Essential oils are immensely popular. They’re diffused, inhaled, rubbed, dabbed, and even ingested. They’re generally touted as “natural” and “safe.” Many in the wellness industry trust them to treat a ton of issues, from insomnia to anxiety to even aspects of autism. But, like all things in the under-regulated and oversold wellness industry, there are side effects and risks. So are essential oils safe for a child, baby, or even a teen?
When it comes to kids, exercising caution is key.
In fact, there’s some evidence that essential oils (now found in everything from hand soaps to everyday cleaning products) can even act as hormone disruptors. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine focused on three young boys, all exposed to topical products containing lavender and tea tree oil. All the boys had developed prepubertal gynecomastia (male breast development). Subsequent lab tests found that the two oils had “…estrogenic and antiandrogenic activities. We conclude that repeated topical exposure to lavender and tea tree oils probably caused prepubertal gynecomastia in these boys,” stated the NEJM.
Luckily, this rarity was reversible, simply by ceasing the oils’ usage.
There Are Other Risks
A recent article in the New York Times about essential oils and children found cases of bronchial irritation from oil diffusers, often used as a relaxant in nurseries. A Netflix documentary, (Un)Well, had an episode devoted to essential oils, featuring a chiropractor who used them for everything from cooking to topical use to inhaling for his kids, pretty much 24/7.
Dr. David Stukus, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, told the New York Times that the oils’ tiny particles are “really good at infiltrating the upper and lower airways, which can cause irritation, especially in people with underlying chronic medical conditions such as asthma or allergies.”
The assumption that if these oils are natural, they must be good for you, is highly suspect, according to pediatrician Michael Grosso MD.
“The use of essential oils as medicine is extremely complex,” Dr. Grosso tells Parentology. “There are around 2000 different compounds derived from plants that are ‘essential oils’ although just about 100 of these are in common use. They can be inhaled or applied to the skin or even taken by mouth.”
While the hospital in which Dr. Grosso works occasionally employs essential oils in the pediatric unit as an “anti-anxiety intervention around the time of surgery,” he points out that they are very strictly controlled and administered.
As for using them for kids at home? Not so much.
“I can’t say that I have ever suggested that a parent try an essential oil as medicine. If asked, I’d want to know which one it is, what the parent wants to use it for, and how it would be used,” Grosso says.
Ingestion, for instance, very much depends on the plant the oil is derived from.
“As is so often the case, whether it’s safe to ingest an essential oil depends on which one and in what dose. Many of us have had the chance to enjoy lavender ice cream. On the other hand, accidental ingestion of oil of wintergreen is a well-known cause of fatal poisoning in children. As with, say, wild mushrooms, it’s really important to know what you’re doing before you ingest something from nature, even something touted as being ‘healthy,’” Grosso explains.
In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents to keep essential oils away from children. And with good reason: Poison centers across the U.S. received more than 17,000 calls about children under age 5 who were exposed to essential oils in 2018.
Yet doTerra, one of the biggest essential oil businesses, encourages widespread usage. They recommend cooking with them (thus ingesting), bathing in them via bath bombs, and applying them to places like the soles of the feet. There’s a list of “remedies” for different scenarios; none of this has been FDA approved and there isn’t any real research.
Essential Oils Are Big Business
The two biggest essential oil companies, doTerra and Young Living, both do over a billion dollars in annual sales through their multi-level marketing structure. Young Living has even been sued over allegations that it’s a pyramid scheme. They both depend on individuals to sell oils online through influencing.
“There’s the at-home influencers peddling promises, unbound by the strictures of medical claims, through Instagram profiles and Facebook groups. Young Living and doTerra, meanwhile, skirt Food and Drug Administration rules on medical claims by returning to the staple hazy language of wellness culture: ‘vitality,’ ‘energy,’ ‘healing,’ ‘balance,’” wrote The Guardian in a recent article.
What Is Safe Usage?
If you must use essential oils on your kids, Johns Hopkins offers some guidelines for safe, or safer, use.
- Don’t use undiluted oils directly on skin. Oils in their full form can be harmful if applied directly to the skin. Safe dilutions for children generally range from 0.5-2.5% depending on the condition and the age/weight of the child. Oils can be added to carrier oils, distilled water and lotions.
- Don’t add undiluted oils to bath water. Since oil and water don’t mix, the concentrated form could irritate the skin.
- Don’t swallow oils. Essential oils are highly concentrated oils that can be toxic if swallowed.
- Don’t overuse oils. Be mindful of how often and how much you use on your child. For example, don’t use a lotion that contains lavender and then apply an essential oil.
- Don’t use peppermint oil on children less than 30 months old. Peppermint used on children under 30 months of age can increase a risk for seizures.
Another thing to keep in mind is that children, like adults, have preferences. It doesn’t matter how useful you think a particular oil might be if your child can’t stand the smell of it.
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that essential oils, while natural, are still made of chemicals and can cause reactions.
“This is a really important issue,” Dr. Grosso tells Parentology. “It’s not that chemicals are good or bad for you. It’s that it’s all chemicals. The fever reducer acetaminophen is a chemical, but so is tea tree oil. You can look up the chemical formula. The fact that one is said to ‘come from nature’ can make some folks assume that it can’t hurt you. To a large degree, however, the opposite is true. Since we know that dose matters, it’s good to know that with acetaminophen, to use that example again, you can be sure about the amount your child is getting. That is often not the case with essential oils.”
**Editor’s Note: This image features a male child holding doTerra essential oils from the company’s kid’s collection. This is a stock image from Shutterstock. Parentology has not tested this essential oil to know if it is harmful or helpful to your child.