My neighbour’s home always smells incredible—and so does her toddler. I’ve discovered she’s part of a movement of moms turning to essential oils in an attempt to help their kids stay healthy. She swears by lavender to help him sleep and frankincense to boost his immunity. Some parents diffuse the oils in a humidifier while others dilute them before applying them to their kids’ skin.
While these fragrant oils are natural, we still need to take precautions to prevent adverse reactions. I asked Toronto paediatrician and mom Dina Kulik how parents can safely use essential oils on kids.
Use with caution Kulik points out there’s a lack of peer-reviewed medical studies to prove the benefits or safety of essential oils and there are no guidelines for how old kids should be before they’re safe to use, so she takes precautions when using them with her three sons (ages six, four and two) at home. “I am a fan of using eucalyptus oil in my humidifier when my kids are sick as a way to decongest their clogged noses,” says Kulik, who dilutes two to three drops of eucalyptus in a large humidifier. Still, she recommends getting the OK from your doc first. Some oils can interact with certain drugs, or cause problems for people with specific health conditions.
Don’t let kids ingest them Even if manufacturers claim their oils can be consumed, Kulik warns that swallowing them can be poisonous for kids and could lead to a number of health complications, including respiratory problems, stomach pain, vomiting, seizures, coma—even death. Err on the side of caution and never administer these oils orally to a child.
Avoid contact with their skin Many manufacturers also suggest mixing essential oils with a carrier oil (or they sell them already diluted) to be applied to the skin. But Kulik cautions against using essential oils on kids topically, even diluted. “Children have thinner, more porous skin,” she explains. Absorbing unsafe amounts of the concentrated oils can be toxic for kids and could cause any of the dangerous scenarios listed above. Even using moderate amounts can cause burns when the skin is exposed to sun.
Diffuse safely Kulik says diluting essential oils in a humidifier or small diffuser is a much safer way to go, though even this could be harmful for kids with asthma or other respiratory illnesses. She also recommends keeping the humidifier in a large, open room, rather than in kids’ bedrooms.
Store oils away from curious hands Considering the potential harm of ingestion or skin contact, you should store all essential oils in a safe spot out of the reach of children. “I keep mine locked up high in my medicine cabinet,” says Kulik. “Kids are infinitely curious and like to taste things as they explore.”
Watch for reactions Keep an eye out for allergic or other negative reactions to essential oils, just as you would when introducing new foods to kids. A good indicator that something is wrong is when your kid complains or says they don’t like the smell, says Kulik. When that happens, just stop using the oil. If the side effects are more severe, like coughing, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, headache, sleepiness, seizures or loss of consciousness, turn off the diffuser and get to a doctor.
Stay away from certain oils No matter how many good things you’ve heard about their therapeutic properties, some pungent oils shouldn’t be used on kids, says Kulik. Her no-go list includes: peppermint, rosemary and wintergreen. These contain high doses of chemicals with difficult-to-say scientific names like 1,8-cineole and methyl salicylate, which are more likely to cause breathing problems in children. Bottom line: Kulik says any and all essential oils “should be treated with caution and respect.”