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Essential Oil Basics
The use of essential oils is neither new nor specific to one purpose—in fact, the story of essential oils is vast, varied, and ancient. So how does this bygone ingredient translate to the wide world of present-day wellness, and the many products that utilize their powers? Well, it turns out that the reasons we’ve loved them for millenia still hold up. But it might take a bit of explaining to prove this point, so stick with us as we explain everything you need to know about essential oils, including how they work, where they come from, and why they continue to be relevant in the ever-shifting landscape of an industry dominated by passing trends.
What Are Essential Oils? How Are They Obtained?
Essential oils are special oil compounds extracted from plants that capture the specific plant’s aroma and flavor—its essence. Each plant has a unique aromatic signature, and this gives each essential oil the characteristics we so readily associate with them, such as the warm floral scent of lavender, or the sharp brightness of sweet orange.
The use of these oils dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who first burned incense made from aromatic woods, herbs and spices. Well, modernity has helped to refine the process of extraction, and today what we consider essential oils are steam-distilled or cold-pressed extracts of almost any part of a plant. This can include seeds, flowers, fruit, leaves, stems, roots, or any part of a plant that is considered to improve physical and psychological well-being. In addition to this, oils produced by adding chemical solvents to plants are not typically considered essential oils.
Are Essential Oils the Same as Natural Oils?
The short answer is, no, essential oils are not the same as other oils. In fact, the term itself might be a bit of a misnomer. Essential oils are a concentrated mixture of natural and volatile plant compounds that form hydrophobic liquids containing volatile aroma molecules that are highly distilled and less, well, oily than other oils. Really, all that ‘essential oil’ refers to is that the oil carries a distinctive scent or essence of the plant. Natural oils, on the other hand, are composed of triglycerides in which glycerin is esterified (combined) with three fatty acids.
Although this is a bit heavy on the chemistry language, the important thing to keep in mind is that natural oils can be equated to vegetable oils and animal fats. And where vegetable oils and animal fats are thick, luscious, and usually excellent for the skin, essential oil doesn’t really feel like oil at all—it’s fairly watery, in fact. Essential oils don’t “sink” into the skin, but rather evaporate quickly when exposed to air.
Essential Oils and Carrier Oils
In order to utilize essential oils at all on the skin, they must first be diluted with what’s known as a carrier oil. Essential oil extracts are potent, and need to be combined with a thicker oil (indeed, a natural plant oil as mentioned above) that doesn’t evaporate easily, and, maybe more importantly, allows for the essential oil to become diluted so that it doesn’t irritate the skin.
Carrier oils contain components such as fat-soluble vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients that nourish the skin, making them exceptionally beneficial in their own right.
These differences between carrier and essential oils are indeed why they work so well together. There are three categorical differences between the two that help to highlight their close relationship:
- Fragrance - Carrier oils can be rather fragrance-neutral and don’t contain a concentrated aroma or flavor like essential oils.
- Feel - Carrier oils have a more “fixed” state and stay on the skin longer, while essential oils evaporate easily and rapidly.
- Effect - All plant oils used on skin have one common goal and that is to support the skin’s barrier, which in itself is made up of many of the same lipids found in plant oils. Essential oils, on the other hand, provide therapeutic benefits specific to each plant in such a powerful, concentrated way that a carrier oil becomes necessary in most cases for use on the skin.
How Do Essential Oils Work?
In order to answer how exactly essential oils work, it’s important to know exactly what their intended uses are. There are several specific methods for utilizing essential oils that we will discuss below, but very generally, essential oils are used for therapeutic purposes for both the mind and body. Either olfactorally inhaled on their own or diluted in a carrier oil to use on skin, the plant chemicals found in essential oils are thought to stimulate the sense of smell or have therapeutic effects when absorbed by the skin.
When applied to the skin, some of the plant chemicals within essential oils demonstrate all kinds of uses. Think of the tea tree essential oil and its astringent properties in your facial toner, for example, or the eucalyptus essential oil and its antimicrobial abilities in your hand soap.
Topical uses for essential oils usually involve cosmetic purposes or to treat pain. These oils are absorbed via the epidermis with the help of a carrier oil, then move to the bloodstream, and are then carried to specific areas and metabolized in the liver.
But what essential oils are most commonly associated with is, of course, aromatherapy. Inhaling the aromas from essential oils can stimulate areas of your limbic system, or that part of your brain that plays a role in emotions, behaviors, sense of smell, and long-term memory.
The limbic system also plays a role in controlling several unconscious physiological functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. As such, it’s no great leap to see the connection between essential oils and mood regulation, and many consumers use aromatherapy for everything from mental stimulation to total relaxation.
