Essential oils are concentrated extracts from the roots, leaves, seeds, or flowers of plants. They have been used for centuries in various cultures for their natural therapeutic benefits.
In recent years, essential oils have seen a resurgence in popularity as more people seek out natural remedies over conventional medicine. Their pleasing aromas and potential health advantages make essential oils appealing.
However, the world of essential oils can be overwhelming for beginners. With hundreds of oils to choose from, each with their own uses and benefits, it’s hard to know where to start.
This guide will provide a comprehensive overview of essential oils to help you successfully integrate them into your routine. We’ll cover:
- What essential oils are
- How they are produced
- How they work in the body
- Most popular essential oils
- Evidence for health benefits
- Safe usage and application
- Choosing high-quality oils
- Essential oil recipes
- Getting started tips for beginners
Let’s start with the basics.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are highly concentrated liquids extracted from aromatic plants like grasses, flowers, trees, shrubs, roots, bushes, and seeds. The term “essential” refers to the fact that these oils contain the “essence” or distinctive scent and flavor of the plant.
Although sometimes called “volatile aromatic oils,” essential oils are different from the vegetable, nut, and fatty oils used for cooking and baking.
The amount of plant matter required to produce essential oils varies greatly depending on the species. For example, it takes approximately:
- 220 lbs of lavender flowers to make 1 lb of lavender essential oil
- 4,000 lbs of rose petals for 1 lb of rose essential oil
- 1,500 lemons to make 1 lb of lemon essential oil
So essential oils are highly concentrated and contain beneficial plant compounds. But how are essential oils obtained from plants?
How Are Essential Oils Made?
There are two main methods of extracting essential oils from plants:
Distillation is the most common method for producing high-quality essential oils. It involves heating plant materials in a still and condensing the evaporated compounds to collect the essential oil.
Water distillation – Plant material is suspended above boiling water. The steam extracts the oils.
Steam distillation – Pressurized steam is circulated through the plant material to extract oils.
Dry distillation – Plant material is heated without water to extract essential oil. Used for woods and barks.
The distilled essential oils are then separated from the water and purified using decantation and filtration.
Expression, also called cold pressing, is used mainly for citrus essential oils. Machines apply pressure to the rinds of citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, and grapefruits to rupture the oil glands and collect the oils.
The oils are filtered, allowing separation from the fruit juice. No heat is involved in this method.
Some companies may use chemical solvents in the extraction process or dilute essential oils with synthetics. Always look for 100% pure, organic essential oils.
Now that we know how they’re made, let’s discuss how these potent plant extracts actually work in the body.
How Do Essential Oils Work?
Essential oils can provide therapeutic benefits in several ways:
Applied to the skin, some plant compounds are absorbed into the bloodstream. Using a carrier oil helps dilution and absorption. Oils should always be diluted before applying topically.
Skin absorption – Some molecules penetrate the skin barrier and enter the bloodstream. Compounds with smaller molecules, such as menthol, are absorbed more readily.
Hair follicle absorption – Compounds penetrate open hair follicles and sebaceous glands on the scalp.
Intercellular absorption – Compounds move between skin cells, diffusing into the bloodstream.
Inhaling essential oils allows aroma compounds to travel directly from the olfactory nerves to the brain, especially the limbic system.
Olfactory system – Nerve receptors detect and process aromas, signaling the limbic system.
Limbic system – The emotions, memories, and hormones are affected by smell. This gives oils psychological benefits.
Respiratory absorption – Compounds enter the lungs and diffuse into the bloodstream for physical effects.
While some essential oils can be ingested in very small amounts, this application is controversial and should be done with care under the guidance of a professional.
Digestive absorption – Compounds may be absorbed via the digestive tract for systemic effects. Proper dosage is critical.
Mucosal absorption – Compounds enter the bloodstream directly from oral/intestinal mucosa without first-pass liver metabolism.
Let’s now explore some of the most popular essential oils and their common uses and benefits.
Most Popular Essential Oils
There are over 90 types of essential oils available. The most popular oils include:
Lavender – Relieves stress/anxiety, heals cuts/burns, improves sleep
Peppermint – Boosts energy, relieves headaches/nausea, aids digestion
Tea tree – Antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, treats acne, dandruff
Eucalyptus – Decongestant, stimulant, lowers fever, anti-inflammatory
Lemon – Improves mood, aids digestion, antioxidant, disinfectant
Rosemary – Boosts memory/focus, stimulates hair growth, pain relief
Frankincense – Reduces inflammation, boosts immunity, elevates mood
Chamomile – Relieves anxiety/stress, soothes skin conditions, sleep aid
Oregano – Powerful antiviral/antibiotic, digestive aid, immune booster
Bergamot – Reduces stress/anxiety, improves skin conditions, mood lift
Ylang ylang – Lowers blood pressure, acts as sedative, lifts libido
Cedarwood – Relieves arthritis/joint pain, balances oily skin and hair
Clary sage – Balances hormones, reduces depression/fatigue, PMS relief
Rose – Improves mood, reduces anxiety, helps heal skin conditions
Grapefruit – Weight loss aid, energizing, improves skin and hair
There are many more excellent essential oils with an array of uses and benefits. We’ll cover some of these in more detail soon when discussing oil recipes and blends.
