Safe Essential Oil Use For Your Family

Written by Bryn O'Reilly Design Collaborator


Posted on August 26 2020

As the essential oil market grows, so do the concerns about safety for common uses. Essential Oil safety is very important to understand before using oils in your daily life. Understanding the chemical makeup and how it can affect the safe use of the oil will help guide you.  We are often asked if essential oils are safe for children. The answer is not a simple “yes” or “no”. Essential oils are extremely concentrated, so all oils are unsafe at high doses especially if taken orally. Even low concentrations of oils can still be troublesome because of other components. Even oils deemed “non-toxic” may require caution for certain individuals who may have sensitivities or are taking other medications. The following guide is meant to help you make informed choices about using essential oils in your family's daily life, of course you should always consult your doctor and research multiple sources before forming your opinion. This is an overview and we suggest reading books specifically about the chemical makeup of essential oils for more information. There is a recommended reading list at the end of this article.

Understanding Essential Oils & Their Components.

It is important to understand that oils have different chemotypes which can vary between species of the same plant. A good example of a plant with many chemotypes is Thyme Thymus vulgaris. While largely indistinguishable in appearance, specimens of T. vulgaris may be assigned to one of seven different chemotypes, depending on whether the dominant component of the essential oil is thymol, carvacrol, linalool, geraniol, sabinene hydrate (thuyanol), α-terpineol, or eucalyptol. Such chemotypes may be indicated by name variation such as Thymus vulgaris ct. thymol (red thyme), or Thymus vulgaris ct. geraniol (sweet thyme), etc. When purchasing oils for yourself ensure the brand provides very clear labeling  with botanical species (Thymus Vulgaris)  and chemotype (Thymus vulgaris ct. Geraniol ) to avoid incorrect use of the oil. 

Understanding the chemistry of essential oil constituents is a very useful tool for understanding possible essential oil toxicity. This is super important when trying to properly dilute your oils so that they are safe for each person. In addition, some oils should only be used for diffusion and not applied to the skin because they are more susceptible to cause irritation. 

Purity & Dilution

It is also important to know if your essential oil is pure or ‘cut’ with a carrier oil. A carrier oil is a neutral base that can be used to dilute essential oils without changing their chemotype effect. Examples of carrier oils are jojoba oil, apricot oil, MCT oil to name a few. Often carrier oils are used to reduce the cost of essential oils, you may find when you buy expensive oils from the grocery store such as rose or jasmine they are cut with jojoba oil to reduce the cost. This also reduces their medicinal potency and will effect their over all toxicity potential. When making blends use only pure essential oils so you can ensure you are diluting the oils to a safe level without over diluting them and rendering them ineffective.

Types of Toxicity

There are different types of toxicity caused by essential oils and some more dangerous than others. Here is a general list of types of toxicity possible with essential oils:

Photo-toxic: Some essential oils can cause irritation to the skin when applied and exposed to sunlight. Some very popular “summery” smelling oils are photo-toxic such as most citrus; Grapefruit, Orange, Lemon, Lime etc. and should not be applied to the skin if you plan to go out doors in the next 12-24 hours.

Organ-toxic: Some essential oils can cause acute or chronic harm to the organs especially if ingested orally, certain oils such as Bergamot, Cedar or Ginger can cause damage to the lungs if ingested at unsafe amounts. It is very important to research each oil individually because there are no blanket rules for safe amounts or blanket advice on chemotype use. For example Cassia, which is regularly used in food and drink products and is recognized as safe by the FDA, can cause liver damage by depleting glutathione but the amount one would have to ingest to even start depleting glutathione is far beyond reason, 0.5 mL/kg or 35 ml for an average adult. One would most likely throw up before they reached this amount but it is a reason to store essential oils FAR from the reach of unsupervised children.

Exposure Sensitivity: A less dangerous but still annoying toxicity is exposure sensitivity which can manifest as dermatitis, head aches, or other hard to pin point symptoms. There are certain oils which are notorious for causing exposure sensitivity such as bay leaf, which causes contact dermatitis at moderate dilutions and headaches in many people. Ylang ylang can cause contact dermatitis in some people at high amounts etc. Often sensitivity is caused or worsened by repeat exposure at inappropriate dilutions and discontinuation will often solve any issues.

Key Safety Tips for Handling Oils:

  • Some essential oils are sensitive to light, heat, air, and moisture. To avoid degradation, all essential oils should be stored away from direct sunlight in dark glass bottles.
  • Store oils in the refrigerator.
  • Avoid getting undiluted essential oils on your skin, in your eyes or in your hair.
  • Degradation may lead to increased hazards and reduced benefits.
  • Most toxic effects of essential oils are attributed to known constituents  so evaluate the constituents of the oil for proper use. 

Why are children especially vulnerable to adverse effects.

Children have much smaller bodies than adults and often an overexposure is a simple miscalculation of the smaller body's ability to metabolize the constituents of essential oils. Children’s immune systems are not as developed as adults and allow more vulnerability and sensitivity. Children’s bodies are still maturing and developing, some essential oils are purported to affect the hormone system in ways that may influence young bodies in undesirable ways. There are not very many robust studies on this topic but doing some research on your particular essential oil and how it may effect estrogen or testosterone is important for picking oils for young and pubescent children. With so may oils it’s easy to select a gender appropriate oil even if the evidence is not as great as we would like it to be at the moment. Children do not like strong flavors due to their sensitive pallets. Their sense of smell is often more acute than an adult so it is important to consider this when diffusing oils for children and watch for signs of over exposure. Headache, dizziness or stomach ache can be signs that your diffuser is too strong for your child.

Age Appropriate Use

An age appropriate time-line is the first step in deciding if the practice of essential oil use is safe for your child. We highly suggest that people read multiple opinions, studies, and consult with doctors about the use of essential oils with their children. A child’s immune system is not able to as effectively deal with adverse effects when concentrated substances (essential oils) are in the air around them. Here are general guidelines but again you should consult with your pediatrician for your particular child. Source

  • Under 6 months avoid contact with essential oils
      • 6-24 months introduce diffusing kid safe oils for specific reasons and only apply directly to skin for an acute reason such as a bug bite (0.5% dilution).
  • Age 2+ able to apply oils topically at 1% dilution, or use product appropriately flavored with essential oils. 
  • Age 6 able to apply oils topically at 2%,or use product appropriately flavored with essential oils. 

  • Age 10 a child’s immune system has matured and their skin has thickened for protection – no restrictions beyond the normal dilution and use recommendations of an adult. (you may want to consider hormone influence for children up to 15) 

  • When  you have decided it is right for you and your family to start introducing your children to essential oils it is important to start slowly and with great consideration of the selected oil and to monitor the child’s reaction.

    Some warning signs of essential oil overdose:

    • Skin Irritation
    • Shortness of Breath (Wheezing) 
    • Gagging/Choking
    • Persistent Cough
    • Nausea/Vomiting

    If any of these symptoms were to occur, take the child or affected person into fresh air (outside or in a room away from the room that the oil was diffused in) and seek immediate medical attention. 

    Please do your research each and every time you consider adding a new oil into your family routine. You are the only one who can make the informed choice of what is good for your family, we hope this information has helped you inform yourself. When purchasing oils, buy from trusted manufacturers. If you have any questions please reach out and we will do our best to help you. 

    Recommended Reading

    Advanced Aromatherapy 

    Easy Essential Oil Chemistry

    The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils