Everything You Need to Know About Essential Oils
Essential oils seem to be all the rage these days. People are looking for safer and more natural ways to take care of their bodies and homes and essential oils have a very strong allure. But are essential oils really all they’re cracked up to be?
When I get to talking with my friends about essential oils, two things always come up: 1) What are you actually supposed to DO with essential oils? and 2) What is the safest way to use essential oils? So I set off to do some research, and do you know what I learned? I learned that while essential oils aren’t the be all/cure all for everything, they are just like the spices we use for cooking. The more you play around with aromas and healing properties, the more you will be able to add a drop here and a drop there to positively effect the health and well-being of your entire family. So come learn with me!
What ARE Essential Oils?
Essential oils are basically the distilled and concentrated oils of a plant. But interestingly enough, they are not really essential and they are not really oils.
They are called “essential”, not because we need to get them from our diets (such as with essential amino acids like lysine or essential fatty acids like omega-3s), but rather because they contain the essence of the plant’s fragrance. Also, they are not really “oils” like olive oil and coconut oil because they do not contain fatty acids (although they are both hydrophobic and repel water).
If you look at the two examples below, the first one is a picture of oleic acid (up to 83% of olive oil is comprised of oleic acid), and is basically a long chain of carbon atoms (with a bend) surrounded by hydrogen atoms.
This next picture is of eugenol (about 20% of clove oil is comprised of eugenol), and it has more of a hexagon shape that is made of mostly hydrogen atoms and hydroxide diatomic anions.
So the term “oil” is used to reference the highly concentrated part of a plant that has been extracted. The oils extracted from plants are basically stored as microdroplets in the glands of plants.
The droplets diffuse through the walls of the glands and spread over the surface of the plant evaporating and creating the fragrance of the plant. According to Encyclopedia Britannica,
The function of the essential oil in a plant is not well understood.
Some postulations are that it protects the plant from parasites, or maybe it attracts bees, but since very few essential oils are actually involved in the plant, some people say that these materials are simply a waste product of plant biosynthesis. At any rate, they sure smell good!
How Are Essential Oils Made
Most pure essential oils are extracted from plants using steam distillation. Freshly picked plants are placed in a still and suspended over boiling water. The steam saturates the plants for fairly short about of time (about 15-30 minutes), and then it is rapidly cooled causing the steam to condense back into water. The water is drained from the still, the essential oils float to the top, and are then collected. The remaining water is sold as floral water, otherwise known as a hydrosol.
Another method is known as expression and is typically reserved for citrus peels such as orange, lemon, lime, or grapefruit. It is made in a similar way to olive oil by pressing the oil from the plant’s flesh, seeds, and skins.
Some plant material is too delicate and must be extracted with solvents (as is the case with rose oil). The oils that are extracted with solvents are called absolutes.
The Concentration of Essential Oils
I find it absolutely fascinating to think about how much of the raw plant is needed to make a small bottle of essential oil. I’ve found a few examples here that may vary slightly based on each oil company producing it, but will still blow your mind nonetheless.
- 27 square feet of lavender are needed to make one 15 mL bottle of lavender oil
- 75 lemons are needed to make one 15 mL bottle of lemon oil
- 1 lb of raw peppermint material is needed to make one 15 mL bottle of peppermint oil (source)
- One drop of peppermint oil is the equivalent of 26-28 cups of peppermint tea (source)
- 200,000 rose petals are needed to make one 5 mL bottle of rose oil (source)
What Makes a Good Essential Oil?
Choosing the best high quality oil can take a little bit of research. Here are some of the things to look for when selecting an oil.
- Special Note – There is no classification in the aromatherapy world for “therapeutic grade” oils. So any oil company who say, “no other oil company can say…”, it’s probably because their company has trademarked these words. (Read more about The ‘Therapeutic Grade’ Essential Oils Disinformation Campaign here.)
- Growing Methods – Look for oil companies that use sustainable and ethical farming practices free from herbicides, pesticides, and heavy metals. Note that the “organic” certification is great, but may not be available in some countries where the plants are grown.
- Label – The label should include: the botanical plant name (i.e. lavandula angustifolia for lavender), plant part (flower/stem oil, flower oil, peel oil, etc.), and common sense caution (i.e. keep out of reach of children, consult a health practitioner if pregnant or nursing, etc.). Country of origin is also nice to know as well.
- Testing – GC/MS (Gas Chromatopography/Mass Spectrometry) testing identifies the different substances within a test sample.
- Cost – If the price is too good to be true, it probably is. For example, jasmine oil and rose oil are very concentrated, hard to make, and will therefore run about $80 – $100 for a mere 5 mL. But higher cost does not always mean higher quality when it comes to price comparison.
Essential Oil Safety Guidelines
- Is it safe to use undiluted oils? – It is generally recommended that you can use oils like lavender and tea tree “neat” without any dilution, but if you repeatedly use an essential oil without dilution on the skin for a period of time, you can become sensitized to it with an adverse reaction that will appear “suddenly” and may possibly never go away. It’s always safest to dilute essential oils using this guideline:
- For Young Children (6-24 months) – 1 drop plus 1 T. of carrier oil
- For Children (2+) and Sensitive Skin – 1 drop plus 1 tsp. of carrier oil
- For General Daily Use – 2 drops plus 1 tsp. of carrier oil
- For Periodic Use – 3 drops plus 1 tsp. of carrier oil
- Which carrier oils are the best? – Carrier oils are the best way to dilute essential oils. Here is a list of the best carrier oils with notes about why you might consider each one.
- Sweet Almond Oil – This is my favorite to use for skin care because it’s very light, reasonably inexpensive, has a sweet smell, and is very nutritious with lots of vitamins including A, B, and E.
- Jojoba Oil – This oil is a bit thicker, has a longer shelf life, and has pretty much no odor. It mimics collagen making it great for people who suffer from any skin conditions.
- Fractionated Coconut Oil – Fractionated coconut oil has almost all of the long chain fatty acids removed leaving it with mostly medium chain fatty acids making it very saturated and very stable with a long shelf life. It will also stay in liquid form, is less likely to clog pores than regular coconut oil, and has the antioxidant and anti-mircorbial properties of capric and caprylic acid.
- Olive Oil – This can be the most convenient carrier oil to use because you probably have it in your cupboards! It also contains lots of proteins, vitamins, and minerals that really help with skin and hair.
- For Aging Skin – Apricot, Aragan, and Rosehip are all really great oils for aging skin.
- Can young children use essential oil? The safest way for babies and young children to use essential oils is through diffusion, hydrosols (floral water left over after steam distillation), and application to the feet – the least overwhelming place for the senses (if they won’t put them in their mouth that is). Plant Therapy makes some great blends for kids over 2 like this Nighty-Night blend.
- 0-3 Months: Avoid all essential oils, their skin is too sensitive and permeable
- 3-6 Months: Very little contact with essential oils with the exception of: Chamomile, lavender, dill, and blue yarrow
- 6-24 Months: Can safely use a variety of essential oils including: citronella, grapefruit, orange, and tea tree
- Children 2+: Can safely use an expanded array of essential oils including: clary sage, clove (for teething), frankincense, lemongrass, myrhh, oregano, spearmint, and vetiver
- Avoid: Stay away from peppermint with children under 6 and eucalyptus and rosemary with children under 10 because they contain the constituent (1.8, cineole) which has been known to cause breathing problems (so this also means no thieves oil). (source 1, source 2)
- Can pregnant and nursing women use essential oils? – Even though many pregnant women enjoy the benefits of essential oils, there haven’t been any studies to determine their absolute safety (ethical reasons), so pregnant women should use with caution. Here are a few general guidelines:
- Avoid the use of essential oils in their first trimester
- Only them use periodically – not daily
- Avoid absolutes because of the trace chemicals
- Avoid adding oils to the birthing pool because it could be harmful to the new baby
- Avoid clary sage, all eucalyptus, lemongrass, myrrh, and oregano to name a few (source)
- Is it safe to ingest essential oils? – When you think about how oil and water don’t mix, it is weird to add even just one drop of lemon essential oil to your water because not only is that the equivalent 1 lb of lemons, but it could cause burns, blisters, and lesions in your mouth, esophagus, and stomach lining if the undiluted droplet comes in contact with your sensitive tissues.
