There is nothing more heartbreaking than seeing your baby in pain. Your child’s first tooth is an exciting developmental milestone, but the eruption process itself can hurt them. What makes it worse is that your baby doesn’t understand why they’re in pain. As a parent, it’s only natural that you want to alleviate their distress.
However, in attempting to relieve your baby’s teething pain, it’s essential that you don’t compromise their health. All kinds of topical anesthetics are often recommended to parents, but are those teething gels really safe?
We cover this in full throughout the article, and we even go through the specific risks of different kinds of teething gels. At the end, we added some safe, pediatrician-approved methods to help your child with their teething pain, because even if teething gels are not recommended, you still don’t have to let them suffer.
What Are Teething Gels?
Teething gels are topical products intended to provide a numbing effect and pain relief just to the area where they were applied. They’re usually made with topical anesthetics, like benzocaine and lidocaine, so they help to temporarily banish all kinds of surface pain.
They are meant to be rubbed on the gums of teething babies to help alleviate the pain. In practice, however, the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that they’re not particularly useful because of the speed with which they wash out of babies’ mouths. However, beyond effectiveness, we have even more important questions to tackle.
Are Teething Gels Safe?
No. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made their answer on this issue as clear as can be—teething gels are not safe and are never recommended for use on babies or infants under the age of 2. Over the last few years, they have released a series of different statements about different kinds of teething gels, warning consumers about their specific dangers to babies.
The thing about these teething gels is that while they’re marketed as simple topical products, the fact is that gums are very different from skin. The gums, along with the rest of the inside of the mouth, are covered in a mucous membrane that absorbs active drug ingredients quickly.
Instead of having to slowly penetrate through the thick barrier of the skin, some drugs find their way into the bloodstream most quickly when applied to a mucous membrane. That’s where the dangers of teething gels come from. While accidental swallowing can also be an issue with some gels, the major risk is from direct penetration.
What Are the Dangers of Teething Gels?
There are a few kinds of teething gels with different active ingredients, but they all pose some risk.
Benzocaine Teething Gels
Benzocaine-based oral gels are the most common, and they’re also the ones that generate the most safety concerns.
The most major risk with benzocaine-based teething gels is that they can induce a condition called methemoglobinemia within minutes or hours of application. This condition reduces the amount of oxygen that the blood can carry, causing shortness of breath, dizziness, loss of consciousness, seizures, and in the worst-case scenario, death.
In 2018, the FDA released a warning about them, urging manufacturers to stop producing such gels and encouraging parents not to use them on their children. Because of this, most benzocaine-based teething gels have been taken off the market in the U.S., although they’re still available in some countries.
For adults, the risk of getting this condition from an oral anesthetic is quite low (especially if the anesthetic is used at a reasonable amount as directed on the packaging). However, babies and infants are at a higher risk of developing the condition and of dying from it, so as a parent, it’s not a risk you can take.
Lidocaine Teething Gels
Lidocaine is another common numbing agent that’s used in teething gels. Like benzocaine, it also poses a risk for methemoglobinemia, although at a slightly smaller scale.
The FDA hasn’t outright demanded that lidocaine-based teething products be taken off the market, but they still recommend that parents try and avoid using them. This recommendation is based on 22 case reports that documented serious negative reactions.
Natural Teething Gels
With the major numbing drugs off the table, parents may want to turn to a natural solution. We often associate “natural” with “safe,” but that can be a dangerous correlation, especially when it comes to your baby.
Of all of the natural teething remedies, it’s most important to avoid the homeopathic ones, which are most likely to be mislabeled and to include high amounts of toxic substances. In 2017, an FDA analysis found that homeopathic teething tablets from multiple brands contained dangerous amounts of belladonna, a poisonous plant that can have toxic effects.
Remedies With Clove Oil
Another ingredient that’s sometimes used in natural teething gels is clove oil, an essential oil that has a natural numbing effect. However, if your baby accidentally swallows it, especially in a large amount, it can have a wide range of ill effects on the nervous system, stomach, and breathing pathways.
These days, many other natural teething gels are made with a simple blend of glycerin and plant extracts. While they may not pose a specific risk, there is also very little oversight or regulation of these products.
These gels and oils that are meant to go in your child’s mouth can go on the market without any safety testing or approval from any regulatory body. It’s impossible to confirm what’s in the teething remedy or to know that the quantities of different ingredients are safe.
Are Teething Necklaces Safe?
The FDA emphatically discourages the use of teething necklaces or bracelets that are meant to be worn by your baby. Unlike large teething toys, teething necklaces can pose a choking risk to your child. The FDA has received multiple reports of infants choking on parts or suffocating after getting tangled in a necklace.
This applies to all kinds of teething necklaces, from wood and silicone ones that your child is meant to chew to amber ones, which are supposed to have a pain-relieving effect through skin contact. Teething necklaces worn by parents, on the other hand, are as safe as regular teething toys, and they look pretty cute, too.
How to Relieve Teething Pain Safely
Reading everything up until now might be a little scary, but don’t be discouraged by the dangers. There are a few effective methods for relieving your child’s pain that won’t put their health at risk and are even approved by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The first method you should try is massaging your little one’s gums. A bit of rubbing goes a long way towards soothing away their aches. Make sure that your hands are clean, and use your finger or knuckle to gently rub at their gums. It’s an intimate moment that’ll allow you to connect with your little one while also alleviating their pain.
Chilled Teething Rings
Teething rings can be another nice option, especially when you can’t give your baby a massage. While a room temperature ring is okay, a cold one will do a much better job of soothing their pain.
Keep a few teething rings in your fridge (not freezer) at all times, and give one to your baby every time they get a little fussy from the pain. Have a look at our article on the best teething rings available online for some safe, high-quality options.
If your child is feeling so sore and upset that simple methods don’t cut it, speak to their pediatrician about baby-safe painkillers. If your child is younger than 6 months, acetaminophen might be a good choice, while babies above that age can typically take ibuprofen safely.
While your first instinct might not be to give your child a painkiller, these medications are actually a much safer choice than teething gels. They have decades of research proving their safety, and we have very clear guidelines on how to use them. It’s much easier to give your child a safe dose of a baby painkiller than it is to rub a precise amount of non-FDA approved ointment in their mouth.
While some teething gels are still available in stores, bodies like the FDA and the American Academy of Pediatrics are not shy about cautioning against them. The dangers of teething gels are real and serious, so the minor benefits do not outweigh the risks to your little one’s health.
Thankfully, while teething gels might be off-limits, you still have some effective methods for helping your little one get through their teething period with less pain. Chilled toys and even a painkiller are safe, effective options. Now that you have all the information you need, we wish you serenity through the difficult teething process.