What Are Essential Oils? 12 Benefits & Guide on How to Use
When you hear the word “aromatherapy,” what is your first thought? Most people immediately think, “alternative medicine,” because this is how aromatherapy is classified.
Despite the fact that aromatherapy still is not really in the mainstream however, there actually is a lot of scientific research already which backs up the efficacy of essential oils in promoting a healthy body and mind.
In this article, we will delve into 12 specific ways that essential oils can improve your physical and psychological health, based on research studies.
These uses include everything from fighting anxiety to soothing migraines.
But first, let’s talk a little bit more about essential oils - what they are and how to use them safely.
What Are Essential Oils?
If you walk into a health shop, you may find a counter which holds a number of small apothecary bottles, usually blue or amber to shield the liquids they contain from the sunlight.
Open one of the bottles and take a whiff, and you will breathe in a scent which is entirely natural and pure.
It could be the soft, powdery floral redolence of a rose, or it might be the sharp, resinous scent of pine or cedar.
There are dozens upon dozens of different essential oils in existence.
Unlike commercial perfumes and colognes, the liquids inside these bottles smell pure because they are.
Each contains a single ingredient - the essential oil extracted from a particular plant.
An essential oil consists of the volatile aromatic compounds found inside a specific plant.
The word “volatile” here refers to the ability of the small organic molecules comprising the compounds to quickly change state.
This volatility makes it possible for essential oils to disperse their scent rapidly through the air.
This is why they are ideal for aromatherapy and perfumery applications.
Essential oils can be produced through a number of different methods.
These include solvent extraction, resin tapping, cold pressing, absolute oil extraction and expression.
The most common method however is to use steam to distill them.
Because essential oils are highly-concentrated, they are extremely potent. This can make them unsafe to use if you do not dilute them.
This is something we will get into in more depth later on. First though, let us talk a bit more about how essential oils work.
KEY POINT: Essential oils are the volatile aromatic compounds found in plants, distilled into a pure liquid form.
They capture the “essential” scent and flavor of the plant.
How Do Essential Oils Work?
There are in theory three ways you can use essential oils:
- Inhale them through your nose or mouth
- Apply them topically to your skin
- Ingest them
Ingesting an essential oil (even diluted) can be dangerous, and despite the fact it is something which some people do, we recommend that you avoid it entirely for your safety.
So how do essential oils impart their benefits to your body?
If you inhale an essential oil …
The essential oil will stimulate your limbic system.
This part of your brain helps to regulate your emotions, sense of smell, and long-term memory as well as some of your behaviors (1).
If you are getting a familiar feeling reading this, it may be because you have also evoked familiar feelings with certain smells.
Sometimes you breathe in a scent you have not smelled in a long time and for an instant, you are immediately transported back in time to another occasion when you smelled the same thing.
Your limbic system also is involved with regulating some of your physical functions.
These include your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing (4).
This may enable essential oils to help regulate these same functions via the limbic pathway.
More research is needed right now to confirm that this is indeed the case.
If you apply an essential oil topically …
Your skin is a barrier, but it also acts as a permeable membrane through which certain molecules may pass.
Once these chemicals are inside your body, they can interact with different body systems to produce certain results.
KEY POINT: Essential oils can be absorbed topically through your skin or they can impact your physiological or psychological state through inhalation using the limbic system pathway.
Vital Essential Oil Safety Information
Now that you understand how essential oils can be absorbed into the body and impact your health, it is time to talk about safety.
It is easy to make the mistake of assuming that just because a substance is natural, it is also 100% safe.
But essential oils do contain powerful bioactive compounds.
As they are highly concentrated in the bottle you buy, they can be extremely potent in their effects.
Topically, this can lead to an array of side-effects (9).
These may include rashes, headaches and asthma attacks. It is also possible to be allergic to an essential oil and suffer an allergic reaction.
Misuse of essential oils may even be lethal (10).
Some examples of essential oils which contain phenols include cinnamon, clove, rose, ylang ylang and thyme.
These essential oils are generally quite safe when properly diluted, but diluted insufficiently or used on sensitive skin, they may cause a rash.
There are not currently a lot of studies which have examined the use of essential oils among pregnant or breastfeeding women.
How Can You Safely Dilute Essential Oils?
To safely apply essential oils topically, you must always dilute them first.
You can do this by using a carrier oil.
Water does not work because essential oils are hydrophobic. In other words, they will not mix with water.
Carrier oils can be applied to your skin safely in an undiluted form. They are derived from plants, and are not volatile.
Ideally, you want to choose a carrier oil which has a neutral smell.
