Rub a little lavender oil on your pulse points for sounder sleep, one magazine suggests, while another recommends using a frankincense-oil blend in your skincare routine. In The New Yorker, Rachel Monroe dives deep into the world of essential oils, examining how the product has risen to prominence in an age where wellness and holistic healthy-living practices have been embraced by consumers.

In the U.S., the majority of this oil is sold by two companies, Young Living and doTerra, which follow a multilevel-marketing model with independent distributors, many of whom are stay-at-home mothers looking for social connections and a way to earn an income. Both Young Living and doTerra have had problems with preventing their independent distributors from making unfounded claims when selling their oils:

The Food and Drug Administration is charged with preventing sellers of alternative-health products from making unfounded medical claims. Without ample independent testing, companies can’t assert that their products prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure disease. They get around this by relying on abstract words like “vitality” and “balance,” and by talking in vague terms about general body systems or mild issues that don’t rise to the level of disease. Young Living and doTerra have attorneys on staff to insure that product descriptions are within legal bounds.

It’s much harder to police the millions of independent distributors. In September, 2014, the F.D.A. sent a sternly worded letter to doTerra, scolding the company for distributors’ claims about oils and conditions including cancer, brain injury, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, and A.D.H.D. The agency cited a tweet by a doTerra consultant using the handle Mrs. Skinny Medic that listed “oils that could help prevent your contracting the Ebola virus,” and a Pinterest post by Wellness Empress that recommended peppermint oil for asthma, autism, bacterial infections, and brain injury. (Young Living received a similar letter.)

Read the story