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The use of essential oils stretches back to Ancient Egypt — the Egyptians grew plants for their oils and used them for medicinal and cosmetic purposes. Apparently, aromatic essences and resins were also used in the embalming process. By around 3,500 B.C., practitioners in China and India were carrying out their own essential oil research, and their early findings later became a core branch of Ayurvedic medicine.
Today, essential oils are as popular as ever, with celebrities from Kelly Clarkson to Kerry Washington extolling their benefits. But if you’re new to aromatherapy, where do you start? Here’s a guide to using essential oils, with a rundown of how the most popular oils might benefit your health and well-being.
What Are Essential Oils?
Aromatherapy, a holistic approach to healing, uses plant extracts to promote health and well-being.
“The essential oils used in aromatherapy are extracted from plants using steam distillation, water distillation or cold pressing,” says dermatologist Dr. Sana Wazir, M.B., B.S., M.D., who works with Scandinavian Biolabs.
Today, the most common method of extraction is steam distillation, says Samanta Moise, registered nurse and CEO and founder of La Parea Wellness.
“The whole idea of doing it is to obtain the purest extract of the plant,” Moise explains.
How Do They Actually Work?
The oils used in aromatherapy have a role in activating the limbic system and triggering the hypothalamus, says Jolene Caufield, senior advisor at Healthy Howard, a nonprofit organization advocating for healthy lifestyle choices.
“Aromatherapy works by activating the smell receptors in the nose, which sends messages to the brain,” Caufield says. “The limbic system is the part of the brain responsible for our behavioral and emotional responses and can be influenced by the type of essential oil we use. On the other hand, the hypothalamus responds to these oils by releasing chemicals in the brain called serotonin, which helps in stabilizing mood.”
Amy Cattaneo, a certified essential oil coach through the Essential Oil Institute, explains that as each oil has a unique chemical makeup, each oil can bring forth a different response.
Diffusing Essential Oils
Essential oils have many uses around the home. They can freshen the air, mask cooking odors, deter bugs and rodents, and even make your shoes smell better. According to Worth Anne Herrell, co-founder of Oilogic Care, the most popular way to use essential oils is to put them into an aromatic diffuser that allows the natural scent of the oil to fill the air.
“Because most people are used to having some kind of scent in their home, whether it from candles, a plug-in or a spray, the switch to a diffuser is not a big one and the easiest for most to implement,” Cattaneo says. “It’s also a great way to allow the benefits of the oil to affect others around them.”
Many retailers sell oil diffusers, sometimes with a selection of essential oils. In our own product review process, one of the best diffusers we found is this Asakuki ultrasonic diffuser. It has more than 20,000 reviews on Amazon and costs $25. Or you can buy a set that includes the diffuser plus three popular essential oils for $40.
Essential oils can also be applied to the skin directly to treat pain, or for antiseptic and anti-inflammatory purposes, Dr. Wazir says.
However, applying essential oil directly to your skin can cause irritation, so it’s important to dilute it with a carrier oil before use. Many oils can be used as carrier oils, including coconut oil, jojoba oil, apricot kernel oil, sweet almond oil and olive oil.
Quality Of Essential Oils
Essential oils aren’t regulated by the FDA, so it’s important to do some research on the company or supplier you’re purchasing from, says Moise. Check if the product is Fair Trade and eco-friendly, and go for an essential oil that says it’s therapeutic grade — but still check the ingredients list. “Therapeutic grade” is simply a marketing term, because there’s no organization that oversees the quality of essential oils.
“A true essential oil does not have additives and is pure,” Moise says. “Some brands add carriers which dilute the extract such as grape seed oil, alcohol, jojoba oil, etc. So make sure you read the label — or the product description if you’re buying online — to be sure that it’s 100% pure and free of carriers.”
“The safety of essential oils is directly influenced by their quality,” Cattaneo adds. In the absence of third-party grading or certification, look for a company that ensures the quality of their oils based on test results and experts. Some tests used to check the quality of an essential oil are GC/MS (gas chromatography/mass spectrometer) tests and the organoleptic test.
“Aromatherapy uses your sense of scent and touch to create therapeutic benefits for the body,” Herrell says. “When used properly, they can be inhaled or applied topically to create physical or emotional benefits, without the use of synthetic ingredients.”
Essential oils are often used to ease stress and anxiety, relieve pain from headaches and aid nighttime sleep, Dr. Wazir adds. While scientific research does support some of the benefits of essential oils — such as a study that found lemon oil reduced agitation for those suffering from dementia — many of the oils’ curative properties have yet to be proven via clinical trials.
Potential Side Effects
“There’s a lot of conflicting information on the internet about the safety of essential oils and how to use them, including the notion that because essential oils are natural and from the earth, they’re not harmful,” Herrell says. “Essential oils are potent and if they’re not blended correctly or diluted appropriately, they may cause harmful effects.”
Some are even toxic under certain conditions. However, if you use essential oils correctly and as directed, Cattaneo says oils have very few side effects. Still, you should be careful.
“Because essential oils are made from a plant, if a person is allergic to the plant, they will be allergic to the oil,” she explains. “They should also never be used directly in the eyes and ear canal. And if someone is taking medication, they should be aware of the drug’s interactions.”
Essential Oil Contraindications
According to Dr. Wazir, the contraindications of using essential oils include pregnancy and hypersensitivity to any active ingredient of a particular essential oil. Also, essential oils shouldn’t be used for children unless under the specific guidance of your pediatrician. Some essential oils are safe for kids, but many of them aren’t recommended due to toxicity concerns and possible adverse skin reactions and breathing problems. The same goes for pets.