Some popular options for carrier oils include:
This oil is a wonderful choice because it has a very light scent, almost undetectable.
Its light, thin consistency is also ideal for mixture and application.
This oil has a faint nutty fragrance and a medium consistency which isn’t too heavy or greasy. It has a long shelf life.
This is one of the easiest and most affordable oils to find. It does have a heavy, oily feel and a strong olive aroma however.
This oil is a solid at room temperature and must be heated up to a liquid before you can use it to dilute your essential oils.
The coconut aroma is strong if you buy it unrefined; the refined oil has scarcely any scent.
Sweet almond oil.
This oil has a faint nutty aroma. It absorbs quickly into your skin an makes a good moisturizer.
These oils are all good for your skin and will impart benefits of their own while keeping you safe using essential oils.
What level of dilution do you need?
This depends in part on 1-the essential oil you wish to use, and 2-the specific application of the oil. T
he dilution ratios used in preparing perfume oil for example differ from those used to prepare a remedy.
Generally speaking however, you can observe the following rule:
- A 2% dilution is safe for adults, teenagers and older children.
- A 1% dilution is safe for younger children, babies, and the elderly.
How many drops you need depends on how large of a volume you are trying to fill.
So start by figuring that out, and then either look up a chart or do the math.
You will find that for most applications, you only need a few drops of the essential oil you want to use.
Do not be tempted to use more than you need. It will feel like almost nothing, but essential oils are incredibly potent.
KEY POINT: Essential oils are unsafe if they are not diluted.
If you dilute them properly, you will find that they are both safe and effective in treating many conditions.
How You Can Use Essential Oils
As mentioned previously, you can either inhale an essential oil to enjoy the benefits of aromatherapy, or you can apply an oil topically.
But there are actually numerous ways you can inhale or apply essential oils:
- Inhale the essential oil directly from the bottle.
- Create smelling salts by adding around 20-30 drops to a 10-ml bottle along with sea salts.
- Use an oil diffuser to disperse essential oil into the atmosphere of a room.
- Create an aromatic spritzer using water and essential oil.
- Try steam inhalation by adding a few drops of essential oil to boiling water (make sure you keep your eyes closed when you do this).
- Add a few drops of essential oil to your bath.
- Add a few drops of essential oil to a cream, lotion, or balm.
- Use a carrier oil along with essential oils of your choice to create a massage oil.
- Create a perfume oil blend to wear.
- Add essential oils of your choice to your favorite shampoo or conditioner.
- Create a hair rinse or hair mask.
KEY POINT: One of the great advantages of essential oils is their versatility.
There are numerous different ways that you can apply essential oils or inhale them.
This allows you to experience their benefits for your physical and psychological health in a way which suits your specific needs.
List of Popular Essential Oils
There are dozens of different essential oils which are commonly in use.
They are popular both for their health benefits and for their pleasant aromas.
Here are a few which are incorporated as ingredients in many products (perfumes, shampoos, lotions, etc.) and which you may find useful and enjoyable:
- Lavender: For soothing anxiety.
- Rosemary: For reducing anxiety and improving focus.
- Patchouli: For improving focus and attention.
- Ylang-ylang: For improving cardiovascular health.
- Eucalyptus: For boosting circulation.
- Tea tree: For fighting infections.
- Peppermint: For improving digestion and reducing hair loss.
- Orange: For producing relaxation.
- Cedarwood: For inducing relaxation.
- Vetiver: For soothing anxiety and treating ADHD.
KEY POINT: There are dozens of different essential oils you can use to support your health and overall well-being.
The evidence isn’t just anecdotal - read on to learn the science!
12 Health Benefits of Essential Oils
Below are 12 evidence-based benefits of essential oils:
1. Soothe anxiety and stress.
One of the most popular uses for essential oils is to fight anxiety and stress and induce relaxation.
Alternative therapies like this are used by an estimated 43% of people who suffer from these issues (19).
So far, studies on essential oils for treating anxiety and stress are promising (23), but not entirely conclusive.
Essential oils may be useful in treating occupational and domestic stress (22).
What are some of the essential oils you can try for stress reduction and relaxation?
- Sweet orange oil has been shown to reduce anxiety (24).
- Ylang ylang has a number of positive effects, including the reduction of stress (25).
- Cedarwood oil has a sedative effect which may help to create a relaxing state (26).
- Vetiver oil appears to be effective in reducing anxiety (27).
