Essential oils are still all the rage right now, years after they were first discovered to have any benefits for the body.
And they have it all; a natural source in form of plants, little or no side effects, healing properties for more than 50 bodily ailments and heavenly fragrances.
Nowadays, they appear on every list of natural remedies to have in the home. Bloggers gush about their healing properties in long posts every day.
Doctors now prescribe them as a complementary medicine for some standard medical treatments. To say the least, everyone that’s vigilant about their health is using essential oils to improve their life.
But what are essential oils?
How do they work?
How effective are they really?
Can they be dangerous?
We provide answers for these and any other questions you might have about essential oils in this comprehensive guide to essential oils and aromatherapy.
Table of Contents
- 1 What Are Essential Oils?
- 2 Essential Oils: What Are They?
- 3 How Essential Oils Are Produced
- 4 Benefits Of Essential Oils
- 4.1 Inhibition Of Microbial Action
- 4.2 Calming Headaches
- 4.3 Healing Ailments
- 4.4 Balancing Moods
- 4.5 Inducing Sleep
- 4.6 Relieving Stress, Depression & Anxiety
- 4.7 Relieving Pain
- 4.8 Boosting Cell Development And Function
- 4.9 Healing Wounds, Burns And Cuts
- 4.10 Increasing Energy Levels
- 4.11 Skin And Hair Growth
- 4.12 Relieving Digestion Related Ailments
- 5 The Most Popular Essential Oils (And What They Provide Relief For)
- 6 How (And Where) To Apply Essential Oils
- 7 Safety When Using Essential Oils
- 8 Protecting Your Essential Oils
- 9 How To Store Your Essential Oils
- 10 Are All Essential Oils Equal?
- 11 Wrapping Up
What Are Essential Oils?
To understand essential oils, it’s best to get the basics on aromatherapy first.
That’s because aromatherapy is a key part of essential oil therapy.
Aromatherapy is simply the use of essential oils (or aromatic plant oils in a general sense) in a controlled a manner to improve physical and emotional well-being.
Aromatherapy has been in use as an alternative form of treatment for more than 2000 years, with its earliest application being traced back the year 100 A.D.
Today, aromatherapy is offered as an alternative medicine for many ailments, and as a complementary therapy alongside standard, medical treatments.
Aromatic plant oils (including essential oils, herbal distillates, absolutes etc.) are derived from a wide range of plants using various methods, and then applied to the body in different ways for healing and relief.
Currently, aromatherapy is taught and applied in spas, massage parlours and recreation centers for its many benefits, and its essential oils are now packed and sold individually for personal use.
Aromatherapy comes packed with benefits which, despite lacking medical evidence backing, still render it one of the best forms of medicine available.
It has been found to have healing powers over a number of ailments and conditions including anxiety, sleep disorders, stress, digestive disorders, depression, mood swings, poor cognitive performance, low energy levels and lots more.
Essential Oils: What Are They?
According to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)’S Vocabulary for Natural Materials, an essential oil is a product made by distillation with either water/steam, by mechanical processing of citrus rinds or by dry distillation of natural materials.
Wikipedia describes an essential oil as a concentrated hydrophobic liquid containing volatile aroma compounds from plants. In simpler terms, essential oils are volatile liquids got from plants that have positive effects on the body.
Essential oils occur naturally in the roots, flowers, leaves, and stems of plants, which produce them for various purposes ranging from protection to pollination to allopathy.
When extracted, they possess even more positive abilities for the body. There are over 100 varieties of essential oils today, although only a few may be available for sale in drug stores and supermarkets.
Key to understanding essential oils is the fact that they are really the ‘essence’ of plants. That’s why they are so concentrated and so expensive – it takes a lot of plant matter to extract even a small quantity of essential oils.
How Essential Oils Are Produced
For an essential oil to be termed as a ‘true essential oil’, it must have been extracted from its plant source using physical methods.
The most popular physical methods include distillation (using steam, water or both), cold pressing (also known as an expression) and maceration.
Distillation is used for most essential oils, including peppermint, lavender and eucalyptus oil. The process involves placing raw plant material such as the leaves, stem or bark into a distillation flask above boiling water.
The steam from the boiling water is passed through the distillation flask to vaporize the volatile compounds in the plant material.
The resulting vapors are then passed through a coil into another flask where they condense to form a liquid called a herbal distillate.
Other essential oils may be extracted using solvent extraction, absolute oil extraction, resin tapping and other complex methods. Whatever the case, essential oil extraction is a long, winding process, which explains their high prices.
How to make your own still for distilling essential oils
The word ‘still’ in a query like ‘how can you make your own still for essential oils’ refers to the distilling apparatus that’s used to extract essential oils.
So, if you were confused if someone asked you ‘can I make my own still for essential oils’ you won’t be any longer.
That being said, how does one create one’s own still?
Before going onto the process piecemeal let’s think about what you’re trying to do.
Briefly, distillation involves passing steam through the trimmings of the plant to vaporize the ‘essence’ (essential oil content).
Then the steam is cooled to condense the vapour.
Finally the essential oil will have to be separated from the steam/water.
So you will need
- A heat source.
- A pressure cooker.
- A bit of hose.
- A jubilee clip.
- Something to hold cold water or ice in (you can condense the steam with this).
- An essencier* or something else to hold the distillate in.
- A glass or copper tube for the steam to pass through.
- A dry cotton cloth that is completely clean of dirt and detergents.
Note – A copper tube is easier to roll into a coil to get the steam to pass through your cooling ice or water multiple times. On the other hand some essential oils can react with copper; but not with glass.
* An essenciator separates the oil and water itself but it won’t work for low volumes of oil.
- Twist the tube into a coil that can fit into whatever you’re keeping your cold water or ice in.
- Place the pressure cooker on the heat source.
- Use the jubilee clip to attach one end of the hose to the valve of the pressure cooker.
- Attach the other end of the hose with the tube.
- Allow the tube to pass through the cooling bath and into the essencier.
Now all you need to do is place the plant trimmings and some water into the pressure cooker and turn on the heat.
The distillate should start collecting after some time.
When you think you’ve got enough for one haul, use the cotton cloth to filter out your essential oil.
Or you may store the oil-water mixture too which will make the oil a bit diluted.
Of course if you’re using an essenciator the oil-water separation happens by itself.
And that’s the tale of how you make your own essential oil still and extract your own essential oils.
And what if someone asks how do you make essential oils without a still?
Place plant parts in distilled water in a cooker, put it on a flame and simmer for 24 hours. Take it off of the flame and leave the cooker uncovered for a week. By the end of that, the essential oil content will float on the surface of the water and you can collect it.
Benefits Of Essential Oils
Essential oils have a great assortment of benefits for both your body and your home, as shown below in our guide to essential oil functions.
Inhibition Of Microbial Action
Essential oils such as oregano oil and thyme oil have been found to effectively inhibit the action of bacteria such as Escherichia coli and Bacillus cereus in the body. That’s why they’re inevitably included in any list of antimicrobial essential oils.
Its active ingredient (a terpene called carvacrol) causes damage to the cell membranes of these cells, killing them before they can cause bodily harm.
The thymol from thyme oil possesses strong antibiotic properties when used alone, and has been found to reduce bacterial resistance to drugs such as penicillin. We’d say it’s pretty safe to call thyme EO an antibiotic essential oil or a natural antibiotic oil.
Research shows that peppermint essential oil has quite a broad spectrum antibiotic property (i.e. works against both gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria), in particular due to the presence of menthol.
Essential oils have long been prescribed as a natural remedy for headaches and migraines, thanks to their calming effect on the nervous system and their ability to improve circulation.
All you have to do is inhale the oil or apply it topically around the neck or on the sides of the head periodically. Peppermint and eucalyptus oil are some of the most recommended for this purpose.
In particular, headache caused by sinusitis (inflamed sinus sacs) may be relieved by inhaling tea tree steam (fumes according to some) or peppermint or eucalyptus vapor.
Essential oils contain compounds that accelerate the healing process of the body after an illness or major surgery through their ability to improve circulation, their antibacterial properties, and general healing abilities.
Universal oils such as lavender oil are commonly used as complementary medicine for standard medicine because of this.
If you easily shift from happy to angry suddenly, what you need is a good inhalation of an essential oil such as frankincense oil, jasmine oil, tea tree oil or lavender oil to get you back on top.
These oils stimulate the limbic system of the brain after absorption, which is responsible for emotions and mood management.
This is one of the main benefits of inhaling essential oils.
Whether it’s insomnia, sleep apnea or just plain lack of sleep at 2 am, a good essential oil can fix you up in no time.
Lavender oil is a big favorite for this, but you can also use sandalwood oil or ylang ylang oil for calming and sleep inducing abilities.
You can spray the oil in the air, sniff it off a cotton ball or make a few drops on your pillow to spread the oil and inhale it easily.
Relieving Stress, Depression & Anxiety
Because of their calming and relaxant properties, many essential oils such as lemon oil, lavender oil, vetiver oil and ylang ylang oil are commonly used to relieve stress, improve spirits, tackle depression and calm anxiety.
Their popularity for this purpose is heightened by the fact that there are few or no side effects at all in comparison with some common medically prescribed drugs.
Whether it’s in the joints or the head, bodily pain is a nuisance. Essential oils such as wintergreen oil, tea tree oil, cypress oil, basil oil and birch oil relieve bodily pain by calming inflammation, relieving sore muscles, supporting muscle growth and more.
Boosting Cell Development And Function
Essential oils such as cassia oil, arborvitae oil, and frankincense oil have been found to greatly trigger better cell development and facilitate faster cell renewal in the body.
These abilities directly affect the healing of wounds, growth of hair, skin and nails and other bodily activities.
Healing Wounds, Burns And Cuts
The antibacterial, antifungal and antiseptic properties of many essential oils make them ideal for treating open wounds such as burns and cuts to total healing.
Oils such as oregano oil, eucalyptus, and tea tree oil are particularly preferred for their drying and healing effect on wounds.
Increasing Energy Levels
Essential oils from plants such as cardamom, clove, rosemary and black pepper give you twice as much energy as what popular energy drinks give you in one take.
Essential oil guru Valerie Ann Worwood opines that violet essential oil has the benefit of stimulating an uplifting effect.
You also get less of the side effects, which is an added advantage. That explains why essential oils are popular for boosting low energy levels in tired people today.
Skin And Hair Growth
If you make your research, you’ll find that some essential oils are already stapled ingredients in skin and hair products.
That goes to show their ability to improve hair growth, stop hair loss, smoothen skin by triggering faster cell renewal and heal scars among other abilities.
For this purpose, essential oils from eucalyptus, frankincense, geranium, bergamot, sandalwood, coriander, jasmine, lavender, lemongrass, tea tree, patchouli, rose and ylang ylang are highly recommended.
Relieving Digestion Related Ailments
Improving and easing digestion is one benefit that most essential oils share for the body. Essential oils such as peppermint oil, oregano oil, rosemary oil, spearmint oil, lemongrass oil and sweet fennel oil help relieve digestive ailments such as constipation, bloating and indigestion.
List of other benefits of essential oils
Improving cognitive abilities
For treating varicose veins and cellulite
Relieving bug bites
Relieving sore feet
Relieve sun burn
Healing morning sickness and nausea
Air cleaning and purification
Cleaning burnt pans
Scrubbing sinks, clothes etc.
The Most Popular Essential Oils (And What They Provide Relief For)
As mentioned above, there are as many types of essential oils as there are plant species and varieties. Most of these plants have had their oil extracted, researched and used by aromatherapists.
Compiling a complete guide to essential oils and their uses would involve writing an entire book.
In practice however, some essential oils have grown really popular in households for their healing powers. You might say some essential oils are more essential than others.
These more used and known essential oils and their benefits are listed below along with their scents, making it a good essential oil benefits and scent guide.
Boosting energy levels, improving respiration, air purification, used as cooking flavor, relieving nausea, healing sore feet.
It has a sharp minty fragrance.
Improving skin health, improving mood swings, sun protection, calming anxiety, inducing sleep, detoxification, calming migraines, treating wounds and burns.
Its aroma is herbaceous and frequently fruity and camphorous.
Improving cognitive function, relieving joint stiffness and pain, relieving menstruation pain.
It smells sweet like licorice.
Supporting respiration, healing mouth and throat infections, supporting digestion, smoothening skin, house cleaning, air purification.
