Essential oil diffusers may pose an unexpected risk

My essential oil diffuser has gotten a lot of use since I purchased it several years ago. If I’m feeling stressed, I add a few drops of lavender oil and relax with a good book. If the house smells stale, I add some eucalyptus oil to freshen things up.

I’ve never thought of my diffuser as anything but a blessing to my health and home. It’s an easy way to take advantage of the benefits of aromatherapy, and it’s a great alternative to chemical air fresheners. But I recently read something that made me wonder if there’s a dark side to my diffuser I didn’t know about…

France’s food and environmental safety agency ANSES issued a report recently that said essential oil diffusers could cause dangerous pollution in the home. As an avid essential oil diffuser user, that got my attention. Here’s why French health officials think essential oil diffusers are dangerous…

Essential oil diffusers and concern about toxins

In a recent report, officials from France’s food and environmental safety agency ANSES says 1,400 cases of essential oil diffuser side effects were reported to anti-poison centers in France between 2011 and 2019.

Now, in the majority of cases, people called because of an accident. Most often, a child had accidentally ingested an essential oil. There were, however, some reports of other side effects caused by regular use of an essential oil diffuser, like eye, nose and throat irritation and breathing problems.

Researchers believe these side effects happened because of chemical organic compounds in essential oils called phenols and ketones. Phenol does have toxic effects on its own. But it’s hard to say how much (if any) harm the natural phenols in essential oils cause. Phenols are in plenty of products you encounter every day, including prescription and OTC medications, vaccines, cosmetics, foods and soaps.

There is evidence that inhaling a lot of phenol over a short period of time can cause breathing difficulties and muscle twitching in animals. But the dosage necessary to cause these side effects is far higher than what you’d typically encounter from your essential oil diffuser.

It’s also important to mention that phenols from plant-based compounds (like the ones you find in essential oils) act as antioxidants. That means they can fight free radicals and prevent damage to your DNA. They’ve even been shown to reduce the risk of cancer. So, they’re not all bad.

Ketones are compounds that have toxic effects at high levels too. But in smaller doses, they’re relatively safe. Just like phenols, they’re in many everyday products, including prescription drugs, supplements (thanks to the popularity of the keto diet) and solvents like acetone. Even more interestingly, ketones are behind many of the beneficial effects of essential oils. So, they’re not all bad either.

Using essential oil diffusers safely

I think ANSES’ warning about essential oil diffusers was issued out of an overabundance of caution. For the average user, essential oil diffusers are pretty darn safe. In fact, even ANSES said the irritation caused by essential oil diffusers wasn’t serious and quickly resolved once people weren’t exposed to them anymore.

All that said, there are a few things to keep in mind to prevent anyone else in your household from experiencing side effects. First off, you’ll want to make sure your essential oil collection is stored somewhere out of the reach of children and pets.

You’ll also want to consider who’s present in your household when selecting essential oils to diffuse, especially when it comes to children and pets. Certain oils are more likely to cause irritation to mucous membranes for sensitive individuals (like children):

  • Bay
  • Cinnamon bark or leaf
  • Clove bud or leaf
  • Lemongrass
  • Peppermint
  • Thyme

There are also certain oils that are toxic to dogs and cats, so do your research before diffusing any essential oil in your house. You should be careful not to go overboard on essential oils as well. You can have too much of a good thing. Don’t use your diffuser nonstop. Stick to 30-60 minute increments, and make sure to take at least a 30-60 minute break in between diffuser sessions.

Sources:

  1. Essential oil diffusers may cause pollution in home says watchdog — MedicalXpress.
  2. Essential Oil Diffusers May Cause Pollution in Home Says Watchdog — Courthouse News Service.
  3. What are the Medical and Health Uses for Phenol? — Healthline.
  4. Are Essential Oils Safe? 13 Things to Know Before Use — Healthline.
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.