- Lavender is among the most well-researched essential oils for stress relief and relaxation. Studies show that it can reduce the endocrinological stress markers of anxiety (28), and that it can increase the power of alpha and theta brain waves (29). A related essential oil called lavandin has also been used effectively to reduce the anxiety of patients in pre-op environments (30).
- Geranium oil has effectively reduced anxiety in women in the first stage of labor (33).
This is not an entirely comprehensive list, especially since research into essential oils is ongoing.
It may well be that there are additional oils which promote stress relief which are not yet well-studied.
Another matter to consider is the bias effect.
While on one hand biases associated with scents make it hard to produce solid research results, the bias effect of smell may itself help to create stress relief in some people.
It is harder for the brain to retrieve positive memories during times of stress and depression (31).
Some scents become tied closely to positive memories. When we smell them again, they can immediately evoke positive moods and impressions.
Essential oils may boost positive memory retrieval during stressful times because of this close link between memory formation and smell.
This could feasibly lead to stress relief if you have strong positive associations with a certain scent - even if that scent does not demonstrate efficacy in research trials of the general public.
KEY POINT: Essential oils are widely used for stress relief and for soothing anxiety.
If you suffer from stress or anxiety, try lavender, sweet orange, cedar, geranium, vetiver, ylang ylang, or any scent which you link to positive memories and experiences.
2. Fight depression.
Stress and anxiety are both damaging mental health conditions when they spin out of control, but depression can be equally detrimental to well-being.
There are not as many studies on essential oils and depression as there are on essential oils and anxiety, but there are some promising results.
One study found that lavender was able to reduce insomnia and depression in female college students (32).
Ylang ylang oil has also been found effective in curbing depression and lifting mood (25).
It is also worth keeping in mind that anxiety and depression tend to feed into one another.
When you are depressed, you become more prone to anxiety.
When you are anxious all the time, eventually you may become depressed.
This means that you can indirectly combat depression by fighting stress and anxiety using the oils that we talked about previously.
KEY POINT: Lavender and ylang ylang essential oil have both been found to be beneficial for fighting depression.
Essential oils that combat anxiety may also indirectly provide a psychological buffer against the development of depression.
3. Cope with ADHD.
Millions of children and adults have been diagnosed with ADHD, a condition which makes it difficult to focus and perform executive function skills.
Typically, ADHD is controlled using medication, but some alternative therapies have also been explored.
One of those alternative treatment options is aromatherapy.
Lavender essential oil, cedarwood essential oil, and vetiver essential oil have all been tested for effectiveness treating ADHD.
While lavender produced no improvement in ADHD symptoms, cedarwood produced slight improvements, and vetiver yielded clinically significant improvements (34).
KEY POINT: Controlling symptoms of ADHD without medication can be a challenge.
Aromatherapy using vetiver essential oil has demonstrated promising results, and may offer an option to patients who are looking for an alternative or complementary therapy.
4. Relieve a headache.
Research into headaches and essential oils is still in the beginning stages, but there are already some indications that certain oils may be effective for fighting migraines and other types of head pain.
The use of essential oils to treat migraines extends back centuries.
In traditional Persian medicine, chamomile oil and sesame oil are used together to soothe headaches.
Researchers studying this treatment have discovered that chamomile essential oil has neuroprotective effects.
Combined with the anti-inflammatory powers of sesame oil, it yields a novel treatment for migraines (35).
Lavender proves to be an especially effective essential oil once again in the area of headache research.
This oil may safely and effectively reduce migraine pain through inhalation (36).
KEY POINT: If you suffer from migraines, inhaling or topically applying peppermint oil, lavender oil, or chamomile oil may help to ease your pain.
5. Combat insomnia for a restful night of sleep.
As lavender oil has received the most attention out of all the essential oils, it should not surprise you that researchers have discovered yet another excellent health benefit of lavender oil aromatherapy - fighting insomnia.
One of the studies (40) even found that lavender essential oil can improve sleep quality in coronary artery disease patients.
KEY POINT: For insomnia sufferers, the soothing powers of lavender can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and lead to more restful slumber.
6. Reduce inflammation.
While there are not many human studies on essential oils and inflammation, there are a number of animal studies.
Eucalyptus oil also has demonstrated anti-inflammatory action (47).
This has made it a successful treatment for sinusitis, chronic rhinitis, and bronchitis as well as asthma.
KEY POINT: Research is still in the initial stages concerning essential oils and the treatment of inflammatory conditions.
Animal trials do indicate a number of oils may be helpful in fighting colitis.
Eucalyptus oil also has demonstrated anti-inflammatory qualities which make it useful in treating a range of conditions.
