If you pass through the natural health aisles of your local grocery store, you’re likely to see small glass bottles of curious liquids with poignant aromas that could fill a room. Scents like lavender, eucalyptus, tea tree oil and orange line the shelves next to oil blends with promising labels like Anxiety Release, Detoxification Aide, Energize, Immune Support, Meditative Mood, and more. While some modern shoppers may be speculative of these products, ancient homemade versions of these single note essential oils and essential oil blends have been used for nearly 6,000 years for everything from traditional medical practices to spiritual rituals.
What are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are highly concentrated fragrant essences extracted from herbs, flowers, fruits, and other plants that give them their unique aromas. (1) They are commonly used in perfume, food flavoring, medicine, massage therapy, and aromatherapy to support a general feeling of well-being. (2) Essential oils also “have a potential curative potential on the body, mind and spirit.” (3)
How Essential Oils Work
Essential oils come from the process of hydrodistillation, steam distillation, solvent extraction, extraction under pressure, or other mechanical means of extracting oils from various parts of a plant, such as the roots, leaves, seeds, peels, bark, or blossoms. The concentrated liquid extracts contain naturally occurring chemical compounds, including terpenes, esters, aldehydes, ketones, alcohols, phenols, and oxides, which are volatile, meaning they’ll evaporate quickly when exposed to air. (4) The different chemical compositions affect the aroma of each essential oil and how it is absorbed and used by the body.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, essential oils are highly concentrated and contain active ingredients. For instance, it takes 220 lbs of lavender flowers to make 1 lb of lavender essential oil. Depending on their use, most essential oils should be diluted first before use. Diluting essential oils helps spread the aromatic, concentrated molecules over a larger area, making it easier and more comfortable for the body to absorb.
Essential oils are most commonly either inhaled as a fine mist of vapor through aromatherapy, or diluted with water or carrier oil, such as almond oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, jojoba oil, or olive oil and applied directly to the skin. (5) Most essential oils, unless they are specifically food-grade quality, are not ingested. One way to use food-grade peppermint oil or lemon oil is to blend a few drops into a glass of water for potential internal support. Peppermint oil gives sparkling (carbonated) water a refreshing wintery flavor and may help support a calm stomach.
Common Essential Oil Applications
Aromatherapy: Through the practice of aromatherapy, essential oils are diluted in water and released into the air using a diffuser. Breathing in essential oil molecules may stimulate parts of your brain that influence physical, emotional, and mental health. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, for example, some scientists believe that inhaling lavender essential oil may affect brain cells in a similar manner to some mild sedatives, while other researchers believe these molecules may interact with hormones or enzymes in the blood. (6)
Aromatherapy is considered a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), part of a broad range of healing philosophies, approaches, and therapies that can be used to complement conventional treatments practiced by the mainstream medical community. (7) However, due to a lack of standardization in most cases, more clinical research is needed on the effects of essential oils on human health.
Topically: To use essential oils topically, blend a few drops with carrier oil and gently apply the mixture to the skin. This can be done in conjunction with a massage, which may offer potential health benefits, such as stress support.
An important note: Certain essential oils may trigger sensitivities in some people, especially if not diluted properly or applied to sensitive skin. Pregnant women and people taking medication should always consult with a physician first before using essential oils.
Other: Essential oils are also often included as ingredients in lotions, soy wax candles, household cleaners, all-natural bug sprays, and beauty products.
Brief History of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy
Ancient civilizations, including the Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, have used essential oils for medical, spiritual, and cosmetic purposes for centuries.
