What are essential oils?

By Christine Ruggeri

Essential oils are organic compounds extracted from plants with impressive beneficial properties. For over 5,000 years, aromatherapy has been used as part of a holistic approach to supporting physical, mental and emotional well-being. 

Many cultures have used these beneficial plant oils for a variety of reasons. They are often used for supporting relaxation, beauty care, home cleaning and more. 

What Are Essential Oils? 

Essential oils are extracted directly from the bark, flower, fruit, leaf, seed or root of a plant or tree. Just a few drops are used for their health-supporting  purposes. 

Essential oils are typically created through the process of distillation, which separates the oil and water-based compounds of a plant by steaming.They are highly concentrated and have a very strong aroma. Sometimes they are called volatile aromatic oils because of their high concentration of the aromatic compounds found in the plant. 

By concentrating the oils of these plants, you are separating the powerful health-supporting compounds of a plant into a single oil. For instance, in order to get one 15-milliliter bottle of rose essential oil, it takes approximately 65 pounds of rose petals!

These aromatic oils in plants work to protect the plant from insects, shield the plant from a harsh environment and help it adapt to its surroundings. By using essential oils, you too are harnessing the beneficial powers of a plant’s compounds. 

Generally speaking, essential oils are composed of very small molecules that can penetrate your cells, and some compounds in essential oils can even cross the blood-brain barrier. They differ from fatty oils (like those in vegetables or nuts) that come from large molecules because they cannot penetrate your cells, so they are not used in the same manner.

History of Aromatherapy 

Since the use of essential oils is present in many countries, it is difficult to pinpoint where the practice originated. Oils have been used by the Jews, Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans as cosmetics, perfumes and for their health-supporting purposes. Some cultures even used oils in spiritual rituals.

In 1928, French chemist, René-Maurice Gattefossé, used lavender oil to soothe the skin on his hand. He then decided to further analyze the properties of lavender oil and how it could be used on the skin. 

With this, the science of aromatherapy was born. Gattefossé’s main goal was to help the health of soldiers during World War I. The use of these oils began to spread, especially with practitioners of alternative health practices, such as massage therapists and beauticians throughout Europe.

Aromatherapy did not become popular in the U.S. until the 1980s when essential oils were added to various lotions, candles or other fragrances. Today, there are also trained professionals such as aromatherapists, physical therapists, massage therapists, nutritionists or even doctors of natural medicine who use aromatherapy in their practices and are trained in specific uses for essential oils.

Top Essential Oils 

Each and every essential oil contains compounds with unique benefits. Here are some of the most popular essential oils:

  1. Clove: Studies suggest that clove essential oil may have beneficial effects, which is why it’s often used. It also contains antioxidant compounds and supports overall health.  
  2. Cypress: Cypress has calming effects and features a clean, spicy fragrance that’s described as uplifting and energizing. For these reasons, it’s used aromatically to help build feelings of confidence and to promote relaxation. 
  3. Eucalyptus: Eucalyptus essential oil has invigorating properties and has been studied for its ability to freshen and clear the air.
  4. Frankincense: Frankincense is one of the most popular essential oils in aromatherapy for good reason. It has a peaceful and calming scent, and a variety of sought-after benefits for aromatic and topical uses. 
  5. Ginger: Ginger oil is a warming essential oil that has a sweet, spicy and woody fragrance. It has digestive health-supporting properties and more. 
  6. Grapefruit: Grapefruit is a refreshing essential oil that gives the air a citrusy boost. It’s often used as an aromatic or cleansing oil.  
  7. Lavender: Lavender essential oil features a calming, clean scent that’s used for bathing, cooling and purifying the air. It’s well-known for its soothing aroma.
  8. Lemon: Because of its cleansing, purifying and invigorating properties, lemon oil is one of the most popular essential oils. It has a refreshing scent and is often used aromatically and as a household cleaner.  
  9. Myrrh: Myrrh essential oil has a smoky, sweet and slightly bitter aroma. It’s commonly used as a base in perfumes and other fragrances. It can be used aromatically for its calming properties. 
  10. Oregano: Oregano essential oil has been considered a precious plant for over 2,500 years. It can freshen the air with a “balancing” fragrance. It contains a variety of antioxidants and health-supporting components. 
  11. Peppermint: Peppermint essential oil has a refreshing, cool-breeze mint quality. It’s often used for overall health, including adding an invigorating and cleansing sense to the air.  It also helps to offer relief when used as part of massage therapy.  
  12. Rose: Geranium rose essential oil is known for its crisp, fresh-smelling and pleasant fragrance. It functions as a grounding and calming oil that has a balancing effect. 
  13. Rosemary: Rosemary has been traditionally used to provide an invigorating aroma and is well known for its purifying properties. 
  14. Tea tree oil (Melaleuca): Tea tree essential oil has strong purifying qualities, which is why it’s often used for household cleaning and skin-cleansing regimens. It’s also used to freshen the air when diffused.  
  15. Sandalwood: The sweet and woody notes of sandalwood essential oil help to support a sense of calmness and clarity. It’s used to help “clear the air” and clear the mind.  

How to Use

Ready to experience the benefits of essential oils for yourself? Here are the four most common ways to use them at home and on the go: (Note: You should always read and follow label directions when using essential oils.)

Topically

Essential oils can penetrate the skin because of their very small size and chemical weight. For this reason, one of the most popular ways to use essential oils is by applying them topically, especially to the wrists, temples and back of the neck.

Just a few drops go a long way and diluting essential oils with a carrier oil is always recommended. 

Aromatically

While more studies need to be conducted, there’s some evidence that essential oils are absorbed into the bloodstream when inhaled. Here is what is believed to happen: the blood vessels in the lungs absorb the oils and then circulate them throughout the body.

Using a diffuser or simply breathing in the aroma from the bottle can help you to experience the benefits of essential oils. 

Ingestion

Some high-quality, pure-grade essential oils are safe for internal use and are labeled as dietary supplements, but remember that they are very powerful and a little bit goes a long way.

Usually 1-3 drops is plenty and it should be mixed with water. (Again, always follow label directions for use.)

Personal Care

Today, the most popular way to use essential oils is to prepare homemade DIY personal care and home-cleaning products. 

Best Carrier Oils

To keep essential oils on your skin for a longer period of time, cover a larger surface area and dilute them, you can combine them with carrier oils. These larger oils that come from the fatty part of the plant can typically increase the length of time the essential oils stay on your skin and also prolong the aromatherapy effects.

Dilution increases the surface area of absorption and with certain oils can help with  sensitivities.

Common carrier oils include:

  • Almond oil
  • Avocado oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Jojoba oil
  • Olive oil
  • Pomegranate seed oil

The recommended dilution for most uses is a 10 percent dilution, which is five drops of essential oil per half-teaspoon of carrier oil.

Final Thoughts

  • Essential oils are organic compounds that are extracted from plants. For thousands of years, aromatherapy has been used as part of a holistic approach to supporting physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. 
  • There are several popular essential oils that are used today for aromatherapy, skin care, home cleaning, supporting a sense of calm and supporting a healthy response to inflammation as well as boosting one’s outlook. 

Christine Ruggeri is a writer and nutrition counselor based in New York. She's worked for Ancient Nutrition and the Dr. Axe team for five years. She has a degree in Education with a concentration in English from Iona College, and received her health coach certification from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.   

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