First, let’s look at some of the science and evidence behind the health benefits of essential oils.
Evidence for Health Benefits of Essential Oils
Essential oils have been used for centuries in natural medicine traditions for their therapeutic properties. And modern research seems to support many of these traditional uses.
However, high-quality scientific evidence on essential oils is still emerging. Many studies show promising results, but more research is still needed, especially high-quality clinical trials.
Here is some of the current evidence related to the top benefits of essential oils:
- Lavender oil has clinically shown an ability to reduce stress and anxiety.
- Bergamot oil was found to significantly reduce cortisol levels and anxiety in patients with ischemic heart disease.
- Rose and orange oils have exhibited anti-anxiety effects in human behavioral studies.
- Frankincense oil reduces hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal activity in rats, lowering stress hormones.
- Peppermint and eucalyptus oils applied topically provide clinically significant pain relief by activating analgesics in the skin.
- Clary sage, marjoram, thyme, and chamomile can reduce headaches by relaxing tense muscles, based on human trials.
- Massage with diluted rosemary, lavender, and ginger oils significantly reduces knee pain from osteoarthritis.
- Lavender oil improves sleep quality and reduces nighttime disturbances in numerous clinical studies.
- Inhalation of ylang ylang oil increases relaxation and sleep time in laboratory and clinical settings.
- Bergamot oil reduces anxiety and improves sleep in palliative care patients, based on human research.
- In lab tests, oregano and clove oils demonstrate antimicrobial actions against common pathogens.
- Eucalyptus oil shows antiviral effects against swine flu in animal models and reduces nasal congestion.
- Tea tree oil displays broad anti-microbial properties in lab studies, fighting viruses, bacteria, and fungi.
- Frankincense oil boosts immunity in animal studies by increasing leukocyte count.
- Rosemary and cedarwood oils significantly increase hair growth similar to minoxidil, according to human research.
- Peppermint oil promotes hair thickness and growth by increasing follicle depth and follicle number.
- Lavender, thyme, cedarwood, and sage oils improve alopecia areata by reducing inflammation, based on human studies.
- Essential oils help prevent hair loss by stimulating circulation, reducing stress, balancing hormones, and exerting anti-inflammatory effects.
- Peppermint oil reduces IBS symptoms including abdominal pain, bloating, and bowel irregularities in multiple clinical studies.
- Ginger, peppermint, and chamomile oils prevent gastric ulcers by increasing mucus production which protects the gastric lining.
- Fennel, tarragon, and peppermint oils reduce digestive inflammation and help normalize motility and secretion.
- Lemon oil taken internally stimulates the release of gastric juices to aid digestion and prevent nausea and vomiting.
The research landscape on essential oils is expanding, with new studies emerging frequently. But current evidence suggests essential oils can be effective complementary treatments for various conditions when used safely and correctly.
Next, let’s look at some tips for safe usage.
Safe Usage of Essential Oils
When used properly, most essential oils are considered safe. However, there are some important safety precautions to keep in mind.
Always Dilute for Topical Use
Essential oils are highly concentrated and can irritate skin if applied undiluted. Always mix oils with a carrier oil before applying to skin.
- For adults: 5-10 drops of essential oil per 1 ounce of carrier oil
- For children: 1-3 drops of essential oil per 1 ounce of carrier oil
Carrier oils help spread essential oils and prevent sensitivities. Good choices are olive, coconut, jojoba, or almond oil.
Perform a Patch Test
Before applying any essential oil to skin, do a patch test to check for allergic reactions or sensitivities.
Apply 1 diluted drop to a small area of skin and wait 24 hours to see if any redness or irritation occurs before broader use.
Avoid Phototoxic Oils Before Sun Exposure
Some oils like lemon, lime, grapefruit, and bergamot contain compounds that react with UV light. This can cause burns or pigmentation changes.
Avoid direct sun exposure for 6-12 hours after applying these phototoxic oils to skin.
Use Proper Inhalation
Inhale essential oils directly from the hands, a tissue, or diffuser – do not directly inhale from the undiluted bottle.
Limit inhalation sessions to 30 minutes or less with proper ventilation.
Exercise Caution Around Children and Pets
Always research an oil for safety before diffusing or using topically around children or pets. Some oils like eucalyptus can be harmful if ingested.
Use kid-safe oils like lavender diluted properly. Avoid applying oils near faces of children.
Consult Your Physician If Pregnant, Nursing, or On Medications
Pregnant or nursing women should seek guidance from their doctor before using essential oils internally or topically.
