As the use of essential oils in the classroom becomes more popular and widespread, parents, educators, and administrators have questions regarding the appropriateness of this practice. You may be an administrator looking for more information on setting school policies about this practice. Perhaps you are a concerned parent wondering about a school’s new practice or a teacher’s new habit. Or perhaps you are simply curious about this emerging trend of diffusing essential oils in the classroom. Whatever the cause of your curiosity, you’ve come to the right place.
To answer the question of whether or not it is appropriate to use essential oils in a child’s classroom, health professionals must consider three core concerns:
- Is this application effective at its stated goal?
- Is this application a safe approach to the stated goal?
- Is this application ethical/legal?
In this article, all three concerns will be addressed with findings directly from the scientific literature on the subject.
Why Use Essential Oils in the Classroom?
In a classroom environment, essential oils are typically used to achieve one of two purposes: medicinal benefits and environmental health.
Medicinal Benefits: Essential oils administered to children for the purpose of memory or concentration enhancement, or to prevent and/or treat illness are medicinal applications.
Environmental Health: Essential oils diffused as an air freshener or as ingredients in natural cleaning products are used as alternatives to products which contain environmental toxins.
Essential oils in the classroom are typically used to either: a) enhance concentration among easily distracted children, b) prevent the cold/flu virus from spreading, or c) calm hyperactive children in the classroom so they can learn. All three of these goals of essential oils are considered medicinal applications.
Are Essential Oils Effective?
This question requires more specificity to answer accurately. Essential oils are effective tools for many health related purposes. To answer the question of efficacy, we have to first get more specific with the outcomes of interest. The three most common desired outcomes–academic performance, disease prevention, and improved air quality–must be addressed individually.
The Claim: Diffusing essential oils in the classroom can enhance memory and boost academic performance.
The Science: This claim is an enticing one for parents, teachers, and administrators. Boosting academic performance is a shared goal and if a simple tool can achieve that goal, great! The problem with “boost academic performance” is that it is nonspecific. Do you want to boost memory recall? Shorten recall time or total processing speed? Increase accuracy? Which performance do you want to enhance?
Essential oils in the classroom can have an effect on cognitive functioning, and there are studies indicating that specific oils may act in specific ways that can boost academic performance. However, efficacy is variable, depending on the outcome of interest.
For example, an essential oil that may reduce test anxiety for a child could improve scores on creative writing where there is no time limit and creativity is essential. That same oil may also calm a child during a timed multiplication facts assessment, reducing academic performance and lowering test scores.
The impact of scent on memory, recall, and academic performance has been studied scientifically. Here is a sampling of findings from scientific studies on the topic:
- Essential oils which reduce stress in test-taking may boost accuracy while also lengthening total processing speed.
- Essential oils which are calming to excitable children both lengthen processing speed and negatively affect memory.
- Some essential oils can enhance test scores in one subject while reducing them in another subject. For example, an oil may increase concentration in composition while reducing math scores.
Bottom Line: The bottom line is that yes, essential oils can boost memory and potentially enhance academic performance, but not in a general manner. Essential oils are not interchangeable. Each oil reflects a unique combination of chemicals that achieve specific outcomes on the body. Specific oils would need to be matched to specific children and to specific academic subjects. A mismatch could actually product the opposite effect, decreasing academic performance.
The Claim: Diffusing essential oils in the classroom will eliminate airborne pathogens, preventing and treating winter illnesses.
The Science: This claim assumes that the air in the classroom will achieve a concentration of essential oils sufficient to both kill bacteria and deactivate viruses from the air.
There is no evidence in the scientific literature that merely diffusing essential oils in the classroom will reduce the incidence (total number of new cases) of a cold or the flu, or that it will reduce the total number of sick days children experience. While many essential oils are effectively used medicinally to both prevent and treat illness, these effects are not seen or experienced from widespread diffusion in a room. These effects require medicinal doses of essential oils, often involving ingestion.
What about studies showing that airborne essential oils kill bacteria and deactivate viruses? Here’s a closer look at those findings:
- Oils are most effective at killing airborne bacteria in high concentrations over short periods of time–not constant diffusion throughout the day.
- For inhibition of bacterial growth, most oils require minimum concentrations in the air which far exceed safe upper limits for pediatric inhalation and/or use oils which are contraindicated for young children in medicinal doses.
- Despite extensive research on the antimicrobial abilities of oils, there is no evidence that safe levels of essential oils deactivate airborne viruses. While oils may deactivate viruses when applied to air filters or in cleaning products with direct exposure (reaching the minimum inhibitory concentration), such results have not been found from diffusers in concentrations which would be safe for children.
- Many of the studies cited as evidence that essential oils reduce airborne transmission of viruses are actually conducted on bacteria. Most illnesses that are spread through the air in classrooms are viruses.
