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School is out for summer and a group of moms are letting their children run free at the park. Messy top knots, wearing babies and holding goldfish crackers, they chat about the lifeline that is a Starbucks drive-through. One made supper last night using a single pot that her kids gobbled up. She’s going to e-mail the recipe. Oh and by the way, she’s discovered you can use natural oils as bug repellent which is a lifesaver – just like the blend of cold-busting natural oils that kept her family healthy all winter. She’ll forward that information along too if anyone is interested.

The conversation changes to an anecdotal sales pitch, not for food storage containers or that awesome new lipstick, but for potent ultra-concentrated plant molecules, volatile oils – more commonly known as essential oils. Essential oil use dates back to the 13th century but declined with advances in pharmacotherapy. The resurgence has rooted itself in a social-media savvy generation of parents who are typically highly educated, medically conservative and practice an altruistic approach to child rearing.

My Instagram feed is full of tiny bottles of essential oils on minimally-staged night stands or tranquil bathtub ledges. And the captions always boast of benefits but never warnings. The gorgeously packaged bottles are typically pictured within arm’s reach of small children. I know my way around the holistic parenting movement, but I also have more than a decade of experience in public health, specifically child injury prevention. So to see these oils being shared, sold and evangelized by my peer group with very little mentions of risk, safety or dosage, bothers me greatly.

Essential oils can have medicinal effects, because they are medicine. Just as any medication, essential oils should be used cautiously and sparingly with particular consideration given to use in and around infants and children.

  1. Do your research. Just like anything else you would introduce into the home-environment find all of the safety information available before purchasing essential oils. Be aware that many of the usage guides are written by the same companies that distribute the oils, thus making them a biased source.
  1. Be aware that essential oils are not regulated by the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Manufacturers are responsible to ensure, but do not need to prove the safety and effectiveness. There are few scientific studies to evaluate the safety of essential oils in adults, and none specifically in children. But we do know that certain oils have properties that are or can be toxic to children.
  2. Some oils can cause respiration to slow in children. Never diffuse wintergreen, peppermint or eucalyptus [nlm.nih.gov] around infants or children under the age of 10. Even without toxicity findings, young children can experience unknown allergies or contact sensitivities to oils that could result in hives, rash or respiratory complications. Oils can also have unknown interactions with prescription medication.
  3. Be suspicious of marketing and anecdotal evidence for widespread use. As with any claim of seemingly unprecedented health benefits, be aware of potential risks. When choosing oils to bring into your home weigh the risk of your toddler ingesting a toxic dose versus the possible palliative benefit.
  4. Store essential oils out of reach, locked and out of sight of children. Follow the standard medication safety protocols found at safekids.org.
  5. Report any accidental ingestion immediately to the Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222). If your child has collapsed, is not breathing, or has a seizure, call 9-1-1.
  6. Talk openly and often with your child about oils using the same precautions you talk about with any medicine. While some companies sell oils with child-resistant (not child-proof) caps, and droppers that slow the flow – preschoolers and even some toddlers can be inquisitive and determined enough to get themselves into a harmful situation fast.
  7. Be sure to report essential oil use in your list of current medications, just as you would a vitamin or antibiotic. While it may not be the source of your child’s problem, it is important to give the pediatrician a full picture of what you do to manage your child’s health.
  8. Essential oils should never be given orally to infants or children. The majority of cases of essential oil poisoning involve accidents or incorrect dosing with young children, often between 1 and 3 years of age.
  9. Essential oils should not be ingested or used topically while breastfeeding or pregnant including for increasing milk supply, to treat mastitis/cracked nipples or as a teething remedy in infants. We often take for granted that the products we put on our skin can be absorbed into our bloodstream and milk supply, impacting the health of both mom and baby.

Essential oils can offer health benefits, but many can be harmful if used incorrectly. In a time where money is to be made through distribution and popularity of these products, being smart about what is introduced into the family-environment is incredibly important when it comes to potent substances. None of these recommendations are meant to dissuade anyone from using, buying or selling essential oils – they are simply to encourage parents to use, dose and store them safely, particularly around children.

Tamara Reese, MPH, CHES is a stay-at-home Mama and consultant in the field of Maternal and Child Health. She is a contributing editor to Kveller.com. You can follow her on Twitter @oiler02