major behind-the-scenes damage control, urging sellers to talk more generally about how the oils can support overall health instead of telling clients they can cure specific diseases.
That is how to escape FDA regulation, which is based on what a product claims to do. If a product claims to treat or prevent diseases, or affect the body's structure or function, the agency considers it a drug and regulates it.
Silberhorn says sellers have realized that if they want to sustain their business long term, they can't run into trouble with the FDA. And that has changed attitudes.
"In the last several months, it has really gone from 'the darn FDA regulations' to a more accepting kind of thing," she said.
Silberhorn says she believes oils can solve about 80 percent of all ailments. But she has changed how she talks about them. Instead of saying an oil clears up acne, she'll tell clients it provides "support for blemishes." Instead of using the word "migraine" she'll say "head tension." Rather than mentioning depression, she'll talk about "anxious feelings."
The company's website still trumpets the supposed benefits of oils. It carries 42 types of oils and 19 exclusive blends, each of which is supposed to do something different. They can be ingested, applied to the skin, diffused in the air or heated over a candle flame, depending on their intended effect. Fennel oil is supposed to ease menstrual periods. Lavender oil is said to soothe skin irritations. Cardamom is supposed to eliminate nausea.
Skeptics say there are plenty of reasons not to buy the oils. For one thing, they're expensive: A half-ounce bottle can cost anywhere from $25-$45, depending on the variety. A bottle of frankincense costs $93.
While they have been used for hundreds of years, there is little published research backing up use of the plant-derived products as health remedies. And even some long-time essential oil enthusiasts are wary of doTERRA, saying the company hasn't done enough to ensure customers are using the products safely.
Sylla Sheppard-Hanger, director of the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy in Tampa, Fla., said she is worried about the many users who cook with the oils, even though they have not been proven to be safe for ingestion.
The company "has spread more misleading information than anything I've ever seen in my career," she said.
Yet the oils remain hugely popular. One reason why: They're a good example of a product with all the components that drive people to share it, says Jonah Berger, author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On.
In the book, Berger identifies six qualities that drive people to talk about a product. They provide social currency (help people look good), trigger interest, incite emotion, can be shared, can be used and contain stories. People are more likely to talk about essential oils based on those motivations and not as much on scientific information, he said.
"People just don't have enough time to look through the information," he said. "The key is how it fits into larger human motivation."