A similar dose of wintergreen oil, a cousin to aspirin, can cause rapid labored breathing, fever and — in severe cases — organ failure and death. Even as little as half a teaspoon of commonly used essential oils such as eucalyptus, lavender and tea tree oils can cause sedation and difficulty breathing in little ones, Dr. Bowman said.

“The exposures we see are almost all in children and almost all accidental because essential oils aren’t always stored properly,” Dr. Bowman said, “they need to be kept up and out of the reach of children.”

Applying concentrated oils to the skin are common causes of adverse reactions too, said Robert Tisserand, an aromatherapy expert and author of the textbook “Essential Oil Safety.” In nature, oils with antioxidant and antimicrobial properties such as clove, oregano and thyme kill invading bacteria by rupturing their cell membranes, Tisserand said. “And they do a similar thing to your skin cells and the mucous membranes that line and protect the inside of your body,” he said. “If you put undiluted oregano oil on your skin or in your mouth, you’ll have an irritant reaction — a very nasty one. The skin will go red and burn like crazy.”

Children are more likely to have side effects from essential oil exposures than adults are, said Dr. Weber from the N.I.H. “They are still developing, which makes their brains and other systems more sensitive to potential toxicity from essential oils.” Their livers and kidneys, for instance, are likely to be less efficient at processing the compounds.

Young Living provides safety information to consumers and asks its sales distributors to share that information with their customers, according to a company spokeswoman. “It’s important that all things are done in moderation — specifically where children are concerned,” she noted, adding that Young Living offers product lines where the essential oil is already diluted in a carrier oil, making it safer for kids.

Because there’s no solid evidence on the efficacy and safety of essential oils, major medical organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians have not issued recommendations for using them with children.

If you still want to use the oils on or around kids, discuss it with your child’s doctor first, advised Dr. Anna Esparham, a board-certified pediatrician at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Kan., who has been trained in aromatherapy. And heed the following advice.

  • In general, diffusing essential oils into the air is safer than using them on the skin. (But even then, it can be irritating to some. Never diffuse them in classrooms or in public spaces.)

  • Don’t diffuse essential oils around infants under 6 months old. For older babies and children, it’s reasonably safe to diffuse certain oils such as cedarwood, ginger or sweet orange for up to an hour while monitoring your child, said Dr. Esparham.

  • You can apply certain oils — such as chamomile, cypress and helichrysum — to the skin of children 3 and up, Dr. Esparham said, but you should dilute them first (using about 3 to 6 drops of oil per 1 ounce of a “carrier oil,” such as jojoba or almond oil). Or, use a product specifically formulated for children.

  • Even diluted oils can cause irritation, so always do a patch test: Rub the oil on a small area of skin and wait 24 hours to see if there’s any redness, swelling or rash. (If there is irritation, stop using the oil immediately.)

  • Always keep oils away from the eyes, nose and mouth. And do not apply essential oils to children with sensitive skin, eczema or other chronic skin conditions, as they can be irritating, Dr. Stukus said.

  • Avoid applying citrus oils — such as those made from grapefruit, lemon or orange — to the skin, as they can react with ultraviolet radiation from the sun to cause burns, rashes or skin discoloration.

  • Never add undiluted essential oils to bath water. Oil and water don’t mix, so undiluted drops could irritate the skin. You can, however, add diluted drops, said Dr. Esparham. Use 2 drops of oil to 1 ounce of liquid Castile soap or a carrier oil.

  • Don’t flavor food or drink with essential oils, even if they are labeled “food safe.” They can be harmful if swallowed, and could damage the lining of the mouth or digestive tract.

  • Avoid using synthetic oils, Dr. Esparham said, because the chemicals are more likely to cause side effects such as nausea or headache, skin irritation or breathing problems than more “pure” oils. Nonsynthetic oils are typically more expensive than synthetics — around $12 to $25 per vial. You can spot them by looking for their Latin names on their labels, like “100 percent Cedrus atlantica oil” for cedar oil, she said.

  • Store essential oils in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight and out of the reach of children. Dr. Esparham advised keeping oils for no longer than a year as rancid oils are more likely to irritate the skin or trigger allergic reactions.

If your child develops a rash or skin irritation; headaches; nausea or vomiting; coughing, wheezing or difficulty breathing; or any other symptoms while using oils, stop using them immediately and call your doctor. Never use oils as a replacement for medical care.

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