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Essential oils are more popular than ever, but are they safe and effective for kids?

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Some research suggests that lavender, peppermint, orange and ginger essential oils can help with anxiety in children over 5 years of age. Dreamstime

When Rachael James’s son was 4, he got really sick with a double ear infection. It was late at night and she had a new baby at home, so she really didn’t want to head to the emergency room. She called her mother, who had been a home birth midwife. Her mother came right over with lots of tiny glass bottles of essential oils in tow. 

She put basil, oregano and several other kinds of oils on his head, behind his ears, on his feet, and put him to bed. “He smelled like a pizza,” James recalls. 

The plan was to take him to the doctor first thing in the morning, but when the morning came her son showed no signs of sickness. 

“He woke up all better — totally free and fine,” says James, who had dabbled in essential oils for years before without many results. “After that, I was a total believer.” 

Essential oils are not just a fancy, more natural alternative to an air freshener or scented candles. While it’s true that diffusing the aromatic oils into the air fills the room with a pleasant scent, more and more people, like James, are turning to essential oils to treat health issues for themselves and for their children, too.

Essential oils are a booming business in the United States. Sales revenue grew by 40 percent from 2014 to 2018 by some estimations, as reported in a New York Times article published in July 2019. 

A quick online search will generate thousands of results touting the use of these oils for everything from emotional health, like managing stress and anxiety, to supporting immune function and easing headaches and tummy troubles. 

“We have been seeing a significant rise in essential oils in the pediatric setting,” says Dr. Colleen Boylston, a pediatrician with Sweetgrass Pediatrics. “Parents choose to use the oils for a whole host of reasons from a calming effect to adjunct treatment of certain illnesses.”

It’s an appealing option, especially for parents who are looking for more natural approaches to keep themselves and their kids healthy. But do they work? And what’s the best way to use essential oils in a way that you know will be safe and effective for little ones?

According to the Mayo Clinic, essential oils work by stimulating the smell receptors in the brain which in turn sends signals to the nervous system. Smaller studies have shown that they can reduce pain in children undergoing a tonsillectomy and improve sleep.

But research on essential oils is limited at best and most of the studies are small and do not study children. One study published in Advanced Biomedical Research found that orange essential oil could calm anxiety in children undergoing dental treatment. Another study published in the Journal of PeriAnesthesia Nursing found that lavender and ginger essential oil could calm anxiety in kids undergoing anesthesia, but only by a small margin. 

lavendar essential oils

Once essential oils are bottled, they can be diffused into the air and breathed into the lungs or mixed with a “carrier oil,” such as coconut oil, and rolled onto the skin. Provided/Candyce Herman

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are compounds that are extracted from plants and obtained through a distillation process to capture the plants' scent in a highly concentrated oil. Once the oils are bottled, they can be diffused into the air and breathed into the lungs or mixed with a “carrier oil” like coconut oil and rolled onto the skin.

Different oils have different properties, and believers say that those properties can be incredibly healing with proper use, including for children. 

Aromatherapy can help calm a child who is anxious or having trouble sleeping, Boylston says. Lavender, peppermint, orange and ginger have been found to be safe and effective to help with these symptoms in children over 5.

But it’s important to note that many of the claims you might read about essential oils have not been substantiated by large, high-quality research studies. For this reason, organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics have not recommended oils for use in children. 

Natural doesn’t mean risk-free

Additionally, since the essential oils are so concentrated, they can cause harm if they are put directly onto the skin without a carrier oil, splashed into the eyes or internally ingested. “Ingestion of a half-teaspoon of some oils can cause sedation in children,” says Boylston.

Most reputable essential oils companies will have information on the label about proper use, but remember that children can be more sensitive to the oils than adults. The dosage that might be appropriate for an adult should be reduced in some way for children. Diffusers, which diffuse oil particles into the air, or mixing the essential oils with a carrier oil such as organic coconut oil, grapeseed oil, almond oil or jojoba oil are a good options to make sure it’s not too concentrated for the skin. This is always a good practice when using them with children.

The dose of an essential oil is important, Boylston says. For example, lavender oil may impart calming effects with smaller doses and stimulating effects with larger doses. 

“Parents should research what oils have been reported to be safe to apply to the skin of a child,” Boylston says. “For instance, chamomile has been shown to be safe to apply in a diluted formulation but any oil with a citrus base can react with the sun to cause burns, rashes and skin discoloration.”

Boylston notes that diffusing is generally a more conservative option than topical use, so she recommends diffusing if using the oils with babies under 6 months old.

Different children have different reactions to the oils applied topically, even with a carrier oil, though, so she recommends trying the diluted oil on a small part of the skin to look for a reaction before applying it on larger areas of the skin.

James, who was so amazed by the power of essential oils that night when her son was sick, went on to become a certified clinical aromatherapist, a title that requires years of study, and also a successful distributor with Young Living.

Young Living and doTerra, the two biggest essential oils companies in the U.S., are multilevel marketing companies. James benefits financially when she signs others up to buy and sell essential oils. 

For James, it’s all about empowering other mothers to prioritize their family’s health. But critics say that this business model means that there are many people who are not qualified giving advice that’s not backed up by research. 

For that reason, it’s best to use oils to complement traditional medical care, Boylston advises. 

“I always think that we need to use critical thinking and common sense,” says James. “I encourage all moms to do their own set of research. It’s tedious and sometimes you want someone to just tell us what to do, but never blindly follow.”

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