Essential Oils 101: Aromatherapy And Beyond

Whether you're considering essential oils as a natural remedy or simply a way to keep your home smelling fresh, let this be your guide.

October 30, 2017
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A few years ago, a friend who had been struggling with depression told me she was feeling “basically cured” and gave most of the credit to her newfound study and practice of aromatherapy. My interest was definitely piqued, as I’m constantly looking for green and natural ways to boost health and happiness. Still, even as an open-minded wellness nut who’s willing to try almost anything once (and someone who has used natural products containing essential oils for years), I saw her claims for what they were: an anecdote from a friend, not definitive proof of healing properties.

Of course the ancient Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and Egyptians all used oils in their healing practices. Even Hippocrates—the guy who pretty much invented Western medicine—was said to be an expert in the medicinal application of botanical oils. But then, of course, anyone who tells you that essential oils will completely fix your life just might be trying to sell you snake oil.

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So is there modern, objective evidence that using essential oils in natural remedies, aromatherapy, topical beauty applications, and green cleaning products can produce real, beneficial results? Yes there is.

It’s time to explore what you stand to gain by adding essential oils to your life. It’s important to consult your doctor about any serious medical issues you may have, rather than attempting to self-medicate exclusively with essential oils (or any other at-home therapy), but empirical evidence suggests that adding essential oils could be a major win for your wellness.

The Top 5 Essential Oils Beginners Need to Know

You may already have a few essential oils rolling around in your bag of tricks, or you might be a novice. Either way, learning how to incorporate these classic essential oils into your healthy living practice safely (more on the importance of dilution to come!) is easy even for beginners.

1. Lavender

You already know it smells amazing and that sleeping with a sachet of dried lavender under your pillow can bring you sweet dreams. Kac Young, PhD, a naturopathic doctor and author of The Healing Art of Essential Oils (which I recently read and loved), says in her book that if she could only use one essential oil, lavender would be her choice. She cites lavender’s extra long list of beneficial properties, which range from it being antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory to being a powerful relaxant, while still being “one of the most gentle.”

Multiple studies have found that lavender oil can help with an array of issues in addition to its well-known use for encouraging sleep. Research shows it facilitates wound-healing and can help calm dementia patients. I sometimes pour a few drops into my nighttime bath to help me unwind, then sleep like a baby. Zeyah Rogé, a massage and mental health therapist (as well as yoga instructor) who has long incorporated essential oils into her practices says lavender is one of her top favorites because of its helpfulness “for nervous system balancing,” as well as being good for the skin, “particularly in healing burns.”

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Itchy skin from a bug bite, bee sting, or even a chronic condition like eczema? Young advocates dabbing a bit of diluted lavender oil right onto the itchy spot, then waiting calmly for the soothing relief to roll over you.

2. Peppermint

In addition to affording us minty-fresh breath and the flavor of our favorite Christmas candies, peppermint has been proven useful for a slew of holistic uses. From relieving nausea and stomach pains (think of all those minty antacid tablets on the market) to improving focus and lowering fevers, the therapeutic uses are well documented. In fact, peppermint oil is one of the best medicines we have for treating irritable bowel syndrome. It’s important, however, if you’re using peppermint as a topical or orally ingested treatment that you stick to using it in diluted form, as it is possible to use too much.

Rogé uses this fresh-smelling oil for its antibacterial properties, and Young inhales the stuff directly, or in steam, to soothe respiratory issues during a cold or flu. Think Vicks VapoRub.

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Can’t stop snacking? Peppermint can act as a mild appetite suppressant. “Inhale peppermint essential oil to stave off the munchies,” says Young.

3. Lemon

It turns out that lemons are good for so much more than spritzing in a refreshing summer beverage or bringing a hint of acid to your dinner. According to Young’s book, it’s known to have “antiseptic … antimicrobial, antibacterial … and even antifungal” properties. The essential oil of lemons is the most concentrated way to harness their disinfectant power as a kitchen and bathroom cleaner, a natural skin-brightener, or even an at-home wart remedy. Perhaps the best use for lemon essential oil is its proven ability to boost happiness, alertness, and general clarity of mind when inhaled. So if you’re feeling down or dull, lean in and take a whiff!