Common Essential Oils and Their Uses
Because essential oils are packed with both the ability to help/heal/disinfect topically as well as stimulate the limbic system, the most common types are used for a wide range of reasons that span the mental and physical realms:
- Peppermint - Boosts energy and helps digestion
- Lavender - Promotes calm and relieves stress
- Sandalwood - Calms nerves and helps with focus
- Bergamot: Reduces stress and improves skin conditions
- Rose: Improves mood and reduces anxiety
- Chamomile: Improves mood and promotes relaxation
- Ylang-Ylang: Used to treat headaches, nausea, and skin conditions
- Tea Tree: Boosts immunity and fights infection
- Lemon: Helps with digestion, mood, headaches, and more
This list, of course, is as limitless as the variety of plants on earth, so here’s another way to think about things:
- For stress: Try using lavender, cedarwood, lemon, bergamot, orange, or valerian.
- For skin care: Products containing lavender, carrot seed, rose, rosehip, frankincense, geranium, tea tree, ylang-ylang, and patchouli are packed with antioxidants and acne-fighting ingredients.
- For cleaning: Cinnamon, pine, and lemon disinfect naturally and smell super fresh.
- For energy: Lemon, lime, sweet orange and peppermint improve alertness.
- For immunity: Lemon, lavender, tea tree, eucalyptus, oregano, thyme, orange, and cinnamon are used on their own or in conjunction with other products to help coughs and congestion as well as promote calm and provide pain relief.
How Are They Used?
How to Use Essential Oils on Their Own
As we noted above, the two general categories of essential oil usage include olfactic inhalation and topical application. But what do these things really mean, and how do people actually use essential oils on a daily basis? Well, perhaps the most recognized way to use non-diluted essential oils is the ancient practice of aromatherapy, which as most of us are familiar with, focuses on the premise that scent can elicit a psychological response.
When inhaled, the molecules contained within these oils are mostly distributed into the respiratory system, but a small amount has been shown to make its way to, and subsequently affect, our brains as well. When our brains are kicked into action from this smelly stimulation, we identify the smell and, hopefully, have an emotional response to the smell. In animal studies, inhalation has been shown to distribute the sedative properties of certain essential oils throughout the body. Think of the sedative and luxuriously relaxing qualities of a lavender infused bubble bath, for example.
And science backs up the link between essential oils and mood. Aromatherapy can be beneficial in the management of certain symptoms such as anxiety, pain, nausea, and insomnia. And indeed, in one study, patients in intensive care who engaged in deep breathing with essential oils reported less stress and better sleep than patients who did not.
Because of this apparent link between essential oils and how we feel, aromatherapeutic applications are widely regarded to be especially helpful if your concern is internal or emotional, targeting a wide range of concerns, from anxiety, mental focus, depression, and even menstrual pain. Overall, essential oils in aromatherapy have the potential to help promote a sense of overall well being.
How to Use Essential Oils in Other Products
Individual essential oil molecules, when applied topically (and mixed with a dilution) are transported into the bloodstream through the skin. From here they enter into the cell membrane, influencing bodily processes like inflammation, skin redness, and even the production of sebum.
Essential Oils in Beauty Products
Because essential oils are quite volatile on their own, they naturally lend themselves very well to being used as ingredients within other products that contain those fatty oils that help them absorb into the skin. Enter the wide world, and heavenly match, of essential oils and innumerable beauty products. Because beauty products often contain ingredients packed with skin hydrating, penetrating, and protecting fatty carrier oils, essential oils can be used in tiny, diluted quantities to add so much more than just wonderful aromas.
Getting this ratio absolutely correct, it turns out, is absolutely critical, too. In order to use essential oils safely in skin care products, they must be diluted as much as possible without losing their natural benefits. The more diluted the essential oil, the less chance it could cause an adverse, irritable reaction from the skin. Part of the puzzle as well is pairing these essential oils with other beauty product ingredients that work well together to bring about a desired effect. In essence, it’s all about the synergy. When paired intelligently and at the right dilution, essential oils can come to life with multifaceted purpose. On their own, essential oils possess anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antiviral properties and act like natural preserving agents. Here are some of the most common essential oils used in specific types of beauty products for the skin:
- rose geranium
- rose geranium
- tea tree
Dry or mature skin
- carrot seed
- rose geranium
Rose oil for example, has antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and these antibacterial properties make it incredibly effective as a moisturizing acne treatment.
Neroli and sandalwood are used for sensitive skin and as hormone balancers, while geranium and clary sage are ideal for breakouts and aging skin.
