Since the beginning of human history, essential oils have been an important part of cultural rituals—medicinally, recreationally, and even religiously.
Anyone can enjoy the benefits of essential oils, as long as you first take the time to learn about what they can do for your health, and what they can’t. No matter what your goals are for using essential oils, this guide will help get you started.
What Are They?
Put simply, essential oils are substances found in plants that contain highly concentrated aromas. Unlike “true” oils, like olive oil, essential oils are far lighter and tend to vaporize when exposed to air.
A good way to understand essential oils is to think of them as the blood of plants. Like blood, essential oils seal cuts and trigger immune responses in plants when they’re damaged. These oils are so essential for vitality that without them, plants would die.
An entire plant might yield only a drop or two of essential oil once distilled, which is why producing even a small amount of oil can be costly.
Unlike human blood, essential oils only come from specific parts of plants. Some, like cardamon, can be found in seed pods, while others, like ginger, come from the root. Tree resin (myrrh), fruit peels (citrus oils), petals (rose), tree bark (cinnamon), and leaves (eucalyptus) also contain essential oils.
An entire plant might yield only a drop or two of essential oil once distilled, which is why producing even a small amount of oil can be costly. For example, one ounce of rose essential oil requires over 60,000 roses, while an ounce of peppermint oil requires more than 16 pounds of fresh leaves.
There are two key methods of extracting essential oils: distillation and expression.
One popular method is distillation using water and steam, which involves placing plant material on a grid over boiling water so that the steam extracts the oil as it rises. The steam carrying the oil moves through a pipe and into a condenser, where it cools down and condenses back into a water-oil mixture. Because water and oil don’t mix, the pure essential oil can be carefully harvested from the water.
Another extraction method is expression, used to make citrus essential oils. Just like the process of cold-pressing olive oils, citrus peels are mechanically squeezed until every last drop of essential oil comes out.
Humans have long used essential oils for healing. The word “aromatherapy” was coined by the French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé in 1928. Gattefossé first discovered the healing potential of essential oils after a lab accident in 1910, when he found that severe burns on his hands healed quickly with the application of lavender oil. He decided to test these benefits further and soon began studying it as a science.
Aromatherapy didn’t take off in the United States until the 1980s, when alternative and complementary medicines began to gain attention. Today, trained professionals use aromatherapy to promote healing for a range of ailments.
Certain smells can dramatically influence your emotions and your overall sense of well-being. Many oils can stimulate immune responses to help you fight off a cold and clear your air passageways. Others have nervine properties that calm anxiety, promote relaxation, and soothe tension headaches before they get out of control. Some have stimulating effects that work to wake you up, sharpen your focus, and eliminate mental fatigue.
There are hundreds of essential oils used in aromatherapy. Here are some of the most common, and their benefits:
Rose: One of the most valuable essential oils in the world. Reduces skin inflammation and works well as a facial moisturizer.
Cypress: Reduces the visibility of varicose veins, helps heal wounds, and improves blood circulation.
Grapefruit: Helps with detoxification and reducing cellulite when blended with coconut oil, and can kickstart your metabolism.
Frankincense: Works to build up the immune system and reduce inflammation while supporting the brain.
Clove: Protects your body against bacteria and parasites, and provides you with antioxidants.
Lemon: Cleanses and purifies, helping digestion, oral health, skin health, and more. A powerful ingredient to add to homemade cleaning products.
Tea Tree: Works to stimulate the immune system and can eliminate bad smells. Also known as an antibacterial and antifungal oil.
Myrrh: Can help prevent infections and promotes beautiful skin while minimizing stretch marks. Also a natural antiseptic.
Ginger: Relieves nausea (especially from traveling) and improves digestion while supporting the health of your joints.
Eucalyptus: Improves respiratory issues, especially sinus infections and colds. Also used as a natural way to wake up your mind when you’re tired.
Oregano: Helps you recover faster from a cold and has antifungal and antimicrobial properties.
Sandalwood: Known for easing anxiety and increasing alertness. Also used to relieve pain.
Lavender: Heals wounds, calms the nerves, and improves the mood. A natural choice for adding to personal care products.
Peppermint: Boosts energy, reduces fevers and headaches, supports digestion, and improves focus.
Rosemary: Improves brain function and memory and helps thicken hair when added to natural shampoos.
What to Look For
Because essential oils are natural products, their overall quality depends on where and how the plant was grown, the age of the plant when it was extracted, and the extraction method used. This means that not every oil is created equal.
