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A Beginner’s Guide to Essential Oils

What Are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are concentrated aromatic compounds extracted from plants. A pure essential oil is a natural product taken from a single plant species. Not all plants produce essential oils, but in the ones that do, essential oils can be extracted from the stems, leaves, flowers, roots or fruits.

flowers and essential oil bottle

Aromatherapy is the application of essential oils for many uses including complementary therapy and alternative medicine. This is due to the vital qualities of essential oils.

If you’re interested in using essential oils but don’t know where to start, this article will give you everything you need to know to begin using essential oils with confidence.

Methods of Extraction

There are two different methods of getting essential oils from plants: distillation and expression. Let’s take a look at both methods below:

Distillation

The most popular method of extracting essential oils is steam distillation. This process involves placing the plant material in a still (a water distiller),  where pressurized steam is forced through it. The pressure of the steam releases the essential oils, allowing them to evaporate into the steam.

flask containing essential oil and pipette

The essential oil-filled steam then passes through a cooling system where it condenses into a liquid. The essential oil floats to the top of the water, making it easy to separate off.

Expression

pestle and mortar

Expression is almost exclusively used for citrus fruits where the essential oil is contained in small sacs in the peel. No heat is used in this process since the oil is ‘expressed’ when the peel is punctured.

How to Use Essential Oils

It’s important to know how to use essential oils before you dive in. Different oils have different uses and can be harmful if used incorrectly or in the wrong doses. This section will take you through the different methods of using oils safely as well as giving you some handy tips to get started.

Consult Your Doctor

First thing’s first, if you’re concerned about using a specific oil, it’s important to consult your doctor. Your doctor can tell you if it’s safe to use and if a specific oil is likely to affect any prescribed medications. Also take into account any allergies you have and how essential oils may affect them.

Diffuse

flowers and essential oil diffuser

Diffusing essential oils involves releasing the volatile compounds of the oils into the air, allowing you to breathe them in. Diffusing essential oils refreshes the airspace of your home, combats airborne microbes, and helps the whole family feel the benefits. Not only that but they smell great and can freshen your home.

There are different methods of diffusing. A popular method is using a electronic diffuser which you can buy online. Other methods are reed diffusers (but these normally contain a large proportion of synthetic chemicals), and candle diffusers (but these can overheat the oil and change its properties).

Whichever method you choose, around 18 drops of essential oil will give you 15-20 minutes of aroma.

Inhale

Inhaling essential oils is a more direct method of use. Simply apply a few drops to a handkerchief and inhale deeply. You can do this as needed throughout your day to feel the benefits. Or, you can get a personal inhaler stick and charge it with your favorite blend of oils.

Topical Application

hand massage using essential oils

Topical application involves applying the oils directly to the skin. The most common places to apply are the chest, temples and bottom of the feet. When applying topically, it’s important to first dilute the essential oils appropriately with a carrier oil (olive, coconut or jojoba work well). Again, each oil may work better with different carrier oils, depending on what you’re trying to achieve.

Keep in mind that not all essential oils are safe to apply topically and some may cause irritation. Research the specific oil and make sure you dilute it with a carrier oil well if you are going to use it topically. If you do use an essential oil and find you are having irritation consult a doctor.

Never apply any essential oils to your eyes, inner ear or damaged skin or dry, cracked skin.

Bath

Adding essential oils to a warm bath can be a wonderful way to relax and enjoy the benefits of oils in a gentle way. However, they should always be disbursed otherwise they will simply float on the surface and stick to your skin when you get out, effectively putting them neat on the skin. Suitable disbursants are full cream milk or honey. 

Add 2-3 drops of the essential oil mixture to your bath. Always check that the oil your are using is suitable for bathing in and be aware of any damaged skin, avoiding contact with inner ear and eyes.

Massage

aromatherapy massage using essential oils

Who doesn’t love a massage? Adding essential oils can help ease tension and aid relaxation. You can easily make your own massage oil by adding 15 drops of your essential oil to ½ a cup of carrier oil. Massaging the feet with this essential massage oil will help it enter the bloodstream. Relaxing oils such as lavender work best for this purpose.

Why and How to Dilute Oils

Diluting essential oils is important for two main reasons: first, it helps to avoid skin reactions like irritation and rashes. Second, it avoids toxicity - when concentrated essential oils are applied to the skin regularly, they can build up in your system over time leading to toxicity.

