Disclaimer: I am not distributor of essential oils and have not been paid to create this content. This article is intended for general information and educational purposes.
If you’ve recently found your Instagram or Pinterest feed exploding with the benefits of essential oils, you’re not alone. Essential oils have made a comeback over the past few years, and most of us simply have no clue what to do with these little bottles aside from smell them and then put them back on the store shelf (at least that’s what I’d been doing for the past few years!)
You may also have found yourself wondering – is this all just hype? Do these essential oils actually work or is it more of a placebo effect? The answer to that is yes, and no.
- Yes, they work when it comes to improving sleep, relaxation or fighting minor skin conditions such as acne, and are a great option for making homemade products. Although marketing and the resurgence of holistic wellness has made them more trendy in recent years, the healing art of aromatherapy is well-documented and dates as far back as Biblical times and Ancient Egypt.
- No, they don’t work when it comes to health websites making bold claims such as the ability to prevent dementia or help fight cancer. Often times, the research (if it exists) that supports those studies are done in mice or test tubes at a potency that cannot be applied to humans, at least not yet. The video below helps explain this in more detail.
And then there are many benefits of essential oils that are simply anecdotal, and not yet grounded in research. However, if used responsibly and you find that it works for you, I see no harm in using them. I personally love using essential oils for simple uses such as household cleaning or helping unwind.
If you want to start using them in your daily life to reap some of these benefits, I hope this blog post can serve as the ideal starting point to learn some basic guidelines and how to get started.
What Are Essential Oils?
An essential oil is a highly concentrated plant extract.
Every plant contains a therapeutic oil which it uses to protect itself from insects, or shield itself from a harsh environment. When you take that therapeutic oil along with its healing properties and put it into a bottle, it’s known as an essential oil. The most common method for doing this is an extraction process known as steam distillation, which helps separate the oil from water-based compounds in the plant.
Since essential oils are so potent, you’ll always find them in small quantities. For example, you would need 65 pounds of rose petals to make just one 15ml bottle of rose essential oil! (1) Yep, that bottle would be pricey. Typically the more of a plant that’s required, the more expensive it will be.
How Do Essential Oils Work?
I think we’re all familiar with the experience of a smell being able to trigger an old memory or evoke a certain mood. For example, it could be the warm scent of vanilla that reminds you of home or a tropical scent that takes you back to your last vacation. This is because the olfactory bulb in our brain (responsible for our sense of smell) is directly connected to the limbic system (the part of the brain that processes memory and emotions).
Similarly, it is theorized that the chemical components of essential oils have the ability to bind to receptors in the olfactory bulb (sense of smell), which can then impact the limbic system (our emotional centre) (2). For example, research has shown that lavender essential oil is associated with a greater release of the brain chemical serotonin (the happy, mood boosting neurotransmitter) (3).
Aside from inhaling essential oils, there is also the topical application to consider that can have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and analgesic (pain-numbing) effects as well. (4) Since essential oils are made up of very small molecules, they can easily penetrate your cells and even cross the blood-brain barrier (5).
How To Use Essential Oils
There’s three main ways to use essential oils: 1) inhalation; 2) topical application; 3) to make household and personal care products. There is a fourth more controversial way to use them which is ingestion, but I wouldn’t recommend this unless you’re under the guidance of an aromatherapist.
I personally like to inhale essential oils straight from the bottle e.g. if I want to help calm anxiety or stress, I may take a few inhalations of ylang ylang. This is a perfectly normal way to use them, but you can also add essential oils to a diffuser or nebulizer to spread the scent throughout the room.
There are also some creative ways to inhale essential oils. For example, you can add a few drops of eucalyptus oil on the shower floor for a very refreshing and invigorating shower experience. Or if your sinuses are congested, you can add a few drops of eucalyptus to a pot of boiling water and do a steam inhalation by standing over the pot with a towel on your head.
