London mom warns of sales reps pushing essential oils as medicine

London mom Sarah Farrants said she's worried about essential oil salespeople pushing their products as a treatment for her son's respiratory issues.

'Natural' health products can still be toxic, says pediatric pharmacologist Dr. Michael Rieder

London mom Sarah Farrants says she's frustrated by essential oil salespeople pushing their products on her. (Submitted)

When Sarah Farrants' oldest son, Mason, was 13 months old, he started having all sorts of respiratory problems, and her young family was spending a lot of time in the emergency room.

So she did what a lot of modern moms would do: she wrote a post on Facebook asking friends for help and support.

What she got instead were sales pitches.

Farrants said representatives from the essential oil companies YoungLiving and, in particular, doTerra, kept messaging her, telling her to buy their products to treat her son.

"Even though I was never asking for medical advice, I started noticing that every time I would make a post... I had people recommending that I should give my son peppermint oil or that I should start putting a diffuser with lemongrass or those kinds of thing in my son's room at night," said Farrants.

Farrants noted that her doctor had specifically told her not to use essential oils around her son because of his respiratory issues. 

But, she said the sales reps wouldn't always take no for an answer, and have even gone so far as to tell her not to follow her doctor's advice.

Farrants said she doesn't think that's right.

"There needs to be some kind of regulation out there to make sure that the wrong person isn't recommending the wrong product," she said.

"It's almost unfair that they prey on these people who are desperate to help their children get well."

Who's in charge here?

CBC News reached out to YoungLiving and doTerra Wednesday.

Neither was available for a phone interview, but a representative from doTerra sent us an email statement saying that their company complies with regulatory requirements set out by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada.

Health Canada confirmed in another email that both companies are authorized to sell natural health products within the country.

"doTerra cannot diagnose or make treatment recommendations. In fact, doTerra promotes essential oils used in combination with modern medicine," said doTerra spokesperson Missy Larsen, who added that the company labels its products carefully and provides education on its website.

The company's marketing is full of claims with caveats. 

For example, in an online sales page for peppermint oil, the product copy says it "promotes healthy respiratory function and clear breathing* when taken internally.

Then, further down the page, there is a note that says this statement hasn't been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, and that the oil is "not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease."

What's the harm?

'Natural' health products aren't necessarily safe, warns Dr. Michael Rieder. (Classy Sassy & Trend/Flickr)

Although the products might comply with natural health product regulations, Dr. Michael Rieder—a pediatric pharmacologist and Western University professor—said they can still be harmful.

"Oil of wintergreen, which sounds natural cause it is, is actually quite a potent toxin if taken," he said. 

"A lot of these oils do have substantial toxicity."

Dr. Rieder said parents should remember that 'natural' is not a synonym for 'safe,' and that sales reps for essential oils—known as "wellness advocates" through doTerra—are still salespeople.

"Salespeople don't want to harm people, but they do want to move product and that's not an inconsequential thing to think about."

But, he said it's not as easy as reminding buyers to beware. Many people look to natural health products when they've run out of other treatment options, and Dr. Rieder said it can be hard for consumers to make informed decisions when they're feeling desperate.

Dr. Rieder says the concept of 'buyer beware' isn't so simple when the product being sold is hope. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC News)

"In some respects natural health products, as much as anything else they're selling hope," he said. 

"I don't think that 'the buyer beware' in a market that's trying to sell hope is actually a fair concept."

Dr. Rieder said he'd like to see an independent body like the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) make a statement telling parents how to safely use essential oils.

At this time, the association said it didn't have a comment.

In the meantime, he said parents should ask more questions of their family doctors.

"If you're not sure about something, just ask," he said.

For her part, Farrants said she just hopes her Facebook friends think twice before 'prescribing' oils to their social circle.

"I really hope that people take this seriously and reconsider when they're so quick to dispense information," she said.