Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
Some sellers of Young Living products are using social media to claim that essential oils are “tested and shown effective against corona viruses.”
That isn’t true. The $1.5 billion multilevel-marketing company has a long history of making unsupported medical claims. In 2014, it received a warning letter from the US Food and Drug Administration.
Insider interviewed more than 80 people connected to Young Living and reviewed thousands of pages of FDA and court records in its investigation of the company.
We found that Young Living members dispensed medical advice without scientific basis, and its members have repeatedly placed themselves at risk by following what sources say is the company’s advice.
For some, Young Living’s oils may have caused serious harm, from rashes and burns to a medically induced coma.
“Young Living is determined to prevent misleading claims relating to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the company told Insider. Read Young Living’s full statement here.
Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
When Miguel rushed his mother to the hospital in April 2017, he felt blindsided.
Miguel, who asked that only his first name be included in this story, is an 18-year-old currently living in Ottawa, Canada. At the time, he was living in the Philippines with his parents and little brother.
That morning, he recalled, his mother woke up and, out of the blue, described being in immense pain. He called a taxi and they bolted to the emergency room, where she begged for pain relievers. Doctors told her she had ruptured her appendix. After emergency surgery, she spent about six weeks in the hospital.
Later, Miguel discovered that his mom had been in pain for days. But instead of seeking medical attention, she relied on essential oils she’d purchased from a company called Young Living.
Miguel’s mom is a member of Young Living, a cog in the company’s multilevel-marketing program buying oils from people above her and selling them to customers downstream. She works the business like a full-time job. Since she started a few years ago, Miguel said, she’s grown increasingly skeptical of traditional medicine, immersing herself in a community of people, many of whom believe that plant oils are more helpful than drugs concocted in labs.
Once or twice a week, Miguel said, his mom would orchestrate DIY classes in their home, teaching other people how to make soaps and other products with the oils and proselytizing about their health benefits. Sometimes, Miguel said, when he is sick, she makes him apply oils to his body to help him heal.
Read our three-part investigation
After the surgery for her appendix, Miguel said, his mother slathered oils on her wound, though her doctor advised against it. She said that they helped her heal faster.
Since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, Miguel told Insider that his mom has encouraged their family to use her DIY essential-oil formula, with lemon, lavender, and tea tree oils, to clean their hands, rather than commercial cleaning products. Despite COVID-19 case numbers rising by the day, there are no store-bought soaps or hand sanitizers in their home. Miguel said he’s been secretly buying soaps and sanitizers without his mother knowing, to try and stay safe during the pandemic.
“It’s just the shock factor that somebody could believe something to that extent,” Miguel said. “It’s really hard to change their mind because they’re stubborn, because they think ‘I’ve researched it’ or ‘I teach it.’ She thinks she’s on the same level as a doctor in terms of knowledge. If she gets into another accident again, I don’t want her to instantly turn to oils as her No. 1 thing to save her. Definitely that’s a fear.”
‘I’m oiling up to keep my immune system as strong as it can be … I’m not concerned about the coronavirus so much’
Miguel’s mother isn’t alone. She is one of 6 million members — not employees — selling essential oils for Young Living, a wellness powerhouse that claims over $1.5 billion in annual sales. It’s an empire with some members who reject science-based medicine, even when faced with coronavirus. Some members instead favor what they believe are the more natural benefits of plant essences.
Coronavirus is the most lethal pandemic since the Spanish flu of 1918. So far, it has killed more than 152,000 people in the US and 664,000 people worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University data. There is no evidence that oils have any effect on coronavirus.
Yet in March, a Salon reporter who surveyed dozens of public essential-oil sales groups on social media found “multiple instances of customers asking a variation of the question, ‘What is everyone doing to protect yourself from the spreading novel coronavirus?'” and noting that answers from some Young Living “consultants” — sellers, basically — included using the oils. CNBC found similar claims online, like a post encouraging the use of Young Living’s Thieves product “to help prevent the spread of virus.”
The company confirmed to Insider that this year it has required its members to delete “1,500 improper COVID-related product or business opportunity claims” on social media and other platforms.
For instance, on Facebook, where many Young Living members congregate to chat and share tips about the oils, Insider viewed posts by members discussing how to use the oils to protect from COVID-19.
“[Essential oils] have been tested and shown effective against corona viruses, and COVID 19 is just a new strain of a Corona virus,” one person commented in early March in a private Young Living Facebook group, ticking off in a later comment which oils she claimed she was using to evade the disease.
Another person, in mid-March, posted in the group that she was newly pregnant and asked what she should use to support her immune system during the pandemic.
On Instagram, Carol Yeh-Garner, a “royal crown diamond”-level member from California, wrote in a March post that she wasn’t worried about empty pharmacy aisles because “we’ve stocked up on essential oils and supplements that I know support a healthy immune system.”
She said in another post: “I’m oiling up to keep my immune system as strong as it can be (and taking lots of supplements too). I’m not concerned about the coronavirus so much. I’m more concerned by the possibility of being quarantined or exposed to toxic chemicals used to clean airplanes, airport and hotel rooms since everyone is on high alert.”
