Five reasons why we believe it is dangerous to buy health products from MLMs

Find out how MLM companies promote their products with unverified health claims – and why we believe it is dangerous to buy from them as a result.

Good health is of utmost importance to us all. As a result, it is popular for multi-level marketing (MLM) companies to sell health-related products.

These are sold through their network of independent MLM distributors – most of whom are unqualified to offer health advice. However, that doesn’t stop many of then promoting these products by promising quick and effortless solutions for various health problems.

We believe this sales system is associated with unhealthy and toxic aspects – and can lead to dangerous repercussions. In this article, we highlight these issues and discuss the necessary actions we believe regulators should take.

How are health products marketed through multi-level marketing (MLM)?

An increasing number of health products are being sold in countries around the world. The distribution of these products is no longer limited to physical stores; rather, it predominantly occurs online through individual sellers.

Many of these sellers are independent distributors of MLM companies such as BeachBody, Forever Living Products, Herbalife, Isagenix, Juice Plus, Prüvit, Livervantage, and Healy World.

These distributors attempt to sell products to their friends, family, and online connections. However, their efforts don’t end there – they also aim to recruit new distributors by offering them discounted purchases and additional income.

Five reasons why we believe it is dangerous to buy health products from MLMs

Despite the companies’ promotion of health, the combination of MLM and dietary supplements raises several concerns. Here are five reasons why we believe it is dangerous to buy health products from MLMs.

1) They make misleading and prohibited health claims 

It’s not uncommon for MLM distributors to make misleading and even prohibited claims about the health products they are selling.

In China, a Nu Skin distributor had apparently been self-medicating with Nu Skin products whenever she fell ill instead of consulting doctors, based on the advice of her ‘mentor’ at the company. Sadly this led to the woman’s death, and forced the company to make an apology.

Another example of what can go wrong is the case of the Healy device in the Netherlands. In this case, both the company and its distributors made medical claims that were deemed misleading.

The Healy is a device that supposedly uses microcurrents to allegedly aid in the treatment of chronic pain, fibromyalgia, migraines, and other conditions. You can find fanciful promises on the internet, for example here.

However, the Dutch Advertising Code Committee and the College of Appeal found these medical claims to be deceptive and unfair. Although the authorities ordered the advertiser to refrain from such advertising, compliance with this directive has been lacking. (If you are interested in a deeper analysis, see here what Quackwatch author Stephen Barrett writes.)

The simple truth is that an MLM distributor is not a medical professional. And even if, by chance, they are, you cannot trust that their recommendation is unbiased as they will make a commission on your sale.

If you have a health concern, do not trust an MLM distributor to sell you a cure or treatment. Instead, see an independent, unbiased professional for a proper diagnosis and recommendation.

2) MLMs repeatedly violate regulations

You might assume that such cases like the examples above are exceptions, as all MLM distributors should comply with regulations – including the stipulation that only claims supported by sufficient scientific evidence and devoid of misleading information should be made.

However, on social media, distributors frequently make claims that are prohibited, such as promoting coffee for weight loss, berry capsules for eczema, psoriasis, and acne, or ketone drinks for weight loss, increased energy, and improved sleep.

The simple truth is that, as you can see here, MLM distributors repeatedly lie, exaggerate and misrepresent in order to recruit and sell. The reason for this is the way the business model is constructed. There is continual pressure on MLM distributors to meet sales quotas for themselves and the people underneath them (their downlines).

As a result, many distributors end up personally purchasing, and going to increasingly desperate attempts to sell their products. To give you an idea of the kind of pressure they are under, here’s a list of 100 things Body Shop distributors are expected to do in order to sell and recruit.

3) Lack of knowledge and qualification requirements in MLM sellers

We’ve already mentioned that, just because an MLM distributor is selling you a health product, doesn’t mean they are qualified to diagnose or recommend treatment.

Becoming a distributor does not require any specific education or expertise. The sole prerequisite is having used the products and being able to enthusiastically promote them, regardless of your level of knowledge or experience.