- While anecdotal reports claim that classrooms with diffused essential oils experience fewer sick days, these reports are not scientifically studied and do not account for the increase in other prevention measures such as hand washing, increased cleaning of surfaces, and controlled sneezing.
Bottom Line: While many essential oils are able to reduce viral replication in laboratory studies, diffusing essential oils in the classroom throughout the day is not an evidence based approach to disease prevention. This medicinal application of essential oils poses known risks to children both physically and academically but does not provide a known benefit.
The Claim: Diffusing essential oils in the classroom will counteract the negative effects of airborne irritants such as smoke from nearby fires, smog levels, mold in the school, or other airborne environmental threats.
The Science: Airborne irritants are not an odor issue; they are an air quality issue. According to this claim, the essential oils in the classroom would somehow act as a filter for the air, locating and eliminating airborne particles. The problem with this notion is that impurities in the air must be physically, not chemically, removed. Poor air quality, from smoke, smog, or many other forms of pollution occurs when small particles enter the air. These particles can be visible to the naked eye.
As a result, they must be physically removed from the air. This is usually accomplished through filtration devices, such as HEPA portable devices and HVAC filters, which force air through a filter, trapping the particulates, and removing them from the air.
Additionally, the addition of essential oils in the classroom has the potential to actually worsen air quality. Here’s an overview of the science on this topic:
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are carbon-containing chemicals which are volatile. Diffusing essential oils releases VOCs into the air.
- There is no evidence to suggest that adding VOCs to the air will capture and eliminate the particles that comprise smog, smoke, or other airborne toxins.
- While essential oil diffusion does not affect levels of particulate matter in the air, it does increase the total airborne concentration of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and total VOCs.
Bottom Line: If poor air quality is a concern at a school, adding essential oils in the classroom will not effectively remove the airborne respiratory irritants or environmental toxicants. It does, however, pose a risk of worsening the air quality, particularly for children with poor respiratory health, such as those with asthma.
Are Essential Oils in the Classroom Safe?
One common argument defending the practice of diffusing essential oils in the classroom is that essential oils are all-natural, the brand being used is a trusted, high quality brand, and that even if the oils are not effective, they are safe and enjoyable. It is important to recognize that inhalation is actually a powerful method of administration of both medicinal substances and harmful toxins. Commonly inhaled substances include nitrous oxide (laughing gas), bronchodilators (such as Albuterol), second hand smoke, and carbon monoxide.
Children are at an increased risk of adverse health outcomes from inhalation of both medicinal and environment substances due to their small size and their physical immaturity.
Pound for pound, children inhale more air than adults. Children will receive a dose about 50% more potent than an adult breathing the same air.
Children also have immature metabolic pathways, so they are unable to metabolize inhaled substances in the same ways as adults. They may metabolize substances faster or slower. This can impact developing organs in ways it would not affect mature adults.
Treating children with essential oils requires guidance and oversight from a professional who holds advanced training in aromatherapy science.
Regardless of age or application, essential oils are not to be diffused into a room for hours on end. While short-term exposure can be calming, long-term exposure (over 1 hour) can increase the blood pressure and heart rate. In studies conducted by the Franklin School of Integrative Health Sciences research team, medicinal inhalation is typically administered for 15-30 minutes total. This application in our research has been sufficient to produce measurable outcomes that last beyond a 24 hour period.
Continual diffusion of essential oils in the classroom, especially in a small room or a room with poor ventilation results in overdose for children long before adults experience adverse effects. Overdose of essential oils can result in headaches, loss of concentration, and even breathing disorders and hospitalization.
Some children may be even more susceptible to adverse effects than others. This includes children with:
- Allergies: Many allergies to essential oils are experienced through topical application but inhalation can also cause contact allergic responses, can aggravate other allergic conditions, and some children can have severe responses.
- Seizure Disorders: Certain essential oils found in many flu-prevention blends can trigger seizures in children who have epilepsy or related disorders.
- Asthma: Certain compounds in essential oils may trigger asthma attacks in susceptible children.
Bottom Line: Without education and training in the practice of aromatherapy, administration of essential oils by teachers, administrators, or room parents places children in the classroom at risk. Adverse outcomes are always a concern with the administration of essential oils in the classroom, and this risk is particularly high for children and for individuals with underlying health concerns. Without a professional to guide oil selection, dosing, and administration, the use of essential oils in the classroom may significantly harm the students.
Is it Ethical to Diffuse Essential Oils in the Classroom?
The uses listed above are all medicinal in nature. They are being used in the classroom to prevent and treat illness. Therefore, just as any other medical intervention which is administered at school, signed informed consent should be received from every parent of a child in the classroom before the essential oil is administered. Parents may need to consult with their child’s medical care provider to determine safety and to identify any interactions with existing medications or treatments the child is receiving.