The US Food and Drug Administration has also stepped in, recently warning seven companies to stop selling products that claim to cure or prevent coronavirus. While Young Living was not one of the companies to receive a warning, essential oils were included as products cited in the letters.
In a statement, a Young Living spokesperson said:
“Young Living is determined to prevent misleading claims relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. Adding to its previous education and instructions to its members regarding the virus, Young Living recently circulated a notice to all of its members that they are wholly prohibited from making claims that any Young Living product can be used to prevent, cure, destroy, or contain the spread of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19. Young Living also reminded its members that they are prohibited from making claims or implying that participation in the Young Living business opportunity can replace income lost due to unemployment or economic slowdown, whether or not mentioning COVID-19 or the current pandemic.
“In addition to repeatedly reminding members of their obligations tied to COVID-related product and business opportunity claims, Young Living has also demonstrated its commitment to taking immediate corrective action when non-compliant claims are identified. Since January 2020, Young Living has actively searched for and removed more than 1,500 improper COVID-related product or business opportunity claims made independently by members across social media and other channels, including freezing member accounts and terminating members to force member compliance.”
The company’s full statement to Insider can be read here.
A remote clinic in Ecuador, far from the reach of the FDA
Founded in 1994 by an eccentric ex-convict named Gary Young and his wife, a former opera singer named Mary, Young Living has leveraged social media and multilevel-marketing strategies to become wildly successful. It has more than 3,000 employees, claims 6 million members, and has celebrity endorsements from Ellen Pompeo, Jenna Dewan, and Kristin Cavallari.
Jack Dempsey/AP Images for Young Living
But a three-part Insider investigation involving interviews with more than 80 people and a review of thousands of pages of documents, obtained through records requests and from sources, has found:
That Young Living members dispense medical advice without scientific basis.
That its members have repeatedly placed themselves at risk by following what sources say is the company’s advice not to trust traditional medicine.
That its oils might have caused some users serious harm, from rashes and burns to a medically induced coma.
That it has likely engaged in corporate legerdemain to evade FDA regulations against making false medical claims.
And, at a remote facility in Ecuador that it describes as a “clinic,” Young Living treats sick and often desperate people with untested and unproven therapies far from the reach of US laws that protect consumers from misleading and fraudulent medical claims.
In its statement, the Young Living spokesperson said:
“Young Living disputes many of these claims as outdated, misleading, or exaggerated. These allegations simply do not reflect the company that Young Living has evolved to be today, instead referring to events that happened years (and even decades) ago to provide an inaccurate and sensationalized view of Young Living.
“We are saddened that past events and actions by the company founder who is now deceased are being dredged up and mischaracterized. We see many of the points in this article as irrelevant and outdated, and not reflective of Young Living as it is today. We are grateful that our members and customers appreciate Young Living and its products and practices. Young Living is focused on sharing the highest quality, purest essential oils with the world and giving back to the communities in which we operate in whatever ways we can. The company has instituted robust compliance practices and complies with applicable laws. As it is today, Young Living is a health and wellness company that strives to make the world a better place.”
Read the company’s full statement here.
How Young Living has kept the FDA at bay
The official story of Young Living is full of miracles and lore, like the time Gary Young purportedly recovered from a life-threatening logging accident by fasting for 253 days, drinking nothing but lemon water.
But the most significant turning point in the company’s history was not a tale of Western derring-do, but a bureaucratic threat. In September 2014, the Food and Drug Administration sent a warning letter to the company, chastising it after discovering some members claimed that oils could treat conditions such as Ebola, Parkinson’s disease, autism, hypertension, cancer, insomnia, heart disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, and multiple sclerosis.
The agency cited claims that one member made on a Facebook page called “The Oil Dropper”: “Be prepared for any virus that may attack! It is said that the Ebola virus can’t live in the presence of Cinnamon Oil and Oregano Oil.”
Young’s products are part of the flourishing “dietary supplements” industry — not just oils, but vitamins, capsules, powders, and the like, lining the shelves of your local health store. In 2019, that industry was estimated at $123.28 billion in the United States and is forecast to increase significantly throughout the 2020s. Yet, as demand for supplements flourishes, federal regulation of these products remains lax.
Supplement manufacturers are not obligated to undergo stringent testing to verify the safety of what they sell, unlike pharmaceutical makers. Drugmakers go through the FDA’s drug-development process, an extensive undertaking involving rounds of rigorous testing to develop and research pharmaceutical products.
By contrast, supplement makers are controlled by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. Supplement manufacturers are free to bring products directly to the market without ever having to substantiate their quality to the FDA. As long as they don’t make claims that their products are “intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease,” they are in the clear. Instead, the burden is on the FDA to prove the product is harming people.
In instances where the FDA does find an issue with a product, it can take action such as issuing warning letters, like the one received by Young Living, or taking the manufacturer to court.
The more lenient legal standard for supplements opened the floodgate for companies like Young Living to thrive.
‘We are going to fool them big time’
When Young received the FDA’s letter, it came as a shock, according to former employees who were there at the time. Before the warning, he enjoyed largely free reign over how he talked about the oils. His staff would occasionally try to keep him from what they regarded as flagrantly breaking FDA rules, but by and large he was not challenged over his unsupported claims to potential customers about how oils combat illness.
