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.
Aromatherapy is the application of essential oils and natural plant extracts to promote health and wellbeing. It is one of the many therapies that come under the umbrella of complementary therapy or alternative medicine.
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 several different methods of getting essential oils from plants, the most common of which are distillation and expression. Let’s take a look at these methods below:
The most popular method of extracting essential oils is steam distillation which has been used in traditional essential oil production for thousands of years. This process involves placing the plant material in a still, where pressurized steam is passed through it. Stills can vary in size from small table-top stills (mainly used by hobbyists and aromatherapists) to larger scale equipment for commercial production. The pressure of the steam causes the structures within the plant material that hold the volatile oils to burst open, releasing the essential oils and allowing them to evaporate into the steam.
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. The water that left behind also has therapeutic value. This is known as the ‘hydrosol’ (also sometimes called the ‘hydrolat’ or ‘floral water’).
Expression is almost exclusively used for citrus fruits such as lemon or orange, 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. Traditional methods of expression involve a sponge or spiked device to break down the plant material. More modern methods use a roller or press to crush the whole fruit. The oil is then separated using a centrifuge.
Some flowers such as Jasmine cannot be extracted using heat as it changes the aroma. In this case an extraction is carried out using alcohol or another solvent. Oils extracted in this way are known as ‘absolutes’. Some oils such as rose are available as both a steam distilled essential oil and an absolute. Due to the nature of their extraction absolutes often have a fuller, stronger aroma than the equivalent steam distilled oil.
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 or ineffective if used incorrectly or in the wrong dilution. This section will take you through the different methods of using oils safely and effectively as well as giving you some handy tips to get started.
Consult Your Doctor
First things first, if you’re concerned about using a specific oil it’s important to consult your doctor or qualified alternative therapy practitioner. Your practitioner can tell you if it’s safe to use and if a specific oil is likely to affect any prescribed medications. They will take into account any allergies you have and how essential oils may affect them.
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 are a natural alternative to conventional air fresheners which can contain chemicals and synthetic compounds.
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. The bottles contain a dropper insert to help you get the amount just right.
Inhaling essential oils is a more direct method of use which can be helpful when a more immediate result is required. 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 favourite blend of 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. We explain how to dilute essential oils further down this page.
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 or qualified practitioner.
Never apply any essential oils to your eyes, inner ear or damaged skin or dry, cracked skin.
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 diluted otherwise the oil will simply float on the surface and stick to your skin when you get out, which in effect is the same as putting it neat on the skin. You can add essential oils to a carrier oil to create a bath oil or alternatively use a dispersant such as full cream milk or honey. A suitable dilution for healthy adults is around 3%. Alternatively you can use a ready-blended bath oil.
Add 2-3 drops of the essential oil blend to your bath. Always check that the oil your are using is suitable for use in the bath (or on the skin) and avoid contact with damaged skin and the inner ear and eyes.
Who doesn’t love a massage? Adding essential oils to a massage oil can help ease tension and aid relaxation. You can easily make your own massage oil by adding your favourite essential oils to a carrier oil such as sweet almond or sesame. Using a carrier oil helps the essential to penetrate the skin more easily, bringing the maximum therapeutic benefits. Massaging the feet with an oil blend is an ideal way to use a massage oil as oils enter the bloodstream more effectively from this part of the body. Relaxing oils such as lavender work best for this purpose. You can also use a massage blend for a full body massage or on a specific area (for example the neck and shoulders, to relieve tension). If you prefer not to blend your own massage oil you can use a pre-blended massage oil.
Why and How to Dilute Essential Oils
Diluting essential oils is important for two 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 irritation or sensitisation.
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. A safe dilution can be between 1% – 10% depending on the application. If you are using a blend recipe from the internet or a training course make sure to follow the instructions carefully.
When creating a 3% dilution (which is the usual dilution for a healthy adult), add 20 drops of essential oil to 30 ml of carrier oil. If it helps you to picture this more easily, this is equivalent to two tablespoons. You can also add the essential oil directly to a 30ml carrier oil. In this case shake well to blend the oils.
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
Scent is a powerful stimulus that triggers emotional responses. When we inhale through the nose aromatic molecules are detected by receptors on the olafactory bulb, which is part of the limbic system in the mid-brain. These stimuli can trigger powerful responses in the emotions, digestion, etc.
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
Certain essential oils have been shown to directly affect pain receptors and are used for 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. Clary Sage is another oil that has a special affinity with women.
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
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
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. Diffusing Rosemary in a classroom has been shown to improve academic perfomance, echoing Shakespeare’s observation, ‘Rosemary, that’s for remembrance’.
The Difference between High Quality and Poor Quality Essential 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 poor quality or substandard essential oil, and price is not the most important factor. Doing your research and finding a good supplier is an important step when choosing essential oils.
An immediate way to spot an essential oil which may be of doubtful quality is by looking at the name on the label. An authentic essential oil will have its scientific or botanical name (e.g. Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis) along with a specific chemotype if applicable. If the label doesn’t have this scientific name there is a strong chance that the oil is of unknown origin and not of good quality.
High quality oils will have the country of origin, part of the plant, extraction process, batch number and a use-by date on the label.
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. These are used along side a range of other tests that encompass the physical and chemical properties of the oil. Companies that sell high quality essential oils will run these tests on each batch of oils and make the results available. A certificate of analysis is available for all Oshadhi essential oils and gas chromatography test results can be downloaded from each product page. Doing some research first will help you ensure that you are buying from a reputable company.
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. Suppliers who use these terms are not necessarily being misleading and may have strict processes to produce 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. It does however distinguish oils that are intended for therapeutic use from those that have been produced for use in flavouring or fragrances and which are not suitable for use in aromatherapy.
Organic or wild-crafted 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. Organic essential oils are certified under a nationally recognised standard which ensures that the oil is produced to strict standards for organic agriculture.
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 foetus. 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 or qualified alternative health practitioner.
Essential Oils for Children
As with pregnancy, you should always consult with your doctor or suitably qualified complementary health practitioner before using essential oils with your children. Younger children have thinner skin and less developed body systems which means that they can be more affected by the properties of essential oils.
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 low dilution is recommended (usually 0.5 – 1%). To create a 0.5% blend use 3-7 drops in 30ml of carrier oil (two tablespoons). Sunflower Oil is an excellent carrier oil for children.
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.
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
Should you blend essential oils?
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.
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 as opposed to single essential oils.
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 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?
If your doctor isn’t supportive of essential oil therapy but you still want to give it a try, you might want to consult a suitably qualified aromatherapy expert or qualified complementary health practitioner. 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 so this would not be a suitable choice whilst pregnant. 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 blend, such as whether your whole family, including children will come into contact with the oils you have chosen.
Have you considered all the effects of the 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. These oils are commonly used in aromatherapy and have a multitude of benefits.
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 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 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. There are different types of Helichrysum oil available and the properties given here are attributed specifically to the ‘italicum’ type so it is important to check the Latin name before buying.
Lemon is a favourite 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 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 has a natural affinity with women.
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 oil is also known by its botanical name, melaleuca oil. Tea tree oil has been used in traditional medicine 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 the 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:
Diffusing oils such as lavender, sweet orange and roman camomile 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 vapours 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.
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.
Hopefully this article has given you everything you need to get started with essential oils. If you still have any questions, please contact us! We are happy to answer any questions and help any way we can.