- If you really want to get the health benefits of lemon in your water, I would just squeeze half of a lemon into your water and leave the oils for diffusing and skin care.
- You can also find lavender tea, peppermint tea, and chamomile tea made from dried herbs that is a much safer method of ingesting.
- Enteric coated capsules that will not release until they reach the small intestine (like these peppermint capsules for IBS) are also safer than trying to ingest essential oils.
- Unless there are extreme circumstances (i.e. you are suffering from a debilitating illness and NOTHING else is working) and you are under the specific guidance of a trained aromatherapist, I would NOT RECOMMEND INGESTING ESSENTIAL oils. (source)
- What should I do if I get some essential oil in my eyes or it burns my skin? – If you get some essential oil in your eyes or on your skin and it burns, the worst thing you can do is try to rinse it off with water. The best thing you can do is wipe the area clean with a carrier oil, some whole milk, or cream which will bind to the oil and rinse it away (source).
- Other Precautions – Keep undiluted oils away from airways (nose and mouth) and avoid essential oil use with people who have respiratory diseases such as asthma because they can inflame the airways (source).
Best Uses for Essential Oils
Once you get past some of the basics about essential oils, I think that the most common question that I have heard (and thought myself) most often is,
“How do I actually use essential oils in my daily life?”
So here are some of the ways to use essential oils that are safe, practical, and things we could all use in our daily lives. Everyone has different smells that they find either intoxicating or disgusting, the best advice I have is to just get your nose in front of as many essential oils as you can until you find the fragrances that you really like.
- Diffusing – Our sense of smell is very powerful at triggering emotions and memories and by diffusing essential oils, it can create very significantly alter your mood in a positive way by inducing anything from peace and calm to vigor and energy. Look for a cool air diffuser that uses high frequency vibrations to create an ultra fine mist. Check out this list of amazing diffuser blends that will fit just about any mood you might have. There are also a lot of pre-made blends you can get for different purposes. As a beginner just testing out my own blends, I like using a few drops of orange and clove oil or lavender and vanilla.
- Rollerballs – Preparing rollerballs with your favorite essential oils and a good carrier oil can help you to enjoy your favorite scent on the go or give you a healing mixture at the tip of your fingers. Just apply to your wrists, neck, or feet. Check out this list of some great rollerball blends.
- In the Bath – DO NOT add essential oils directly to the bath…they will not evenly disperse in the water. Make sure to add them to a surfactant (soap), carrier oil, or even some cream or whole milk first. Sugar scrubs, bath salts, or bath bombs if you want to get really fancy, are great ways to get essential oils into your bath experience.
- Skin Care Products – I like making my own toothpaste (using peppermint oil), my own deodorant (using tea tree and lavender oils), my own body butter (using whatever essential oils I want to enjoy), and my own lip balm (using eucalyptus oil). You can also make your own massage oil (lemongrass, marjoram, and peppermint soothe muscles) or any other number of skin care products using essential oils. (I love all of Wellness Mama’s recipes.)
- Cleaning – By mixing white vinegar, dish soap, tea tree oil, and eucalyptus oil, you can make your own tub and tile cleaner. You can also make your own all purpose cleaner by mixing together vinegar, lavender, lemongrass, sweet orange, oregano, and tea tree oil. Check out more cleaning recipes here. Just make sure you’re using amber spray bottles if you need your cleaner to have a long shelf life.
- Compresses – Hot compresses are typically used to help muscles and tissues while cold compresses are typically used to constrict blood vessels and control swelling. To make either one, fill a pan or large bowl with either very hot or very cold water, add about 6-12 drops of oil (examples: clary sage for menstrual cramps, peppermint for headache or stomachache), swirl a cloth through the water, wring it out, and apply it to the affected area (source).
- Cotton Balls – Put a few drops of an essential oil on a cotton ball and place in the bottom of a trashcan, behind the toilet, in some stinky shoes, or in a drawer to help eliminate odors and leave behind a fragrant aroma. You can also add a few droplets on dryer balls to make your clothes smell really nice.
