A Guide to Essential Oils: How to Use Them Safely
You will no doubt have heard about aromatherapy.
This is a very common and ancient holistic therapy which has been used for centuries to treat ailments and small wellness issues.
As with anything which includes oils, molecular structures, and anything scientific, it’s vital that you learn as much as possible before using it yourself.
This cuts down on the chances of suffering any adverse effects or allergies, and ensures that your aromatherapy experience will be a positive and healthy one.
This guide is intended to give you a whole host of information on aromatherapy as a whole.
We’re going to answer the question ‘what is aromatherapy’, before talking about what it’s commonly used for, the history of it, and then delving into the science and how to use it safely and effectively.
There is a lot of information to cover here, but you can rest assured that all of it is backed up by science and studies.
Let’s delve in.
What is Aromatherapy, And What is it Used For?
Whilst still a holistic treatment for health and wellness, as well as boasting powerful healing properties, aromatherapy is gaining more recognition in medical fields as the years go on.
As more studies examine the particular essential oils which are used in aromatherapy and the way the body reacts to them, we gain more information on exactly what aromatherapy is and how it works.
At its very core, aromatherapy uses natural extracts from plants to help alleviate a host of different bodily ailments, as well as helping with anxiety and depression to a certain degree.
You may sometimes hear aromatherapy referred to as ‘essential oil therapy’, but it is one and the same thing.
Most Commonly Used Essential OIls
Aromatherapy uses a whole range of plant-derived essential oils, with some of the most popular being:
- Tea Tree
- Sweet Orange
- Clary Sage
- Cedar Wood
- Sweet Basil
- Rose Geranium
- Sweet Ginger
- Ylang Ylang
Every essential oil has a set of benefits and specific ailments which it affects best.
For instance, lavender is known to be fantastic for relaxation and to aid sleep.
This oil can also be used to help treat anxiety and headaches.
Eucalyptus oil is great for reducing congestion and boosting the immune system, whilst tea tree is known for its antiseptic properties, ideal for skin issues.
In order to find the right essential oil for your specific ailment or concern, you need to do your research.
Whilst most have ‘across the board’ benefits, they all have specifics which they work towards.
By choosing the right oil, you boost your chances of wellness success and ridding yourself of whatever ailment is bothering you.
Aromatherapy has been around for years, and we’ll delve into the history a little more shortly.
These days however, more and more people are opting to avoid medical routes and are looking to go more towards the holistic arena.
Whilst you should certainly always listen to advice from your doctor and take their advice, if you do want to look towards a holistic cure for any issue you have, aromatherapy could be an option for you.
Aromatherapy has the potential to treat many conditions
Some of the most common ailments aromatherapy is used to treat are:
- Anxiety and general worry
- Depression and low mood
- Skin issues
- Pain relief
- Stress reduction
You will often find essential oils used for massage, which is one way to enjoy aromatherapy, but you can also use certain oils topically, added to a bath, used to make a tea, as a mist or spritz, through an air diffuser, hot and cold compresses, bathing salts, and via inhalation.
It’s important to check which oils are best for which method, as some oils are not suitable to be used as a tea, or placed topically on the skin.
You may also need to dilute your oil in certain circumstances, with something called a carrier oil.
This reduces the potency of the essential oil and makes it safe for use.
Most Common Carrier Oils
Some of the most common carrier oils used in aromatherapy are:
- Coconut oil
- Avocado oil
- Olive oil
- Jojoba oil
- Sweet almond oil
- Argan oil
- Grapeseed oil
- Moringa oil
- Apricot kernel oil
- Castor oil
- Black seed oil
- Evening primrose oil
- Neem oil
Choosing the correct carrier oil will bring you added benefits.
In this case, you’re getting the benefits of the essential oil, and you’re also getting the benefits of the carrier oil at the same time.
Coconut oil is by far the most common carrier oil, and can be used with most essential oils, but again, do your research into molecular structure (more on that shortly), before making a mixture, to ensure that you don’t accidentally create something which is going to do you more harm than good.
The History of Aromatherapy
For as long as history can tell, aromatherapy has been around.
This dates back to Ancient Egypt, India, and even China, where natural plants were used to treat specific ailments.
In those days, there was no access to the powerful medicines we have today, and as a result, people had to be a little creative!
Of course, holistic medicine plays a huge role in the modern culture of China and India in particular, and in these countries aromatherapy is still extremely popular.
The distillation of essential oils, i.e. understanding the specific benefits of plant oils and extracting them for human use, dates back to the 10th century, with the Persians the first to undertake this practice.
It wasn’t until the 19th century when famous physicians in France began to formally recognise the potential health benefits of essential oil, and how they may help to minimise effects and event treat specific diseases.
Of course, during this time, the prevalence of treatment was more towards drugs, but the holistic role of aromatherapy was starting to become more prominent.
