Aromatherapy is relaxing, sure, but it's not risk-free.

Sarah Klein
November 16, 2017

Settling in with an essential oil, a diffuser, and a good book sounds like the ideal way to chill out during this super-busy time of year. But a woman in the UK is sounding the alarm about one horrifying risk of using a diffuser.

In a viral Facebook post, Emily Smith details the terrible chemical burn she suffered after a night relaxing at home by the fire with her diffuser. “In the process of turning the appliance off, some of the vapor from the diffuser must have sprayed onto my face. But I didn't think anything of this,” she wrote in the post, which has now been shared over 5,000 times.

Several hours later, she went to put a new log on the crackling fire in her fireplace. “Immediately, I felt a stinging sensation on my face but due to the fact that my body never came into direct contact with the flames, combined with my ignorance about the nature and danger of the oils my skin had come into contact with, I didn't put two and two together. Whilst I was somewhat aware of the danger of getting essential oils directly on my skin, I was unaware that the vaporized 'diluted' oil from my diffuser could also be dangerous.” 

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Posted by Emily Smith on Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Scary, right? And yes, essential oils really can be dangerous, says registered aromatherapist Michelle Cohen of the integrative medicine team at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine. “Essential oils are volatile molecules and flammable,” she warns. If some of the oil on your skin is then exposed to heat and UV light, it can lead to chemical burns. Ingesting the oils undiluted is even more dangerous. As at-home aromatherapy has grown more popular, Cohen says, doctors have seen more cases of chemical burns to the esophagus (ouch!) and accidental poisoning from essential oils, especially among kids.

Even though most of us would consider a diffuser the safest option—it dilutes the oil, after all—it's not risk-free. “The aromatic mist is pushed into the room, lifting those volatile molecules into the air,” Cohen says. Sure it makes the room smell divine, but it can also mean some of the oil is landing on you, which must be what happened to Smith, Cohen hypothesizes.

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Smith wrote that once she started feeling the burning sensation, she ran the left side of her face under cold tap water and then soaked in more cool water for 30 minutes while calling for emergency medical help. She was told by the operator that she likely suffered first-degree burns, which can usually be treated at home, just as she was doing. But when she woke up in the morning, her injuries had taken a turn for the worse. “I looked into the mirror and didn't recognize myself. My face had swollen, my eyes were blurred and continually watering and my skin looked pus-y,” she wrote.

Turns out, soaking a chemical burn in water doesn't help. “Oil and water don't mix,” Cohen explains, so H2O won't wash the burning compounds away. Instead, if you accidentally get some essential oil on your skin, use a source of fat to remove it, like olive oil, milk, or even yogurt you might have on hand in your kitchen. Jojoba or coconut oils, sometimes used to dilute essential oils, can also do the trick, Cohen says.

Unlike first-degree burns, chemical burns need to be treated by medical professionals right away. Because she waited hours to be seen, Smith is left with lasting damage. “I'm extremely fortunate to have my sight at all, and lucky that the burn wasn't worse, but I have suffered permanent eye damage and am potentially facially scarred for life.”

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To avoid diffuser-related accidents, Cohen recommends following a couple of safety rules: Only fill your diffuser to the line marked on the device. Leave it unplugged until you’ve filled it. Stick to 5-7 drops of essential oil in your diffuser, and don’t station it anywhere you’re likely to knock it over, like on a bedside table while you’re sleeping. (You shouldn't leave it on for hours and hours while you snooze anyway, she says.)

“A life changing incident that was preventable,” Smith concluded her post, noting that she, personally, won’t be using a diffuser again.