- Spray Bottles: Mix your favorite oils in water, make sure to shake before use, spray on clothes, to freshen up a room, as a bug spray or to keep cats off from things (citronella, tea tree, eucalyptus, rosemary, lemongrass).
- Inhaler: Add about 25 drops of essential oils (eucalyptus, fir, cypress, etc.) to a cotton ball and stuff into one of these inhalers. (See more on how to make one here.)
Healing with Essential Oils
If you can think of an ailment or condition and type that into google next to the words “essential oils”, I am sure that you will find a TON of ideas. Some of the most healing oils that come up over and over again for different ailments are: tea tree, oregano, chamomile, and lavender. You can make a really good healing salve (better than Neosporin) using: Coconut oil, tea tree, lavender, frankincense, and helichrysum essential oils.
Keep in mind that if you’re using essential oils to treat a physical symptom (i.e. skin condition), you’ve got to treat the underlying cause or the symptom will keep reoccurring. That being said, if you’re feeling any of the symptoms below, I have listed some of the best essential oils for eliminating them (source 1, source 2, source 3, source 4, source 5, source 6).
- Insomnia: Lavender and chamomile, maybe a little bit of orange are the best choice, also marjoram, ylang ylang, lime, bergamot, neroli, and lemon (spray the room, pillow, or diffuse in room 30 minutes prior to bedtime)
- Headache: Peppermint, lavender, eucalyptus, or rosemary (roller ball, compress, diffuser)
- Cold and Flu: Tea tree, pine, lavender, peppermint, thyme, lemon, eucalyptus, or rosemary (diffuser, roller ball, inhaler, compress)
- Chest Congestion/Cold: Eucalyptus (or fir and cypress), frankincense or bergamot will help kill germs too (inhaler, diffuser)
- Skin Fungus: Tea tree, oregano, thyme, cinnamon, clove, lemongrass, and lavender (roller ball, carrier oil, lotion)
- Tooth Pain: Clove oil – only use over the age of 2, numbing agent, so don’t swallow (external compress, with carrier oil in the mouth)
- Eczema: Lavender and chamomile are very soothing (mix with Renew lotion)
- Bug Bites: Basil, lavender, tea tree (carrier oil)
- Morning Sickness/Nausea: Ginger, spearmint, lemon, grapefruit, orange, or lime (inhaler, rollerball)
- Back Pain/Sciatic Nerve Pain: Marjoram, lavender, cypress, chamomille, and black pepper (massage oil)
- Stretch Marks and Scars: Chamomille, orange, and rosehip mixed together (carrier oil, lotion)
- Stress/Anxiety/Fear: Lavender, chamomile, citrus scents, geranium, ylang ylang, petitgrain, and neroli (diffuser, inhaler, rollerball)
- Fatigue: Spearmint, grapefruit, lime, and sweet orange mixture (inhaler, diffuser)
- Menstrual Cramps: Chamomile, clary sage, lavender, peppermint, rose, or rosemary (hot compress)
I do not think that essential oils are the be all and end all to all things related to health and beauty, but I do think that they are an integral part of every natural household. The attraction to essential oils seems to be such a buzz these days, and I’m glad that now I have a pretty strong understanding of what essential oils are, how they are made, how to find high quality oils, the proper safety precautions that should be taken when using essential oils, and have some practical ideas for how to use essential oils in my home. I am excited to continue using essential oils and learning more about each of their individual properties, aromas, and uses. Thanks for learning with me!
*I recently used these Essential Oil NOTES for an essential oil presentation. Feel free to print them out and use them for your own purposes.
- Essential Oil Safety by Robert Tisserand – This book is kind of pricey at $78, but if you’re looking to take your knowledge of essential oils to the next level, this comprehensive text will serve you well!
- The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy by Valerie Ann Worwood – This book is an excellent reference and includes over 800 recipes to use for health, beauty, and environment.
- Aromaweb is a great place to search for anything related to essential oils while online.
- Bulk Apothecary – If you want to make your own bath and body products, this site has some amazing resources that are high quality and a good price.
- Mountain Rose Herbs – This site has great essential oils and other products you can use to make your own natural products.
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