Breathing Polluted Air: Aromatherapy vs Ionizers

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So right now, California is on fire. Not all of it, obviously, but a significant portion — thousands of people are displaced due to fires north of San Francisco and 40 people have died thus far. I live in San Francisco, where we’ve been experiencing horrific air quality whenever the wind shifts to blow all the smoke down here. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides information on the air quality in your area at all times, which you can view online. The range goes from “good” to “moderate” to “unsafe for sensitive groups” to “unhealthy” to “very unhealthy” to “hazardous, all depending on the ozone level and the number of particles in the air. We’ve been mostly going between “moderate” and “unhealthy” for the past week, with occasional dips into “very unhealthy.” Considering that “unhealthy” air made it painful to breathe hard and made everything smell like a campfire was burning in my apartment, I never, ever want to experience “hazardous.”

As it is, these particles in the air can enter your lungs, reducing their functioning and causing breathing problems, asthma attacks, wheezing, or in serious cases heart attacks and strokes.

To deal with it, the first thing I did was to get an air purifier and a particulate mask, which is very fashionable. For the record, these things tend to be color-coded for easy identification, so pink was my only option, but if there were other options I still would have gone with pink because it’s FABULOUS.

But I was shocked to learn that other people had…alternative solutions to dangerous levels of air quality. A company called DoTerra is peddling bullshit to gullible, at-risk people, telling them that “essential oils” can cleanse the air.

DoTerra is a multi-level marketing (MLM) company, which is a nicer, slightly less scammy version of a pyramid scheme (in an MLM, you actually do get some kind of product along with the promise of money that never comes, as opposed to a pyramid scheme where you just get the promise of future money that never comes). They are advertising their oils by suggesting people use them in a diffuser during fires in order to pull particles out of the air. This is utter bullshit. Diffusing an oil will produce a mist of that material and distribute it through the air — that won’t cleanse the air of particulates, but it might put more particulates into the air.

Compare that with my air purifier: this is a machine that sucks air in and passes it through a High efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. HEPA filters adhere to standards that determine how many particulates they can capture, from 85 to 99.999995% of airborne particles.

My purifier also has an ionizer, which is pretty cool in that there are metal coils that electrically charge molecules in the air, giving them a negative ionization. They float around and are attracted to pollutants in the air, attaching to them and then dropping onto the floor or sticking to a wall. This sounded pretty outlandish so I looked it up and found studies supporting this description, including one NHS study that found that using ionization in a hospital caused a particular bacterial infection rate to drop to zero.

I should also mention that “ozone generators” are sold for similar purposes as ionizers, in which a machine pumps out ozone that is meant to attract particles. It might sort of work, but it’s not as effective as ionization and ozone is dangerous for humans in certain quantities, so you’re really not helping your case.

So if you are in an area with bad pollution and you want to find a way to breathe easier, skip the bullshit aromatherapy and get yourself a purifier with a HEPA filter, and even better get one with ionization. Otherwise, you’re just going to make things worse.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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