Ancient Egyptians, for example, used essential oils, also known as aromatic oils, in cosmetics, perfume, incense, and mummification processes. (8) Essential oils have also been used in Ayurvedic traditions in ancient India for nearly 3,000 years in rituals, medicines, and massages. (9)
In ancient China, the Huangdi Neijing, or The Yellow Emperor’s Book of Internal Medicine, recommends using essential oils to support health. (10) In ancient Greece and Rome, essential oils were used for baths, massages, and as perfume. Persia is often credited with being the first society to use distilled essential oils as early as 980 AD, a discovery standardized by practitioners of medieval Persian herbal medicine. (11)
Later, in 1652, botanist Nicholas Culpeper, published The English Physician, a book about herbal remedies. (12) But it wasn’t until 1937 that René-Maurice Gattefossé, a French chemist, coined the term “aromatherapy” when he published a book called Aromatherapie about the many uses of essential oils. His inspiration was a laboratory explosion years earlier, during which he burned his arm and plunged it into lavender oil – the closest liquid on hand – which helped to soothe and heal his skin. (13)
By the 1950s, aromatherapy became popular among massage therapists and healthcare providers alike. The French medical doctor Jean Valnet used essential oils while treating war wounds and published his findings in The Practice of Aromatherapy in 1964. The book is touted as one of the reasons aromatherapy became popular outside of France. (14)
In the U.S. and other Western countries, aromatherapy finally took off in the 1980s and 1990s as an interest in CAM, also called integrative medicine, began to grow. Today, it is a common practice used at home by mixing essential oils in a bath, or using a few drops in a tea light candle diffuser. It is also popular at spas and hospitals as a complementary and alternative option to conventional treatments.
Potential Benefits of Essential Oils
There have been many human clinical studies testing the effects of essential oils on healthy subjects. (15) The potential health benefits of essential oils are vast. Many essential oils have antioxidant properties. (16) The results of six studies examining the effects of aromatherapy on depression showed positive effects. (17) Other studies also suggest that essential oils, such as tea tree, lavender, cinnamon, basil or rosemary, may resist microbes and inhibit the growth of strains of E. coli – another promising area of research. (18)
According to a scholarly journal article published in the American Journal of Nursing Science, research has shown that “aromatherapy causes various actions favorable for patients such as relaxation, reductions in anxiety, depression and fatigue, and improvements in quality of life via nervous, endocrine, immune, and circulatory systems, [and] therefore could be applied as a complementary therapy for people with anxiety symptoms. However, as with all complementary treatments, it should not overlap the doctor’s instructions, especially in severe cases.” (19)
These results may be attributed to phytonutrients, the unique chemical compounds that make up essential oils, which may have a range of health benefits. After all, in nature, these compounds help plants to protect themselves from disease, pests, harsh climate changes and other environmental threats.
Essential Oils May Promote
While more research is needed, in general, essential oils are reported to help support the following:
- Alertness: bergamot, grapefruit, peppermint, rosemary
- Calm Mood: bergamot, chamomile, geranium, lavender, rosewood, ylang ylang
- Detoxification: lemon, grapefruit, orange, peppermint, rosemary
- Digestion: ginger, peppermint
- Energy: cedarwood, cinnamon, eucalyptus, grapefruit, lemon, orange, peppermint
- Hair Care: lavender, rosemary, rosewood, sandalwood
- Household Cleaning: cinnamon, eucalyptus, grapefruit, lemon, orange, peppermint, tea tree
- Immune System Function: eucalyptus, frankincense, ginger, lemon, oregano, peppermint
- Meditation: cedarwood, frankincense, lavender, orange, rose, ylang ylang
- Memory: basil, lemon, peppermint, rosemary
- Nail Care: frankincense, lemon, myrrh, oregano, tea tree
- Seasonal Health Challenges: eucalyptus, frankincense, geranium, lavender, peppermint
- Skin Care: lavender, sandalwood
- Sleep: bergamot, cedarwood, chamomile, jasmine, lavender, mandarin, marjoram, rosemary, sage, valerian, vetiver, ylang ylang
- Uplifting Mood: bergamot, clary sage, jasmine, lavender, lemon, lemon verbena, ruby grapefruit, vanilla
Essential Oils and Anxiety
Many essential oils are said to support a normal mood and behavior, including feelings of anxiety. Studies back up these claims, with some research noting that essential oils may act as an “anxiety reducer, mood stabilizer, sedative, pain reliever, anticonvulsive, and neuroprotector.” (20) Thanks to a modern understanding of the brain, researchers can use neuroimaging to identify that essential oil can, in fact, change the way that the brain functions.
This may be important because according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, an estimated 40 million American adults suffer from anxiety disorders. (21) While consulting a doctor to seek to address the causes of mental challenges, using essential oils is sometimes seen as an alternative or supportive therapy. For those looking to essential oils for additional support, the following oils may provide optimal support.
