Essential Oils and Aromatherapy

Essential oils are highly concentrated plant extracts that can be used in a variety of ways. They can be inhaled, applied to the skin or taken orally.

Studies show that certain scents may help with pain relief, stress relief and sleep. But it’s important to talk to your doctor or an aromatherapist before you start using them.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are volatile aromatic compounds that contain the “essence” of a plant. They’re found in the seeds, roots, grasses, flowers, barks, stems, leaves and fruit of some plants. They are distilled and extracted using a variety of methods.

Aromatherapy uses scent to affect your mood and body. Some studies have shown that certain oil scents can relieve stress and boost immune system function. Others may help ease nausea and vomiting during pregnancy or labor.

It’s important to choose high-quality oils. Look for ones that have been properly distilled and labeled. You should also consider how they were harvested and how they’re stored. Pure oils should be packaged in dark glass bottles to prevent exposure to light, which can cause them to oxidize and lose their scent or therapeutic properties. You should always dilute them with a carrier oil before applying them topically to the skin. Seek guidance from a licensed health care professional before trying them.

How do I use essential oils?

Aromatherapy is the use of aromatic plant extracts to enhance mental and physical well-being. The oils contain specific plant compounds called terpenes, which have possible therapeutic effects, such as the ability to boost serotonin levels or calm anxiety (Johns Hopkins Medicine).

The hallmark way of using essential oils is inhalation. Try a crisp scent like peppermint to energize yourself, or the calming scent of lavender to relax after a long day. You can also add a few drops to a diffuser that disperses the oil in the air, but be sure the device’s directions include proper dosage.

Topical application is another popular method, but it’s important to dilute the oils with a carrier oil—such as jojoba, grapeseed, apricot kernel, or sweet almond—before applying them to your skin. This helps prevent skin reactions, which can occur if the undiluted oils come into direct contact with your skin. Also, be careful not to overuse the oils or apply them too often, as they can be irritating.

What are the risks of using essential oils?

Aromatherapy can be beneficial, but it is important to understand the risks before starting. Essential oils are highly concentrated plant substances and can be toxic when ingested or absorbed through the skin. They are also flammable and can burn easily. Store them safely away from children, pets and other household members who could unintentionally consume or inhale them.

Some people may be allergic to specific types of essential oil, so a patch test should be done before using them regularly on the skin. The oils can irritate the eyes, mucous membranes of the nose and skin. They are also not recommended for pregnant women, since some of them have estrogen-like properties that can cross the placenta and cause harm to the fetus.

People with sensitive skin should avoid direct application of essential oils and use a diffuser instead. They should also heed dilution guidelines when applying the oil to the skin. For example, adding a few drops of essential oil directly to a bath water can irritate the skin and eyes, so it should be mixed with a dispersant (like jojoba oil) or carrier lotion first. Moreover, citrus oils can increase photosensitivity, so they should not be applied to the skin before sun exposure.

What are the benefits of using essential oils?

Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts that are used in aromatherapy, a form of complementary medicine that uses smell to improve your mental and physical well-being. They can be added to a diffuser, mixed with a carrier oil for massage, or diluted and added to a bath.

When inhaled, scent molecules travel from your nose to the limbic system of your brain, where they may affect your emotions and trigger the release of feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin. Peppermint oil, for example, can relieve irritable bowel syndrome symptoms and promote relaxation, while lemon oil is often used to relieve tension headaches and boost energy levels.

It’s important to choose high-quality essential oils, Nelson says. Look for those that have been processed using “clean distillation methods” and don’t contain toxic solvents such as acetone, she advises. Also, it’s best to use single-scent essential oils or synergy blends designed for a specific purpose. Combinations of undiluted oils can be too strong to inhale or abrasive to put on the skin.