While distributors receive (some) information about the products they sell, the focus is primarily on sales rather than providing expertise that could genuinely assist customers with their health concerns. This practice raises ethical questions considering it involves people’s wellbeing.

And as we have already covered, the pressure on MLM distributors to sell a particular quantity of products each month means they are often keen to recommend their products for multiple uses – even if they are not designed for it. For example, we’ve seen desperate Forever Living distributors recommending their lip balm as an eye cream!

4) Insufficient or lack of government oversight in MLM

Regulations do exist for MLM distributors, but the question remains: Who monitors them?

In the Netherlands, for example, The Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) and the Healthcare Inspectorate (IGJ) possess the authority, yet they do not allocate sufficient resources to address each distributor’s numerous misleading claims on social media and websites. The current approach is akin to a drop in the ocean.

In the USA, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has sent several warning letters to MLM companies for “unlawful” and “deceptive” health claims. But what happens behind receiving a chastising letter? Some of the companies receiving these letters are repeat offenders, which makes you wonder whether they work.

Even when MLMs are reported to regulatory authorities, such as the ASA in the UK, they do nothing. There is little in the way of serious repercussions for the companies and their distributors, it seems.

One exception Italy’s Competition and Market Authority (AGCM), who fined companies trading under the Juice Plus + brand with a €1m penalty, citing dubious marketing practices that were in breach of EU advertising law.

The result of this widespread lack of oversight means, in our opinion, you can’t trust what an MLM company or their distributors claim about their products. There’s no obvious penalty for making claims, so what incentive is there for them to adhere to the same legal guidance ‘traditional’ businesses do?

5) Lack of accountability of MLM companies 

While misleading claims are officially disallowed, MLM companies generally evade accountability for the claims made by their distributors. And this seems to lead to a culture within companies of turning a blind eye to the claims their distributors make, and even joining them!

For example, even though the Healy company is aware of the misleading and unfair medical claims made by their distributors, these claims persist and are still present in promotional materials. Shockingly, the senior vice president of Healy World, who is also an independent distributor, openly states in a Healy webinar:

“We can make claims with a clear conscience. ‘Healy’ is a medical product in the European Union for the treatment of chronic pain, fibromyalgia, skeletal pain, and migraines, as well as for the supportive treatment of mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, and associated sleep disorders. How cool is it that we can make these claims?”

In the UK, we have been made aware of numerous complaints made about blatant MLM health claims made to the DSA. And to date, no action has seemingly been taken on any of these claims, as the perpetrators are repeatedly re-offending.

We have even personally met the former Director General of the DSA and informed her of health claims by member companies, following up the meeting (at her request) with emailed examples of these claims. And again, no action appears to have been taken as these companies and their distributors continue to make unfounded claims.

What is the solution? 

So what is the solution? The simple one for us as consumers is not to buy from MLMs! If these companies don’t make sales, they will eventually go out of business. And thankfully, this appears to be a trend that is under way as the industry as a whole struggles.

Aside from this, an effective solution is not easy, but good first steps would be:

  • Better supervision: Government authorities need more capacity to enforce existing rules. If only a few social media sources of a few companies are ever checked, misbehavior flourishes.
  • Designate one authority to oversee and monitor MLM companies: Hold MLM companies accountable for what their distributors do.
  • Hold MLM companies accountable: This will encourage MLM companies to better educate, monitor, and reprimand their distributors. And those who fail to do so should be held accountable.

This article was written with help from Rob van Berkel, a research dietitian and author, and Claudia Gross (Groß), a university lecturer at the Nijmegen School of Management, Radboud University. Both live and work in The Netherlands.

Hannah Martin is a media expert on multi-level marketing (MLM). She’s been investigating MLMs since 2016 and has appeared on the BBC’s Woman’s Hour speaking about MLMs. 

She was on the steering committee for the world’s first global MLM conference and has helped journalists and TV producers create investigative content into the MLM industry, including the BBC documentary Secrets of the Multi-Level Millionaires: Ellie Undercover