The chaos in the calm Vaping essential oils: the rise of a new epidemic

Carrie Smith* is browsing on her computer, looking through Amazon, when something catches her eye. It’s a picture of a colorful inhaler-like device that dispenses essential oils. She clicks on the image. Words like “calming,” “therapeutic,” and “anxiety-reducing” fill her screen.

As a high schooler under constant stress, she eagerly clicks on the link and buys it. It's pure essential oils, not nicotine, she thinks. They aren’t addictive, and the oils have health benefits.

It’s completely safe.

The mere mention of vaping conjures images of rebellious teens sneaking into bathrooms with friends, clouds of scented smoke filling the air. Constantly crowding browsers with headlines that scream about lung disease, addiction, and vaping statistics, many know of its potential dangers.

By contrast, vaping essential oils is relatively unknown, and the limited press it receives suggests that it isn't necessarily bad. After all, the oil vapes aren't marketed as vape pens; they are marketed as “aromatherapy inhalers” or “oil pens."

Additionally, there are doctors and health gurus who recommend these products which convinces people that they aren’t harmful.

Except they are.

"This is not a regulated field so who knows what’s really in these products." -Naveen Mahmood

Despite its positive connotation, inhaling essential oils is not as beneficial as it seems. Though many insist this promotes lung health and is useful for reducing anxiety, these views are based on unreliable, minimal information.

People have used essential oils for centuries, but they became increasingly popular a few years ago through aromatherapy, a branch of alternative medicine. While aromatherapy may be calming and seems to have beneficial qualities, vaping essential oils is far from the same.

“Sure, essential oils are considered ‘safer’ because there’s no tar and no nicotine in them, but when they are heated, that’s a different story. Also, this is not a regulated field, so who knows what’s really in these products,” said Dr. Naveen Mahmood, a Palo Alto Medical Foundation pediatrician.

Vaping was first introduced in the U.S. in 2007, and since then has become a huge trend, especially amongst high school students.

Vaping essential oils, however, is a newer phenomenon that has become popular in the last few years. Because of this, there is limited data indicating the long-term effects of this new epidemic, but that doesn’t prevent experts from giving an accurate description of the detrimental impact it has on lung health.

“Doctors are reporting what's called lipoid pneumonia, where the lungs are coated with oil. The cause of that is inhaling the oil. Indeed, the first clear culprit that's been identified — note that this is likely one of several — is vitamin E acetate, a type of oil,” Mahmood said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), vitamin E acetate has been found in both the blood and lungs of the people who have died as a result of vaping.

It is the main factor that links together all the victims. It is also an ingredient found in many essential oil blends.

Used to prevent skin irritation and other allergic reactions, vitamin E acetate is commonly mixed with essential oils to dilute them. Some of the oil pens can contain vitamin E as well, and result in the same consequences. In other words, the ingredients in these pens are anything but safe.

Photography by Elle Horst

Besides findings of vitamin E acetate and lipoid pneumonia, there are several other potential effects of vaping essential oils.

“Lung disease is the big one. Asthma, throat injury, bronchitis, and the newly defined disease EVALI are all included in the potential effects of inhaling oils,” Mahmood said.

The harmful effects of vaping are widely known; however, teens and adults alike are unaware of the potential side effects oils can have and, due to the lack of regulations and age restrictions, these oil pens are widely available for people of all ages to purchase.

“I honestly wasn’t even looking for [the oil pens] at all. I was scrolling through Amazon, and they just popped up at the top of my screen,” Smith said.

One's exposure to the products via the Internet, as well as the misleading descriptions of the devices, can catch consumers off guard and make them believe the products are beneficial.

“I heard they are FDA approved since there aren’t any addictive substances in it, so I think they’re safe. I mean, you can never be sure, but I trust the product,” Smith said.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Vaping, in general, isn’t regulated well, and the restrictions for essential oil pens are entirely non-existent.

“That's part of the problem driving the current spate of illnesses,” said Sara Miller, the Health Editor at NBC News. “Essential oils seem to fall into a weird regulatory realm too. It seems like as long as companies are claiming the oils cure or treat medical conditions, they’re okay to sell.”

Some may ponder why the FDA hasn't taken any action to regulate the sales of these essential oil pens. According to Mahmood, the answer is simple: profit.

As there is no solid proof concerning the impacts of vaping essential oils yet, the FDA sees no reason to manage the sale of them. Anyone can buy them on Amazon and use them wherever and whenever they choose.

According to Melanie Carver, the vice president of Community Health Services for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, the aromatherapy device uses heat to vaporize the oils which are being dispensed through the pen. While these oils are being vaporized, they will almost always turn into volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are universally known to be extremely hazardous.

Some VOCs are carcinogenic, while others can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. As these oils heat up, they can also turn into tar, which is then delivered straight to the lungs.

These different components leave no question concerning the dangers of the pens.

"To my knowledge, no credible sources have said vaping essential oils is beneficial." -Naveen Mahmood

“I think that they seem pretty harmless, especially in the form of aromatherapy. What’s not to like about a lavender diffuser? It smells nice and is calming. But that’s not the same as inhaling it into your lungs,” Miller said.

Vaping essential oils will continue to increase in popularity, especially amongst teenagers, unless they become a regulated field. Until then, the easy access and common misconceptions regarding their effects has the possibility to help fuel their widespread demand.

“It's safe to say that inhaling oils of any kind into your lungs is a bad idea,” Miller said. “Your lungs are made to deal with one thing and one thing only: air.”

*Due to the sensitive nature of the content, this name has been changed to protect the anonymity of the source.


Created with images by Koke Mayayo (TheVisualKiller) - "smoke work" • Christin Hume - "healing hands" • Daniel Ramos - "untitled image"