What’s in your reed diffuser?
The Poisons Centre has received hundreds of calls about kids getting into reed diffusers.
Whether you want to ‘indulge the senses’ or would rather ‘entrench yourself in mystery and glamour’, there’s a reed diffuser for you.
Regardless of the ambiance you’re after, a reed diffuser is designed to make your home smell enticing.
However, they can be a little too tantalising for some children. Over the past four years, the National Poisons Centre has received about 400 calls regarding kids getting into reed diffusers.
Most of those calls were about children under the age of two whose curiosity led them to take a sip of the diffuser liquid. While most cases didn’t require a doctor’s visit, 17% of the cases had sought medical attention. In the past two years, there have been 19 hospitalisations for children under the age of six.
While serious harm from ingestion is rare, it can cause vomiting, coughing, a rash and drowsiness.
A reed diffuser is a popular way to fragrance rooms in your house. Generally, they have a vase or glass vessel which contains liquid, in which you put bamboo reeds. The reeds soak up the scent and it wafts through your home.
But do you know what’s in it? We bought 31 reed diffusers to check the ingredients and safety warnings.
What’s in a diffuser?
With fragrances like blackberry, French pear and caramel, you may think the liquid is harmless, but that’s not the case.
Most fragrances in the diffusers are made up of a solvent (70-90%), essential oils (10-30%) and small quantities of other fragrances.
In its 2020 assessment of the liquid in reed diffusers, the Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) found the most common solvent in diffusers is a group called glycol ethers.
Solvents are a common ingredient in home cleaning products, spray paints and cosmetics. While we know to keep cleaning products and cosmetics away from kids, we may not realise we should be doing the same with reed diffusers.
If ingested, glycol ethers can affect the kidneys and liver, and cause a depression of the central nervous system (the slowing down of the body’s neurological function).
Essential oils aren’t harmless, either. Yet due to the wide range of essential oils, and a lack of information regarding their effects on the body, the toxicity is hard to determine. However, ESR said there have been reports of seizures, central nervous system depression and the liver being affected, after essential oils have been ingested.
Some people may also have an allergic reaction to fragrances used in some diffusers. A fragrance allergy can present as a dermatitis. Strong smells could even trigger asthma attacks.
Labelling rules for reed diffusers
It’s up to the manufacturer or importer to determine whether a reed diffuser contains a hazardous substance, and label it appropriately.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for monitoring the use of hazardous substances in New Zealand. It said most reed diffuser products will be hazardous substances, and subject to labelling rules.
Seven out of the 31 diffusers we bought listed ingredients on the packaging. For three of the diffusers, only one ingredient was listed. Two stated it contained ethanol, and the other one an acetate.
The ingredients list of the Jo Malone London diffuser – the most expensive in our survey, at $177 – was so confusing, we sent it to a toxicologist to decipher.
While the toxicologist said the ingredients list didn’t trigger any major alarms, we thought the information provided by the manufacturer was too hard for a lay person to understand. Labelling rules state the ingredients list should be easy to read and comprehend.
Given most of us will throw out the packaging, if an incident did happen, medical attention could be delayed because you won’t be able to tell the health professionals what’s in the liquid.
Eighteen diffusers had safety warnings on the bottom of the diffuser vessel as well as the box. Yet, two of these warnings were difficult to read because of transparent labels on coloured glass.
Two reed diffusers had no safety information on either the bottle or the packaging: Beautiful Life Fresh Air and Home Fragrance Natural Scent – both bought at Go! NZ, a discount gift store.
Yet when you take the fragrance out of the box and decant it into a vase (provided with the reeds and liquid), it’s easily accessible to children. The necks of the diffuser vases ranged from 1cm up to 2.8cm – easily wide enough for a child to drink from.
NZ regulations for reed diffusers with hazardous ingredients
In NZ, a hazard label must have:
- the name, address and phone number of the supplier;
- a list of the chemicals contained in product;
- a hazard symbol, such as an exclamation mark in a red triangle;
- use of the word ‘warning’ or ‘danger’;
- a hazard statement, such as ‘harmful if inhaled’;
- precautionary statements, e.g. ‘keep out of reach of children’;
- the quantity of the liquid e.g. 250ml.
Out of the 31 diffusers we looked at, 18 had contact details of the supplier, yet 14 of those didn’t include a phone number. This could mean an unnecessary delay if you need to go online to get a phone number to find out what’s in the product to tell health professionals if a child has swallowed some of the liquid.
Most used ‘warning’, ‘safety’ or ‘caution’ on the packaging. The three that didn’t were Diffuseur de Parfum (from $2 Things Queensgate) and Home Fragrance Natural Scent, and Beautiful Life Fresh Air (from Go! NZ).
Only two diffusers didn’t have warnings about keeping the product away from children: Home Fragrance Natural Scent, and Beautiful Life Fresh Air.
Most products also warn about eye and skin irritation, as well as keeping the products off furniture and fabric.
We’ve reported our findings to the EPA.
- Check the diffuser for ingredients and safety information before you buy.
- Keep the reed diffuser out of reach of children and pets.
- If a child has accidently ingested some of the liquid, rinse as much as possible from the mouth with water.
- Do not induce vomiting.
- If the liquid comes into contact with the skin, rinse thoroughly.
- If the liquid gets into the eyes, rinse carefully with water for 10-15 minutes.
- You can phone the National Poisons Centre on 0800 764 766 or seek medical advice as soon as possible.
Reed diffusers can cause unexpected damage
Andrew spilled a bit of the liquid from his diffuser onto his digital piano.
“I didn’t think it was such a big deal, but as I took it apart to try and clean it, the whole thing started crumbling away,” he said.
The diffuser liquid had dissolved the plastic that framed the piano keys.
To cause that kind of damage, Andrew said it must have contained a powerful solvent. He had thought he was buying a relatively natural product.
“If I had known [what was in it], I certainly would not have bought the diffuser nor let it anywhere near anything of value.”
Paul Ashley ended up having to replace newly laid carpet, after a diffuser tipped over in his teenage daughter’s room.
Everything had been taken out of the room to put down the carpet, except for a floating shelf which had the diffuser on it. Either the shelf was bumped or the wind blew it off. The diffuser liquid splattered on the wall before falling straight onto the newly laid carpet.
The liquid from the diffuser had immediately soaked through the carpet fibres onto the backing, and the fibres fell off.
While the carpet was replaced by his insurer and he repainted the wall, he won’t have another diffuser in the house.
“I was amazed at how volatile it was and the damage it did to the wall and carpet in a very short time.”
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