Essential Oils for Anxiety
- Ylang ylang
While there are many ways to use essential oils, simply inhaling essential oils has been found to influence an individual’s mood, cognition, psychology, and physical wellbeing. (22) A study of 28 postpartum women who identify as having anxiety and depression underwent a four week treatment that involved inhaling a blend of rose and lavender essential oils twice a week. At the end of the study, the study found “significant improvement” in most of the women. (23) In another study that used film clips to induce anxiety, subjects that were exposed to lavender while watching the film had a measurable reduction in heart rate, galvanic skin response, and heart rate variation when compared to those that were given a placebo. This indicates a potential use for lavender when seeking immediate, temporary relief from anxiety. (24)
Essential Oil Diffusers
Inhalation is a popular method of benefiting from the potential medicinal properties and aromatic qualities of each essential oil. A diffuser works by breaking apart the essential oil molecules. This makes them light enough to float into the air. The molecules will then float with the air current, helping to spread the aromas and potentially beneficial volatile oils and other plant compounds. Several types of diffusers disperse the essential oils into the air. Each has good and bad qualities that may make them ideal for some people, but not everybody.
Ultrasonic - Humidifying Diffuser
The ultrasonic diffuser, also known as a humidifying diffuser, uses a water tank and an atomizer, a type of small disk that vibrates at a high frequency to break liquid molecules into tiny microparticles. The essential oils are added to the water tank, and when atomized, the water and oil particles spread through the air.
This type of diffuser helps to make the air less dry and is sometimes more economically priced. Negatives include the risk of mold growing inside the unit when not regularly cleaned, the mess of filling a water tank, and the dilution of essential oils in the water tank that lessens the strength of the aromas and medicinal properties.
The nebulizer diffuser is similar to the ultrasonic diffuser, except it does not require water. As a result, this type of diffuser provides a continuous supply of concentrated essential oils, doesn’t require refilling the water tank, and has a much lower risk of mold growth. But these units can be more expensive, louder, and use up the oils more quickly.
A heat diffuser uses a heating element, such as a coil or candle, to speed up the conversion of the liquid oils into a gaseous state. These diffusers are often more decorative, less expensive, and contain few complex or expensive parts. Additionally, a heat diffuser can more quickly disperse the oils into the air. The disadvantage of heat diffusers is high temperatures that may degrade the quality of the oils.
Evaporative diffusers, also known as the fan style, use the movement of air across an absorbent pad or tray that holds the essential oils. Most units have a small housing and a fan with a speed setting. This simple design often makes them inexpensive to purchase and operate. Some are battery operated and designed for travel. Negatives include the cost of replacement pads that can make this type of diffuser more expensive in the long term.
Tissue diffusion is a simple alternative to enjoying essential oils without a diffuser. Place 3-4 drops of the essential oil on a tissue and leave it near a vent or door. When the air conditioner turns on, or someone walks by, the movement of air will help to spread the essential oil. Soak other disposable materials such as wood in the oils to get the same effect.
When using any diffuser, always read the manufacturer's instructions. Some devices do not recommend the use of certain essential oils, such as citrus, because they can damage components of the diffuser. Some diffusers may also recommend the use of carrier oils or will specify whether or not the essential oil should be diluted in water.
Essential Oils and Pets
For pet owners who don’t want to use over-the-counter pet products such as flea and tick repellents, which may contain harsh chemicals that may be unhealthy to you and your dog, natural essential oils are a great alternative! Some veterinarians also use essential oils in holistic veterinary medicine. (25)
Some multi-use essential oils you should consider keeping in your home are chamomile essential oil (for muscle and joint support), lavender essential oil (for calming mood support), niaouli essential oil and thyme essential oil (for skin care support), and cedarwood essential oil (as a natural flea and tick repellent).
Keep in mind that common household pets like dogs and cats have a stronger sense of smell than humans and may be more sensitive to essential oils used topically. That’s why essential oils used on pets must first be diluted with a safe binding agent such as almond oil and administered based on the animal’s weight. However, it’s always important to first consult with a veterinarian before using any essential oil on your pet. (26)
Now here are some potentially beneficial essential oils for your pet. (27)
Potential Benefits of Essential Oils
- May Support Digestive System or Weight Management: ginger essential oil, spearmint essential oil
- May Act as a Natural Fleas and Tick Repellent: cedarwood essential oil, eucalyptus essential oil, geranium essential oil, sweet orange essential oil
- May Help Calm Irritated or Red Skin: carrot seed essential oil, niaouli essential oil, sweet marjoram essential oil, thyme essential oil, German chamomile essential oil, lavender essential oil
- May Support a Healthy Mood: clary sage essential oil, lavender essential oil, Roman chamomile essential oil, sweet marjoram essential oil, sweet orange essential oil, valerian essential oil
- May Temporarily Relieve Muscle or Joint Discomfort: chamomile essential oil, ginger essential oil, helichrysum essential oil
Many essential oils offer a variety of benefits, so choose multi-use options. When you’re ready to try essential oils for pets, here are some ways you can use them safely. (28) But first, always check the instructions on the packaging to be sure. Smaller dogs and cats will need less of the essential oil mixture.
