Essential Oil Vaping Is a New Yoga Trend. But Is It Safe?
Exercise studios and wellness centers have hopped on the essential oil vaping bandwagon. But given the recent outbreak of vaping-related lung disease, caution may be in order.
The “puff, puff, pass” game just leveled up. And we’re not talking e-cigs and ganja. Next time you hit the yoga studio for a sweat sesh, chances are you’ll notice people sucking on essential oil vape pens après Savasana. See that white cinnamon-scented cloud hovering over the group of millennials holding candy-colored sticks? That’s essential oil (EO) vaping—one of the hottest trends happening in the world of fitness and wellness.
While EOs themselves are far from new (people have used them topically and orally for centuries to aid sleep, recovery and stress), essential oil vaping only recently went mainstream in America. Thousands of yoga studios and holistic stores nationwide now retail EO vape pens, a.k.a. pocket diffusers, touting them as the on-the-go way to reap the healing benefits of plant-based essences. You’ll find them in gift guides and on wish lists; MONQ, one of the world’s largest EO vape companies, sells half a million units annually in stores ranging from apparel boutiques to beauty salons, vape shops and spas. Users, frequently yoga enthusiasts, claim EO vapes help them relieve stress, aid with smoking cessation, ease menstrual cramps and headaches, and promote relaxation.
The rapid rise of EO vaping is due partly to convenience (no sticky oils or stationary diffusers) and partly to the trending popularity of vaping in general among people under 30. In addition, while the nicotine in other vaping products is known to be highly addictive, EO vape companies don’t include nicotine in their products and claim the blend of water vapor, vegetable glycerin and oils is safe to use. So is it?
In September 2019, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began investigating an outbreak of lung disease associated with e-cigarette and vaping products. As of November 8, 49 states—all but Alaska—reported cases of vaping-associated lung injury (EVALI), with 39 deaths confirmed. While the CDC found THC oil (derived from the chemical in marijuana that gets you high) in most test samples, what they have not found is whether, or why, the contents of a vape could cause serious illness or death.
To date, government investigations have focused on vaping e-cigarettes—no reports have been published yet on EO vaping. Which naturally leaves pocket diffuser fans wondering whether they should reconsider their pre-yoga EO vape session.
Why the Craze?
Shanti Dechen, owner and director of Aroma Apothecary Healing Arts Academy, and Clinical Aromatherapist Instructor, in Crestone, CO, has 40 years of holistic clinical study and 25 years of essential oil practice and teaching under her belt. She has seen EO trends come and go over the decades and says the therapeutic use of essential oils has grown in popularity due to its natural appeal. “Aromatherapy exposes people to a natural healing modality that perhaps they didn’t have before,” she says. “People right now are looking for ways to balance their state of being and want to find a natural way to reduce stress.”
That’s exactly what convinced Luis Alfredo Marin, 25, from Stamford, CT, to give EO vaping a try. The benefits, he says, have been far greater than he could have anticipated. Marin has been using EO vapes for over four months and says they have “elevated his life”—he claims he has been able to sleep better and improve his workouts. “I use an EO vape that is supposed to improve your focus before my workouts and it allows me to have a clearer vision during exercise,” he says. “It also gives my body this burst of clean energy when I’m at the gym.” Similarly, he uses a sleep-based EO blend about 30 minutes before bed, vaping for three breath cycles. “I breathe in slowly while closing my eyes to fall into a state of peace and tranquility,” says Marin. “The lavender, chamomile and kava blend puts me in a pure state of relaxation.”
Marin says he has never felt tightness in his chest, shortness of breath or had any negative side effects while using EO pocket diffusers. Many of his friends also use EO vapes without issue. “My friends are always saying how great it is that they can vape essential oils with all these natural health benefits,” says Marin. “I like them because just by breathing in, it helps put you in whatever mood you want to be in.”
While EO vaping specifically has not been reviewed by the CDC, the organization’s general findings on vaping-related lung disease is worrisome. It’s unclear what part of the vaping process is responsible—is it the method of delivery? Ingredients? Both?
“The problem with vaping is that whether it’s nicotine-based products, adding THC or essential oils, we just don’t know much about the effects it will have on the body,” says Angela Rogers, M.D., at the Stanford University Medical Center Pulmonary and Critical Care department. “It could be the flavorings, the heating of the coils to vaporize the compound or some chemical that’s being cut into the vaped substance. What we do know is that patients are getting very sick and some people are dying from vape-related lung injury.”
At this point, there’s no science-backed answer as to whether essential oils are safe to vape as part of your wellness routine. Pulmonology scientists are working to fully understand the effects of EO vaping, but Ellen Burnham, M.D., at the University of Colorado School of Medicine Pulmonary Sciences and Critical Care department, says literature on vaping is in very early stages. And because of the speed with which new vape devices are hitting the market, it is difficult to conduct long-term, quality research.
“Research to better understand vape products will undoubtedly need to address the complexities of vape use, which is challenging,” she says. Besides the effects of essential oils on the lungs, for instance, could the heat itself be an issue? “Inhaling gases at hotter temperatures could lead to lung injury, as is seen in patients who are exposed to housefires,” says Burnham. “It’s not known which vaping temperatures are the safest and which to avoid.”
Neither Rogers nor Burnham have seen lung damage from essential oil vaping in their personal practices, but Rogers notes doctors aren’t yet screening for it either. “We ask a lot of questions about how much smokers smoke, but vaping is so new that processes aren’t in place for doctors to talk with their patients,” she says. (If you vape and your M.D. doesn’t ask about it during a checkup, be sure to bring it up.)
Proceed with Caution
Though EO vape companies recommend that users avoid inhaling the substance directly into the lungs, Rogers remains skeptical. “People have a hard time following directions like that,” she says. “Our experience is that people struggle to inhale into their nose without some lung ramifications. As a rule of thumb, I’d avoid altogether putting something in your body that has not been proven to be safe.”
The CDC’s investigation doesn’t come as a surprise to Burnham, who has long questioned whether elements of vaping could contribute to toxicity. She urges her patients to steer clear of the activity until further research comes out. “One thing we do know is that if you heat up essential oils, you’re going to change the chemical constituency,” she says. “At the present time, I would encourage my patients, family members and friends to avoid vaping anything until we know more.”
Essential oils, when heated, can create toxins, agrees Dechen, who also advises caution if you are considering EO vaping. “With consumers, sometimes there’s a blind trust, particularly around aromatherapy,” she says. “At this moment, I don’t know if I’d be a proponent for EO vaping. I think it could be dangerous.”
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In other words, until medical experts complete more studies on EO vaping specifically, there’s no certainty in how safe (or unsafe) it is to use pocket diffusers. Rather than take the risk, consider using an at-home essential oil diffuser or applying EOs topically on your body. Then, slip into your studio tights, take a seat on your mat, breathe deeply and relax—no vapor required.
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Essential oils and yoga classes aren’t the only ways to find your inner calm. Learn more about another exercise-based approach to reducing stress.