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Essentials oils, aromatherapy, and scented candles have always been a thing that we love decorating our homes with. While they can certainly have benefits for our health and mental wellbeing, most of us don’t actually know how to use them properly and safely.

Facebook user Emily Smith counted herself as one of these, and she had cause for regret. After accidentally getting essential oils on her face, and then going near an open fire, she suffered chemical burns that required a visit to the hospital.

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Source: Emily Smith Facebook

The 24 year old was relaxing at home on a Saturday night with her loved ones, and decided to put on a “popular electric diffuser” with a blend of essential oils, including patchouli. Since it’s winter in the UK where Smith lives, her home had a fire lit to heat up the room.

When she walked over to switch off the diffuser, it is likely that some of the vapourised essential oils had settled onto her face, and even in her eye as well. Her evening continued as per usual, but it only took a turn for the worse when she went over to put another log on to the fire.

As she did so, Smith reported that she felt “a stinging sensation” on her face, but since her body did not come into direct contact with the flames, she did not think she had been burnt. Little did she know that the oil micro-droplets on her skin and in her eye had had their temperatures raised, and was beginning to burn.

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The burning sensation increased, and parts of Smith’s face became red and inflamed. At this point, it resembles a scald that we may have had during cooking accidents, or when we’ve accidentally burnt ourselves with a heated hair tool.

She called emergency services, but as neither Smith nor the hospital attendants knew that the burn was chemical in nature, they advised her to run the burn under cold water, and apply aloe vera gel. Aloe vera gel is naturally soothing and recommended for relieving burns, sores, apart from other skincare benefits. (For recommendations of aloe vera gel – Globo Surf has a list to consider.)

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The next morning when she woke up, Smith couldn’t recognise herself in the mirror. The burn had become much worse over night, and was now leaking pus. Her eyes were also swollen and teary. She called emergency services again, and this time was referred to the A&E department.

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Her entire treatment process took about 12 hours, during which time Smith reflected about what may have caused the burn. Her injury was diagnosed as a chemical burn, and she immediately remembered the diffuser she had come into contact with the day before. She repines: “Had I realised this earlier, I might have been given priority at the hospital, and treated faster.”


How can you use essential oils safely?

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Source: Gadget Flow

So, should you be throwing out that essential oil diffuser immediately? Not necessarily. When a user expressed concern about diffusers to Robert Tisserand, co-author of the book Essential Oil Safety, he stated:

Vaporized essential oil in the air is not a fire risk.  Where there have been problems is with burner/vaporizers that use a naked flame candle – these have been known to “spontaneously” catch fire, and they are a fire hazard. … Much better to use ones that operate without a naked flame.

A good choice would be a diffuser (not made out of plastic) that disperses the essential oil particles by water, not by heat.

However, with every kind of theoretical danger, it’s always best to take some precautions. Registered aromatherapist Michelle Cohen from the integrative medicine team at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine gives these pointers for safe diffuser use:

  • Don’t overfill your diffuser, adhere strictly to the max line marked on your device
  • Don’t plug it in as you’re filling it
  • Use only about 5 to 7 drops of essential oil in your diffuser
  • Don’t put your diffuser in a place where you may knock it over (such as a bedside table)
  • Don’t leave your diffuser on for too many hours, and don’t leave it on overnight as you sleep

If you have an ultrasonic diffuser, leave it on for a maximum of 30 minutes each time, and about two to three times a day. If you have a nebuliser diffuser, the time limit for each round is only 10 minutes, about two to three times a day.

If you accidentally get any essential oils on your skin, remember that water is not going to wash it off, as Emily Smith found out. Instead, use “a source of fat” to remove it, such as yoghurt, milk, and olive oil from the kitchen. If you have any jojoba oil or coconut oil on your vanity, it may also work.

There is also a list of essential oils that you should avoid if you are not a trained professional, and also some to avoid during pregnancy, labour, and breastfeeding.

We may not have fires in our homes in Singapore, but essential oils don’t mix well with the sun either.

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American dermatologist Joshua Zeichner told Refinery29: “Patchouli oil is notorious for causing what is known as a phototoxic reaction. If you are exposed to sunlight and that oil is on the skin, a severe burn-like reaction may occur. People commonly develop redness, burning, stinging, peeling, and even blistering.

Citrus oil is another substance to be wary of when it comes to phototoxic reaction. Certified aromatherapist and co-founder of Ecorganics, Crystal Ong, told Daily Vanity, “The main cause of phototoxicity is an organic chemical compound known as Furanocoumarin (FCs).”

“This is produced by plants as a self-defence mechanism to ward off predators, and is mainly found in citrus fruits,” she explains.

However, Crystal told us that there is no phototoxic risk if essential oils are not applied directly onto the body or are washed off (for instance, when it’s infused in body wash).

“If directly applied onto the body, the area must be covered in such a way that no UV rays are able to reach it. Or you should stay out of UV light for at least 18 hours,” she adds.

Though Emily Smith was diagnosed with a chemical burn, it is not clear exactly how it was caused. We also don’t know the details of what type of diffuser she had been using or how exactly she had used it. In her diatribe against the hidden dangers of essential oil diffusers, Smith questioned, “How many people read through the manual cover to cover?”

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The problem here, then, are not the diffusers per se but the lack of awareness in the general public on how to use essential oils safely. It is true that many people do not read manuals or pay attention to safety guidelines, and that is exactly the issue that needs to be addressed here.

At the end of the day, essential oil researchers agree that water-based diffusers are still the safest way of dispersing essential oils in your home – as long as you adhere to safety precautions and guidelines!