The basic rule of thumb for topical application is that it must be diluted in a carrier oil. Essential oils on their own are extremely potent and can irritate or burn the skin. Plus, dilution increases the surface area of absorption so it is actually going to make your mixture more effective.
Note: essential oils are hydrophobic, which means they do not mix well with water. This is why you always want to dilute with a carrier oil.
A basic ratio for dilution is 12 drops of essential oil for every 30ml of carrier oil. If you need more or less than 30ml, you can follow the dilution chart below:
Below are some good carrier oils to get started (you probably already have some of these at home):
- Almond oil
- Apricot oil
- Jojoba oil
- Grape seed oil
- Olive oil
- Coconut oil
Household and Personal Care Products
Aside from just their healing scent, many essential oils have therapeutic properties on a physiological level such as being antibacterial or antimicrobial. This makes them an amazing ingredient to add to skincare products or household cleaning products, without the side-effects of harsh, synthetic chemicals found in many store-bought items.
You can find hundreds of recipes online for products like an all-purpose cleaner or moisturizing cream; I’ll share some of the easiest uses and most popular oils to get started with below.
Getting Started With Essential Oils
If you’re new to essential oils, you’re probably not going to dive straight into making your own bath bombs or lotions right off the bat. Below are some of the easiest ways to use essential oils in your daily routine:
- All-Purpose Cleaner
- 1 cup vinegar, 1 cup water, 6 drops essential oil
- Suggestions: tea tree, lemon, grapefruit, eucalyptus, lavender (I use 3 drops tea tree, 3 drops lemon)
- Give it a good shake before each use
- Air Freshener
- 1 cup water, 1 Tbsp baking soda, 6 drops essential oils
- Suggestions: lemon, grapefruit, orange, lime
- Bathroom Cleaner (shower, tub)
- 1 cup vinegar, 1 cup water, 3 drops essential oil
- Suggestions: lemon, lemongrass, lime
- Add 12 drops of your choice of essential oil to 15ml of carrier oil (jojoba, almond)
- Suggestions: ylang ylang, vanilla, orange, patchouli, vetiver, jasmine ($), rose ($)
- If you’d like to get a little fancier, check out the perfume infographic below
- Facial oil
- Add 6 drops essential oil to 30ml carrier oil (jojoba, rose hip, argan)
- Suggestions: tea tree, lavender (acne), sandalwood, geranium (dry skin), lemon, orange (oily skin), lemon, frankincense (dark spots)
- Add 8 drops essential oil to 1 cup water and add it to your bath
- Suggestions: lavender (anxiety, sleep) ginger, thyme, marjoram (sore muscles)
- Energizing shower
- Place 2-3 drops on the shower floor
- Suggestions: rosemary, eucalyptus, peppermint
- Add 25 drops essential oil to 60ml almond, apricot, grape seed, olive or jojoba oil
- Suggestions (relaxation): vanilla, ylang ylang, lavender
- Suggestions (muscle rub): wintergreen, black pepper, helichrysum
Natural Health Remedies
A diffuser is often the best option to support certain health issues. However, you’ll want to make sure you follow the basic guidelines below:
- Each diffuser will have a different requirement for how many drops to add; typically between 2-10 drops, but pay attention to the instructions for your model
- The optimal length of time for diffusion is between 30-45 minutes; after this the therapeutic value of the essential oil diminishes
- There are certain oils which are not safe for babies, children, pets, and pregnant or nursing women. Always do your research before diffusing a particular oil
- It is ideal to diffuse in your own personal space as opposed to a public space like an office or store, to avoid inadvertently harming any of the people or animals mentioned above
Below are some of my favourites:
- Sleep: lavender, Roman chamomile, vetiver, sandalwood, cedarwood, marjoram
- Anxiety and stress: lavender, ylang ylang, frankincense, vetiver, bergamot, orange (uplifting)
- Headaches and focus: peppermint, rosemary, vetiver, cedarwood, basil, pine
- Respiratory: thyme, eucalyptus, geranium, peppermint, rosemary
- Adrenal fatigue, exhaustion: rosemary, holy basil, clary sage
Tips For Buying Essential Oils
- Purchase them in small quantities – not only will a small amount last a long time, but the oxygen inside bottles will oxidize the essential oil over time and cause it to deteriorate
- There should be one ingredient on the bottle. In order to evoke a true biochemical response you need to use a 100% pure botanical extract, not chemical reproductions.
