‘Wellness’ vapes containing vitamins and caffeine raise potential safety concerns

‘Wellness’ vapes containing vitamins and caffeine raise potential safety concerns
  • PublishedOctober 5, 2023

Feeling tired? Need a quick boost? Fancy inhaling your caffeine instead of drinking it? What about breathing in some Vitamin B12?

Websites abound that boast “revolutionary” vapes that let you inhale “pure focus”.

And if you need to get to sleep instead, they give you the option of being wrapped in a “mist of relaxation” with one of their melatonin vapes.

Still others offer “vitamin-infused” aromatherapy in, of course, a variety of sweet and fruity flavours.

But seductive flavours and scents aside, does inhaling vitamins and caffeine instead of ingesting them actually work? And how safe is it?

What happens when you inhale vitamins?

Apart from vitamins, caffeine and melatonin, vapes marketed with “wellness” claims can also contain innocent-sounding ingredients like green tea extract, milk thistle, and essential oils.

But research on the benefits and safety of such substances was not conducted with vaping in mind, leaving a lot of unanswered questions.

While the US Food and Drug Administration has warned against unproven health claims that “wellness vapes” can fight tumours, treat dementia and prevent anaemia, what about the more plausible-sounding claims that they can calm you down or pick you up?

A standard vape taken apart showing battery, mouthpiece, cartridge
A standard vape taken apart showing battery (blue, centre), mouthpiece (black, bottom right), cartridge containing vape fluid (yellow, top).(Supplied: Celine Kelso, University of Wollongong)

The idea of getting a substance into your body quicker by inhaling it sounds like it could be useful … as long as a few things fall into place.

First of all, the substance you hope to benefit from must survive the vape heating process to several hundred degrees.

Then it has to be converted into an aerosol so you can breathe it in.

And finally you need to be able to absorb enough of the vaporised substance to have an effect before you breathe out.

The bottom line is we know very little about the benefit of inhaling substances like vitamins compared to ingesting them.

And there have been some salutary reminders that just because something is safe to eat, it doesn’t mean it’s safe to inhale.

An X-ray of Dakota Stephenson's lungs, showing fluid where it shouldn't be.
This X-ray shows fluid in a person’s lungs as a result of vaping.(Supplied: Medical Journal of Australia)

In 2019, thousands of people in the US were admitted to hospital with a strange lung disease after using cannabis vapes.

The main culprit in the vape juice was identified to be vitamin E acetate. Although it is commonly used in dietary supplements, inhaling it caused lung inflammation.

When it comes to vaping caffeine, you may get a faster hit to your brain (and your heart) than by drinking it — but we don’t actually know for sure.

Importantly, there doesn’t appear to be any studies showing what dose you’ll be taking into your body by vaping caffeine.

And given the many different sources of caffeine we already consume — tea, coffee, chocolate, cola drinks, energy drinks — there are concerns sitting on a caffeine vape all day could add to the risk of a caffeine overdose.

What about the rest of the vape fluid?

Apart from the advertised ingredients, wellness vapes could even contain nicotine, because you can’t always believe the label.

Regardless, vape liquid has been shown to contain a stack of chemicals — some deliberate, some unintended — that you might want to think twice about inhaling regularly.

These include solvents that help create the aerosols you inhale, and flavourings, including “cooling agents” (used in mints and toothpaste), which give that “icy” feeling when you inhale.

Any safety assessments done for these substances don’t generally cover their inhalation.

Fruit ice vapes
Fruit and ‘ice’ flavours are part of the massive appeal of vapes.(Getty Images: FabrikaCr)

Jody Morgan, a chemical toxicologist from the University of Wollongong who analyses vape fluids, has also found that potentially toxic chemicals can form as a result of flavouring chemicals and solvents mixing in the cartridge.

“These compounds are not intended. They are forming in the e-liquid during storage,” Dr Morgan said.

A new study by her and colleagues found some vapes collected from NSW schools contained prohibited chemicals such as ethylene glycol, which is used to make polyester fibres and antifreeze.

Other chemicals that have been found in some vaping products include petroleum distillates and an “acutely toxic” chemical typically found in insecticides, herbicides and disinfectants.

The trouble with heating

Vaping is regarded as a safer alternative to smoking because you are heating but not burning the ingredients.

But it turns out that the heat of a vape — and the fact that you are breathing the vapour directly into your lungs — can still turn otherwise “safe” chemicals into more worrying ones.

Studies have found that vape solvents like propylene glycol or vegetable glycerine break down into a class of chemicals called “reactive carbonyl species” (such as formaldehyde), says Aaron Scott, a respiratory scientist from the University of Birmingham.

someone vaping
What benefit might there be from vaping versus what risk?(Getty Images: Martina Paraninfi)

“These components break down in heat and they form harmful agents that are actually also in cigarette smoke,” Dr Scott, who has been researching the safety of vaping fluids, says.

“Essential oils too, generate similar compounds, and also generate terpenes and things which cause harm to your body.”

Experts say vaping essential oils presents different risks to when we inhale them from room-based diffusers and candles.

The problematic breakdown products get into our lungs faster, Dr Scott says.

“They are quite reactive, so they are quite short-lived, but if you’re breathing them directly into your lungs they don’t have to hang around very long to do damage.”

Dr Morgan is also concerned that “aromatherapy oils” in vapes are unlikely to vaporise properly, which means you could inhale actual oil droplets, which could smother lung cells.

Mounting evidence of lung damage

There is growing research that vaping cause lung problems and increases your risk of respiratory infections.

Recently Dr Scott reported findings on how vape fluids damage immune cells important in fighting off lung infections.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a nicotine-containing vape or whether it’s a ‘wellness’ vape … you’re going to be delivering harmful agents to the lung,” Dr Scott says.

US authorities have warned those with existing lung infections or conditions, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), could have more serious complications from vaping.

The verdict?

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners supports the federal government’s plan to crack down on vaping, which includes efforts to stop the import of non-prescription vapes, ban all single-use disposable vapes, and limit the use of nicotine-containing vapes as a tool to help people quit smoking.

Meanwhile, experts like Dr Morgan and Dr Scott say the evidence that vaping (with or without nicotine) can harm the lungs far outweighs the uncertain benefits of “wellness” vapes.

They recommend consuming vitamins, caffeine and melatonin the old-fashioned way, rather than inhaling them.

“You’re exposing yourself to potential harm for no benefit effectively,” Dr Morgan says.

“If you are a non-smoker than taking up vaping is a potential pathway to harm.”

Dr Scott agrees.

“It is amazing to me that wellness vapes have generated such a market,” he says, adding that they often evade regulation aimed at nicotine-containing vapes.

“There’s no benign version of an e-cigarette or a wellness vape.

“Wellness vapes are a misnomer.”


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