Essential oils are currently enjoying a renaissance in the world of holistic health and wellness—with fans touting their benefits for everything/effectiveness in treating everything from stress and anxiety to nausea and pain.
If you’re considering trying them out yourself, learning first about how to find the right essential oil and how to use it safely is key.
Here, two aromatherapy experts give the lowdown on all things essential oils and how to use them safely:
First things first, what’s an essential oil?
“Essential oils are basically plant extracts. They’re made by steaming or pressing various parts of a plant (flowers, bark, leaves or fruit) to capture the compounds that produce fragrance,” states John Hopkins Medicine.
Why should you use essential oils?
Essential oils have many benefits, notes Cleveland Clinic integrative medicine specialist, Dr. Yufang Lin in an article on essential oils. “The problem lies in how people use them,” she adds.
“Research supports that essential oils have antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, immune-modulating and antispasmodic properties,” says Amy Galper, founder of the New York Institute of Aromatherapy and co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Aromatherapy. Few studies also suggest they can help improve memory, mood and sleep. In addition, essential oils may help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, depression and insomnia.
However, it’s important to note that despite some promising results, scientific data on the clinical efficacy of essential oils is still fairly limited.
Each essential oil has its own unique healing profile, so the first step should be to read up on the individual oils that you’re interested in, says New York-based aromatherapist, Andrea Scalisi.
How to choose the right essential oil?
The most important thing to look for when buying essential oils are the words ‘pure’ and ‘organic’, says Scalisi. It’s crucial to use pure, organic essential oils as they contain the healing properties you expect. Low-quality oils can do more harm than good, notes the aromatherapist.
“Some labels use the word ‘natural’ which is just a marketing term that tells absolutely nothing about the quality of the oil,” Scalisi points out. The word ‘fragrance’ is another red flag as it typically means the oil is synthetic and meant to be used as a perfume,” adds Scalisi.
Galper recommends choosing only Ecocert- or USDA-certified organic essential oils. “Also, make sure the label clearly states the plant’s botanical name, where the plant grew (i.e. France, South Africa, etc), how the oil was extracted (it should always be through steam distillation—or cold-pressed for citrus rinds) and what part of the plant the oil was extracted from (roots, leaves, flowers, etc),” she suggests.
In addition, pay attention to the price tag. “Essential oils can be priced very differently. For example, rose, jasmine, sandalwood and frankincense oils are pretty expensive because they are more difficult to distill. So if you find a rose oil that is under $90, assume right away it’s not authentic,” says Galper.
Other than that, you should also dig a little into the brand that is selling the essential oils, suggests Galper.
Essential oils 101: Do’s and don’ts
- Breathe it in. “The best and safest way to use essential oils is to smell them,” says Galper. So if you’re a beginner, try the inhalation method by using an essential oil-infused candle, incense or an essential oil spray. Or, “you can carry an essential oil bottle with you and sniff it periodically throughout the day,” suggests Galper. You can also put a few drops of oil on a cotton ball and keep it in a little jar. “Open it and sniff whenever you need to clear your thoughts or feel relaxed,” says the wellness expert.
- Don’t apply it directly to your skin. “Always blend it into something, like a carrier oil, liquid soap or an unscented lotion or cream,” says Galper. A single drop of essential oil in a dime-sized amount of carrier oil (like jojoba, avocado or coconut oil) is a good rule of thumb, notes Scalisi. Also, check the product label for any warnings and instructions as some oils can irritate the skin, especially if exposed to sunlight, she adds.
- Use your intuition when selecting an oil. “Just ask your body what it needs and notice which scents you’re drawn to. Florals tend to support heart healing, citrus oils energize and woodsy oils offer grounding and calming effects,” says Scalisi.
- Store the essential oils in a cool, dark place. Also, make a note of when you bought them. “When essential oils go bad, they lose their therapeutic benefits and can irritate your skin,” says Scalisi. “Often, you’ll be able to tell because the aroma will change. But if you’re unsure, make it a practice to toss anything that’s over a year old,” she suggests.
- Always use less than you think. “I’d recommend 8 to 12 drops of an essential oil per ounce of whatever you are mixing it into,” says Galper.
- Don’t leave the diffuser on 24/7. If you’re using a diffuser, make sure you’re diffusing in a well-ventilated room and that the device is on a timer. Ideally, 10 minutes on and about 30 minutes off, says Galper. “Never run a diffuser 24/7,” she advises.
- Try hydrosols. If you want to add a pricey oil like rose or frankincense to your collection, Scalisi recommends trying a hydrosol. Hydrosol is the water leftover after steam distillation or hydrodistillation of flowers or plants. It’s less concentrated but still has the therapeutic properties of the plant and is much more affordable.
The best essential oils for beginners:
If you’re just starting to build your essential oil collection, consider buying these versatile, aromatherapist-approved oils:
- Lavender oil: Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) has more uses than perhaps any other essential oil, says Scalisi. “It contains skin healing properties and offers pain relief. So it’s great on minor scrapes, burns and bruises,” she says. In addition, its calming effects make it a perfect bedtime oil for diffusing.
- Peppermint oil: Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is very refreshing and purifying. “Add a single drop to a foot bath to ease aches and stimulate blood flow. While a deep inhale straight from the bottle is great for soothing nausea,” says Scalisi.
- Tea tree oil: Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) has powerful anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties, so it’s perfect to diffuse during the cold season, says Scalisi. Also, adding two drops of it in a bowl of hot water makes a wonderful steam treatment for sore throats, she notes.