It seems like every where we look, someone is raving about the benefits of essential oils. While essential oils are popping up everywhere from high-end spas to generic dollar stores, information on choosing the right ones isn’t as easy to come by. Granted, the science behind essential oils and aromatherapy is extensive and complex, some general information can help you begin your search with a bit more confidence.
We’ve compiled 11 questions we’re most asked regarding essential oils. Remember, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Rarely is it “always or never”, so specific concerns may need deeper research- additional references are listed at the end.
1. How long have people used essential oils? Anthropologists believe that fragrant plants/flowers were added to animal and vegetable oils as far back as 7000-4000 BC. By 2800 BC there was already a word for incense. During the Black Plague of the 15th Century, 4 spice traders robbed countless dead bodies of valuables, yet they never contracted the disease. When they were finally caught, they had the choice to explain how they survived or be sentenced to death. Interestingly, a combination of clove, lemon, cinnamon, eucalyptus, and rosemary oils rubbed on their skin protected them from the disease. You may know this combination as “thieves’ oil.”
2. What is the difference between fragrance and essential oils? Fragrances are synthetic scent replications created in a laboratory. Essential oils are derived from nature through a particular part of a plant: stem, leaves, petals, peels, even bark. This is why your cleaner may say “Fresh lemon scent” yet lemon (citrus limon) essential oil isn’t listed on the ingredients, they’ve used an artificial replication of the aroma. Click here for more information on the dangers of synthetic fragrances.
3. What are essential oils? Essential oils act as the plant’s immunity system. Much like our blood transports nutrients and oxygen to the cells, the essential oils are necessary for protecting the plant. The essential oils also store necessary minerals, vitamins, and the defense system to ward off infections and regenerate damaged tissue.
4. Why are they so expensive? If you’ve ever squeezed an orange peel, you have probably seen- and smelled- the release of the essential oil. Now imagine how much time, and how many oranges, is necessary to fill an entire bottle of essential oils! Both steam distilled and cold press methods take time…and materials. Depending on the plant, it can take 100-400 pounds of plant material to produce one pound of essential oil. Price is also reflective of quality: quality of the plant, soil, and process, organic vs. non, pure vs. diluted, as well as proper packaging.
5. What about sustainability? This is obviously a huge concern. Reputable harvesters use organic plants and soil, and are committed to replanting and sustainably harvesting their plants. Some companies choose to carry essential oils from smaller artesian harvesters so there’s greater control over safe and sustainable methods.
6. How does smelling essential oils make a difference to my body? Inhalation is actually the quickest path to the body’s limbic system: breath, memory, hormones, blood pressure, and emotional balance. Through inhalation, the olfactory system stimulates the hypothalamus (regulates warmth, metabolism, sleep quality) and the pituitary gland (main regulator of hormones).
Look for the Latin/botanical plant name (ie. CITRUS SINENSIS (ORGANIC SWEET ORANGE) OIL*, CITRUS RETICULATA (TANGERINE) OIL*, CITRUS PARIDISI (ORGANIC GRAPEFRUIT) OIL*, LITSEA CUBEBA OIL*, CITRUS RETICULATA (ORGANIC MANDARIN) OIL* *ESSENTIAL OIL) listed in the ingredients.
Check for the country name where the plant was grown (ie. French Lavender and Chamomile Essential Oil Blend?
Is there an indication of purity or organic oils (ie. “created from 100% pure therapeutic grade essential oils”, EUCALYPTUS GLOBULUS (ORGANIC EUCALYPTUS) OIL* *ESSENTIAL OIL)?
Also, check the packaging itself. The bottle should not be clear. A darker bottle will help prevent alterations due to light.
8. How do I use them? There are three ways to use essential oils: inhaling, topically, and ingesting.
You can inhale the oil directly from the bottle, use a diluted mister to spray on sheets or area, or by using a vaporizer/diffuser. Ideally, look for a diffuser that does not heat the oil. You can also add a few drops to a warm bath.
Most often (again, not “always”) essential oils should be diluted through a carrier (water, vegetable/nut/seed oil) before applying to the skin. Some essential oils may irritate skin if applied directly. You can also add a few drops to your unscented lotion, or try a non-greasy body oil.
Ingesting essential oils is not recommended. Yes, they are natural but, (like mushrooms) some can be toxic to the kidneys and liver. Processing essential oils through the digestive/excretory systems can also alter their effects or create a reaction with other prescriptions.
9. How long will the bottle last? To maintain their effectiveness, essential oils should be stored in dark bottles and away from direct sunlight/heat. Because only a few drops are used, even a 15 ml. bottle can last 3-5 years. Citrus essential oils, however, begin to break down and lose essential properties after about 2 years.
10. Can I use essential oils since I have sensitive skin? Interestingly, many sensitivities derive from synthetic fragrances. And, since each companies “fragrance” is considered proprietary, they don’t need to disclose which of the 1000’s of synthetic chemicals they use. Thus, making it very difficult to determine the cause of the allergen. Inhaling and diluting essential oils should not have an effect on sensitive skin, but as with any new product, you may want to consult your health practitioner or test in small area first.
11. When did the term “aromatherapy” develop? A French chemist coined the term after an explosion in his perfumery laboratory. With severe burns developing on his hands, he quickly plunged them into what he thought was a vat of water. Instead, it was lavender. His hands not only quickly healed, they left no scars.
These answers by no means encompass aromatherapy- or essential oils- in their entirety. To learn more about my favorite essential oils, click here. If you are interested in learning more about aromatherapy, here are a few references to start your research: