Essential oils are a popular natural remedy and nontoxic substitute for standard beauty, cleaning, and wellness products. With proper dilution, these potent plant extracts can be used as aromatherapy, added to bath water, or applied topically.
They can enhance mood, promote relaxation and sleep, soothe inflammation, boost immunity, and more. They’re also great for the environment, promoting greener, more sustainable practices.
What are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts that contain a variety of natural benefits. They can be extracted from the seeds, flowers, bark, stems, rinds and leaves of plants. They can be used aromatically (by inhalation), topically (through the skin) or internally. Throughout history, these oils have been included in spiritual, hygienic and religious rituals, and research is underway on their possible use for aromatherapy, cosmetics and dietary supplements.
Some people claim that these oils can help with a wide range of health issues, from relaxing and soothing to stimulating and energizing. However, more clinical trials are needed to support these claims.
While the oil industry often uses misleading terminology, quality oil companies will provide a list of the botanicals in each product, how they were distilled or harvested and their purity. They also will have web pages, booklets and other resources to explain the products they sell. Some essential oils can cause reactions, so it’s important to test the oils on a patch of your skin before using them.
What are the Benefits of Essential Oils?
Essential oils are becoming more popular as people seek natural solutions to everything from anxiety to skin blemishes. They can be applied directly to the skin (always dilute them first, and carry out a patch test prior to full use), added to a carrier oil or inhaled via an essential oil diffuser.
Essential oil benefits include:
Improved skin health: Essential oils, when diluted and applied to the skin, can help with conditions like acne and eczema. They also have energising properties and can help increase energy levels.
Detox: Some essential oils, such as lemon, eucalyptus and grapefruit, can help cleanse the body by helping to eliminate harmful pathogens and pollutants.
Headache and migraine relief: Inhaling essential oils such as peppermint, frankincense and lavender can help reduce headaches and migraines by targeting the triggers, such as stress, that cause them.
However, Davila warns against taking essential oils as a replacement for medical treatment. Instead, she says, they can be a helpful supplement to a healthy lifestyle and may be beneficial under the guidance of your doctor.
How to Use Essential Oils?
When used under the guidance of an experienced aromatherapist, most oils are safe to use. If you plan to use them on your own, look for a company that sells only pure products (no synthetic ingredients). Choose a dark-colored bottle to protect the oil and avoid plastics, which degrade the oil over time. Less is more with these potent oils, so it’s important to follow the instructions on the package.
Using them aromatically or topically can bring many health benefits, including mood-altering effects, skin-care treatments and relief of pain. When using on the skin, make sure the essential oils are diluted in a carrier oil first—for example, 3 drops of essential oil to 1 teaspoon of vegetable or nut oil. Using undiluted oils can cause skin irritation, and some oils increase photosensitivity. Test any new oil on a small area of skin to see how it reacts. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, speak with your doctor before trying any new oils.
Safety Concerns with Essential Oils
Essential oils are highly concentrated and can be toxic if used improperly. They are a powerful tool that must be used with caution, especially on infants and children, seniors and those with weakened immune systems. The most common oil reactions are irritant contact dermatitis and allergic contact dermatitis. To avoid irritation, it is important to dilute the oils with a base massage oil.
Be careful with claims by some companies to have “pure” or “therapeutic grade” oils. These are marketing terms that do not have a standard definition. Look for a reputable company that lists the plant ingredient by its Latin name and provides web pages, booklets or other information about their products.
Also, some oils can react with medications or cause phototoxicity (severe skin sensitivity to sunlight after skin application) and should be avoided by those taking medication such as blood thinners. Talk with your doctor or a certified aromatherapist about using essential oils, especially if you are pregnant or nursing.