A new trend is emerging in the vaping world, one that promises big health benefits. Known as “wellness vapes”, they contain vitamins or other supplements instead of nicotine and tout claims of boosted energy, increased immunity and a better night’s sleep.
Wellness vapes or “nutritional supplement diffusers” – which allow users to inhale ingredients such as vitamin B12, caffeine, melatonin or essential oils – have grown in popularity alongside e-cigarettes. They come in slim cartridges with bright packaging and eye-catching names like Inhale Health and NutriAir, are sold on websites around the globe, and are mostly marketed towards young people. Some claim to fight ADHD, or treat anxiety or depression.
But regulators and other experts warn that these products don’t live up to their claims. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers late last year that wellness vapes are unproven, ineffective and could be harmful if used. The vapes don’t need FDA approval to be on the market because they don’t contain nicotine, and the agency has not authorized any vaping products to treat or prevent health conditions or diseases.
Still, the number and types of wellness vapes is growing. According to Irfan Rahman, a professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center and the director of its Center for Inhalation and Flavoring Toxicology Research, the vapes arrived on the market about three or four years ago and have steadily increased in popularity.
Indeed, a recent Stanford University study of 6,000 people found that 4% of younger teens and 24% of young adults have used non-nicotine vape products – and about a quarter of them were unaware of what was in the products.
The boom in wellness vaping comes as e-cigarette use overall is rising, leaving governments scrambling to curb a vaping surge among young people. Last month, the FDA ordered Juul to remove its popular products from the marketplace, although that ban is currently being appealed.
Vapes that hold the allure of something cute and healthy could undermine the efforts to warn youth of the dangers of vaping, experts say.
“Marketing vaping products as healthy vapor–vitamin inhalation products represents a potentially new phase in misleading e-cigarette advertising,” wrote researchers at USC in a 2019 journal article. “In the past, e-cigarette companies claimed that their products were less harmful than cigarettes or even completely harmless, but now some marketers are positioning their products as health promoting on the basis of unsubstantiated claims.”
Meanwhile, the FDA has warned that these vapes could actually have adverse effects. “Inhaled products can be dangerous and even may trigger severe coughing, cause airway tightening, and make speaking and breathing difficult,” the regulators wrote in 2021. People with heart disease, diabetes, lung conditions – such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – or a lung infection may be at greater risk of serious complications, the agency said.
Medications can be inhaled – just think of asthma inhalers – but it’s not known if inhaled vitamins or melatonin can be absorbed into the bloodstream, says Dr Gregory Ratti, a pulmonologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
There are no studies to support the use of vapes for sleeping or energy or wellness, he says. “We really are wary about putting anything unknown in our lungs. The things we recommend are medications that are well-studied,” he says. “What we don’t know about these things is the biggest issue here.”
Ratti adds that the flavorings added to make the vapes more appealing – such as banana or watermelon – can cause lung injury. Vapes and the propellants that send them into lungs can include things like propylene glycol, flavorings of unknown origin, and glycerin. “If those are going into the lungs that is worrisome,” he says.
Wellness vaping companies often say their products are “safe to use” but cite no evidence of safety testing. Vitamins are necessary to keep people healthy, but the majority of vitamin intake happens through the gut, and researchers say a balanced diet is the key, not extra supplements.
Rahman has studied a few non-nicotine wellness vapes and found oxidative stress – damage to lung cells – caused by these devices, especially in the vitamin B12 vapes. That’s probably due to the complexity of the chemical structure of the vitamin, he says. He also co-authored a paper in 2018 that found some flavorings cause damage to cells. “Lungs are meant for oxygen and not for these complex chemicals.”
Ratti points out that new vaping companies are popping up all the time online, which makes it hard to keep up with the newest trends. There are at least 10 brands of vitamin and wellness vapes for sale on the internet. The devices often use the terms “aromatherapy stick” or “personal diffuser” to avoid confusion with vapes, but they have the same technology.
Non-nicotine vape products are considered supplements – a largely unregulated world – and customers have no guarantee that the ingredients listed are actually in the vape. A recent study of dietary supplements found that nearly 800 of them contained prescription medications and other substances.
Ratti says he asks questions in his practice about patients’ use of nicotine, but he feels doctors need to be more upfront when asking about vaping non-nicotine substances like melatonin or vitamins. “We might be missing it,” he says. “Patients don’t volunteer information to us because they don’t want us to know about it.”
It’s important for people to recognize that there are unfounded claims being made, and, in the end, Ratti says, there’s no shortcut to getting healthy and improving quality of life and sleep.
“It’s easy to get sucked into flashy labeling and slogans,” he says. “At the least they may be ineffective but at the worst, they could be harmful and exacerbate other health effects.”