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Are Essential Oils Safe for Babies and Kids?

Apr 22, 2023

by Torri Singer

Medically reviewed by Dr. Deanna Barry

My son developed his first bad cold at ten months old. It's something no older sister, friend, pediatrician, or parenting magazine can prepare you for. It was exhausting and messy; it was downright scary at some points. A few days in, we set up a humidifier about three feet from his crib and plugged in a non-medicated, name-brand lavender and rosemary vapor pad touting soothing, sleepy-time comfort. Within a week and a half of several sleepless nights and three doctor trips, his viral infection and croup had cleared.

Later, I wondered if the essential oil vapor pad was a safe and smart product to expose my son to. Sure, it smelled relaxing, and my husband and I felt it provided relief and comfort. But was it? I know now that overexposure to aerosols with essential oils can irritate the lungs, eyes, and skin of young children, sensitive adults, and even pets (cue the never-ending mom guilt). I believe we were like most parents in this situation. Our child was uncomfortable, and we wanted to do anything to bring him relief and comfort. However, even the best intentions can cause more harm than good without the proper information.

General dissatisfaction with conventional medicine has recently led to a boom in the essential oils business. With more parents wanting greater control over their medicine cabinets, interest in accessing various alternative options has increased, but so has some dangerous misinformation about essential oils and their use.

When you use essential oils appropriately, toxicity rarely occurs. But because infants and children have thinner skin and less-developed livers and immune systems, they’re more vulnerable to potential toxicity associated with oil use. It's important to consult medical professionals to discuss potential issues or interference with medication before experimenting with essential oils. Plus, accidental ingestion, especially in young children, can lead to medical emergencies like poisoning, skin irritation, or other health issues.1,2

In 2018, poison control centers in the United States recorded an alarming number of kids under 12 accidentally swallowing essential oils, spilling oils onto their skin, or splashing them into their eyes. According to an analysis by the American Association of Poison Control Centers conducted for The New York Times, there were more than 17,000 incidents that year — an 85 percent increase over the number of cases reported in 2014.3

While adults use a variety of essential oils for everything from better sleep to energizing and uplifting during an afternoon slump, not all essential oils are okay for children. There isn't much medical research about essential oil safety and children. With no solid evidence of their efficacy and safety, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians have not issued recommendations for using them with children.

Some medical experts suggest parents should limit the use of aromatherapy to children older than three because of the lack of clinical research to support its use with younger children and the increased risks of adverse reactions. The essential oils found to be safe and effective for children over three include lavender, citrus (like sweet orange or mandarin), and ginger. Staying mindful of individual allergy histories, parents can select options from this group of oils.4

To safely use certain essential oils for young kids, choosing a source that sells pure oils rather than synthetic fragrances is important. The label should clearly state specific details about the oil you’re purchasing. Look for the common and Latin names of the plant on the label, the part of the plant used to make the oil, the country of origin, and how they extract the oil. Additionally, essential oils should never be swallowed, ingested, or applied directly to the skin without being diluted with a carrier oil. Experts typically recommend avoiding water-based diffusers with essential oils because overexposure can irritate young children's eyes, skin, or lungs. Because essential oils are highly concentrated extracts from plants, they are flammable and should never be heated.4

Lavender oil is a staple for many people because of its calming effect. You can use it to relieve anxiety and help little ones relax and prepare for sleep if they have insomnia. However, topical application can affect hormones in males who have not reached puberty, so it's best to avoid topical usage for young children.5,6

Citrus oils like mandarin, lemon, grapefruit, and bergamot are excellent options for mood-boosting, energizing, immune system support, and natural surface cleaning. These are a good option in a diffusing device for children older than three for limited periods. It's important to note that parents should avoid applying citrus oils — such as those made from grapefruit, lemon, or orange — directly to the skin, as they can react with ultraviolet radiation from the sun to cause burns, rashes, or skin discoloration.

However, citronella and citrus oils like limonene are popular and well-known insect repellents. The National Pesticide Information Center advises that you should not use some oil of citronella products on children under six months. However, citronella can help repel mosquitoes and may be effective against fleas, mites, and flies. A safer option for children older than six months could be sporting a wearable kids’ essential oil diffuser bracelet or device.7

You can use ginger oil to ease nausea, digestive upset, colds, and headaches. When used as aromatherapy, it's also known to bring on feelings of courageousness and self-assurance. The warming quality of ginger oil also can relieve feelings of anxiety, anxiousness, and exhaustion.8,9

If you use essential oils as an adult, you know you can apply them in various ways. The same is true for babies and kids, but you must take special care with close monitoring. Call their doctor immediately if your child develops a skin rash or irritation, headache, vomiting, coughing or wheezing, or you notice difficulty breathing. Depending on the issue you’re looking to remedy and your child's age, essential oils can be inhaled, diffused, or applied to the skin. If applying it to the skin, experts agree it's best to dilute the oil in a carrier oil to ensure safe delivery. A carrier oil is a vegetable or nut oil or even water.

To create a diluted solution, a general rule of thumb would be three drops of essential oil to one teaspoon of a carrier to make a 3% solution.10,11

You can find dilution guidelines for adults and children from the guide Essential Oil Safety here.

Johns Hopkins medical experts suggest following a few other tips to safely use essential oils with your children. Parents should store oils in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and out of reach of children. Experts also recommend a patch test before using an oil on your child's skin and wait 24 hours to see if there is an adverse reaction before using it again. Lastly, if you have any questions about using oil or the dilution ratios, always consult an expert.5

While essential oils can relieve many issues, parents or caregivers should never use essential oils to replace expert medical care. Unlike government-regulated prescription drugs, essential oils haven't undergone the intensive research required for FDA-approved medications. Finding a reputable company to purchase quality oils from that you can trust will require more work than picking up whatever is sitting on the shelf at your local department store. Manufacturers use various marketing terms, such as "therapeutic grade" or "pure," to sell products. However, those terms likely don't reflect the product's quality. Remember to read ingredient labels before purchasing an essential oil to understand what the product contains. Whether oil is safe for your child depends on several factors, including age, underlying health conditions, medication usage, the oil dosage, and how you choose to distribute it.

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