“Wellness” vapes are all the rage. But are they healthy or just hype? | Health


A A new trend is emerging in the vaping world that promises major health benefits. Known as “wellness vapes,” they contain vitamins or other nutritional supplements instead of nicotine and tout increased energy, increased immunity, and better night’s sleep.

In addition to e-cigarettes, wellness vapes or “supplement diffusers” that can be used to inhale ingredients such as vitamin B12, caffeine, melatonin or essential oils are enjoying growing popularity. They come in sleek cartridges with bright packaging and flashy names like Inhale Health and NutriAir, sold on websites around the globe and marketed primarily to 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 could be unproven, ineffective, and harmful if used. The vapes do not require FDA approval to enter the market as they contain no nicotine, and the agency has not approved any vaping products to treat or prevent any health condition or disease.

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Still, the number and types of wellness vapes are growing. According to Irfan Rahman, a professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center and director of the Center for Inhalation and Flavoring Toxicology Research there, vapes came out about three or four years ago and have continued to grow in popularity.

In fact, a recent Stanford University study of 6,000 people found that 4% of younger teens and 24% of young adults have used nicotine-free vape products — and about a quarter of them didn’t know what was in the products.

The boom in wellness vaping comes as overall e-cigarette use increases and governments scramble to curb the rise in vaping among young people. Last month, the FDA ordered Juul to withdraw its popular products from the market, although the ban is currently under appeal.

Vapes, which have the allure of something sweet and healthy, could undermine efforts to warn teens about the dangers of vaping, experts say.

“The marketing of vaping products as healthy vapor vitamin inhalers represents a potentially new phase of misleading e-cigarette advertising,” USC researchers wrote in a 2019 journal article that their products are less harmful than cigarettes or even completely harmless, but now some marketers are positioning their products as beneficial to health based on unsubstantiated claims.”

Meanwhile, the FDA has warned that these vapes may actually have adverse effects. “Inhaled products can be dangerous, even triggering a severe cough, causing narrowing of the airways and making it difficult to speak and breathe,” regulators wrote in 2021. People with heart disease, diabetes, lung diseases — such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — or a lung infection may put you at a higher risk of serious complications, the agency said.

Medications can be inhaled — think 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.

Virginia tobacco and menthol flavored e-cigarette products at a convenience store in California.
Virginia tobacco and menthol flavored e-cigarette products at a convenience store in California. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

There aren’t any studies supporting the use of vapes for sleep or for energy or wellness, he says. “We’re really careful about putting anything unknown in our lungs. The things we recommend are well-studied drugs,” he says. “What we don’t know about these things is the biggest problem here.”

Ratti adds that flavors added to make the vapes more appealing – like banana or watermelon – can cause lung damage. Vapes and the propellants they send to your lungs can contain things like propylene glycol, flavorings of unknown origin, and glycerin. “If these get into the lungs, that’s worrying,” 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 bulk of vitamin absorption occurs through the gut, and researchers say a balanced diet is key, not supplements.

Rahman has researched some nicotine-free wellness vapes and found that it causes oxidative stress—damage to lung cells through these devices, particularly in the vitamin B12 vapes. That’s probably due to the complexity of the vitamin’s chemical structure, he says. He also co-authored an article in 2018 that found that some flavoring compounds damage cells. “Lungs are for oxygen, not for these complex chemicals.”

Ratti points out that new vaping companies are popping up online all the time, making it difficult to keep up with the latest 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 share the same technology.

Nicotine-free vape products are considered dietary supplements – a largely unregulated world – and customers have no guarantee that the ingredients listed are actually present in the vape. A recent study of dietary supplements found that nearly 800 of them contained prescription drugs and other substances.

Ratti says he asks questions about patients’ nicotine use in his practice, but he believes doctors need to be more open when asking about vaping non-nicotine substances like melatonin or vitamins. “We might miss it,” he says. “Patients don’t give us voluntary information because they don’t want us to know about it.”

It’s important that people realize that unsubstantiated claims are being made, and in the end, Ratti says, there’s no shortcut to getting well and improving quality of life and sleep.

“It’s easy to fall for flashy labels and slogans,” he says. “At the very least they can be ineffective, but at worst they can be harmful and aggravate other health effects.”

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