7. Improve circulation and cardiovascular health.
For patients suffering from cardiovascular conditions or simply wanting to protect and improve cardiovascular health, essential oils may be useful.
Eucalyptus oil also is known to improve blood circulation, including cerebral blood flow (47).
It is reported to decrease tachycardia as well. Athletes sometimes use it to bolster performance.
KEY POINT: Ylang ylang and eucalyptus oil both can improve your overall cardiovascular health by reducing blood pressure and high heart rate while increasing circulation.
8. Fight infections.
There are a number of essential oils which are purported to have antimicrobial effects, particularly tea tree oil and peppermint oil.
There is not however a lot of research in human beings at this point.
So while these initial test tube results are indicative of antimicrobial activity, further trials in humans are needed to establish the effectiveness of essential oils as a treatment for various infections.
KEY POINT: Test tube results indicate that essential oils can fight microbes, but further research is needed to determine if this effect bears out in the human body.
9. Boost concentration.
You already know that essential oils can help you to relax, but did you know they can also increase your focus and alertness?
A study in the International Journal of Neuroscience (57) split participants into two groups.
One group was given lavender essential oil and the other was given rosemary essential oil.
The groups were given math computations before the therapy and afterward to measure any changes in their performance.
The group which was given lavender had increased beta brain power, which backed the sedative effect of lavender.
Nonetheless, they were able to get through the equations more quickly than they did prior.
They were also more accurate with their results, suggesting that increased relaxation can boost focus.
The group given rosemary showed less alpha and beta power. This is indicative of heightened alertness.
Like the lavender group, they reported feeling more relaxed.
They showed no improvements in accuracy, though they did get through the computations more quickly after aromatherapy.
This study is fascinating, because it showed that both relaxing and stimulating odors can improve concentration.
It also backed both lavender and rosemary essential oils as effective concentration aids.
KEY POINT: If you need to increase your concentration, lavender or rosemary essential oil may help you to focus and increase the speed and/or accuracy of your performance.
10. Fight hair loss.
Are you looking for a powerful natural treatment for hair loss?
Peppermint oil has proved astonishingly effective in research studies.
One study published in Toxicological Research in 2014 (58) split participants into four groups.
One group was given saline, another jojoba oil, and another Minoxidil (Rogaine).
The final group was given peppermint oil at a dilution ratio of 3%.
The trial followed participants over a four-week period, tracking their hair growth from week to week.
By week 2, peppermint oil was outperforming both jojoba oil and saline. By week 3, it was outpacing Minoxidil.
By the end of the final week in the trial, it had proved significantly more effective. Minoxidil yielded hair growth at a rate of 55%.
Peppermint oil eclipsed that result spectacularly with hair growth of 92%.
Rogaine has been known to produce some side effects, including color changes in hair. Some patients are also allergic.
The study on peppermint oil found no toxic effects of using the essential oil as a hair growth treatment.
This indicates that peppermint oil may not only be more effective than Rogaine, but may also serve as a side-effect free alternative for patients who experience adverse effects from using a hair loss medication.
KEY POINT: In trials studying hair growth, peppermint oil has proven more powerful than Minoxidil.
11. Improve digestion.
Essential oils in digestion still have not received a lot of attention, perhaps because ingestion is usually not recommended.
One study however (59) found that a number of essential oils may help to treat a condition called intestinal dysbiosis, characterized by the overgrowth of bacteria or fungi in the small intestine.
The oils which yielded promising results included caraway, lavender, ajwain, and bitter orange.
While the researchers recommended further study to investigate safety and tolerability, the in vitro results indicated that ingestion of these essential oils in proper doses should not have any adverse effect on beneficial digestive microbes.
KEY POINT: Research on the digestive effects of essential oils is still in the beginning stages, but several oils have already produced promising results in treating intestinal dysbiosis.
12. Fight allergies and other respiratory ailments.
Essential oils can combat airborne pathogens (60), which may provide you with protection against seasonal allergies and infections.
KEY POINT: Eucalyptus essential oil can provide you with sinus relief when you need it.
What Else Can You Do With Essential Oils?
Now you know all about the numerous health benefits of essential oils! But as hinted earlier, there are a lot of other uses for essential oils as well.
You can use them to create perfume oil blends which smell amazing, or you can use them to freshen up the scent of a room with an oil diffuser.
They are also great for adding to homemade cosmetic products such as soaps, shampoo bars, and lotions.
You can even use them to create your very own all-natural laundry detergent.
With essential oils, these homemade products smell fantastic, and offer you a healthier replacement for commercial products loaded with chemical additives.
Just getting those unnatural, unhealthy products out of your home is a health benefit.