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Sore throat? Add a drop of lemon oil and a bit of honey to your hot tea for a soothing and antibacterial home remedy.

4. Tea Tree

Known for its long list of uses related to clearing up troubled skin, this multitasking oil is one of my favorites (and both Young and Rogé agree). I’ve been using this stuff on mild acne flare-ups since I was a teenager, and I know it works for me.

Tea tree oil is a known antiseptic and antifungal and is great for treating skin infections,” says Rogé, who opts to add a little tea tree oil to her lotions. Young writes that tea tree oil can be used as a treatment for nail fungus, thrush, and eczema, and a recent study shows that tea tree vapor can prevent the spread of influenza A virus and E. coli phage M13. And if you want to try something simple, you can even boil the leaves to make a healing beverage (thus the origin of its name).  

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Burned your hand while cooking? “Apply two to three drops of diluted tea tree essential oil to soothe minor burns (think first degree). It will also help prevent scars from forming,” says Young.

5. Eucalyptus

Besides having the evocative smell of the Northern California eucalyptus groves I used to play in as a kid, this pungent oil is known as something of a cure-all in the home remedy world.

You can use the oil from this Australia-native tree in mouthwash to freshen breath or as a salve to heal minor burns and wounds or relieve pain from bug bites or bee stings. Rogé even puts some in her home cleaning products because of its well-known germ-killing powers.

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After a long work week followed by a night of dancing in heels on Saturday, you might have developed some nasty blisters. Instead of popping them or toughing it out with Band-Aids, Young recommends putting “a drop or two of diluted eucalyptus essential oil on a blister to alleviate the swelling and to disinfect the area.” Then you can bandage as normal.

Dilution: an Essential Oil Must

Essential oils shouldn’t be used in their super-potent, concentrated forms. To avoid injury, they need to be diluted into gentler “carrier oils” like jojoba or sweet almond oil, or even just water or alcohol if you’re using a plug-in diffuser.

In her book on the subject, Young recommends “a 2 percent dilution (two drops of essential oil per teaspoon of carrier oil, or 10 to 12 drops [of essential oil] per ounce [of carrier])” which is thought to be “ideal for most adults in most situations.” However, children and elderly folks should use even gentler concoctions. In their cases, it’s best to start with the lowest dilution possible, which would be “a 0.25 percent dilution (one drop per four teaspoons of carrier oil).”

If in doubt about using oils on babies, kids, or even yourself, it’s always best to consult with a trained aromatherapist.

Aromatherapy: Do you need a boost?

Are there any particular smells that take you straight back to your childhood or a particularly happy time? For me, it’s the scent of jasmine flowers in the summer, and I even go as far as carrying a vial of jasmine oil to sniff throughout the day if I’m stressed.

As Rogé puts it, “Aromas leave a strong imprint on the brain and connect us to memories and emotions.” I visited her massage practice in Portland, Oregon, where she uses a series of essential oils mixed with the massage oils at different points during the treatment in addition to an aromatherapy diffuser. She explains, “During sessions it can be helpful to include aromas so that there is a smell associated with the positive healing experience. When the client is needing self-care outside of their session they can take a whiff of the aroma and get a ‘hit’ of the goodness of our previous session.”

Think of how a bad smell in your environment can totally disgust and overwhelm you―spoiled fish in your kitchen trash or a pet mess on the carpet, for example. It’s not such a stretch that the positive impact of pleasant scents might be just as powerful.

And when it comes to self-care and mental health, there are some specific oils that have science backing their benefits. But each person is different, and Rogé puts it like this: “My biggest advice for selecting essential oils for self-care is to do a test: simply smell an oil and see how it makes you feel. Notice how your energy shifts, how you breathe, what memories come up. If it is all pleasant then you have yourself a nice self-care essential oil. If you feel anxious, aggravated, or annoyed, well…it clearly isn’t the right one for you.”

Add Essential Oils to Your Self-Care Rituals

Hair

Do you struggle with annoying “snowflakes” falling onto your otherwise polished, black blazer shoulders at work? “Add two to three drops of peppermint essential oil to your regular shampoo and conditioner to stimulate the scalp and help remove dandruff,” Young writes in The Healing Art of Essential Oils. Similarly, Rogé says she loves adding rosemary oil to her homemade conditioner, saying “rosemary oil is great for hair care!