But don’t let this put you off using essential oils. Simply by being educated in the oils that you select, diluting them appropriately using a carrier oil, and avoiding overuse, you can make them safe and avoid nasty reactions.

Dilution Process

When working with small quantities of essential oils for your own personal use, the easiest way to measure is by the drop. Although this isn’t an exact method of measurement, it is usually fine for creating your own topical blends and recipes.

Safe dilution percentages range from 1% - 10%, so make sure you follow instructions carefully.

When creating a 2% dilution (which is the average), add 12 drops of essential oil to 1 fluid ounce (30 ml) of carrier oil.

Essential Oils Uses and Benefits

Now you know how to use essential oils safely and effectively, let’s take a look at some the uses and benefits.

1. Improve mood

smiling person with happy face ballon

Scent is a powerful stimulus that triggers emotional responses. Scents are powerful stimuli that directly enter the brain and can trigger powerful emotional responses. Inhaling essential oils sends signals to the brain, leaving you feeling happy, energized and calm. For example, both lavender and sweet orange essential oils have been shown to improve your overall mood.

2. Aid sleep

Many essential oils have been shown to help you get deep, restful sleep. As well improving mood, a blend of lavender, roman chamomile and neroli essential oils has also been shown to improve sleep quality when used in aromatherapy.

3. Reduce Inflammation

Some essential oils have been found to reduce inflammation, supporting conditions such as arthritis and other joint issues.

4. Pain Relief

person holding a hot water bottle

Certain essential oils have been shown to have pain relieving properties. For example, one study found that essential oils used in massage therapy significantly reduced menstrual pain in a group of women. 

5. Boost Immune System

Many oils also have antifungal, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties that can help prevent certain illnesses. Studies have shown that essential oils can suppress or boost the immune system, helping in relieving infections.

6. Balance Hormones

Studies have shown that there are certain essential oils that can help balance hormones, such as estrogen, cortisol, thyroid and testosterone. For example, geranium helps to balance estrogen levels, helping with issues such as infertility and PCOS.

7. Support Digestion

Another benefit of essential oils is helping to improve digestion. Certain essential oils stimulate digestive enzymes which aids in the breakdown of nutrients in food. This can help with issues such as indigestion, stomach aches and even IBS. Ginger essential oil is a good example of an oil that can help digestive health.

8. Improve Skin

girl lying in flowers

Essential oils have been used for decades in beauty products as a natural way to improve hair and skin health. Using essential oils as an alternative to commercial products can help to reduce chemicals which can irritate the skin. Certain essential oils have been shown to effectively reduce acne-causing bacteria, making them natural alternatives to harsh skin serums.

9. Relieve Headaches and Migraines

Some essential oils have been shown to be a natural pain relief for headaches and migraines. Instead of masking the pain like commercial painkillers do, they get to the root of the issue by improving blood flow and reducing stress. For example, lavender essential oil has been shown to be effective in the treatment of migraine headaches.

10. Improve Brain Function

model of brain

Certain essential oils have been shown to have neuroprotective effects meaning they can help improve cognition. This is an impressive benefit of essential oils that is still being studied.

In a scientific review published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, researchers found essential oils help to naturally improve brain function and reduce inflammation.

The Difference between High Quality and Substandard Oils And How to Spot Them

With so many different brands and options on the market, it can be difficult to know which essential oils are the best. There are a number factors to keep in mind when distinguishing between a high quality and substandard essential oil, and price is not the most important factor. Doing your research and finding out the best possible oil available is an important step in the oil selection process.

Labelling

flowers and essential oil bottle

The easiest way to spot a substandard essential oil is the name on the label. An authentic essential oil will have its scientific or botanical name (e.g. Rosemary is Rosmarinus officinalis) along with a specific chemotype, if applicable. If the label doesn’t have this scientific name, the oil is likely substandard. High quality oils will also have the country of origin, part of the plant, extraction process, batch number and an expiration date on the label.

Testing

High quality oils will have been independently tested in a lab to assess their purity. Two tests are commonly used: gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. High quality companies will run these tests on each batch of oils and the results will be available on their website. Doing some research first will help you know what you are going in for in the first place.

Grading

You’ll often see essential oils labelled as “clinical grade” or “therapeutic grade” on different sites. However there is no official governing body which regulates the use of these terms. This means companies can use these terms to mean whatever they want it to mean. This is classic technique aimed at selling to a target market.

Suppliers who use these terms are not necessarily being misleading and may have strict processes to give high-quality oils. But keep in mind that just because an oil is promoted as “therapeutic grade” does not mean it is high quality or superior, or any more likely to perform the function you want it to.

Organic

lavender flowers

Organic or wildcrafted essential oils would ideally be your your first choice since they will be least likely to have added chemicals. Wildcrafted are normally less expensive and we can think of them as ‘organic’ but without the certification. With these oils, no pesticides have been used during the growing process of the botanicals. Pesticides can be more concentrated in essential oils, giving higher risk of toxicity.

You may also see oils labelled as “unsprayed” meaning the oils are not organic, but plants have not been sprayed with pesticides by the farmers. This is desirable if you cannot find organic oils.

Which Oils to Avoid During Pregnancy And For Your Kids

Using essential oils during pregnancy is a controversial practice. There is concern that oils may cross the placental barrier and harm the developing fetus.

pregnant person holding bump

There is no scientific research showing the dangers of essential oil use during pregnancy, so use should be avoided until you have consulted with your doctor.

There are some essential oils that should never be used during pregnancy. These include:
Hyssop
Tarragon
Wintergreen
Camphor
Parsley seed

However some essential oils are considered safe to use during pregnancy during prenatal massage or using a diffuser. Popular choices include:
Chamomile
Eucalyptus
Frankincense
Lavender
Lemon

Knowing which might and might not be suitable prior is beneficial, but always consult your doctor or suitable qualified complementary practitioner before using any essential oil while pregnant or breastfeeding to minimize the risk.

Essential Oils for Children

As with pregnancy, you should always consult with your doctor or suitably qualified practitioner before using essential oils with your children. Small children have thinner skin and less developed immune systems meaning they can be more susceptible to the potential toxic effects of essential oils.

young girl with flowers

In addition all things for children should be taken in smaller or less concentrated doses, so let common sense prevail if you are unsure.

Aromatherapy is considered safe for children over 2 years of age, but only using certain essential oils. A weaker dilution is also recommended (usually 0.5 - 1%).

Exercise caution when using oils with your little ones. Do your research on the specific oil, discontinue use if any adverse effects occur and stick to diffusers rather than topical use.

Some essential oils that are often used with children include:
German chamomile
Cypress
Sandalwood

However, some oils that should never be used around small children include:
Fennel
Eucalyptus
Peppermint
Rosemary

The best thing you can do for yourself and little ones is your research. When used safely and correctly, essential oils can offer wonderful benefits for the whole family.

Oils for Therapeutic Use - Questions To Ask Yourself Before Buying

Therapeutic blending focuses on creating a blend that will aid with a particular emotional or physical condition. Therapeutic blending concentrates more on the therapeutic result than on the aroma of the blend.

flowers and bottle of essential oil

By blending different oils you can gain the benefits of different oils, such as both relaxing calming effects and pain relieving effects all in one. This way the blends can have more effect than simply using one oil, and is the main reason for using blends.

Have you consulted a doctor?

In the same way you’d consult your doctor if you needed a new medication, you should consult your doctor or health professional if you’re planning on using essential oils for therapeutic purposes. They will be able to tell you if the oil is safe to introduce and be there to support you.

Are you going to consult an aromatherapy expert?

person carrying out face massage on a young woman

If your doctor isn’t supportive of essential oil therapy but you still want to give it a try, you might want to consult an aromatherapy expert. These are professionals who specialise in essential oils. They will be able to give you expert advice on which oils suit your needs and guide you through the process.

Do the oils contradict your circumstances?

Some oils may contradict your circumstances and so should be used with care. For example, you may want to try an essential oil blend to help with dandruff. Rosemary is a good oil for this, however it should not be used during pregnancy. Make sure you thoroughly research the oil you plan to use and make sure if fits with your circumstances. Not only that depending on how you are planning to use it may also affect your use of a bend, such as whether your whole family, including children will come into contact with them.

What are all the effects of the oil?

flowers and phial containing essential oil

It’s also important to understand all of the therapeutic effects of an oil you’ve decided to use. For example, if you want to use essential oils to relieve cramps, peppermint is a good choice. However, if you also want to take it before bed, this isn’t a good option, since it’s also considered an energy boosting oil. Make sure you understand all the intended effects of an oil before using it for any therapeutic purposes. By doing the proper research you may find that another oil has the properties you’re looking for without the undesired other effects that may come with some oils.