The letter was a wake-up call, former employees said. The company redoubled its efforts to keep Young, and their millions of members, in line.
But Young was not easy to keep in line.
He fumed about the FDA’s heavy hand, railing against the medical establishment’s attempt to muzzle him and his company. Less than a year after the letter, at a retreat for “Gold”-level members at the company’s farm, in St. Maries, Idaho, in July 2015, he vented his frustration.
“It’s all about conditioning you to be a yes person,” Young told the members, according to a recording of the event listened to by Insider. “It’s all about telling you that you’re too stupid to make your own decisions… And so you don’t have the right, or the intelligence, to say if you want to take frankincense oil and rub it on your spine, or put in your water, or whatever you want to do with it. You don’t have enough intelligence to make that decision.
“We have a right, you have a right, and our children have a right, and it pains me… to tell you that right now I can say things in France, in Croatia, in Russia, in Germany, that I cannot legally say in the United States today. It’s come on us very quick and very fast.”
But Young had a plan: “We are going to fool them big time,” he told the members. “We are not going to become conformists.”
He had two plans, actually. One was straightforward. The other was ingenious, and had been placed quietly in motion years before.
The straightforward plan was to shift the discussion to avoid the FDA’s jurisdiction. Young advised the group to follow the letter of the law when it came to making medical claims. But when it came to spiritual claims, he said, the FDA had no jurisdiction.
“If you’ve got a lump in your arm, you got a lump in your neck, or you got a lump on your head, there’s absolutely nothing that you cannot say about the spiritual use of your oils,” he said. Then he told members that in some cultures, disease is viewed as a manifestation of spiritual failure. “There is no such thing as disease; there is just spiritual imbalance. There are evil deities, OK, spiritual imbalance, evil deities, and all we are going to do is, we’re going to boost people with spiritual food.”
But Young Living’s compliance team knew that to protect the company it needed to keep members in check, sources inside the company told Insider. That meant scouring the internet, working with a third-party company to find inappropriate product claims, in addition to auditing members’ social-media histories, a former employee said.
If they did find a post or blog making inappropriate product claims, they’d contact the member to remove that material. The former employee told Insider they relied on a “three strikes and you’re out” system: If the member was contacted a third time, they’d face repercussions such as not being able to place new orders or receive commission.
Internally, they also spent time educating fellow employees, from conducting company-wide trainings to teaching various departments about FDA laws and explaining what could, and couldn’t, be said about the oils. The former employee told Insider he initially felt optimistic about the changes being made within the company, which seemed intended to ensure compliance following the FDA letter.
“But then, after a while, once we got a good machine in place in compliance to curtail distributors that were out there, then it kind of got back into the old routine,” this person said. “We have a good defense; now it’s back to business as usual with Gary.”
The quiet plan
Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
About a year after that members’ retreat, Young summoned his compliance team for a meeting. He wanted to discuss his other plan. The quiet one.
When they first found out they would be meeting with Young Living’s senior leadership, members of the compliance team were confused. For the average, middle-of-the-pack employee, taking meetings with top executives was rare.
Insider spoke with three former employees on the compliance team who attended the 2016 meeting. They said about 20 people were in attendance, including the Youngs and other members of the executive management team. One woman present was not from Young Living; she was introduced as the top executive at a company called Life Science Publishing.
While the sources couldn’t recall the woman’s name, the only female executive at Life Science Publishing is a woman named Troie Battles, who is listed as the company’s VP of Business Development. On social media, she describes herself as the CEO.
Young was livid. Over the next two hours, standing at the front of the room flanked by his wife and the Life Science Publishing executive, he berated the compliance team for telling members they couldn’t promote a book, the “Essential Oils Desk Reference,” published by Life Science Publishing, in connection with their Young Living business.
According to an employee, Young referred to them as morons. Others described the meeting as a venting session. Some people left the meeting in tears, confused because they were just doing what was asked of them and terrified over the possibility of losing their jobs.
“For the average employee in a large company like that, it can be pretty intimidating to be in that atmosphere, and to have someone say that what you’re doing is hurting my company,” a former employee said.
Battles, at one point, blamed the team for the book’s plummeting sales, which puzzled the assembled staffers. They didn’t work for Life Science Publishing.
“It seemed like a conflict of interest for us to be reprimanded for the sales of another company that was not technically part of Young Living,” a former employee said. “But kind of in a convoluted connected way [it] was.”
A 640-page ‘bible’
Crystal Cox/Business Insider
Since the inception of Young Living, the “Essential Oils Desk Reference” has served as a guide to essential oils and the various ailments that Young claims they treat. According to a former employee, “EODR” is a commonly used abbreviation within the company. The book is geared specifically toward Young Living members, and two former employees said some members viewed the book as if it was the bible.
“There’s a desk reference that Life Science Publishing has that’s amazing,” Crystalle Holmes, a Young Living member from Nashville who attended Young Living’s international grand convention, in July 2019 in Salt Lake City, told Insider. “It’s huge, it’s like a textbook, but it’s all broken out by product and usage and disease type or any sort of situation. So you go to ‘eczema’ in the back, and it’s going to give you a ton of different oils and a ton of different products that will help with eczema.”
At the convention, Life Science Publishing’s presence was unavoidable. An entire region of the Salt Palace Convention Center was blocked off so that members could peruse the rows of tables, which featured an assortment of Life Science Publishing books and products, such as “Speak Up Buttercup: How I brought My Son Back from Autism,” written by royal crown diamond Jodie Meschuk, or Mary Young’s biography of her husband, “D. Gary Young: The World Leader in Essential Oils.”
When I asked a Life Science Publishing employee at the convention where I could find the desk reference, he directed me to a hotel across the street where they were being sold.
The 640-page book is indeed huge. And, scanning the pages, it does seem to list oils to use for almost every disease imaginable, including leukemia, congestive heart failure, cerebral palsy, cholera, lupus, and measles, to name a few.
The book also describes what oils should be used to repair the trauma of parental, sexual, or ritual abuse (“Apply 1-3 drops of SARA over the area where the abuse took place, then Forgiveness, Trauma Life, Release, Joy, Present Time”), spousal abuse (“Apply SARA, Forgiveness, Trauma Life, Release, Valor, Joy, Amoressence, Envision, Hope”), and feelings of suicide (“Apply 2 drops of Hope on the rim of the ears. Melissa, Brain Power, Surrender, RutaVaLa, Common Sense, or Present Time may also be beneficial”).
A former employee who did product marketing told Insider that, from a marketing perspective, it was the company’s policy not to point members in the direction of the desk reference. He said that he never quite understood why Life Science Publishing was given a place at the convention to sell products.
After the FDA sent the letter, the compliance team told members they could no longer use the desk reference to promote their businesses or to recruit new members. If they wanted to use it for their own personal use, that was fine, but not while representing Young Living.
“That’s what sparked the frustration,” a former employee said of the 2016 meeting. “Everybody used this book to get new members to learn about essential oils, and when we said you can’t use this anymore, they didn’t have anything else to give them.”
‘My experience overrules the science’
Source photograph via Marc Schreuder (pictured right).
The “Essential Oils Desk Reference” was written by Young and Marc Schreuder, who was hired as a writer and researcher for Young Living in 1997, eventually moving up the ranks to vice president of research and discovery by the time he left in 2015, he told Insider.
In 1978, when Schreuder was 17, he shot and killed his multimillionaire grandfather, Franklin Bradshaw, with a .357 Magnum, on orders from his mother. Four years later, in 1982, he was convicted of second-degree murder, ultimately serving 12 years in prison.
Schreuder said that Young was aware of his past when he hired him, and that he chose to overlook it as they set out to grow the business.
“If you look at my history, I did what I did out of loyalty, I was loyal to my mother,” he told Insider. “And that loyalty is a mark of my trait throughout my life. I stayed loyal to Gary.”
Over the years, he said, they traveled the world together, researching various oil blends and products, like the popular drink Ningxia Red.
He described the process of writing the desk reference as intense, particularly because he tried to incorporate science and peer-reviewed studies, while Young, whom he characterized as an “unschooled healer,” often focused more on his personal experiences with the oils.
“Gary had strong opinions on certain oils that would often contradict the science,” Schreuder said. “And so him and I would have to argue about it and oftentimes it would just be, ‘well, my experience overrules the science’ and so I would have to defer to him.”
“When he got these strange ideas of what oils could do, he thought they were inspiration from God and they were true, even if there was no science,” added another former employee with knowledge of the book’s publication.
Source photograph via Marc Schreuder (pictured center right).
‘They just took the money, which is blatantly illegal’
When the first edition of the “Essential Oils Desk Reference” came out, in 1999, it was copyrighted by a company called Essential Science Publishing, established a year earlier, according to US Copyright Office records and multiple former employees with knowledge of the matter. Mary Young and her mother LaRue Billeter were listed as directors, as was Schreuder, according to a 1998 corporate filing. A 2007 filing referred to Mary as a director and vice president.
According to a former employee with knowledge of Essential Science Publishing, Billeter provided the initial funding for the company and was the sole owner from an equity standpoint. This person said that Young knew that he needed to be separate from Essential Science Publishing, at least on paper, to avoid any legal repercussions from the FDA.
“The company did well enough to pay back the money that was loaned, and I thought at that point our ability to remain independent would be more or less secure, but Gary didn’t see it that way,” this person said. “And after three or four years it just started to deteriorate.
“[The Young Living executive management team] wanted the relationship between Young Living and Essential Science Publishing to be much closer than it was legally allowed to be, and they wanted to participate in the profit stream that existed at Essential Science Publishing.”
For instance, this source said, in the early 2000s those at Young Living removed significant funds — more than $400,000 — from Essential Science Publishing’s bank account without the company’s knowledge. The source later learned that Young Living was experiencing cash problems, and that one of their executives apparently had access to Essential Science Publishing’s bank account.
“They just took the money, which is blatantly illegal,” this person said.
Brian Manwaring was the president of Essential Science Publishing from 1998 until 2009. In the years following his departure, Young himself was listed as Essential Science Publishing’s president, according to corporate filings.
In an interview with Insider, Manwaring said that he did everything he could to keep Essential Science Publishing autonomous from Young Living during the 11 years he was involved. They built the company from scratch, created computer systems, found suppliers, and carried about 80 to 90 different books about natural health and essential oils.