Over the last few years, especially as we have become more aware of what we put into our bodies and we have grown very conscious of the environmental damage we may be doing as a result of our day to day lives, holistic therapies have gained popularity.
Aromatherapy is now used in many mainstream medical centres, such as in antenatal care, the reduction of chemotherapy symptoms, and for use after surgery to help with healing and symptoms.
Aromatherapy has also been shown to be useful for psychological symptoms, such as anxiety and depression in certain cases, and as a result is used as a self-help method for those who don’t want to use powerful drugs, or perhaps want to go down a natural route at the same time.
There is no one size fits all answer to the type of person who uses aromatherapy.
Anyone can use aromatherapy, provided they have no contraindication to using a specific essential oil.
This will mostly be the case if someone has an allergy, e.g. a nut allergy as one example.
You should always speak your doctor before starting to use aromatherapy, especially if you have a specific medical condition or you’re on any medications, but overall, many people can and do use this popular holistic therapy.
The Benefits of Aromatherapy
We’ve loosely touched upon a few of the possible aromatherapy benefits, when talking about the popular essential oils, and it’s important to realise that all oils have their own specifics pros and cons.
Overall however, the main benefits of using aromatherapy as a whole are:
- Control over your treatment/management – If you prefer a natural route, aromatherapy could be a good option
- Ideal for relaxation
- Effective for anxiety and depression reduction
- Pain management
- Improves quality of sleep
- Stress reduction
- May help to reduce joint stiffness and soreness
- A natural treatment for migraines and headaches in general
- May help to treat chemotherapy side effects
- Boosts the immune system naturally
- Fights bacteria and infection
- May help to improve digestion in certain cases
- Can be used alongside palliative care options in some cases
- May be used in labour to help reduce pain
Again, all oils have specific benefits, but these are the main overall benefits of using aromatherapy as an holistic therapy option.
Whilst it totally depends upon the person and the severity of their condition, some of the main conditions which are linked with benefits from aromatherapy are:
- Depression and anxiety
- Menstrual pain and cramps, as well as menopause symptoms
- Certain types of cancer
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Erectile dysfunction
Let’s Talk Science – Molecular Structure
Anything which you choose to treat yourself with has to be researched thoroughly.
Even if you go to see an aromatherapist to talk about a condition and how the therapy may help you, it’s important to delve deeply and ask questions, to avoid any side effects or worsening of symptoms.
One thing you need to learn more about is the molecular structure of any essential oils you use.
This might sound extremely scientific and a little deep, but it’s something you need to know if you want to avoid side effects and to ensure that you get the right oil for your specific requirements.
This section may sound a little in-depth, but when we talk about molecular structure, we’re basically talking about how an essential oil is formed, and what it has within it.
Pure essential oils belong to two main categories – hydrocarbons and oxygenated compounds.
This gives you an idea of what is inside the oil and what it is best to treat.
Hydrocarbons include terpenes, including monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes and diterpenes.
Oxygenated compounds include esters, ketones, alcohols, oxides, phenols, and aldehydes.
The names within that last section probably stand out to as you as things you’ve heard of, and not in a particular favourable way.
Wait a second however, as these are beneficial when used correctly, and are included in far more items in the modern day than you might realise.
Let’s talk hydrocarbons first of all.
These include terpenes which help to kick out toxins from the body, specifically the kidneys and the liver.
These also contain antiseptic property and are anti–inflammatory.
Chamomile is one of the most famous hydrocarbons.
The other category is the oxygenated compounds.
You will find aldehydes in this category, and these are often found in lavender, one of the most common essential oils around, but also myrrh.
Lavender also contains alcohols, which helps to calm the body and help with pain relief.
Ketones are also contained with this group, and these have been shown to help boost cell regeneration and battle mucous, ideal if you have a cold!
Jasmine is one of the most famous ketone-containing essential oils, as well as fennel oil.
You might wonder what gives an essential oil its wonderful smell, and this is basically down to something called a phenol.
This is responsible for the wonderful scent but also boosts the power of the oil with antiseptic properties and anti–bacterial elements too.
As you can see, the molecular structure of an essential oil is what gives the oil its power.
It’s impossible for us to talk about the molecular structure of all the popular essential oils around, because we would be here all day, but we can highlight the fact that oils have these specific structures and it’s vital to learn about it.
By knowing more about the oil you’re going to choose, you can ensure it’s going to give you the effect you need.
The structure also gives you information on how to use it best, e.g. oils which are high in certain compounds may be irritants to the skin and therefore shouldn’t be used topically.
In this case you would need to find a better route, such as perhaps diluted with a carrier oil and used via inhalation.
Again, do your research and find the best route for you.
A qualified aromatherapist or holistic therapist will be able to give you more information on the molecular structure of essential oils and therefore ensure you’re on the right route, and not heading somewhere which may cause side effects or a lack of effectiveness.
Essential Oils – How Are They Extracted?
It’s a common question!
