What Are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are concentrated, and only a few drops can make a big impact on the flavor of a dish. Start with one, taste and add more as needed.

When inhaled or applied topically, they offer a safe, natural complement to many health concerns, including stress and sleep, pain, nausea and headaches.


Essential oils are plant chemicals that retain the natural smell and flavor of the plant from which they come. They are extracted from parts of plants such as flowers, leaves, roots, bark, twigs, and seeds using water or steam distillation or by mechanical methods (1, 2).

When inhaled or applied topically, the scent from essential oils stimulates the olfactory nerves and travels to your brain to positively affect you emotionally and physically. Some people find the fragrances uplifting while others find them soothing or relaxing.

Choose high-quality oils. Look for a label with the Latin name of the plant and information on purity (including additives) and where it was harvested. Buy only from a trusted health supplement provider. Also, choose dark-colored glass bottles to prevent light and heat from tainting the oil.

Skin Care

Aromatic oils can be inhaled or diluted and applied to the skin. Some have perfume-like scents; others have medicinal properties. There are more than 90 essential oil varieties, and some have been linked to specific health conditions. But more research is needed to back up many of these claims.

Peppermint, for example, may relieve irritable bowel syndrome symptoms when taken as an oral supplement or rubbed on the soles of the feet (the body’s key absorption points). Lemon oil can brighten a tired complexion and may also fight acne. And sappy-smelling pine and fir oil can ease sinus congestion, per the National Institutes of Health.

When choosing essential oils, go for those that haven’t been chemically altered during extraction or processing. And apply a drop or two of any new oil to a small area of your skin, such as the inside of your wrist, to see how you react before using it over larger areas, suggests the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing.


Essential oils are highly concentrated, volatile liquids extracted from various parts of plants, including flowers, leaves, bark, roots, seeds and twigs. Depending on the plant, one oil can produce hundreds of different compounds. They are classified as class 3 flammable liquids and can be fatal if inhaled.

According to Johns Hopkins, essential oil products are not regulated by the FDA and often contain ingredients that may have detrimental effects. They also are not standardized, so you may not know exactly what’s in each bottle or what health benefits it claims to have.

It’s important to use only high-quality oils, as they can have a powerful effect on your body and mind. You can purchase them at natural food stores or online retailers. It’s also a good idea to invest in some accessories, such as drawers that keep your bottles organized and items that allow you to enjoy scented vapor on the go. This includes small appliances that emit a vapor into the air, such as diffusers.

Complementary Therapy

Although essential oils are widely used as fragrances in perfumes, cosmetics and cleaning products, their therapeutic properties are also recognized. They have been shown to possess antimicrobial, antioxidant and other health-promoting activities. They are highly concentrated plant compounds that contain unique aromatic chemicals, which give each oil its characteristic smell. They can be extracted from the plants by distillation or mechanical methods such as cold pressing. The best-quality oils are those that have been minimally processed.

The phenolics in essential oils, particularly the aldehydes and phenolic terpenoids (such as thymol or carvacrol), exhibit the strongest antioxidant activity, followed by monoterpene alcohols and ketones, such as b-myrcene, -thujone and geranyl acetate.

Inhaling EOs may provide some benefit, but the effects vary by individual. It is recommended that the oils be diluted and not taken by mouth. It is also important to note that some oils can cause skin irritation and should be used sparingly on sensitive areas, such as the eyes or the mucous membranes.