I earnestly researched how to safely use essential oils for kids when I first added oils to my collection of natural home products. While I found a lot of information around the benefits of using essential oils for kids, like how they have been shown to help with behavior in kids with ADHD and pain in kids suffering from IBS, I also found a frustrating amount of contradictory safety information.
In many cases, using essential oils has allowed me to avoid other products that contain toxic ingredients in our home and around my small daughter. But just because they are natural, does not mean that essential oils are always safe for kids. Kids are extra sensitive to chemicals (natural or not) due to their small size and developing organs.
As parents, it’s our job to make sure that anything we introduce in our home is used with our kids’ best interests in mind. And that goes for using essential oils, too.
What are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are highly concentrated oils distilled from various parts of a plant. They have therapeutic* properties given the high concentration of phytochemicals (an active compound found in a plant that has properties to protect the plant and prevent it from disease). Phytochemicals’ protective properties work in various ways. Some are antioxidant, meaning that they protect cells against oxidative damage. Others can be anti-bacterial. Some can interfere with the replication of cells.
Essential oils can be therapeutic because the beneficial properties of phytochemicals benefit humans as well. Essential oils have been found to be an effective alternative to deet as a bug spray, reduce colic, have anti-bacterial properties, and reduce pain and anxiety, to name just a few studies that have looked at the efficacy of aromatherapy and essential oils to treat various health concerns.
As studies continue to show support for what has been known anecdotally for generations, it’s easy to see why essential oils are so popular. But with that popularity has come an onslaught of information, some of which can be dangerous for kids.
*There is no official definition of, or monitoring around, the term ‘therapeutic grade’. This is purely a marketing term.
Essential Oils for Kids: Tips for Safe Use
Some of the safety precautions I take are contradictory to what you will will find in information provided by essential oil companies or in other articles. I am not a doctor, nor am I an aromatherapist. I am a nutritional therapist and a mom who wants a full arsenal of natural remedies at my finger tips, with safety as my number one priority.
1. Always start with diffusing.
Diffusion is the safest way to use essential oils for kids. Children have thinner skin than adults and are more prone to irritation. It makes sense to avoid topical application if diffusion will provide the same benefits.
For example, to aid in sleep, try diffusing a few drops of Nighty Night (a great kid-friendly blend for sleep support) before bedtime. In many cases, including congestion, there is no reason to apply topically. Diffusing is just as effective, so why risk skin irritation? The only time I’ve applied essential oils topically to my daughter has been to help clear a bad diaper rash.
Diffusing essential oils for infants under three months is not recommended.
2. Dilute, dilute, dilute.
When it is necessary to apply topically, essential oils should never be used on a child ‘neat’, or straight from the bottle. Essential oils for kids must first be diluted with a carrier oil. A carrier oil is a vegetable oil (like coconut oil) or a butter (like shea butter) in which you dilute an essential oil. This helps to avoid skin reactions or toxicity that can occur when oils are applied directly to skin.
Topical application is not suggested for infants under six months. For infants over six months and kids up to six years, essential oils should make up no more than .25% of the total product. That is equivalent to 1 drop of essential oil per 4 teaspoons of carrier oil, or 3 drops per 1/4 cup of carrier oil. I tend to make creams and salves in 1/4 or 1/2 cup amounts, knowing that I can use up to 3 or 6 drops in total.
For kids over 6 years, the recommended dilution is no more than 1% of total product, or 1 drop per teaspoon of carrier oil.
Oils should be diluted when adding to bath water, as well. Because oil and water don’t mix, simply adding oils to bath water can result in skin irritation as the oil sits on the surface and has direct contact with skin. Follow the same dilution guidelines as topical application.
3. Don’t ingest oils.
Ingesting essential oils is the most hotly-debated topic I’ve come across while researching safe uses of essential oils for kids. There is a lot of contradictory information, not a ton of research, unknown toxicity levels, and many other factors that come in to play when ingesting a highly concentrated substance. When we are talking about children – why wouldn’t we take a conservative approach?When we are talking about children and essential oils, safety should always be the top priority. Click To Tweet
There is a time and place for ingesting oils, but it’s not at home from a recipe found on Pinterest. It’s under the guidance of both a licensed health care provider and an aromatherapist who is trained in aromatic medicine (bonus if you can find one practitioner who is both!).
The common practice of adding a few drops of Essential oils to water is not recommended. Oil and water don’t mix, leading to undiluted oils in the gut, and we don’t yet know what essential oils mean for our gut flora.
Make sure to keep all oils secure, as you would any other OTC or prescribed medication or natural remedy, to avoid accidental ingestion of a toxic amount.
4. Use age-appropriate oils.
Many aromatherapists suggest that certain oils are safe starting at three months, but recommend that no oils be used before. Others suggest that essential oils should not be used until two years old. I personally follow these recommendations.
If you feel more comfortable waiting until two, hydrosols are a great alternative for infants and early toddlers. A hydrosol is the leftover fragrant water from the distillation process, so while it has the beneficial properties of an oil, it is much less concentrated.
In an effort to build a village in this modern world, I’m in many online moms’ groups. And in these groups, I frequently see (well-intentioned) mamas make unsafe recommendations when it comes to essential oils for kids. Two of the most common are:
- Thieves blends: Thieves blends are often recommended for fighting germs, but are not safe for children. Eucalyptus and rosemary both contain the chemical 1,8-cineole which can slow breathing in children by acting on temperature receptors in the lungs. While Eucalyptus can be safely used for those under three in a very diluted formula, rosemary should not be used in kids under six (some even say to avoid in kids under ten).
- Peppermint oil: Peppermint is often suggested as a remedy for fevers, but it contains high levels of menthol which can cause respiratory issues in infants and small kids. It’s recommended not to use peppermint oil (diffused or topically) with kids under three, and limited use in kids three and older.
Of course these reactions are not common, but they are a possibility. There is no way to know which child will be effected or when. A reaction is not limited to the first application, so previous use is not an indication that it’s safe for a child.
A few months ago, I made a homemade vapor rub for my congested husband. I applied a dime sized amount to his chest, and our home immediately filled with the scent of peppermint. While I didn’t intentionally use this oil on my daughter, she was certainly exposed to it. Worried, I asked a knowledgable friend what she would do. Besides airing out the house, she suggested that going forward I only keep oils in our home that are appropriate for the youngest member of our family. I love this rule of thumb and now only keep oils that are safe for those under two in our home.Only keep essential oils in your home that are safe for the youngest family member. Read why here.Click To Tweet
Learning About EOs (best website for safety information)
Aromatherapy for the Healthy Child: More Than 300 Natural, Nontoxic, and Fragrant Essential Oil Blends
Essential Oil Safety: A Guide for Health Care Professionals
The ten worst EO injuries of 2014 (all of which occurred when not following the safety tips listed above)
Essential oils are a great natural tool, but they are powerful. When using essential oils for kids, please make safety your number one priority!
Do you use essential oils with your kids? I’d love to know your favorite remedies or additional safety tips you have to share.