How to Use Essential Oils for Dogs
- Sniff Without Touching – Apply a few drops of a diluted essential oil to your hands, and have your pet gently sniff the aroma without the extract touching their nose.
- Wear on External Pet Gear – Apply a few drops of a diluted essential oil to your pet’s collar, harness, bandana or sweater.
- Apply to Foot Pads – Apply a few drops of a diluted essential oil to the pet’s foot pads/paws.
- Spritz on Fur – For hard to reach/larger areas, spray a quick, short burst of diluted essential oil on the pet, but be careful to avoid the eyes, nose, and genitals.
- Place on Gums – Apply a few drops of a diluted essential oil to your pet’s gums by pulling back their bottom lip and applying a drop or two of food-grade only essential oil under their teeth.
Some essential oils that are considered safe for humans – such as cinnamon, citrus, pennyroyal, wintergreen, ylang ylang, and others – may be toxic to animals. (29) That’s why it’s important to first do your research.
Never let pets ingest essential oils. Never use essential oils on pregnant pets or on animals that are younger than 10 weeks old. Avoid any contact with the pet’s eyes, nose, or genitals when administering essential oil. (30, 31)
What to Look For When Buying Essential Oils
When shopping for essential oils, there are a few things you should consider. (32)
- First, determine your unique health needs. Talk to your doctor about any medications you’re taking, or if you’re pregnant, as these conditions may prohibit you from using essential oils.
- Next, select a type of essential oil or an oil blend that may help support your optimal health.
- Read the label to make sure the ingredients are simple, without any extra additives or chemicals.
- Choose certified pure therapeutic grade essential oils over synthetic ones. Unnatural chemically altered oils are not considered true essential oils. It is also important to note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate essential oils for quality or safety. Look for USDA Certified Organic or 100% essential oil on the label, instead of anything that says “perfume oil” or “aromatherapy oil,” which indicates the oil may have been blended with unnatural ingredients.
- Whenever possible, choose brands that list the Latin name of the essential oil as well as the common name to make sure you don’t buy the wrong bottle (i.e., Citrus sinensis, or orange oil)
- Buy essential oils that come in dark glass bottles. Never use oils from a plastic or clear bottle.
- If possible, smell different essential oils from various brands to see what appeals to you. Take breaks between sniffs to avoid overpowering your nose. Sniffing coffee beans is an easy trick to a quick “palate cleanse” between aromas.
- Once you’ve selected an essential oil to try, be sure to dilute a few drops of the highly concentrated essential oil in water or carrier oil before using it topically or in an essential oil diffuser.
- If you selected single note essential oils, try blending different oils together for varying results, or look for premixed essential oil blends. If you have any reaction or sensitivity to an essential oil, select a different ratio of essential oil drops to water or carrier oil, or immediately stop use. (Less is more!)
Are you a beginner when it comes to essential oils? As far as at-home aromatherapy is concerned, there are many books available with details about how to use essential oils, such as Aromatherapy for Everyone by P. J. Pierson and Mary Shipley, and Aromatherapy for the Healthy Child by Valerie Ann Worwood. (33, 34)
The American Journal of Essential Oils and Natural Products is a peer-reviewed journal that publishes articles related to the current trends of research on essential oils, aromatherapy, plant components, aroma science and other topics. (35) For more scientific information, visit the ESSential OIL DataBase (EssOilDB) from the National Institute of Plant Genome Research, an online resource providing updated profiles of plant essential oils and their volatile compounds, or visit HerbMed, an interactive, electronic herbal database, which also provides scientific data about the use of herbs for health. (36, 37)
When it comes to national educational standards for aromatherapists, the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy and the Alliance of International Aromatherapists are two organizations that are trying to standardize efforts. (38, 39)
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Author: Leslie Benson