Not so long ago, if essential oils were even on your radar at all, they were probably something you encountered at your yoga studio or your hippie aunt’s house. Today they’re everywhere — in your favorite beauty products, home goods stores and even some hospitals.
If you’re wondering why essential oils have gone from ancient home remedy to huge wellness trend — and are curious about whether they might help you — this essential oils guide will answer all your questions.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are concentrated chemicals extracted from plants. Their most important characteristic is that they have the natural smell, or essence, of that plant, but they also may contain certain active ingredients that make them effective health and beauty treatments.
The most common essential oils you’ll see on the market are lavender, peppermint, tea tree, lemon and rose, though basically any plant can be made into an essential oil. However, that doesn’t mean it’s effective or safe.
How Are Essential Oils Made?
The most fragrant part of a given plant — it could be the flower, the seeds or the peel of a fruit — can be distilled or cold-pressed. The age-old process of distilling involves heating the plant material with water, capturing the steam in tubes and allowing it to condense back into liquid as it cools. The resulting oil is highly concentrated — with lavender, for instance, 220 pounds of flowers become 1 pound of essential oil — and also very volatile.
The other common way to make essential oil is called expression or cold-pressing. It uses mechanical means (such as pressure, centrifuges or puncturing spikes) rather than chemical ones to get plants to release their oils. The resulting liquids contain more than just the pure active ingredients, which can actually be a good thing, as those other compounds can be less volatile and may preserve the essential oil for longer.
How to Use Essential Oils
Many use essential oils for their good smell alone, but there is evidence their scent may be more than just pleasant. The olfactory neurons in our brain are connected to the limbic system, the structures of the brain associated with emotion, learning and memory. That’s why our sense of smell is entangled with our memories. Scientists believe this might also explain why particular smells can trigger the release of certain neurotransmitters, altering our mood.
To get those helpful smells, you can use an essential oil diffuser to disperse the oils into the air via tiny droplets. Or you can add drops directly to an object, such as a cotton ball, handkerchief or pillowcase.
You can also apply essential oils to your skin — but only if you’re very careful. That concentration and volatility make most pure essential oils an irritant, sometimes even causing burns or itchy rashes, so it is absolutely necessary to dilute them in a carrier oil first.
Carrier oils such as coconut, avocado, jojoba, grapeseed and apricot kernel oil are made from plant fats and serve as an excellent neutral base for those reactive essential oils. You will also see these same ingredients in cosmetic products that use essential oils.
If you want to DIY it, look for recipes online to find the proper essential-to-carrier ratio that will ensure effectiveness without any adverse reactions. Ideally, the resulting mix can be massaged directly onto the skin.
Finally, you can dilute a few drops of essential oil into a bath, which will deliver both the aromatic and topical benefits of the active ingredient.
What Are Essential Oils Good For?
The science hasn’t quite caught up to some of the claims people make about essential oils, especially when it comes to using them as alternative medicine. But there have been some studies that show benefits to using them in aromatherapy.
Here are a few things essential oils can be good for:
The Best Essential Oils for Topical Use
When properly diluted, certain essential oils have medicinal benefits beyond their fragrance. Their concentrated, volatile nature makes the oils absorb easily through the skin, delivering their active ingredients straight to the cells that need them.
Here are a few ways essential oils work on the skin and body:
Antibacterial and antiviral properties: Many plants have antimicrobial properties in order to protect themselves from disease, so it makes sense that essential oils also help kill bacteria and viruses when applied to the skin. Clove, eucalyptus, tea tree, lemon, lemongrass, oregano, cinnamon, rosemary, basil, coriander and clary sage have all been the most effective antibacterial essential oils in the lab. When essential oils like these are added to skincare products, they can help fight breakouts and infections.
Anti-inflammatory properties: Inflammation (a reaction of the immune system) can lead to pain, digestive issues, redness in the skin, acne and more. Anti-inflammatory essential oils such as chamomile, eucalyptus, peppermint, rose geranium, frankincense and cayenne may help ease inflammation.
How to Use Essential Oils Safely
The FDA does not regulate essential oils, so it’s important to do a bit of homework before you use them. Here are some safety tips to keep in mind:
1. Most essential oils are not safe to ingest.
Because they are so concentrated, even the oils that come from edible plants can be poisonous — causing seizures, liver failure and even death. If you are planning to consume an essential oil, make sure it’s been formulated exactly for that purpose. And be sure to keep your oils out of reach of small children and pets.
2. Allergic reactions are common.
Patch-test diluted essential oils on your skin before using them, especially if you have sensitive skin or have ever had an allergic reaction. If you are allergic, you may even have difficulty breathing in rooms with diffused oils.
3. Some oils are photosensitizing.
Citrus oils, for example, can make skin more prone to sunburn, so be careful not to use before going outside during the day.
4. Use oils judiciously on children.
Don’t use any essential oils on infants younger than 3 months. After that, some gentle essential oils, such as chamomile and lavender, can help soothe babies (but if they have eczema, you may want to avoid scented products altogether).
Oils that contain menthol (including peppermint and eucalyptus) can cause breathing difficulties in young children. One study also suggests that lavender and tea tree oil may be hormone disruptors for younger boys.
5. Pregnant women should do their research.
If you’re pregnant, take a look at these guidelines for essential oil use, because there are many oils you should avoid and also some that can be quite useful.
6. Consider your pets too.
According to the Pet Poison Helpline, wintergreen, sweet birch, citrus, pine, ylang ylang, peppermint, cinnamon, pennyroyal, clove, eucalyptus and tea tree can all be poisonous to cats. Tea tree, pennyroyal, wintergreen and pine are toxic for dogs too. So avoid adding those oils to diffusers in the home if you have furballs running around.
7. Choose your own essential oils.
If you’re looking to treat something specific, fact-check the claims made by essential-oil makers by doing a quick search of trusted publications and scientific journals. Secondly, buy your oils from a reputable source, so you know they’ve been handled with care, not mixed with any unnecessary or harmful ingredients, and properly stored to preserve their effectiveness.
Finally, because smell is associated with memory and emotion in the brain, this is a very subjective process, so what works for one person may not work the same for you.