Essential oils can interact with prescription medications or medical conditions. Check with your physician before using oils if on medications or being treated for a disorder.
Proper usage and handling is key to safely unlocking the benefits of essential oils. Now let’s look at what makes a high quality oil.
How to Choose High Quality Essential Oils
Not all essential oils are created equal when it comes to purity, quality, and efficacy. Here are some tips for choosing the best essential oils:
- Therapeutic grade – Seek out oils specifically labeled as “therapeutic grade.” This means they do not have synthetics or impurities.
- Organic – Oils certified organic by the USDA have higher standards and lack pesticide residues.
- Reputable brand – Research brands and choose those known for strict quality control and testing. These oils tend to be more pure.
- Native species – Oils should use plant species native to their country of origin for potency. For example, German chamomile, not Roman chamomile.
- Unopened bottle – Ensure oils are sealed properly in dark glass bottles to avoid oxidation and UV damage.
- No additives – Read labels closely and avoid oils with additives, diluents, or fragrances added. Seek out 100% pure essential oils.
- Recent production – Check for harvest dates and buy as fresh as possible. Citrus oils have a shorter shelf life.
Investing in pure, high-grade therapeutic essential oils is key to experiencing their maximum benefits.
Essential Oil Recipes and Blends
While essential oils can be used singly, blending complementary oils enhances their effects and allows you to target specific conditions.
Here are some favorite essential oil recipes and blends:
Stress Relief Blend
- 4 drops lavender oil
- 3 drops clary sage oil
- 2 drops roman chamomile
Mix with a tablespoon of carrier oil and apply to wrists, temples, neck, and bottoms of feet. Inhale directly when feeling anxious.
Cleansing Face Wash
- 5 drops tea tree oil
- 5 drops lemon oil
- 1 tablespoon raw honey
Mix together. Apply to damp skin with gentle circular motions 1-2 times daily. Rinse thoroughly.
- 3 drops rosemary oil
- 3 drops peppermint oil
- 2 drops cinnamon oil
Inhale directly before tasks requiring concentration or add to room diffuser.
Muscle Relief Oil
- 5 drops eucalyptus oil
- 5 drops peppermint oil
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil
Mix together and massage into sore, tired muscles as needed for an icy analgesic effect.
Anti-Acne Spot Treatment
- 1 drop tea tree oil
- 1 drop lavender oil
- 1 teaspoon raw honey
Mix together. Apply directly to acne spots 1-2 times daily after cleansing face.
Hair Thickening Spray
- 5 drops rosemary oil
- 5 drops cedarwood oil
- 4 ounces water
Add oils to water in a spray bottle. Shake before use. After shampooing, spray directly onto scalp and massage in. Do not rinse out.
These recipes are just a starting point – have fun experimenting with oil combinations and uses!
Now that we’ve covered all the key essential oil basics, let’s look at tips for putting this knowledge into practice if you’re just starting out.
Getting Started With Essential Oils
Here are some tips for beginners ready to dive into the world of essential oils:
- Get a starter kit if new to aromatherapy. Kits contain oils, a diffuser, and recipes to follow.
- Buy a cold air diffuser to use with your oils. Add drops of oil and water to the diffuser to scent a room. Avoid heat diffusers.
- Use a mix of methods. Try topical use, inhalation, diffusion, and internal use in appropriate amounts. This gives you a feel for each method.
- Keep a usage log. Note the oils used, amount, method, time, and your experience. This helps you learn what works for you.
- Start slow and low. Use oils sparingly at first and increase as needed. More is not necessarily better with essential oils.
- Follow usage guidelines carefully. Remember that potency varies between oils, so follow dosage recommendations.
- Buy dark glass bottles to store oils away from light which can degrade them. Never store oils in plastic bottles.
- Learn one oil at a time. Get to know each oil’s scent and uses before moving to the next so you understand their individual properties and benefits.
- Treat oils with care. Don’t let them contact your eyes or mucous membranes. Never apply undiluted oils to skin.
- Educate yourself. Read books, take workshops, or consult an aromatherapist to keep building your essential oil knowledge base.
Following these tips will ensure you start out on the right foot. Be patient, attentive to your body’s responses, and have fun exploring all the ways essential oils can improve your life!
The world of essential oils offers a bounty of options to enhance wellness in natural ways. With hundreds of aromatic plant oils to explore, there’s an oil for practically every condition and concern.
It’s important to learn the basics like extraction methods, chemistry, popular oils, and proper handling when getting started. Finding 100% pure, high-grade oils ensures safety and therapeutic potency.
While research is still emerging, science validates many traditional uses of essential oils like relieving anxiety, supporting immunity, improving sleep, and more. When used wisely, these concentrated plant essences provide a valuable complement to maintaining health and treating common ailments.
We’ve only scratched the surface here. Prepare to continue a lifetime of learning as you delve deeper into the incredible potential of essential oils.