You may have seen the headlines about two unfortunate deaths being linked to a rare and deadly bacteria found in an aromatherapy room spray made by Better Homes and Gardens and sold at Walmart. This is a very scary and sad consequence of something that can happen if a product is not formulated correctly.
I looked online to see what ingredients were in this product and they were listed as fragrance (most likely essential oils but could have been scents created in a lab – it’s difficult to tell for sure), water, and polyethethylene glycol octylphenyl ether, which is a surfactant and can help mix two ingredients that don’t normally mix, like oil and water, or essential oil and water. Essential oil and water do not mix without an extra ingredient to help.
What this product does not appear to have is a proper preservative!
Any product containing water has the potential to host microbes – molds, yeasts, and bacteria, and needs a preservative to inhibit these microbes, especially if it’s a product you plan to sell that won’t be used up within a week or two. It needs to be the correct amount, and it needs to be broad spectrum, meaning it’s effective against molds, yeasts, and multiple types of bacteria. I don’t know for sure if a preservative would have prevented the growth of the rare and deadly bacteria that was found in the room spray in the article, but the lack of a preservative indicates the manufacturer didn’t do the research.
One commonly used ingredient that helps mix essential oils into water AND acts as a broad spectrum preservative is alcohol, but it is only effective at the correct percentage. The Tisserand Institute has an excellent article on using alcohol in aromatherapy blends.
Another unfortunate result of the product in the article, though not nearly as horrible as the deaths, is the amount of materials that are going to waste because now they have to recall thousands of bottles of the product. This is a very unsustainable practice.
There are so many aromatherapy sprays and other products in the marketplace that aren’t formulated to properly blend and preserve them, and the consequences, though often might only be a skin reaction, can be more extreme as this article indicates (though death is fortunately not very common as a consequence, and the bacteria mentioned in the article is rare in the US). These aren’t the only factors to keep in mind – some essential oils can be harmful at certain amounts, or can interact with UV rays and injure the skin, or have drug interactions. This is why it’s important to source from someone who specifically studies these materials.
The important thing to remember is that something marketed as “natural” can still harm you (after all microbes are natural!) Don’t assume that a big-name company (or anyone else for that matter, unless you know their qualifications) has done the necessary research to create an effective and safe product, especially if it’s trendy. Read the ingredients (if they aren’t listed, that’s a big red flag), ask a trusted resource (such as a certified aromatherapist!), if you are unsure about a product you are considering buying (Is the manufacturer doing their research or just trying to capitalize on a trend?). If are making your own products, do your research and due diligence.
Feel free to contact me with questions!