I want to share a couple of simple recipes that you should try today!
1. Make a Bar of Soap Using Essential Oils.
Have you ever looked at the ingredients in the soap you use each day?
Chances are good that unless you are shopping for all-natural products, you are using a soap bar which is loaded with nasty additives.
You can replace those unhealthy soaps with natural homemade soap using the following recipe:
Ingredients (makes 44 ounces of soap):
- 33 oz. coconut oil, 76-degree melting point
- 4.83 oz. lye (NaOH)
- 12.54 oz. water
- .5 – 1 oz. essential oils of your choice
Note: You must be careful working with lye. It is a reagent in the soap-making process.
None remains in the completed product, so you can feel totally safe using your finished soap.
- Put on protective gear (for the lye).
- Turn a crockpot on low.
- Pour the water into a glass bowl.
- Head outdoors to work with the lye.
- Stir the lye into the water. Do not inhale the vapor.
- The step above is complete when the liquid turns clear. Bring it indoors and wait 10 minutes as it cools.
- Pour the coconut oil into a saucepan and heat it to 120-130 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Add the coconut oil to your crockpot.
- Pour the water and lye mixture into the crockpot.
- Blend the ingredients until they achieve a consistency like pudding.
- Cover the crockpot and cook the ingredients on low for 45 minutes to an hour.
- Once the soap appears to be finished cooking, check the pH with a test strip. If the result is higher than 10, continue cooking. You need to ensure that all the lye is cooked out.
- Once the soap is completed, remove it from the heat.
- Wait for the soap to cool down a bit.
- Now, stir in the essential oils you have selected. The reason you should not add them earlier is because they can burn away if the heat is too high.
- Pour the completed soap into soap molds.
- Wait for the soap to cool down even more.
- Cut the soap into bars.
- Set the soap bars on a rack for a few days so they have time to harden.
These soaps should last a long time if you use them conservatively. And thanks to the essential oils, they will smell fantastic!
2. Make Powdered Laundry Detergent Using Essential Oils.
Another easy recipe is powdered laundry detergent. You only need a handful of ingredients for this one.
- 1 bar of coconut-based soap (use the soap you made using the previous recipe)
- 1 cup of soda ash
- 1 cup of borax
- Optional: 20 drops of essential oils
- Start by grating the soap bar with a food processor or hand grater. Get the particles as fine as you can.
- Mix this grated soap in with the soda ash and the borax.
- Stir your essential oils in.
- Pour the finished laundry soap into a jar and seal it.
That is all there is to it. You only need a tablespoon or two for a single load of laundry, so this should last you quite a while.
As with the soap recipe, you can pick any essential oils you want to add.
Just remember that if you already used essential oils in your soap recipe, you may want to skip adding more to your laundry soap.
If on the other hand you purchased unscented coconut-based soap from the store to make your laundry soap, you can add the essential oils in now for a fresh scent.
KEY POINT: There is a lot you can do with essential oils which goes beyond simple aromatherapy.
When you use essential oils to create soaps and other home goods, you can replace unhealthy store-bought products.
Tips for Purchasing Quality Essential Oils
Not all essential oils are equal in terms of quality (63).
While shopping for essential oils, you will find that many are promoted with catch-phrases such as “medical grade” or “pure.”
While these claims sound promising, they are not indicative of the composition of the product and therefore tell you nothing definitive about its quality.
The following tips may help you to select a product which actually is pure:
- Avoid products which contain chemicals or other additives.
- Steer clear of products which have been modified heavily through extraction.
- Shop for products that are labeled with the scientific botanical name of the plant rather than “essential oil of ____.”
- Stay with reputable brands.
Be wary of companies that package their products with overly exuberant claims about their health effects.
While essential oils are backed by scientific research, they are not a magic cure for your ailments.
Conclusion: Essential Oils Can Improve Your Physical and Psychological Health
While many of the claims surrounding essential oils are exaggerated through hyperbole (see above), there is a growing body of scientific evidence backing many oils as beneficial to physical and psychological well-being.
Lavender essential oil in particular has demonstrated powerful effects for stress-relief and relaxation.
While essentials oils likely cannot replace your main treatments, they can offer you a powerful complementary form of alternative therapy for anxiety, depression, migraines, and other maladies.
Just be sure to purchase pure, high-quality essential oils and dilute them for safe use.
HOW WOULD YOU RATE THIS ARTICLE?
If you found this article helpful, follow us on facebook and/or share the article with buttons below so other people can benefit from it too:
You can republish this article on your blog/website by complying with the following republishing guidelines.