Woman suffers chemical burns from essential oils
Lots of women swear by diffusing essential oils in their home as a way from curing everything from stress to strep throat. But a London woman’s recent experience with essential oils went from zen to terrifying overnight when she suffered painful chemical burns after being sprayed in the face by her diffuser.
24-year-old Emily Smith took to Facebook to share the scary experience.
“If you asked me four days ago whether I thought I would be a victim of chemical burns on my face and eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it,” she wrote. She explained how she and her fiance were enjoying a quiet night at home by the fire. Smith had her diffuser doing its thing with a blend of undiluted patchouli oil and other oils. Before they watched a movie, she bent close to the machine to hold down the button that turns off the diffuser. That’s when the trouble started. “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 explained.
Smith had read up on essential oils enough to know they shouldn’t be applied directly to skin, but it didn’t occur to her that the oil that sprayed onto her face from the diffuser was essentially a direct application. She thought she was fine. “Whilst I was somewhat aware of the danger of getting essential oils directly on my skin, I was unaware that the vaporised ‘diluted’ oil from my diffuser could also be dangerous,” she said. She went back to her movie.
A couple hours later she got up to tend to the fire. As she toss a log on the pile, her face started to sting. At first, Smith thought perhaps she had somehow been burned by the fire, even though she was confused as to how that could have happened, since she didn’t touch the flames. “I ran my face under a tap for ten minutes, then soaked it in cold water for twenty minutes whilst I rang 111 (the UK version of 911) for medical guidance. I described the red, unblistered burn to the operator, who affirmed that I had only suffered first degree burns, and that professional medical attention would not be necessary. First degree burns are treated at home, with cold water and aloe vera/Vaseline. I followed the advice given, and went to bed,” she wrote.
She woke up in the middle of the night and found her condition had worsened, but still thought she had somehow gotten too close to the fire and was dealing with the after effects. “I went to look into the bathroom mirror. My eyes were bloodshot and misted due to tears, and my face looked a little inflamed, but nothing too awful. I applied more aloe vera, took painkillers and went back to bed, remembering a similar sensation with cooking burns in the past,” she said.
It was the next morning that she realized something was seriously wrong. “My face had swollen, my eyes were blurred and continually watering and my skin looked pus-y,” she wrote. Smith did the smart thing and called for medical help again. They told her to head on in to the emergency room. After 12 hours, including waiting, treatment, and a transfer to a special burn department, Smith was diagnosed with a chemical burn — caused by the oils in her diffuser. What’s worse is that the doctors who treated her said washing off essential oils isn’t as easy as using soap and water. “When I soaked my face in a bowl of water, I was not really relieving my burn. I was marinating my face in the cause of my troubles,” Smith said.
Smith says she thought getting so close to the fire somehow triggered her burn, but it turns out undiluted patchouli oil and other essential oils can cause burns if applied directly to skin even without being exposed to heat — and this is what inadvertently happened when the oil hit her face after getting too close to the diffuser.
Dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, tells Refinery29 that the particular blend of oils Smith was diffusing might explain why her burn was so severe. “Patchouli oil is notorious for causing what is known as a phototoxic reaction,” he says. “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.”
Smith feels lucky that the damage wasn’t more severe. “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,” she said. She claims she’s done using essential oils and hopes her story cautions others to exercise care when using a diffuser.
If you use essential oils, let Smith’s experience serve as a heads up that if you do experience any discomfort after having essential oils on your skin, you should get it looked at immediately.
While she wasn’t thrilled at the thought of sharing the photos of her injury with the world, Smith says it’s worth it to try and stop someone else from suffering the same fate. “As much as I feel self conscious about sharing my photos, and my story, I know it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “If reading this post prevents one person from experiencing the pain that I have, then my accident won’t have been in vain.”