- When you look for the ingredient, make sure it’s the botanical name. This often denotes the quality and ensures you are getting and using what you are expecting. E.g. look for Mentha piperita L. on a bottle claiming 100% pure peppermint oil.
- Essential oils should never have one price across the board for all their oils – that’s a big red flag. There should be a big price variance across essential oils since some are more expensive to extract e.g. rose essential oil can retail for $300 (5ml), whereas you can get eucalyptus for $20 (15ml).
- Most companies use the term ‘therapeutic grade’ to describe their product. This is just a marketing trick as there is no agency that regulates that term, and no grading system in place for essential oils. Unfortunately since most people think it’s a better product, most companies feel they have to use that term as well. Bottom line: don’t avoid it or look for it, just ignore it.
- Look for third-party quality testing on the manufacturer’s website or an MS/GC testing report. Many manufacturers won’t actually post this information on their site but if you ask them it should be readily available, or there should not be hesitation at their end. It shows that the company doesn’t have anything to hide! (6)
- Look at the about us section on the manufacturer’s website to see if the owner is an aromatherapist, herbalist or has some education in the field. If it’s a practitioner behind the product you can assume higher quality, whereas you may want to think twice before trusting someone with a totally unrelated background, perhaps looking to make a quick buck.
- Research aromatherapists online or in your area and see what brands they use in their aromatherapy practice or recommend
What I’m Currently Using
I am still new to the world of essential oils, so as I learn more and try different brands I’ll be sure to update this post. I’ve heard good things about the two major essential oil brands called Young Living and DoTerra, but I can’t help and be wary of companies that use MLM practices.
In the meantime, I was lucky enough to be sent essential oil freebies from a small company based out of California that is run by an herbalist and acupuncturist, called Aroma Foundry. Their formulations are 100% pure and sourced sustainably from their native land of origin. What stands out to me is the fact that they only carry a small selection of the 20 most popular essential oils, all of which the average person would actually be able to use and afford on an everyday basis. The prices are all under $30 which is perfect for my simple needs like household cleaning or relaxation.
If there are essential oil brands or kits you love, please let me know in the comments below!
(1) Dr. Axe’s Essential Oils Guide – DrAxe.com. (2017). Dr. Axe. Retrieved 18 June 2017, from https://draxe.com/essential-oils-guide/
(2) Aromatherapy and Essential Oils. (June 8 2017) PDQ Integrative, Alternative, and Complementary Therapies Editorial Board. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0032645/
(3) Kianpour, M., Mansouri, A., Mehrabi, T., & Asghari, G. (2016). Effect of lavender scent inhalation on prevention of stress, anxiety and depression in the postpartum period. Iranian Journal Of Nursing And Midwifery Research, 21(2), 197. http://dx.doi.org/10.4103/1735-9066.178248
(4) Aromatherapy and Essential Oils. PDQ Integrative, Alternative, and Complementary Therapies Editorial Board. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0032645/
(5) Wu, X., Xie, T., Lin, J., Fan, H., Huang-Fu, H., Ni, L., & Yan, H. (2009). An investigation of the ability of elemene to pass through the blood-brain barrier and its effect on brain carcinomas. Journal Of Pharmacy And Pharmacology, 61(12), 1653-1656. http://dx.doi.org/10.1211/jpp/61.12.0010
(6) How To Know If Your Essential Oils Are Top Quality?. (2017). Meghan Telpner. Retrieved 18 June 2017, from https://www.meghantelpner.com/blog/how-to-know-if-your-essential-oils-are-top-quality/