“So my intent, and at least initially Gary’s intent, was to do things by the book and keep it separate from Young Living,” Manwaring said. “I just kept trying to keep the company as independent as I could. I tried to operate as a third-party company, and over the months and years that posture that I took was clearly a thorn to Young Living. They didn’t like me doing that.”
Manwaring said he was ultimately terminated from the company.
2 companies, one mission
According to former employees, some at Young Living also expressed worry that Essential Science Publishing wasn’t independent enough for FDA purposes.
“Brian kind of ran the company to make it look independent, but it was completely controlled by Gary and owned by Gary,” one person told Insider.
Partly to satisfy those concerns, a former employee said, Young Living started pursuing a relationship with another third-party company in which no Young Living personnel played a role or had any ownership interests. That company was Life Science Publishing.
“Those guys [Life Science Publishing] basically came in and bought out all of the stock of ESP and the rights so that they could kind of do what ESP was doing from a more legitimate third party,” a source told Insider. A few months after his departure, Essential Science Publishing stopped existing as an active company, Manwaring said.
The copyright for the “Essential Oils Desk Reference” and later revisions were transferred from Essential Science Publishing to Life Science Publishing, according to the US Copyright Office. By 2011, when the fifth edition was published, Life Science Publishing was listed as the sole copyright owner.
But even then, the ties between Life Science Publishing and Young Living were so close that former employees told Insider they felt uncomfortable about the relationship.
“I know that there would be conversations between them and people at the company,” one person said. “So I think that could have defeated, to an extent, the third-party thing. I think there was way too much contact between the two.”
“They used the excuse of making it more independent with Life Science Publishing when, in fact, the real reason that the change was made was to align themselves more closely with the publishing company,” added another former employee. “Which is a problem, because the publishing company can only make health claims when they are completely independent from the supplier of the product.”
As the 2016 meeting with the compliance team came to a close, former employees told Insider, Gary became emotional. He told them the story of how he came to essential oils, growing lively as he described his passion for the products and the good they were doing for the world.
Shortly after that, everyone in Young Living’s compliance department received their own copy of the “Essential Oils Desk Reference.”
A ploy to avoid being accused of treating diseases
Bonnie Patten, the executive director of Truth in Advertising, a nonprofit aimed at protecting consumers from deceptive marketing, told Insider that it is fairly common for MLM companies to form relationships with third parties to distribute medical claims about their products.
There is online evidence of a relationship between Young Living and Life Science Publishing. Life Science Publishing’s website previously featured a picture of Young and current Young Living president Jared Turner. In a January 2019 Facebook post, on Turner’s account, Young Living members were encouraged to use Life Science Publishing resources to educate themselves about oils.
On Life Science Publishing’s Facebook page, the company describes itself as Young Living’s preferred third party publisher. And Troie Battles’ Facebook page contains numerous posts about Young Living products, Young Living events she attended, and pictures posing with Mary Young. “So excited to see Mary Young,” she wrote in a June 2018 post. “Go Young Living!”
“It is a marketing ploy that’s being used to try and say that they’re not marketing the product using disease-treatment claims, but rather just providing them with someone’s opinion based on a book,” Patten said. “If there’s a material connection linking the author of the book with the company, then I think there could be issues for the company and/or the distributors.”
In her biography of Young, Mary confirms that he wrote the book.
Battles said in a statement to Insider that “historically, the Essential Oils Desk Reference (“Desk Reference”) has been used by independent distributors to provide education on essential oils. Young Living (“YL”) and Life Science Publishing (“LSP”) are two independently owned companies.
“LSP’s Desk Reference is a resource to be used for educational purposes and not in connection with the sale of any essential oils,” she added. “LSP understands the rules regarding health claims and prioritizes the health and safety of its readers. It appropriately acknowledges the benefits of essential oils within established regulatory guidelines. As stated in the Desk Reference, readers are urged to rely primarily, if not entirely, on their health care providers for medical treatment.”
In its statement, the Young Living spokesperson said:
“In recent years, Young Living has doubled down on its compliance program to educate and police its members to ensure that accurate and proven claims about its products are being made. The company promotes only FDA-compliant marketing material and all members are instructed to only use materials approved by Young Living. It has disassociated itself from the desk reference offered by Life Science Publishing.
“Through its membership agreement, each Young Living member promises to sell products in compliance with all laws and regulations. No member is permitted to make inaccurate claims about Young Living’s products. The agreement further provides that a member in violation of these requirements may have their membership terminated. Today, Young Living’s compliance team is strong and empowered to robustly enforce its policies and procedures, and the company has terminated members for failing to remain within compliance.”
Some members recommended an oil blend as a cancer treatment
Photographic illustration by Hollis Johnson/Business Insider; Source photograph via “Essential Oils Desk Reference 8th Edition”
Insider spoke with half a dozen friends and family members of Young Living members, who told stories of loved ones delaying medical care because of their belief in the healing benefits of the oils.
Sara (not her real name), who lives in Texas, said that after her partner’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, her doctor recommended she take an antidepressant as she had a history of mental illness. But instead of driving her to pick up that prescription as promised, her partner’s sister, a Young Living member, tried to convince their mother that she should use an oil blend called Joy, which she said would promote mental health.
