We’re sure that by now, you’ve heard so much about essential oils (EOs)—the good, the bad, the confusing. The most pressing concern most moms have about them? Whether or not these oils are safe to use for babies and toddlers.
The first thing that needs to be clarified about essential oils is what they are exactly. The simplest definition proponents agree on is essential oils are derived from plants (roots, leaves, stems, flowers, seeds, or bark) through the process of distillation, most commonly by steam or water. After distillation, the product is a highly concentrated portion of essential oil, which has the characteristic properties of the plant from which it was extracted. Simply put, these oils are said to be potent extracts of a parent plant's fragrance and healing properties.
Believers use them as natural remedies because they are said to be good for physical and emotional wellness. EOs are typically used as single oils or oil blends, depending on the desired benefit.
Some of the most popular essential oils are lavender for its calming, sleep-inducing properties; peppermint for relief from headaches and joint and muscle pain; and lemon for its antimicrobial uses.
With its promise as an all-natural solution to some of the most common aches and pains, it’s not surprising that EOs have gained a loyal following, with a recent surge in its popularity and use in recent months.
So we asked endocrinology fellow, mom to a two-year-old and EO user, Jane Sarmiento, M.D. to help us answer your most pressing concerns.
Smart Parenting (SP): Is it safe to use EOs for babies or toddlers? Or should we wait until they are older?
Dr. Sarmiento: A big concern that I see with the use of any substance on babies and toddlers is [babies] are unable to communicate any discomfort especially if the causes of this discomfort do not manifest in obvious ways. Who knows if they experience headaches or nasal stuffiness while inhaling certain aromatherapy products? They would cry but we can easily misinterpret it as hunger or as a need to change a dirty diaper.
If you are unsure or uncomfortable about using EOs on your little one, don’t. At this point, the extent of these oils’ benefits and side effects aren’t fully known yet. To quote Cynthia Bailey, MD, a California-based dermatologist:
“There is definitely a credible science behind certain benefits for certain essential oils. But you have to choose wisely, and you cannot use them indiscriminately.”
SP: There have been some unverified reports that EOs cause hormonal imbalance and serious side effects, including early onset of menstruation among young girls. Should moms be worried?
Dr. Sarmiento: When I read that post from a mom’s forum online, I became quite concerned as well because I am a lavender lover myself. I have it in perfume, body wash, hand and body lotion, and EO. Plus, my daughter’s daily body wash is in lavender scent.
I looked it up and found the article of reference in the New England Journal of Medicine. The article was published in 2007 by Dr. Henley and colleagues on three isolated incidents of prepubertal boys who had breast enlargement (gynecomastia), way before the normal time period that they are expected to have it. And the common thing they found was the use of lavender and tea tree oils in personal care products. The authors did say that “until epidemiologic studies are performed to determine the prevalence of gynecomastia associated with exposure to lavender oil and tea tree oil, we suggest that the medical community should be aware of the possibility of endocrine disruption and should caution patients about repeated exposure to any products containing these oils.” I did not find any similar report since then.
There have been a few rebuttals and a study (on rats because it is unethical to do so on people) by V. Politano and colleagues in 2013 who concluded that at 20mg/kg or at 100mg/kg lavender oil, no estrogenic effects were seen. It is important to note that personal care products contain lavender oil in amounts way less than these levels.
The key takeaway:For as long as there is no misuse or abuse of any particular substance, unwanted side effects are reduced to a minimum. If you are unsure and especially if you or anyone in the family are suffering from any other conditions like asthma or atopy, always consult your physician before trying any new products at home. Some of the things we put in our diffusers may not be good for children with pulmonary diseases or sensitive skin. They may not be harmful to most, but they may be for a special population.
Also, if it doesn’t make you or your family members feel good, ditch the product entirely. For example, a certain combination of essential oils from a certain brand gave me headaches on two separate uses on the diffuser. I have not used the product since.
SP: As a mom and doctor, what is your personal stand on using essential oils? What is the wise way to approach EO use?
Dr. Sarmiento: Essential oil use is a personal choice—I don’t recommend for or against it. If you think you need it or will like it, you may want to try. If you think it’s not for you, I don’t think you’re missing out on something significantly life-changing.
Consult your child’s pediatrician before using any of the oils on your baby or toddler.
What I don’t recommend is its use for anything other than it’s supposed indication, mostly aromatherapy. Beware of the term “natural.” Read the fine prints at all times—and follow as they say. Do not overuse these oils. The warnings are put there for your utmost safety.
If you do decide to use them for yourself or anyone in the family, set your threshold for your essential oil use. For me, for example, I only use them to make the room smell good. I never use them as an additive to food or even as a topical remedy.
Lastly, keep in mind that essential oils should never replace your calming presence. No amount of lavender beats a mother’s warm hug and soothing voice to put a baby to sleep.