We consider the Heisenberg-Euler action for an electromagnetic field in vacuum, which includes quantum corrections to the Maxwell equations induced by photon-photon scattering. We show that, in some configurations, the plane monochromatic waves become unstable, due to the appearance of secularities in the dynamical equations. These secularities can be treated using a multiscale approach, introducing a slow time variable. The amplitudes of the plane electromagnetic waves satisfy a system of ordinary differential nonlinear equations in the slow time. The analysis of this system shows that, due to the effect of photon-photon scattering, in the unstable configurations the electromagnetic waves oscillate periodically between left-hand-sided and right-hand-sided polarizations. Finally, we discuss the physical implications of this finding and the possibility of disclosing traces of this effect in optical experiments.
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