Josh, who asked for only his first name to be included in the story, from Michigan, told of a coworker who recommended using oils to lower his wife’s blood pressure after she was hospitalized for pregnancy-related complications. Christine, of Ontario, Canada, who also asked that we not use her real name, said her aunt used oils for her bipolar disorder and to treat her now 10-year-old daughter’s ADHD.
Cassie, a former Young Living member who was involved with the company for about a year, until the beginning of 2018, and also requested that we not use her real name, told Insider that while members are discouraged from posting publicly about product claims — because of the FDA warning — health claims were extremely prevalent in private Facebook groups, or at parties in people’s homes. She said members often encourage each other to use the “Essential Oils Desk Reference” to research oils, in addition to an app, Ref Guide for Essential Oils, that she said provides similar information.
A ‘say this, not that’ document
The company even created a “say this, not that” document to tell members what they can and can’t say about their products. For instance, while members can’t say “I added Lemongrass to my water to cure a urinary tract infection,” they can say “I take Lemongrass as a dietary supplement to support a healthy digestive system.”
According to a 2015 message sent to members, and obtained by Insider in a Freedom of Information Act request from the FDA, other examples of unacceptable and acceptable claims include the following:
If trying to convince someone with AIDS to use essential oils, members can’t say “prevents wasting in persons with weakened immune systems,” but they can say the oil “supports the immune system.” If they are selling oils to a person who is trying to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s, they can’t say “prevents memory loss,” but “reduces absentmindedness” is completely fine. For someone with a kidney infection, they can tell the person that the oil “supports kidney health and function” but not that it will cure their infection.
Cassie said: “It’s not a concern that [the oils] are actually causing harm by promoting medical usage. It’s that the FDA will come down on Young Living and close them down. So it’s all secretive. They [members] really promote distrust of drug companies and healthcare providers.
“There’s a lot of people out there who are frustrated with the medical community, which is scary especially if you have something like cancer or serious chronic-health problems. I’ve seen people on there [social media] whose family members might have a life-threatening chronic illness and they’re asking what oils can I tell them to use.”
It’s a practice that experts say is highly dangerous. There is little legitimate research on the medical benefits, if any, of essential oils.
While there are thousands of essential-oils studies available on search engines such as PubMed, experts told Insider that most of those studies lack scientific evidence and are clinically irrelevant. Rather than being randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies (considered the gold standard in research), the literature on oils tends to be limited in scope and often studied on cells or animals, as opposed to humans.
Insider provided a random sample of essential-oils studies found on PubMed to two experts: Daniel Brooks, medical director for the Banner Poison and Drug Information Center in Arizona; and Joe Schwarcz, a chemistry professor and director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University.
Titles of some of the studies include “Frankincense, pine needle and geranium essential oils suppress tumor progression through the regulation of the AMPK/mTOR pathway in breast cancer,” “Lavender essential oil inhalation suppresses allergic airway inflammation and mucous cell hyperplasia in a murine model of asthma,” and “Essential Oils, A New Horizon in Combating Bacterial Antibiotic Resistance.”
While the titles sound promising, they agreed there is little out there to corroborate the health claims being made by the company and members.
‘This research cannot be used to claim that these products can treat or diagnose or definitively improve outcomes for almost any condition’
“They are hypothesis-generating, meaning some of them are simply incredibly basic science,” Brooks told Insider. “They use words like ‘possibly’ or ‘probable,’ or some of them even say ‘limited evidence.’
This research cannot be used to claim that these products can treat or diagnose or definitively improve outcomes for almost any condition. To my knowledge, there’s not been any randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial that showed that these prevent infections or decrease anxiety or help treat a certain condition.”
He emphasized that while the oils can be beneficial in helping people relax and live a healthier lifestyle, at the end of the day, they’re not medicine and shouldn’t be treated as such.
“It can distract people from therapies that could actually work,” Schwarcz added. “I don’t blame desperate people with a medical condition for which conventional medicine hasn’t offered any help … I think you can blame the ones who are preying on that desperation with false statements. There is just no evidence that essential oils can do anything for serious diseases like cancer.”
In its statement the Young Living spokesperson said:
“To the extent the article targets the company’s now-deceased founder, Gary Young, the company has evolved far beyond its founder’s unique history. To be sure, Gary was a maverick within the industry and had strong beliefs about essential oils and their uses. It is also true that many of Young Living’s members and customers maintain those beliefs today. Young Living does not advocate the use of essential oils outside of the labelled usage instructions and the advice of any individual’s medical doctors. At the same time, clinically proven benefits of essential oils do exist. This all contributes to the demand for the products and why so many other companies market essential oils.”
Mostly just fruit juice
Insider spoke with three former employees who did marketing for Young Living products. They said that while the company did make efforts to substantiate the health claims of their products, it often relied on less reputable sourcing or altered the language to stay in FDA compliance. For example, rather than saying an oil “provides” a certain benefit, they’d say the oil “may support” certain functions, one person said.
Another former employee added that, to stay in FDA compliance, the company often relied on “soft messaging” about the oils’ traditional use. Elemi oil, for instance, is described on the site as being “used traditionally to support the appearance of the skin.”