The Best Essential Oils
The best essential oil is the one that meets your needs, so think about why you want to use aromatherapy for your health or well-being.
“I love all essential oils,” says Moise. “I feel the most popular ones are the ones that are easier to use and have pleasant scents — not all essential oils smell good!”
Read on for some of the most popular essential oils, and how they might enhance your life.
Clary Sage Oil
Clary sage oil has the ability to induce well-being, calmness and relaxation, Caufield says. In other words, it might be a good choice if you need to de-stress. In one study, women who smelled clary sage experienced lowered blood pressure and breathing rates and were able to relax during a stressful medical exam.
Orange oil is another one that’s believed to reduce the symptoms of anxiety — in both adults and children. According to one study, it helped reduce dental anxiety in kids. And another study found that it reduced the anxiety levels of women in labor.
“When inhaled, it may also help to relieve short-term pain,” Caufield adds.
Rosemary oil is known for helping to reduce stress and boost mental activity, says Caufield.
“The scent of rosemary enhances concentration which increases information retention in humans,” she explains. “Inhaling rosemary oil has also been linked to boosting the immune system by helping stimulate antioxidant activity in the body.”
Lemon oil can serve as a pain reliever and is most commonly used as an analgesic, says Caufield. It also helps in easing symptoms of morning sickness and can be a good mood booster when inhaled.
Be aware that citrus oils are also photosensitive, so if you apply them to your skin, avoid direct sunlight for 12 hours, Cattaneo warns.
A good decongestant, cinnamon oil (derived from the bark or leaves of several types of trees, including the Cinnamomum verum tree and the Cinnamomum cassia tree) is used as a remedy for coughs and colds, Caufield says. And while there’s no scientific evidence to support the use of cinnamon oil for human hair growth, studies in rats found some thickening and growth of hair after the application of cinnamon oil.
Moise believes lavender oil, one of the most popular and versatile essential oils, is great to help decrease stress and promote sleep. It may also help treat fungal infections, allergies, depression, insomnia, eczema, nausea and menstrual cramps.
Some smaller studies that have been carried out on lavender oil found that people had less headache pain after they inhaled lavender for 15 minutes.
Research shows that breathing in peppermint can make people feel more alert and can boost their memory, and it’s also thought to reduce fatigue — and chocolate cravings! Peppermint essential oil can help with the sinuses and also with sore muscles, Moise says. And yet another possible benefit is pain relief – one study even found that there wasn’t a significant difference between using peppermint oil for reducing pain and taking acetaminophen (Tylenol).
Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil doesn’t just keep bugs away — it also helps with skin irritations and soothes inflammation, says Moise. One small study found that tea tree oil was as effective against acne as benzoyl peroxide, the most common anti-acne medication.
As an antifungal treatment, tea tree oil has a solid reputation. In one controlled study, people with nail fungus applied either straight tea tree oil or an antifungal medication for six months. At the end of the study, about 60 percent of people in each group reported partial or full resolution of the fungus.
Geranium oil can stabilize your mood, Moise says. Geranium oil is also rich in antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antimicrobial and antiseptic properties. A review of studies on commercial essential oils suggested that geranium oil can be beneficial for reducing acne breakouts, skin irritation and skin infections when applied topically.
Chamomile oil is another essential oil with a long list of possible benefits. For starters, it’s great for the skin, due to its anti-inflammatory and wound-healing properties, says Moise. It may also help with anxiety, depression, digestive issues and insomnia.
And this is one oil that does have some pretty solid research behind it. One randomized, double-blind trial looked at the effectiveness of topical chamomile oil for carpal tunnel syndrome. After four weeks, symptom severity scores in the chamomile treatment group were significantly lower than the placebo group.
Eucalyptus oil has revitalizing benefits for the skin, says Cattaneo. It’s also known to have a calming effect, and to relieve coughing and help promote clear breathing. In fact, it’s been an active ingredient in over-the-counter cough medications for years. For instance, Vicks VapoRub contains about 1.2 percent eucalyptus oil along with other cough suppressant ingredients. And it doesn’t just silence a cough: It can also help to clear mucus from the chest when inhaled as a vapor.
Bergamot oil is known for having an uplifting effect, which may help relieve anxious feelings and reduce stress, says Cattaneo. In one small study, women who inhaled bergamot recorded lower levels of saliva cortisol (aka the stress hormone). Bergamot oil also helped patients in a mental health treatment center feel most positive, according to another study.
The benefits of lemongrass oil include supporting healthy digestion, naturally repelling insects and enhancing a soothing massage after a workout, says Cattaneo.
Note that lemongrass oil and lemon oil are completely different essential oils, although they share a lemony scent. Lemongrass oil is steam-distilled from a type of grass native to Asia, Australia and Africa, while lemon oil is cold-pressed from lemon rinds.
Ylang Ylang Oil
Ylang-ylang oil helps create a calming, positive environment and helps provide antioxidant support, says Cattaneo. Some studies have found that it boosted self-esteem when inhaled or applied to the skin. It can also be enjoyed as a perfume, due to its attractive floral scent.
Research suggests that sandalwood oil may help control anxiety, increase alertness, support wound healing and fight bacteria. It may also reduce the appearance of skin imperfections, adds Cattaneo. She also suggests using it during meditation, as it’s very grounding.
Known as the “king of flowers,” jasmine oil may help reduce the appearance of skin imperfections and has an uplifting effect on mood, says Cattaneo. One study, which examined the effects of jasmine oil inhalation on the central nervous system and mood, found that it affected brain activity and mood states, with participants reporting more positive, energetic and romantic feelings.
Jasmine oil is another popular fragrance choice. It’s been used in some of the world’s best-known perfumes for centuries, including Chanel No. 5.