Top Essential Oils

If you’re unsure which essential oils to get started with, below are some of the top essential oils, their benefits and uses.

Palo Santo

palo santo wood shavings and dried leaves

Palo Santo means Holy Wood. This essential oil has been used for hundreds of years by native shamans for spirituality and prayer. As such, this is a wonderful oil to incorporate into meditation practices. This is part of the Burseraceae family (along with Frankincense and Myrrh) and carries notes of pine, lemon and mint, so also smells great. It is also used for its cold and flu relieving properties.

Copaiba

Copaiba oil is a natural anti-inflammatory which comes from copaiba trees, native to the Amazon rainforest. This particular oil is popular for treating skin conditions such as acne as well as reducing the appearance of scars. It is also a powerful anti inflammatory to boot.

Helichrysum

helichrysum imortelle flowers

Helichrysum essential oil is widely used in aromatherapy due to its beautiful floral fragrance. This is a popular oil for supporting allergies, shock, and anxiety as well as inflammation. What’s more, it’s known for its ability to boost the immune system and stimulate digestion. This is an ancient oil that has both anti fungal and anti inflammatory properties and is great for skin care.

Lemon

lemons on a tree

Lemon is a favorite among the citrus oils due to its fresh and clean scent. Taken from the zest of the lemon fruit, lemon essential oil is typically used to ease stress, reduce fatigue and insomnia as well as skin conditions such as acne. It is a versatile oil and also be used for clearing bad odours from rooms, help with athlete's foot and reduce flu like symptoms.

Clary Sage

clary sage plant and flowers

Clary sage is a perennial plant native to the Mediterranean and North Africa. Clary sage is a popular essential oil for relieving skin issues such as acne, scars and ageing. It is considered antibacterial, antiseptic and astringent and is believed to be helpful as a natural way to induce labour.

Lavender

bunch of lavender flowers

Lavender is a calming essential oil, perfect for use in diffusers to help relieve stress and anxiety. Lavender oil has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties and can be used on minor burns, rashes and insect bites. Lavender is well known for its sedative properties and is most commonly used to aid sleep.

Tea Tree

Tea tree leaves

Tea tree oil is also known by its botanical name, melaleuca oil. Tea tree oil has been used by Aborigines for centuries. The native Australians crush tea tree leaves and inhale the oil to treat coughs and colds. Tea tree oil is also considered a powerful anti-inflammatory, helping to soothe and relieve painful and irritated skin. It may also help to reduce redness and swelling. Tea tree oil can also be used to treat head lice and skin conditions, but should never be ingested.

Diffusers or No Diffusers?

If you’ve never used a diffuser before it can feel a little overwhelming. There are many types, models and options available, all of which have benefits. But whichever form you choose, all have some great benefits which makes them a wonderful addition to your routine:

Promotes Sleep

Diffusing oils such as lavender, sweet orange and roman chamomile for just 20-30 minutes before bed is said to support the body’s natural sleep cycles while reducing stress and insomnia. By using the oil this way it will stay in the air of the room and continue to soothe you while you fall asleep.

Supports Respiratory Health

Diffusing essential oils like eucalyptus, spruce or pine can help reduce inflammation in the lungs and cut through heavy mucus that builds up when you have a cold. Diffusers are often used to help relieve congestion and support respiratory problems like asthma and allergies.

Safe Alternative to Candles

Scented candles bought in normal stores often made with toxic paraffin wax which gives off dangerous vapors when burned. Although they smell nice, these scents are usually artificial and mean even more chemicals being pumped into your home.

Contrastingly, essential oil diffusers can naturally scent your home, keeping your air smelling beautiful and chemical-free. You can mix essential oils to give different scents, all while benefiting from the aromatic properties of the individual oils. Not only that without a flame to spread the aroma reduces other risks associated with flame burning candles.

Repels Insects

mosquito

Certain essential oils including tea tree, lemongrass and citronella all repel insects when put in a diffuser. You can keep your diffuser close by during barbeques or garden parties to ward off unwanted visitors, or keep it in the house to make sure those nasty bugs stay away. This is a wonderful benefit during the warm months when mosquitos are out in force and you need the window open for a cooling breeze.

Final Word

Hopefully this article has given you everything you need to get started with essential oils. If you still have any questions, let us know! We are happy to answer any questions and help any way we can.