Essential oils for aromatherapy: Benefits, types, uses

In the realm of aromatherapy, essential oils play a pivotal role. When diffused or applied topically, these oils’ inherent properties can have profound physiological and psychological effects. 

The science of aromatherapy leverages these potent oils to manage pain, improve sleep quality, reduce stress, soothe sore joints, increase concentration, and even boost the immune system. 

Aromatherapy, a practice that utilizes natural oils extracted from flowers, leaves, stems, and other parts of plants, is a concept that has been introduced previously.

Its roots extend back thousands of years, from the ancient civilizations of Egypt, China, and India, where these fragrant oils were primarily used for their medicinal and spiritual properties. 

Over time, as our understanding of plant-derived oils grew, their application in various facets of health and wellness expanded, giving birth to what we now call ‘Aromatherapy.’

This blog post paves the way for a detailed exploration into essential oils, helping you understand their potential and how best to use them in your personal aromatherapy practices.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are highly concentrated natural extracts from a plant’s leaves, flowers, stems, bark, roots, or other elements.

Despite their name, these oils are not oily to the touch but relatively clear or slightly colored liquids that contain the natural fragrance compounds of the plant. 

They are called “essential” because they have the essence, or the characteristic fragrance, of the plant from which they are derived [1].

They carry the unique therapeutic characteristics of the plant from which they are extracted, offering many health benefits. 

From lavender to peppermint, chamomile to tea tree, each oil has a unique chemical composition that affects its aroma, absorption, and effects on the body.

what are essential oils

How are essential oils made?

Most essential oils are obtained through steam distillation and cold pressing.

Steam distillation involves the application of steam to plant material, causing the plant to break down and release its aromatic compounds [2]. The steam and oil vapor mixture is then condensed back into a liquid, separating the oil and water layers.

Cold pressing, commonly used for citrus oils, mechanically presses and grinds the plant material to extract the oil.

Another method, solvent extraction, is used when a plant, like jasmine or rose, is too delicate for the aforementioned processes. This method, however, can leave trace amounts of solvent in the final product.

Different types of essential oils and their uses

There are hundreds of essential oils, each offering unique therapeutic properties. Here are detailed insights into some popular ones and their applications:

1. Lavender

Extracted from the lavender plant’s flowers, this oil is widely recognized for its calming and relaxing properties. It’s often used to ease feelings of tension and to promote a night of peaceful sleep [3]. In skincare, it can help soothe irritations and promote skin healing.

2. Peppermint

Derived from the peppermint plant, this oil is known for its refreshing and invigorating aroma. It can boost energy, aid digestion, and relieve headaches [4]. When applied topically, it provides a cooling sensation, making it a favorite in muscle rubs.

3. Eucalyptus

This oil, distilled from the leaves of the eucalyptus tree, has a strong, minty, and refreshing aroma. It’s often used in inhalants and vapor rubs to relieve congestion [5]. Its anti-inflammatory properties also make it useful in pain relief formulas.

4. Tea tree

Obtained from the leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia plant, tea tree oil is renowned for its potent antiseptic properties. It’s commonly used to treat skin conditions like acne, cold sores, and athlete’s foot [6]. It also has hair care applications, helping combat dandruff and promote healthy hair growth.

5. Lemon

Extracted from lemon peels, this oil is known for its cleansing, purifying, and refreshing properties. It can help improve colds, and dull and oily skin [7].

6. Rosemary

Derived from the aromatic herb, rosemary oil has a woody, evergreen scent. It boosts alertness and memory, relieves muscle pain, and improves digestion [8]. It’s also popular in hair care products as it’s believed to stimulate hair growth.

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7. Chamomile

This soothing oil, extracted from chamomile flowers, is famous for promoting relaxation and sleep [9]. Its anti-inflammatory properties make it beneficial in skincare for soothing irritations and body care for easing muscle and joint pain.

8. Frankincense

Revered since ancient times, frankincense oil has a warm, spicy aroma that helps reduce stress and negative emotions. It’s also used in skincare to rejuvenate skin and reduce the appearance of scars and stretch marks [10].