Even when Young Living makes more specific claims about the properties of some essential oils, a 2010 document filing said that “modern scientific research has not yet validated these historical claims,” in reference to the traditional uses of the oils described in the submission.
“There’s tons of research out there about properties of the oils and what they can do,” one former employee told Insider. “But applied to human bodies and real-life situations, it becomes more gray. Probably upwards of 90% of the oils are positioned that way,” he continued, referring to the careful language the company employed.
One popular Young Living product, a fruit drink called NingXia Red, consists of various essential oils mixed with “superfruits” like the wolfberry and blueberry. Among its health benefits, according to Young Living, is “support for energy levels, normal cellular function, and whole-body and normal eye health.” But according to a former employee involved in marketing NingXia Red, the drink was, in fact, mostly fruit juice.
That person described marketing the product as a challenge because there weren’t a lot of strong product claims, other than they “contain wonderful fruits, and these wonderful fruits have amazing properties.” He acknowledged that the juice doesn’t necessarily have the same properties as the fruit it comes from.
“I had to write copy [for an oil] called ‘Sara,’ and it was supposed to bring out suppressed emotions and reduce negative emotions,” one former employee recalled. “I would be laughing half the time when I’d be writing that copy. I just thought a lot of it was very mystical and unproven. But we had a nice story.”
One case report claims a person’s esophagus exploded after using Young Living’s AlkaLime drink
Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
Danger may lurk behind some of those nice stories. Documents obtained by Insider from the FDA in a Freedom of Information Act request, as well as court records, describe the potentially devastating consequences of improperly using the essential oils — or using the oils in lieu of scientific medicine.
According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, between 2014 and 2018, there was a 91% increase in cases documented by poison-control centers across the country of people who were exposed to essential oils.
In 2014, for instance, Young Living settled a lawsuit with a woman who claimed that she experienced severe burns after rubbing Bergamot, a citrusy essential oil, on her skin and spending two hours in the sun, sustaining a permanent injury to the skin of her throat and wrists.
Under FDA rules, Young Living is required to document customers’ complaints of negative reactions to their products. Between 2013 and 2014, the FDA received at least 11 such reports of Young Living customers claiming serious adverse event reactions to the products.
These incidents range from high blood pressure, severe rashes, and the swelling of the throat, to a case in which a woman claimed her esophagus exploded after using Young Living’s AlkaLime drink. She ultimately spent time in the ICU and needed surgery. When the FDA investigated that incident, in 2013, the agency concluded it was due to a possible product failure. The “product is deemed safe as formulated, but label will be reviewed for possible additional label warnings against taking the product without mixing in water first,” the report said.
When the FDA investigated the other incidents, it determined they were not due to possible product failures, but the result of other issues, such as incorrect usage or an allergic reaction.
Some customers disagreed with those assessments. “I now have a lot of medical bills [I] have to pay and I am one without any health insurance,” wrote the person whose blood pressure rose exorbitantly in 2014 after drinking Ningxia Red and taking Balance Complete, a meal replacement. “I was trusting in these products.”
The customer whose throat swelled shut after using Young Living’s BLM capsules said in 2013 that the product didn’t clearly indicate it had an ingredient incorporated from shellfish.
The woman, who was allergic to shellfish, wrote: “My hope is that the company begins to note both in the product guide and online that it contains shellfish, because it currently does not. If it had I would never have ordered it. I would also hope that they move the Allergen location where it currently is on the bottle so it is more visible.”
It appears that Young Living currently has an allergen warning for the ingredient derived from shellfish on its website.
Another customer reported in 2014 that she experienced seizures, brain swelling, and a drug-induced coma after interacting with oils including the Valor essential oil blend. The report investigating that incident said the woman’s upline — the Young Living member who sold her the oils — was a reflexologist who instructed her to stop taking seizure medication prescribed by a doctor.
“After about 2 months of essential oil therapy and no medication …. [she] ended up in the hospital, in ICU, in an induced coma,” Clell Fowles, a member of Young Living’s Scientific Advisory Council, wrote in the report detailing the incident.
“Her health consultant [the reflexologist] had advised her to stop this medication and other medication she was taking for pain of other injuries she had … [she] discontinued all her medications and relied only on the oils administered and given to her by the health consultant.”
The FDA concluded the incident wasn’t due to a possible product failure, but because the woman discontinued her medication.
Other reports reviewed by Insider include a woman who said she experienced vomiting, hives, and swelling of the throat after taking ICP, which “helps keep your colon clean” (determined not to be caused by ICP, but because the product was expired.); a man whose chest pain was so excruciating after drinking NingXia Red that he had trouble breathing and ended up in the emergency room (determined not to be due to the product, although the cause of the incident remains unclear. “The hospital staff was concerned that he had consumed ‘something that did not agree’ with him. He believes this might be the NingXia Red drink,” the report said.); and a woman who said peppermint caused hives all over her body, wheezing, and a swollen airway (determined not to be caused by the product, but from “an individual sensitivity to a component naturally occurring in the peppermint oil.”)
“She reported to Young Living Essential Oils (YLEO) that she had applied one drop of peppermint oil from YLEO to her wrist to help her with a headache. This application caused hives and itchiness all over her body. She also reported wheezing with a possible restriction or swelling of her airway,” according to the report. “She was treated for the allergic reaction with Benadryl, Pepcid, solumedrol and epi breathing treatments (nebulizer?). The situation resolved with the treatments.”