Essential Oils in Cleaning Products
Aside from their lovely scents that, as we’ve seen, improve mood, promote relaxation, and indeed illicit energy, many types of essential oils are used for their antimicrobial qualities. Pure essential oils are so potent that they can destroy certain microbes like bacteria, fungus and viruses with the compounds they contain alone. When combined with other natural, effective cleaning and disinfecting agents, they can add an excellent addition to any clean and help reduce the use of chemical cleaning products. The most common, and effective, essential oils to use for cleaning include:
- Lemon essential oil
- Sweet Orange essential oil
- Patchouli essential oil
- Lavender essential oil
- Tea tree essential oil
- Peppermint essential oil
- Spearmint essential oil
- Eucalyptus essential oil
Are they Safe?
As we’ve seen, because essential oils are so, well, essential, their super-concentrated quality when in pure form increases the risk of them becoming unsafe. The volatile nature of essential oils in their pure, undiluted form can lead to skin irritation and, if used in the wrong way or with too high a dosage, can contribute to harmful changes in the body and can be damaging to skin and other organs if misused.
Moreover, safety can decrease if the quality of your essential oils has been tampered with by adding synthetic chemicals, other essential oils, or indeed diluting with cheaper oils. Beyond this, an essential oil that is safe when used one way may not be safe when used in another. For example, some oils are considered safe if inhaled, whereas others, such as thyme, oregano, clove, and cinnamon bark essential oils are unsafe when applied to skin in similar concentrations.
Here are some common popular questions to think about before taking the leap to using essential oils:
Can You Ingest Essential Oils?
No. Unlike the many plants from whence they originate, essential oils should never, alone or in diluted amounts within other concoctions, be orally ingested. Indeed, even very small amounts of ingested essential oils can cause what is known as toxicity. This condition has wide ranging and sometimes very severe symptoms from drowsiness through to extreme shallow breath and sometimes even comas, if enough is ingested.
Can You Put Undiluted Essential Oils Onto Skin?
No. Or at least for the untrained or new essential oils user, this answer should always be no to err on the side of caution. The use of undiluted oils for the skin is widely contested, but there are some oils that appear less unsafe in this application, such as tea tree, lavender, Roman chamomile, rose, and sandalwood.
What is essential oil dilution and why is it important for safety?
As stated, don’t apply essential oils in any undiluted fashion onto the skin for use. It’s crucial to dilute, or mix, essential oils with carrier oils to tone down their concentration and to ‘carry’ their benefits to the skin. Here’s a breakdown of some standard dilution ratios that can keep you safe:
|Cosmetics||0.2% to 1.5%|
|Body/massage oil||1.5% to 3%|
|Bath/body products||1% to 4%|
|Pain/wounds||5% to 20%|
Are Essential Oils Safe for Pets?
The simple answer to this is no. If you think about how potentially dangerous they can be to people if used incorrectly, and then apply this to our much more sensitive pets, the potential dangers of essential oils become amplified. Even some scents used in diffusers or cleaners can be harmful to these heightened noses.
Because in their undiluted form many oils are basically poisonous or toxic, their effects can negatively affect your pet’s natural body chemistry. Animals are often much more limited in what is safe for their more delicate systems, and what’s mostly safe for people cannot be assumed to be such for our furry friends. If you are considering the use of essential oils in any capacity that might affect your pets, inquire with your vet about detailed safety advice.
Here are a few of the most common essential oils that are known to be harmful and toxic for pets:
Essential Oils Harmful to Cats
- Ylang ylang
- Tea tree
Essential Oils Harmful for Dogs
- Tea tree
- Ylang ylang
What to Look For to Ensure Your Essential Oils Are Safe
There are, as we’ve very briefly touched on, many things to consider when it comes to using essential oils in a way that is safe and effective. Most broadly, being as knowledgeable as possible about what you’re intending to use essential oils for is the best safety advice. Ensure you have a clear understanding of the recommended application or usage method and the correct concentration of essential oils to use for your desired purpose. If you’re unsure, ask a professional, such as the company from which you purchased your oils.
Beyond this, look for information about the purity of the oil on the label, and look for any explicit warnings. And this isn’t just to make sure you’re not using too much, but also to make sure you’re not using too little to achieve your desired results. Some oils are commonly diluted to make them more affordable, like Rose and Neroli, because their pure grade form is very costly. If you’re starting with professional quality, pure grade oils, however, they must be diluted before they are safe for use.
For specific safety concerns, look for trusted website resources and advice from professionals.