9. Ylang Ylang

Known for its exotic, sweet fragrance, ylang-ylang oil is used in aromatherapy for its mood-enhancing, antidepressant, and aphrodisiac effects [11]. It’s also beneficial for maintaining skin and hair health.

What are the benefits of essential oils?

Essential oils are widely praised for their therapeutic benefits. While individual oils carry unique advantages, many overlap in their properties, providing wellness in various ways.

Essential oils for stress relief

Stress and anxiety are common challenges many people face daily. Certain essential oils have been shown to have calming and relaxing effects that can help alleviate these issues:

  • Lavender oil: Known for its calming properties, it helps reduce stress and anxiety and promotes peace and tranquility.
  • Bergamot oil: Its unique, citrusy scent is uplifting and calming, helping to alleviate anxiety and balance mood swings.
  • Ylang Ylang oil: It has been found to help reduce cortisol levels (the stress hormone) and can promote a more positive outlook.

Essential oils for sleep improvement

Sleep is crucial for overall health. These oils are renowned for their sleep-inducing properties:

  • Chamomile oil: Widely used for its soothing and calming effects, it is a favorite for promoting quality sleep.
  • Sandalwood oil: It has a rich, woodsy scent that promotes feelings of relaxation and preparedness for sleep.
  • Vetiver oil: Known for its grounding properties, vetiver oil can help quiet mental activity and promote deeper sleep.

Essential oils for energy and focus

Feeling sluggish or struggling to concentrate? Try these:

  • Peppermint oil: The minty, vibrant aroma of peppermint oil can boost energy levels and improve focus.
  • Lemon oil: Its clean, citrusy aroma is uplifting and can help increase alertness and concentration.
  • Rosemary oil: Studies have shown that rosemary oil can enhance memory and overall cognitive performance.

Essential oils for immune support

Many essential oils have immune-boosting properties:

  • Tea tree oil: It possesses strong antimicrobial properties that can help protect against harmful pathogens.
  • Eucalyptus oil: Its anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties make it a favorite for respiratory health.

How do you use essential oils in aromatherapy?

Using these oils in aromatherapy can be as straightforward or complex as possible. Here are some standard application methods:

1. Diffused essential oils

Diffusing is one of the most popular ways to use essential oils in aromatherapy. It involves dispersing the oil into the air via a diffuser, allowing you to inhale and absorb the benefits of the oil. Here are the types of diffusers you can use: 

  • Ultrasonic diffusers: These diffusers use water and ultrasonic waves to disperse essential oils into the room. Simply add a few drops of your chosen oil to the water in the diffuser, turn it on, and let it fill your space with therapeutic aromas.
  • Nebulizing diffusers: Unlike ultrasonic diffusers, nebulizers don’t use water. They use pressurized air to disperse a fine mist of essential oil. These are particularly effective for larger spaces.

2. Topical application

Applying essential oils topically allows the oils to be absorbed by your skin and work locally. This method is often used for issues like muscle pain or skin conditions. 

However, most oils must be diluted in carrier oil before application to avoid skin irritation because of their potency. Common carrier oils include coconut oil, almond oil, and jojoba oil.

3. Ingesting essential oils

Some can be ingested, but this should be done cautiously. Not all essential oils are safe for internal use, and they should never be ingested without guidance from a health professional. Always research thoroughly and consult with an expert before ingesting any essential oil.

4. Essential oils in baths

Adding essential oils to a bath can provide a profoundly relaxing experience. Mix a few drops of essential oil with a carrier oil or an unscented bath gel before adding it to your bath water. This method can be especially effective with oils known for their relaxing properties, like lavender or chamomile.

Always remember to use these oils responsibly. Start with low doses, monitor your body’s reactions, and always heed expert advice and any contraindications related to specific oils.

How do you choose quality essential oils for aromatherapy?

When it comes to aromatherapy, not all essential oils are created equal. The quality of the oil can significantly impact its therapeutic benefits. 