The best way to ensure you are avoiding inferior, low-grade products is to search for pure, uncut oils that were grown in the way nature intended. Because essential oils are the most concentrated part of a plant, it can be risky to invest in some that were exposed to pesticides and other chemicals. For this reason, it’s always smart to buy organic essential oils, if possible.
Make sure to pay attention to the purity grade of the oil you intend to buy, choosing pure essential oils over synthetic whenever you can. Price point often isn’t a good indicator of quality because low-grade oils can be sold for more than their value.
Another red flag is when a company sells all of its oil at the same price point, because true essential oils vary considerably in cost. The best thing to do is to read reviews from previous buyers and learn where a company sources its oils.
Oils should be stored in tightly closed, dark glass containers (some oils can dissolve plastic) and kept in a cool place. It’s also a good idea to write the date on the bottles after opening them so that you can gauge their potency over time. When you use them, be sure to use a separate glass dropper for each bottle to prevent contamination, and tightly seal every bottle immediately after use. When stored correctly, most essential oils will last between one and three years.
Tips for Getting Started
Knowing where to get started in the world of essential oils can be tricky. The best advice is to start small; invest in 10 or fewer oils and see how you can incorporate them into your daily life. As you learn about the benefits they provide, you can slowly start expanding your collection to suit your needs.
Because essential oils can be too potent and evaporate quickly, they usually need to be mixed with a carrier oil before use. Carrier oils are true oils that come from the fatty parts of plants and tend to last longer on your skin, prolonging the benefits of aromatherapy. Some common carrier oils include olive, coconut, and jojoba.
Here are the most common methods for using essential oils:
Inhalation: The simplest way to experience the benefits of many essential oils is to simply breathe them in. You can open a bottle and breathe deeply, or use an electronic diffuser to spread the scent around a room. Another option is to create a potent steam by pouring two to three cups of boiling water into a bowl and adding several drops of oil. Keep your nose within a foot of the water and cover your head with a towel, breathing deeply to inhale the steam.
Topical Application: It’s usually best to dilute the oil with a carrier oil, so make sure to do your research first. Many (but not all) essential oils are useful and safe to apply directly to the skin. The ears, temples, feet, and upper back are all popular places to try. Just put a few drops in your palm and carefully massage them into your preferred spot with gentle, circular motions.
Internal Consumption: Some essential oils actually have nutritional benefits that make them safe to use as a food flavoring or dietary supplement. However, this is not an area where you should be experimenting. Before tasting an essential oil, be sure to read the instructions carefully and seek the advice of a medical professional. When in doubt, find another way to enjoy the benefits of your oil.
Therapeutic Bath: If you want to ease away the stress of your day, a bath infused with essential oils can’t be beaten. Simply blend several drops of essential oil into a few scoops of Epsom salts (to help the oil spread through the water) and dissolve the mixture into your bathwater for a relaxing experience.
Aromatherapy Massage: Ease tension from your body and clear out your mind by experiencing an essential oil massage. Just make sure to mix the oil with a carrier oil so that you can actually feel the benefits. Stronger blends are best, so plan on using up to 20 drops of oil per ounce of carrier oil.
It’s easy to overdo it when it comes to essential oils, so keep in mind that these compounds are extremely concentrated plant chemicals. A little goes a long way because there’s a lot contained within each drop of oil. In fact, just one drop of peppermint oil has the same strength has 28 cups of peppermint tea.
The Three ‘Notes’ of Essential Oils
Most essential oils are categorized as being a top, middle, or base note. The best blends of essential oils involve mixtures of all three notes to get a well-balanced scent.
Top Notes: Oils used as top notes are the most volatile and fragile. They are usually made from young leaves, fresh herbs, and delicate flowers. Some examples include peppermint, cinnamon, and sweet orange.
Middle Notes: These well-balanced oils are good for the entire body. They are normally made through distilling the entire plant. Common examples are nutmeg, juniper, and lavender.
Base Notes: Robust and earthy, base notes have heavy, distinctive scents that are great for calming anxiety and nerves. Some well-known varieties are vanilla, myrrh, and patchouli.
Once you start experimenting with blends and scents, you’ll realize how addicting they can be and keep expanding your collection. No matter whether you’re trying to ease some health problems or simply want to relax, there’s bound to be an essential oil out there that can help you.