It has a citrus-y fragrance like a lemon peel or rind; only it’s stronger.
Improves respiration, improves digestion, used as cooking flavor.
It has a strong spicy and herbaceous scent.
Improves respiration, boosting immune function, improving mood, used as cooking flavor.
Its fragrance is delightfully strongly sweet, sometimes fruity.
Better digestion, hair growth, healthy scalp, better respiration, food flavor.
Essential oils expert Dr Robert Tisserand suggests that rosemary essential oil is good for boosting cognitive function.
It has a camphorous, slightly medicinal scent that many people find stimulating.
Tea Tree Oil (Melaleuca)
Hair growth, acne treatment, improving skin complexion, healing mouth, and throat infections, wound healing, relieving burns, boosting the immune system, house cleaning, mold removal.
It has a woody and herbaceous aroma.
Ylang Ylang Oil
Hair growth, healthy skin, mood improvement, for oily hair.
Its has a delicate floral, sometimes fruity, scent.
Improves mood swings and emotional balance, fights free radicals courtesy of antioxidant properties.
(like lemon EO) It smells just like orange peels, only richer. Do remember, however, some people are allergic to citrus scents; they obviously will not like it if you diffuse orange essential oil.
Healing mouth and throat infections, improving respiration, smoothening skin, mosquito repellent.
It has a slightly sharp medicinal scent.
Better respiration, better digestion, food seasoning, house cleaning, immune system boosting.
Oregano’s fragrance is sharply herbaceous.
Spiritual enlightenment, mood boosting, emotional balance, improving cellular growth and development, nail growth.
It has a relaxing woody and slightly spicy aroma; it often finds use in religious ceremonies.
How (And Where) To Apply Essential Oils
Essential oils can be applied topically, aromatically or by ingestion, depending on the desired effect, the type of essential oil to be used, and the purpose of use. They can be applied as ‘single oil’ or blended with each other for a better effect.
Along with the how and where of applying, we’ll also give a clue as to how do essential oils work; from what they derive their therapeutic qualities.
Stemming from the word ‘aroma’, this form of application involves inhaling the essential oil. The aromatic application is highly popular for its effectiveness over a number of ailments.
Any essential oil usage/benefits guide will contain a section on aromatic application since a key purpose of essential oils is aromatherapy.
After inhalation, essential oils are easily absorbed by the nose’s smell receptors, which are directly linked to the limbic system of the brain.
There are a number of ways to take in the aroma.
First of all is of course the easiest way – mix the oil with some water and spray it round the house.
You can also take a few (2-3) drops on a piece of cotton and hold it near your nose. Do not take too much oil; by nature essential oils are highly potent and inhaling from excessive oil may give you a headache.
Lava bracelets are very porous and able to trap oils deep within while the latter slowly turn into vapor which you can inhale. You can even drop a few drops of oil in a vessel of hot water and inhale the vapor.
Finally we come to probably the most popular method of enjoying essential oil aroma – diffusion. A few drops of essential oil are added to a diffuser. The diffuser heats the oil to evaporation (evaporative diffusers) or breaks the oil up into tiny particles that are dispersed as a fine mist (ultrasonic and nebulizing diffusers). Either way, you get a breathable aroma.
Topical application involves the actual application of an essential oil to the skin for relief. The method is backed by the fact that essential oils are easily absorbed into the skin because of their lipid solubility.
We’ve included the key details below.
Because essential oils are highly concentrated in nature, they have to be diluted with a carrier oil first before topical application. Any essential oil therapy guide for skin would include a section on carrier oils; they’re that important.
What are carrier oils?
Carrier oils help in applying essential oils to skin by diluting them. Common examples of carrier oils include jojoba oil, avocado oil, kernel oil and more.
Typically, drops of essential oil are mixed with a carrier oil before application to the body. The idea is to reduce their concentration and prevent irritation, allergies, photosensitivity, burning and other dangerous side effects.
A list of popular carrier oils and their uses follows.
(Sweet) Almond Oil
Quite light; Absorbs fairly easily into your skin; Good for applying tea tree, lavender and orange essential oils.
