Essential Oils & Aromatherapy explained
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. It can take several pounds of a plant to produce a single bottle of essential oil. In addition to creating scent, essential oils perform other functions in plants, too.
Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils for therapeutic benefit. Aromatherapy has been used for centuries. When inhaled, the scent molecules in essential oils travel from the olfactory nerves directly to the brain and especially impact the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain.
Essential oils can also be absorbed by the skin. A massage therapist might add a drop or two of wintergreen to oil to help relax tight muscles during a rubdown. A skincare company may add lavender to bath salts to create a soothing soak.
The quality of essential oils on the market varies greatly, from pure essential oils to those diluted with less expensive ingredients. And because there's no regulation, the label may not even list everything that's in the bottle you're buying. That's why essential oils should not be ingested.
The safest ways to use essential oils include:
- Aromatherapy accessories: Necklaces, bracelets and keychains made with absorbent materials you apply essential oils to and sniff throughout the day.
- Body oil: A mixture of essential oils with a carrier oil such as olive, jojoba or coconut oil that can be massaged into skin. Because essential oils are concentrated, they can cause irritation. Avoid using them full-strength on skin.
- Aroma stick: Also called an essential oil inhaler, these portable plastic sticks have an absorbent wick that soaks up essential oil. They come with a cover to keep the scent under wraps until you're ready.
A small number of people may experience irritation or allergic reactions to certain essential oils. You're more likely to have a bad reaction if you have atopic dermatitis or a history of reactions to topical products. Although you can experience a reaction to any essential oil, some are more likely to be problematic, including:
- Oregano oil
- Cinnamon bark oil
- Jasmine oil
- Lemongrass oil
- Ylang-ylang oil
- Chamomile oil
- Bergamot oil
Because pure essential oils are potent, diluting them in a carrier oil is the best way to avoid a bad reaction when applying directly to the skin. If you get a red, itchy rash or hives after applying essential oils, see a doctor. You may be having an allergic reaction.
There are dozens of essential oils, all with different fragrances and chemical makeups. Which essential oils are best depends on what symptoms you're looking to ease or fragrances you prefer. Some of the most popular essential oils include:
- Lavender oil: Many people find the lavender scent relaxing. It's often used to help relieve stress and anxiety and promote good sleep.
- Tea tree oil: Also called melaleuca, this essential oil was used by Australia's aboriginal people for wound healing. Today, it's commonly used for acne, athlete's foot and insect bites.
- Peppermint oil: There's some evidence peppermint essential oil helps relieve irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms when taken in an enteric-coated capsule (from a trusted health supplement provider). It may also relieve tension headaches when applied topically.
- Lemon oil: Many people find the citrusy scent of lemon oil a mood booster. It's also often used in homemade cleaning products.
Essential oils can lift your mood and make you feel good with just a whiff of their fragrance. For some people they may even help alleviate the symptoms of various conditions. For more information on how to incorporate them into a healthy lifestyle, consult an integrative medicine expert.