‘Of course he’s not licensed and doesn’t have a degree of any kind’
Years earlier, in 2005, a patient with kidney disease claimed to have almost died at the Young Life Research Clinic, in Springville, Utah, while undergoing alternative therapies including colonic hydrotherapy, intravenous vitamin-C infusions, and drinking a gallon of “lemon” drink a day.
The clinic, which Young founded in 2000, employed Sherman Johnson, who lost his medical license and pleaded guilty to manslaughter, in 1992, following an incident a few years earlier in which he was treating a woman with multiple-personality disorder who said she had cancer.
Without confirming the cancer diagnosis, he began to treat the woman, while failing to keep medical records. He increased her dosage of Demerol despite a history of drug problems, even after she started having seizures from the medication, according to records from Utah’s Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing.
When neighbors called Johnson to tell him she was experiencing severe seizures and was unresponsive, he told them not to take her to the hospital. She ultimately died. After her body was exhumed, medical examiners discovered she never had cancer.
Johnson’s clinic ultimately settled a lawsuit with the kidney patient, who, following the alternative treatment, experienced advanced acute renal failure and multiple organ failure, according to court records.
After Young closed the Young Life Research Clinic, he opened another one, in Ecuador, and it continues to operate today.
“Of course he’s not licensed and doesn’t have a degree of any kind,” a former employee said of Young, adding that “it was believed by some in the company that one of the reasons Gary went to Ecuador was to avoid being punished and brought into court for practicing without a license. He could go down to Ecuador and practice without a license and that’s what he did.”
The ‘incredibly dangerous’ jungle clinic
That clinic, called NovaVita, is a two-story structure surrounded by jungle and overlooking a lake in Chongon, Ecuador, a tiny community where Young Living also operates a farm, distillery, and school for about 350 local students.
According to Andrea Ollague, the Young Living Foundation’s country manager in Ecuador, the students are taught about oils at the school, and everyone is divided into oil-based teams — peppermint, lavender, PanAway, and lemon — while competing in sports. Various oil blends are always stocked in the nurses’ quarters if students have a headache or bruise.
“I don’t use normal medicine or chemicals, and neither does my son,” Ollague said. “My son doesn’t have a doctor. We only use the oils. It’s amazing how you see your life changing and that you don’t need these chemicals that will harm your health in the future. So why not teaching that to children?”
Insider spoke with three former Young Living employees who have been to Ecuador. They described accounts of people at the clinic who were intravenously injected with essential oils, the oils slowly dripping into their bloodstream.
“Of course, that’s incredibly dangerous and foolish for the practitioner and the patient,” Brooks, the Banner Poison and Drug Information Center medical director, said when questioned on using essential oils to intravenously treat people.
“I think that’s a failure of more traditional healthcare providers to engender trust into their patients, where folks need to go and engage in these activities without paying appropriate caution to the potential risks. That’s a huge risk and it’s unfortunate that folks have to resort to those sorts of what I would call extreme, potentially dangerous behaviors.
Brooks added: “Some of them have significant diagnoses or conditions where there is no cure, there’s either palliative care or temporizing care, and they’re going all in, in hopes of finding something that could potentially take away their cancer for example or save their life, but that’s not going to do it.”
In its statement, the Young Living spokesperson did not respond to inquiries about the clinic in Ecuador. Instead, the spokesperson said the company was “committed to doing good in our communities in the United States and beyond, dedicating 2% of its profits to its foundation.
Through its foundation and its members, Young Living has dedicated millions of dollars to organizations throughout the world ranging from providing mosquito netting in third world countries to combating human trafficking around the world to assisting in the aftermath of natural disasters.”
A cancer patient dies after using an intravenous oil treatment
One former employee said that he personally went with Young to the home of a local man in Chongon suffering from cancer, whose daughter was administering IV oils treatment. The source told Insider that it was his understanding that the man was being treated by Young only, and not receiving any other medical help. He said there was confusion because Young couldn’t speak Spanish, while the man and his daughter couldn’t speak English.
He recalled watching the woman take bottles of essential oils out of the freezer and putting the ice-cold liquid into her father’s IV bag as he squirmed in pain.
“She was trying to explain to Gary the pain that he was in,” the former employee said. “She was taking these bottles out of the freezer and putting them directly in the IV. You could still see ice in this IV bag.
“I was just struck by the fact that I can’t even imagine what it would feel like to get basically ice water put in your veins, and Gary was really quite dismissive.”
The source said that after the man died, Gary blamed the daughter for not correctly administering the treatment.
“Whether he was going to die anyway, I guess his cancer was so far advanced, it’s obviously very difficult to gauge that. But [Gary] didn’t seem to take any responsibility or significant concern for it,” the person said.
“They put all their trust and confidence in that and thereby forego legitimate treatments, and I think that’s probably the biggest harm, is they are kind of placing false hope in something that is highly unlikely to work.”
If you or someone you know may have ingested a dangerous substance, contact poison control immediately at 1-800-222-1222 or go to poisonhelp.org for assistance.
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