Apricot Kernel Oil
Light; Absorbs fairly rapidly into your skin; Good for applying lavender and ylang ylang essential oils.
Thick/Heavy; Leaves a waxy feel on your skin; Especially good for hair care and hydrating dry skin.
Light; Absorbs easily into your skin; Good for sensitive and acne-prone skin.
Coconut Oil (Fractionated)
* Fractionated means a number of fatty acids are removed from regular coconut oil.
Light; Absorbs rapidly into your skin; Hydrates your skin.
Evening Primrose Oil
Thin; May leave a light oily trace on the skin; Good for applying tea tree, lavender, cypress and lemongrass essential oils.
Thin; May leave a gloss on the skin; Good for moisturizing hair and skin.
* It’s actually a wax, not an oil.
Semi-viscous; absorbs well into your skin; Does not clog your pores and soothes dry skin and cuticles; Good for applying lavender, rosemary and thyme essential oils.
Light; Should not leave any trace on the skin; Has a prominent anti-aging effect.
Semi-viscous; Leaves an oily feel on your skin; Good for soothing skin irritation and acne.
Topical application can also be achieved with the help of a few techniques.
Gargling – Here, you add a few drops of essential oil in warm water and then gargle the mixture on your throat for a few minutes.
Spit it out after and don’t swallow either. Mouth and throat infections are some of the ailments usually treated with this method.
Applying a compress – Add a few drops of essential oil to a carrier such a water or jojoba oil and stir for proper mixing. Dip a thick cloth into the mixture and applied it on the skin for some time. You can use this method for all your stiff and inflamed joints.
Massages – You can add a few drops of essential oil to a natural carrier oil and then rub the mixture gently into the skin with a massage. Massages are highly recommended for stress relief.
Bath – Rather than use plain bath water, add some drops of essential oil in it for increased health benefits. Essential oils do not dissolve in water, which is why they’ll remain on the water surface unless you add an essential oil dispersant to the water such as Epsom salts.
Using the water while the essential oil still lies on the surface is dangerous, and may result in skin allergies, severe irritation and other side effects.
The discussion about whether or not essential oils should be ingested is always a heated one. While some aromatherapists recommend eating essential oils to treat internal ailments, others refute the idea, saying it’s dangerous and lacks medical evidence.
You can always use essential oils in controlled amounts as flavoring agents in beverages and foods to take advantage of their benefits. Just make sure the amount used is right for ingestion.
One cool use of ingesting essential oils could be in flavoring kombucha. For example you can add 1 drop of peppermint essential oil to a liter of kombucha and leave it in the refrigerator for a day or two.
On many fronts still, the essential oil is not recommended for ingestion, except in severe cases. Even in such cases, constant supervision by a licensed aromatherapist is required.
The reasoning is that its concentration is quite dangerous for the internal organs and the good bacteria that live in the gut.
Safety When Using Essential Oils
Essential oils may have an endless list of benefits for the body, but they still need to be used with care to avoid danger and long lasting side effects such as headaches, allergies, rashes, and death.
Here a few safety tips to consider when using essential oils.
Always dilute essential oils with carrier oils before application to the skin to avoid burning, irritation and other side effects.
Children below 7 years of age should not be allowed to inhale essential oils from a basin. Children above 7 years should wear safety goggles during the procedure.
Always check the bottle or packaging to note the preparation and dilution guidelines before using an essential oil. If you can’t find them, contact a licensed aromatherapist or browse for instructions on the internet.
For younger children, essential oils are not necessary or recommended as part of a bath. Their skins are still sensitive and need to be handled with care.
Do not use bath water with essential oil without adding a dispersant such as Epsom salts first. Essential oils will not dissolve in the water without a dispersant, and that makes the water dangerous for use.
Avoid applying essential oils to sensitive areas of the body such as genitals, eyes, ears, and mouth. If you must apply, follow the dilution guidelines very closely to prevent burning of the sensitive skin.
Keep your essential oil out of reach of children and pets to avoid accidents and wastage.
Go for high-quality essential oil from trusted brands to avoid synthetic chemicals, flavorings, and fragrances that might trigger allergies and dangerous side effects.