Here are some factors to consider when choosing oils for your aromatherapy practice:

1. Purity

Pure essential oils should contain only the plant’s aromatic compounds and nothing else. Watch out for oils diluted with synthetic fragrances, vegetable oils, or other additives. These may not provide the same benefits and could even cause allergic reactions.

2. Extraction method

How an essential oil is extracted matters. Steam distillation and cold pressing are the most desirable methods as they do not involve chemicals. Oils extracted using solvents may not be as pure.

3. Botanical name

The botanical name of the plant from which the oil is extracted should be listed on the bottle. This helps ensure that you’re getting the correct oil. For instance, lavender oil should be derived from the Lavandula angustifolia plant.

4. Packaging

Quality essential oils should be packaged in dark glass bottles to protect them from light degradation. Avoid oils stored in plastic bottles as the oils can degrade the plastic over time, leading to contamination.

5. Price

If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. Quality essential oils require a lot of plant material, so they are more expensive. However, price is not the only quality indicator, so research before purchasing.

6. Brand/company reputation

Purchase from a reputable company that provides transparency about its sourcing, production methods, and testing processes. Some companies even provide batch-specific GC/MS reports detailing the oil’s chemical constituents and indicating purity and quality.

Remember, regarding aromatherapy, the quality of your essential oils can significantly impact your results. Therefore, it’s worth investing in high-quality, pure essential oils.

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How can you use essential oils safely?

While these oils can offer various benefits, they must be used carefully. These potent plant extracts can have adverse effects if not used correctly. Here are some safety precautions to remember:

1. Dilute with carrier oils

Most essential oils are too potent to be applied directly to the skin and should be diluted with a carrier oil like jojoba, coconut, or almond oil. A typical dilution might be 2% – which means 12 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier oil.

2. Do a patch test

Before applying an essential oil topically, performing a patch test to check for skin sensitivity is a good practice. Apply a small amount of the diluted essential oil to a skin patch and wait 24 hours to see if any reaction occurs.

3. Consult your doctor for internal use

Not all essential oils are safe for ingestion. Some can be toxic and harmful if swallowed. Always consult a health professional before ingesting any essential oils.

4. Exercise caution during pregnancy or nursing

Certain essential oils may not be safe during pregnancy or breastfeeding. Consult a healthcare professional to discuss safe options.

5. Be careful if using it for children

Children can be more sensitive to essential oils. Some oils are not recommended for use with children. Always dilute them more heavily for children and consult a professional for advice.

6. Avoid eyes and mucous membranes

Essential oils can irritate the eyes and mucous membranes. Avoid touching these areas if you have oil on your hands.

7. Stay away from direct sunlight

Certain essential oils, particularly citrus oils like lemon and grapefruit, can make your skin more sensitive to the sun and may cause burns or blisters. Avoid sun exposure for at least 12 hours after applying these oils to your skin.

Remember, essential oils are potent substances. While they can offer significant benefits when used properly, they must be treated respectfully and cautiously. Always use them responsibly and seek expert advice if you’re new to them and aromatherapy.

Stay away from direct sunlight
Photograph: YuriArcursPeopleimages/Envato

Where to apply essential oils on the body

Applying essential oils topically is a popular way to reap their benefits, but where exactly should you apply them? Here are some practical areas to apply them on the body:

1. Wrists

The wrists are a popular spot for topical essential oil application due to their pulse points. The warmth at these points helps to diffuse the oil, enhancing the aroma and increasing absorption into the bloodstream.

2. Behind the ears

Another set of pulse points is located behind the ears. Applying essential oils here can create a personal scent cloud, allowing you to enjoy the aroma for an extended period.

3. Temples

The temples are an excellent spot for essential oil application for relieving headaches or encouraging relaxation. However, be careful not to get oils too close to your eyes, which can irritate them.

4. Chest

Applying essential oils to the chest can be effective, particularly for respiratory benefits. This application can help you breathe in the aroma with every breath.

5. Soles of the feet

The soles of the feet are less sensitive to irritation, making this a safe spot for topical essential oil application. Additionally, the pores on the feet are more extensive, potentially allowing for quicker absorption.

6. Abdomen

Applying oils to the abdomen can relieve digestive issues or menstrual cramps.