What is Informed Consent?
Informed consent is a process required of all medical interventions by healthcare professionals and researchers who administer health related interventions. This includes administration of essential oils in the classroom. The three basic elements include full disclosure, adequate comprehension, and voluntary choice.
At a minimum, IC includes: the nature of the treatment, alternatives to the treatment, all relevant risks, discomforts, and benefits (including unknowns), and instructions to opt-out or withdraw consent. IC must be communicated clearly, ensuring that you have enough information to make an informed decision, and the you must be able to agree without coercion.
Informed consent for diffusion of essential oils in the classroom should include at a minimum:
- the exact treatment the teacher is offering in the classroom (including identification of each essential oil used and the total dose administered to each child through inhalation)
- every risk that the treatment poses, including potential discomfort
- the teacher’s qualifications to administer aromatherapy treatment in the classroom
- the expected benefits of the aromatherapy treatment
- conflicts of interest (i.e. is the teacher a salesperson for the oils)
- alternatives to receiving aromatherapy treatment
Bottom Line: Diffusing essential oils in a classroom for the purpose of impacting a child’s health status, both physically and mentally, is a way to medically treat an entire classroom of children. Therefore, qualifications must be evaluated and consent must be received.
Schools which administer medicinal doses of any product–pharmaceutical, OTC, or CAM–without informed consent and professional guidance place themselves at significant risk should a child be injured or otherwise harmed by the administration of a CAM product, especially if the child experiences an interaction with an existing medical protocol or treatment or if the child is seriously injured.
Some questions to ask when developing protocols and policies regarding essential oils in a classroom:
- What is the school’s policy regarding the administration of medications?
- Who may administer medications?
- What parental consent is obtained?
- Who determines dose and duration?
- Who monitors for adverse events?
In many classrooms, essential oil selection, dose, administration, and duration are determined by an oil salesperson such as a room mother, a parent, or a teacher. These individuals may have company-specific sales training but are not typically certified aromatherapists, trained by an independent educational institution in a program suitable to meet requirements for nationwide professional standards.
When the essential oil is administered to the entire classroom of children in medicinal doses, the school’s usual medical policies should be followed. These typically require a minimum of parental consent and controlled administration by a qualified professional (i.e. dosing measured by the school nurse).
Are Essential Oils Ever Suitable for a Classroom Environment?
Essential oils do not have to be excluded from the classroom entirely. When used appropriately, there are many useful applications of essential oils in the classroom which meet the criteria of efficacy, safety, and ethical practice. Some of these applications include:
- Cleaning Products: Essential oils can be used as alternatives to harsh bleaches and other potentially harmful cleaning products. For this application, follow usual guidelines for cleaning products. For example, use these items when children are out of the classroom, ensure ample ventilation, and store the products away from children.
- Air Fresheners: Under the guidance of a professional aromatherapist, essential oils can be used as alternatives to plug-in air fresheners and floral bouquets to address foul odors in the air. This application would exclude large doses and medicinal intent.
- Personal inhalers. Just as a parent may send a dietary supplement or topical herbal product to school with permission for administration or self-administration, children may opt to use personal inhalers for benefits which do not affect his or her classmates. A professional aromatherapist can develop and formulate products for individual use.
- Environmental health. Hand sanitizers and other personal care products may also be useful for children to self-administer. These are often safer and potentially more effective than conventional products.
This article has been compiled and reviewed by:
- Jessie Hawkins, PhD, Research Director
- Christy Hires, Clinical Aromatherapist, Aromatherapy Department Chair
—The Franklin School of Integrative Health Sciences is a fully authorized postsecondary institution offering college diplomas in integrative health fields, including aromatherapy. As a research institution, the college both conducts and disseminates cutting-edge research regarding the safety and efficacy of essential oils. The Franklin School of Integrative Health Sciences ensures ethical research by requiring all members of its research team to avoid any financial ties that may create conflicts of interest and declares that neither the school nor its researchers have any financial links to the sales of essential oil related products.
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Meet Dr Hawkins
Dr. Hawkins brings 20 years of expertise in the integrative health field to her role as Executive Director of the Franklin School of Integrative Health Sciences and the leader of our clinical research team.
She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Health from Union Institute and University, a Master’s Degree in Health Education & Promotion from the University of Alabama, a post-graduate certificate in epidemiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a PhD in Health Research from Middle Tennessee State University, and is completing the post-doctoral Global Scholars Research Training Program at Harvard Medical School. She also holds certifications in numerous natural health fields including aromatherapy, aromatic medicine, herbalism, childbirth education, and labor support.