Carry out patch testing for different oils before applying them to your body. A patch test involves applying a small mixture of essential oil and a carrier oil to your forearm to see its effects on your skin. If a particular oil causes an irritating sensation, consider diluting it further or substituting it.
Pregnant women and nursing mothers should steer clear of essential oils until they are okay again.
These safety tips are as important as the benefits of essential oils and without them an essential oil benefits and/or application guide remains incomplete.
Protecting Your Essential Oils
It’s no secret; essential oils can be quite expensive. One spoon may cost well over $50 for the rare types, and that’s just the beginning.
The worst part? They also get spoilt easily. The same essential oil that could last 2 years can get spoilt within a week following exposure to oxygen. Imagine the loss.
What damages essential oils?
The main culprits are heat, light, oxygen, and moisture. Each of them alters the chemical composition and physical structure of the oil, lowering its healing powers.
Exposure to oxygen results in oxidation, which triggers evaporation of the oil and subsequently alters its chemical composition.
Heat and light increase the essential oil’s temperature, which might cause them to burn and break down. Light energy, especially sunlight, is known to change the color of oil over time.
Essential oils are also highly volatile, which means that they can easily change in state with the presence of new energy such as heat or light.
If you want your oil to stay viable for longer after you purchase it, you’ve got to protect it accordingly and store it safely.
How To Store Your Essential Oils
Don’t just place your essential oil bottles anywhere and expect the oil to keep making wonders in your life. Here are a few storage tips you should use.
- Keep your bottles in a cool, dark, dry place. A lidded wooden box you can easily carry is a good choice, and some come with space for over 60 bottles!
There is also the aromatherapy storage box, designed with this particular purpose in mind. If you can’t access either, consider using a drawer in one of your cupboards as long as it’s not exposed to sunlight.
- A refrigerator is recommended for some oils, especially carrier oils. You can always take the carrier oils out of the fridge 12 hours before actual use and warm them slightly with your hands.
- Avoid placing essential oil bottles on window sills and in areas next to open windows that let in sunlight.
- Keep your oil bottles away from sources of ignition such as stoves and fires.
- Use amber, green, blue or cobalt colored glass bottles for storing your essential oils rather than a clear glass one. The colored glasses keep out ultra violet rays from the sun better than clear glass ones.
- Never store your essential oils in plastic bottles; the oils will corrode the container and degrade it completely.
- Don’t allow space to increase in your essential oil bottles. Always transfer oil from large half empty bottles to smaller ones that will appear full after. The idea is to reduce the airspace in the bottle and limit chances of oxidation.
- Avoid using rubber stoppers; they are liable to melting away and mixing with the oil over time.
- When using the essential oil, close the bottle immediately after use to prevent oxygen from getting in.
- Always keep the reducer in the bottle as it helps with the sealing.
Are All Essential Oils Equal?
The grading of essential oils has been a major cause for discussion for many years.
Are essential oils natural? No, many aren’t; additives feature in many commercially sold essential oils.
On the other hand essential oils are not equal in nature.
On their packaging, essential oils may be branded as food grade or therapeutic grade.
Essential oils marked as ‘food grade’ are not effective for aromatherapy use, and are usually mixed with other synthetic chemicals first before sale.
Ideally, the right oil for your aromatherapy use should be labeled ‘therapeutic grade’ and have the Latin name of the plant displayed on its packaging.
Still, that is not a guarantee for high quality, as is a high price on the tag. The FDA does not regulate the aromatherapy industry, which means that you’ve got to do more research about a product to be sure of its quality.
We recommend that you do some background research on the company selling the essential oil and review its growing methods, harvesting methods, extraction formula and more first.
These are the factors that define a high-grade essential oil, in addition to the plant species, weather, season, location, and chemicals used on the plant.
There is a world of benefits for you to reap from essential oils and an equally diverse selection of oil types to choose from.
Essential oils provide a natural alternative or supplement in a range of issues from headache and stress to antibiotics; and in most cases they lack many side effects of the conventional medical options.
Despite lacking medical evidence to support most of their healing abilities, essential oils are still used today to improve health and well-being and the results are positive.
Join millions of other individuals that are already making use of this alternative medicine to make their lines better.
I’ve tried to present a complete picture of essential oils, making this one of the best essential oil guides available and I hope you get some value out of it.