Skin

Contrary to what you believed in your awkward teenage years, oil is not always bad for your skin. In fact, the oils you’ll use for dilution, like jojoba or argan, make great facial moisturizers because they contain vitamins and fatty acids that can safely hydrate even sensitive skin. Also, consider using diluted rosemary oil as an antiseptic and anti-inflammatory for acne and pimples.

Happiness

Studies show that sniffing essential oils containing limonene (a compound found in citrus oils such as lemon, orange, grapefruit, bergamot, and lemongrass oils) made participants felt increasingly “comfortable,” “soothed,” and “natural.”

Rogé even divulges that she gets a happiness boost by using a scent like diluted rose oil as perfume in order to “feel fancy.”

Relaxation

Can’t sleep? Rub a few drops of diluted lavender oil into your hands and inhale, then smooth any extra onto your pillowcase before bedtime. Young says this also works with wakeful kiddos who are six months and older.

Heal your home.

Years ago, I heard that ants hate the smell of mint, and I’ve been spritzing diluted peppermint and spearmint oils around my kitchen ever since. It turns out my belief wasn’t just an old wives’ tale. Young specifically recommends peppermint and citronella oils in places like your basement, attic, or outside sitting areas where you need a bit of help “keeping bugs at bay.”

For areas in your house that have a special purpose, like bedrooms or the linen closet, she recommends incorporating a few aromatics to set the right moods, such as “rose, ylang-ylang, neroli, patchouli, or clary sage” in the bedroom if you “want a night of passion.” And lavender-soaked cotton balls in closets and dressers “not only keep them fresh-smelling but also to repel bugs, moths, and spiders.”

Rogé says she puts lemongrass or eucalyptus (which both have antimicrobial properties) in her all-purpose cleaning supplies.

Stay safe, naturally.

Just because essential oils are 100 percent natural doesn’t mean they aren’t powerful substances that must be used with care. Doctors say it’s important to let them know what essential oils you’ve been using, since there may be potential for drug interactions. Also, if you are pregnant or have certain health conditions, it’s best to consult a professional before starting an essential oil practice.

Rashes or flare-ups are possible even on healthy skin if you’re sensitive to a particular oil, especially if you use them straight or with not enough dilution. As Rogé cautions, “While essential oils have cleared [my] skin problems, putting too much oil directly on my skin has created a rash. And so, my advice is to respect these oils and listen to your personal response to them to guide your use.”

Like a Boss: How to Make Your Own Oil Diffuser

My favorite way to practice aromatherapy is to use an electronic oil and water diffuser to fill a room with scent. I keep one of these in my living room, bedroom, and kid’s room, and (when I have the wherewithal) switch out the oils for different times of day: lavender or sage for a restful night or lemon for a morning pick-me-up. But if you’d prefer a cheaper or lower-tech way to get the benefits of aromatherapy, Young says it’s super easy to make a simple reed diffuser at home.

You’ll need a bottle or jar (the prettier the better, of course) and a handful of bamboo skewers, which you can find at a kitchen or craft store or with the barbecuing supplies at the supermarket. “Combine ¼ cup hot tap water, ¼ cup alcohol or vodka, and 30 drops of your favorite essential oil,” Young writes. Clip the tips off both sides of the skewers and pop them in the jar with the mixture, then simply wait for “the scent to permeate the room.” If you feel the scent is diminishing before the mixture runs out, “flip the sticks every other day to keep the smells active,” Young advises.

As long as you respect the power and strength of essential oils and use them carefully, they have a lot of positive potential and very few drawbacks.

When you’re ready to get started, there really isn’t one specific brand you need to buy. There are lots of reputable essential oil producers, but it is a good idea to check the label to make sure you’re getting the real thing and not a synthetic product. Young tells HealthyWay she “strongly suggests you purchase only organic or 100 percent pure essential oils.”

This article from Sustainable Baby Steps also has a good list of what to look for as you start incorporating essential oils into your day-to-day routines.

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