Remember, no matter where you apply them, most essential oils should be diluted with carrier oil to prevent skin irritation. And always do a patch test when trying a new oil to ensure you don’t have an adverse reaction.

The future of aromatherapy and essential oils

The use of essential oils and aromatherapy has increased over the past few decades as more and more people turn to natural remedies for wellness. 

As we look to the future, this trend is continuing, with some exciting developments on the horizon.

Increased research

There is increasing scientific interest in essential oils and their therapeutic properties. As more research is conducted, we can expect a greater understanding of the specific benefits of different oils, and, potentially, more targeted uses.

Growing market

The global essential oils market is projected to grow, driven by increasing consumer awareness about the benefits of natural products and a rising interest in home-based therapies. 

This could result in a wider variety of essential oil products and easier consumer access.

Advancements in application methods

As technology advances, we expect to see improvements in the methods used to apply and diffuse essential oils. Already, we are seeing developments like innovative diffusers, which can be controlled via smartphone apps to customize the aromatherapy experience.

Focus on sustainability

As demand for essential oils grows, there will be an increased focus on sustainable and ethical sourcing of the plants used to produce these oils. Consumers are becoming more conscious of the environmental impact of their products and will likely favor brands that prioritize sustainability.

Integration with healthcare

There is growing interest in integrating aromatherapy and essential oils into traditional healthcare. Some hospitals and clinics already use essential oils as complementary therapy to help manage symptoms like pain, anxiety, and nausea.

The future of aromatherapy and essential oils looks promising, with potential for growth, innovation, and increased acceptance in mainstream healthcare. 

As always, consumers must stay educated about the safe and effective use of essential oils to get the most out of these natural wonders.

In closing

Aromatherapy and essential oils open a vast realm of natural wellness possibilities. These potent plant extracts offer various therapeutic benefits, from alleviating stress and improving sleep to boosting energy and enhancing focus. 

However, as with any wellness practice, it’s vital to approach aromatherapy with knowledge and respect. Understanding the nature of essential oils, their benefits, correct application methods, and safety precautions can help maximize their potential while ensuring safe use. 

Whether you’re new to aromatherapy or a seasoned user, this guide has provided valuable insights into the wonderful world of essential oils. Remember, the journey to wellness is personal. Explore, learn, and discover what works best for you.

FAQS

Are essential oils safe for skin?

Essential oils are safe for the skin but must be diluted with a carrier oil. Do a patch test first to avoid adverse reactions since skin sensitivity varies.

How do you know if an oil is an essential oil?

Look for the botanical name of the plant and extraction method on the product label to determine if an oil is an essential oil. Pure essential oils should not contain additives or synthetic fragrances and are typically sold in dark glass bottles to protect them from light degradation.

Is there a difference between oils and essential oils?

Oils are fatty and greasy, while essential oils are volatile and aromatic compounds extracted from plants.

What happens if I use essential oil directly?

Suppose you apply essential oil directly to your skin without dilution. In that case, you risk causing skin irritation, sensitization, or even a severe allergic reaction because of the high concentration of the oil. Therefore, dilute essential oils with a carrier oil before topical application to minimize these risks.

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[1] https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/what-are-essential-oils 
[2] https://www.usalab.com/blog/essential-oil-extraction-methods/
[3] https://www.aromaweb.com/essential-oils/lavender-essential-oil.php
[4] https://www.aromaweb.com/essential-oils/peppermint-essential-oil.php
[5] https://www.aromaweb.com/essential-oils/eucalyptus-globulus-essential-oil.php 
[6] https://www.aromaweb.com/essential-oils/tea-tree-essential-oil.php
[7] https://www.aromaweb.com/essential-oils/lemon-essential-oil.php
[8] https://www.aromaweb.com/essential-oils/rosemary-essential-oil.php
[9] https://www.healthline.com/health/chamomile-oil
[10] https://www.aromaweb.com/essential-oils/frankincense-essential-oil.php
[11] https://www.aromaweb.com/essential-oils/ylang-ylang-essential-oil.php

The information included in this article is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this webpage is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.