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Aromatherapy Essential Oils May Form Air Pollutants in Spas


The aromatherapy essential oils used by massage therapists in spas may present a health problem, according to a new study published in Environmental Engineering Science. Air pollutants called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and ultrafine particles may be released from some essential oils and cause eye and airway irritation.

Essential oils have healing qualities as well

Aromatherapy is an ancient healing practice that uses natural oils extracted from plants (e.g., bark, flowers, stems, leaves, roots) to improve physical and psychological well-being. As a form of alternative medicine, aromatherapy is frequently used to stimulate brain function, reduce emotional stress, and relieve pain.

For these purposes, essential oils may be rubbed into and absorbed through the skin, as is commonly done during a massage. Some essential oils are so concentrated and potent, they must be mixed with a neutral carrier oil, such as almond oil, before they can be applied to the skin. Essential oils that are inhaled can be put into vaporizers or diffusers, or placed on a cloth and inhaled.

Can these essential oils pose a health concern? Yes, according to Taiwanese researchers who tested both fragrant and Chinese herbal essential oils for the formation of air pollutants such as secondary organic aerosols (SOAs), which form as a result of a reaction between VOCs and ozone in the air.

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The researchers performed two experiments: one in a controlled environment (study chamber) and another in two spa centers, where they collected air samples in facilities that offered massage therapy using essential oils.

The essential oils studied included lavender, tea tree, blend oil, peppermint, lemon, and eucalyptus. The Chinese herbs included Chinese mulberry, perillae folium, Chinese angelica, bupleuri and ginseng. All the essential oils contained terpenes (e.g., d-limonene, a-pinene, and b-pinene), which are SOA precursors, while two of the herbal oils contained d-limonene.

The investigators reported that depending on the ventilation systems and layout of the spa, the levels of SOAs can be elevated. These air pollutants may irritate the eyes and airway passages of clients who have come to the spas for a healing experience.

According to Domenico Grasso, PhD, editor-in-chief of Environmental Engineering Science and VP for Research, Dean of the Graduate College, University of Vermont, the study’s authors “have done a very nice job in bringing attention to often overlooked health risks associated with luxuries intended to enhance our sense of well-being.” For all those who enjoy the healing powers of aromatherapy and essential oils, choosing a place with good ventilation should be considered.

Hsu D-J et al. Environmental Engineering Science 2011 Oct 20; doi: 10.1089/ees.2011.0004

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons



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