The Terrifying Reason This Woman Was Burned By Essential Oils

illustrated by Mallory Heyer.
Just a few drops of your favourite essential oil into a diffuser, and suddenly, your home feels like it has transformed into some all-mighty, deeply therapeutic sanctuary dropped from the healing heavens to cure your headache, congestion, stress, and insomnia. It's a wildly relaxing experience — but not one without risk. It only takes one wrong move to burst the bubble of Zen — something Emily Smith, a 24-year-old from London, found out in the most painful way.
According to the New York Post, Smith took to Facebook last week to share a horrifying story, along with a string of photos, about how the seemingly benign task of scenting her home with patchouli oil in a diffuser suddenly went horribly, horribly wrong. All it took was her powering down the device — which she explained in her post caused "some of the vapor" to spray across her face and left eye — for her to become a victim of chemical burn.
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At first, she didn't realise the severity of the situation. "[While] 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," she wrote. But then a few hours rolled by, and after she went to put a log in a fire she lit earlier that night, she noticed a sudden stinging sensation. "I realized that I had been burned, although extremely confused and unsure about how it could have happened," she wrote. She soaked her face in cold water for the next 30 minutes and called for medical help — the right first step — but unfortunately, the damage was done.
When Smith initially rang for help, the operator told her it was nothing more than a first degree burn, which is typically easy to treat at home. But by the next morning, "my face had swollen, my eyes were blurred and continually watering and my skin looked pus-y," she wrote. In the emergency room, medical professionals eventually told her that she hadn't properly washed off the oils, and that rinsing with water was not truly relieving the burn — instead, "I was marinating my face in the cause of my troubles."
Dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, agrees with the assessment, and also offers up another potential reason things went so wrong: the choice of essential oil. "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." Luckily, he adds, these burns usually heal fully without permanent scarring.
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Though her skin is getting better, Smith wrote that she has suffered permanent eye damage and is "extremely fortunate to have my sight at all." We're wishing her a speedy and full recovery — and taking this as a sign that it's finally time to get over our aversion to those ugly wall plug-ins.
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