Sourcing and Quality
When choosing an essential oil or essential oil based product, there are a few golden rules to always follow, and one of those is getting the best quality essential oil you can. This usually has something to do with where it’s sourced from and indeed how this sourcing takes place. Much like scores of other ingredients used in our wellness routines, sometimes the quality of essential oils can be compromised, usually to cut production costs somewhere along the line. From the growing conditions of the plants to their harvesting, distillation, manufacture, distribution, and storage, there are many different stages of an essential oil’s journey that can be at risk of decreased quality.
Conditions That May Impact the Quality of Your Essential Oil Products:
If plants are grown using pesticides and other chemicals, this will certainly affect their quality. But even beyond this, variability in altitude, soil conditions, rainfall, and indeed global temperature rises can also affect quality. That’s why many essential oils attribute their quality to specific locations around the world.
As we touched on above, the price of producing some essential oils can run very high, and this leads to an increased potential for adulteration or unlabelled dilution, both of which may be near impossible for the user to detect.
Packaging and Handling Conditions
Chemical degradation of your essential oils can occur with exposure to heat, light, or oxygen. For example, citrus-based oils are especially prone to oxidation that can alter their chemical makeup.
Essential oils should be stored in tightly closed, darkened glass containers in a relatively cool place to ensure lasting quality. Although the rates of oxidation vary between oils, most will keep in these conditions for between 1 and 2 years after opening.
What are the most important quality controls to look for in essential oils?
It is important to note that the quality of essential oils is vital when they are being used for any purpose, even if that’s just to open them up and smell them every once in a while. Oils that have had their quality compromised in even one of the ways mentioned above may lead to adverse effects.
Here are our top tips for ensuring that you only buy the best quality oils:
Check the Label
The label should have all relevant information regarding an essential oil’s purity and quality. If the label doesn’t explicitly indicate that it is 100% pure grade, chances are it’s mixed with something else. Moreover, if the label does not explicitly state that it is organic, don’t assume this to be the case.
Check the Price Tag
Sometimes cheaper isn’t always the best. Check that the essential oils you are interested in buying are a comparable price to other oils of the same type from several different suppliers. If an oil is markedly cheaper, it’s most probably diluted.
Research the Supplier
Buying from reputable companies is one of the best ways to ensure quality of essential oils, every single time. Do you know the brand and are they easily researchable? Are they transparent about their practices and methods? Do you trust the brand for other products? If the answer to any of these questions is no, it would be advisable to move swifty onwards.
Check For the Plant's Source Location
Some essential oils are known for their source location when it comes to quality, and although it’s not essential to be able to tell if your Peruvian vanilla is the absolute best in the world, a company that indicates a source location is demonstrating transparency in doing so.
Check For the Method of Oil Production
While steam distillation is the most common extraction method, extraction is normally dependent on the plant material that is used in the process. Inappropriate or unsafe extraction procedures can lead to damage for both the resultant oil and the environment.
Check the Smell
It may seem novel, but if an essential oil doesn’t smell the way you think it should (say, if it smells too much like another oil or like alcohol, or indeed if it doesn’t smell enough like anything), trust your nose. Chances are, it’s not as essential as it might appear or indeed may be past its shelf life.
How To Buy Intelligently
Much like being able to discern quality oils made sustainably, buying essential oils intelligently just comes down to what you know. With a few key points to consider every time you go to buy that oil, you can ensure that you’re always buying intelligently:
Know Your Oils
Some plants, like rose, are used to produce both essential oils and carrier oils. So remember, an essential oil is volatile, concentrated, watery and very fragrant, whereas a carrier oil will be thicker, safe for skin, with a mild smell. The type of oil should be plainly stated on the label, but another good indication is that essential oils are typically in very small containers compared to carrier oils.
Know The Lingo
It’s always a great idea to scan the product description on any essential oil label for keywords that can help you determine the overall quality of your choice. Reputable essential oil companies will clearly state that their oils are ‘100 percent pure grade essential oil’. If it doesn’t say that, you can’t be guaranteed that it’s anything close. If you see the words ‘fragrance oil’ or similar, it is probably a synthetic blend.
Know Your Latin
Don’t worry, there’s no need to pick up another language in your spare time before you enjoy a perfectly aromatic bubble bath. But look up those latin names before you buy, because they’re a true indication of exactly what essential oil you’re purchasing. For example, this is something that could trip you up if you want to enjoy one of the most common essential oils out there, Lavender. Lavandula angustifolia, also referred to as “true lavender,” is the preferred lavender for clinical aromatherapy—not lavandin Lavandula intermedia.
Know Your Packaging
Essential oils should always be protected from oxidation caused by sun exposure by being packaged in a dark glass bottle. If the product isn’t packaged in this way, and if the seal is broken, chances are the quality has been compromised. Another key indicator of quality is the expiration date - ensure your potential oils are well within range.