We ask ‘what is aromatherapy’, but then we want to know how the oils come to be.
Obviously, all essential oils come from plants of some kind, but how do they get from the plant form to the oil form, ready to be used in your treatment method?
Essential oils begin life within a type of plant material, and the type of material depends up on the oil.
For instance, lavender oil comes from the lavender flower, eucalyptus oil comes from the eucalyptus tree, etc.
The clue is in the name!
From there, the oil is extracted and remains undiluted.
It is extracted from specific parts of the plant where the oil is most abundant, and this varies according to the type of oil in question.
The extraction method will also vary according to the plant type, as some work better with certain materials than others.
The oil contains the nutrients and vitamins within the plant, and the oil is actually a liquid version of the plant itself.
The most common types of extraction are:
- Steam distillation (the most common type of extraction)
- CO2 extraction
- Solvent extraction
- Cold press extraction
- Water distillation
Whilst these sound complicated, the aim is the same with all of them – to extract the oil from the plant in the most abundant place, and ensure it remains whole.
However, the specific extraction method can affect the quality of the oil, simply because of the pressure which is used, as well as the temperature.
For that reason, the most gentle form of extraction needs to be used, according to the plant.
Cold press extraction is often used to extract citrus fruit oils, but steam distillation is by far the most commonly used type of extraction for most essential oils.
This works by using steam to affect the compounds within the plant, effective vaporising them and causing condensation to form.
This condensation is then collected.
Whilst you may not need to know the specific in-depth extract method used for your favourite essential oils, it’s interesting to understand how oils are taken from a whole plant, and are turned into a liquid in a bottle.
Let’s take a closer look at how steam distillation is conducted, in a step by step manner.
- The plant material is added to a large stainless steam container
- Steam is added into the container, and is also injected into the plant, specifically in the most oil abundant spot. This releases the molecules which create the oil and vaporises them
- This vapour then moves into the condenser and a cooling process occurs
- The produced liquid then drips into a separator
- The oil is collected from the top of the water and stored
The specific extraction method used for your particular essential oil will vary, and whilst it’s impossible to learn about all the methods in detail, and quite pointless, it’s interesting to understand how the oil ends up in your small bottle.
Many people want to ensure that their essential oils is as pure as possible, i.e. organic. In most situations, this will be the case.
Nothing is added to an essential oil if it is labelled as organic.
If this is important to you, shop around for organic products, but do bear in mind that when ‘organic’ is shown on the label, you are likely to pay a slightly price price tag as a result.
There is some debate over whether organic essential oils are more effective, but regular essential oils are as pure as they can possibly be anyway.
In this case it is about reading labels and researching, if going organic is important to you.
How do Essential Oils Enter The Body?
When you use an essential oil, whether you inhale it, use it topically, ingest it, soak in it, or any other method, the oil is entering the body via your nose, mouth, pores, etc.
But, how exactly does this happen, and what occurs after that point?
Some methods of use are more effective than others, but how you use your essential oils completely depends up on the ailment you’re trying to treat or manage, and the specific oil you’ve chosen.
As mentioned earlier, some oils are not suitable for topical use and will need to be diluted with a carrier oil, to reduce some of their potency.
As a result, you should be able to use these oils on your skin, and benefit from both the essential and the carrier oil.
Essential oil molecules are small, and that means they are easily able to enter the body and do their good work.
To help you understand exactly how that happens, let’s look a little closer into how essential oils enter the body through the main channels – absorption and inhalation.
The Science Behind Inhalation
The most common way to use essential oils is to inhale them, e.g. breathe in their vapour via your nose.
One of the senses, smell is the oldest of them all and it links to very deep and complex parts of the brain.
If you think about certain smells you’ve encountered in the past, these have the power to take you back to certain times in your life, trigger memories and emotions almost instantly.
When you use your sense of smell to inhale essential oils not only do they smell rather delicious, the whole process will trigger a physical response, as well as any memories which are connected to the oil, if you’ve experienced it before.
For instance, if you used lavender oil in the past, perhaps when you were going through a period of stress linked to exams, and a few years later you start to use it, you might feel and remember that time in your past.
Your sense of smell is extremely powerful!
When you breathe in the oil, the small molecules make their way to the very top of your nose.
Here the oil molecules will encounter olfactory cells, which are nerve cells situated at this point of your nose.
These olfactory cells are responsible for remembering whether you’ve encountered this scent in the past or not, via tiny hairs which are attached to the cells.
Impulses will then travel to the brain and enter the limbic system, which is responsible for overall survival, emotions and your general range of instincts.
For this reason, inhaling essential oils which are known to be useful for anxiety, depression, and stress can instantly help you feel more upbeat and calm you down.
If you’re experiencing stress, inhaling lavender in this way is a great way to feel more at ease.
Scientists believe that the nerve signals which are affected in the limbic region are powerful enough to change your mood, by making changes to your overall brain chemistry.
For this reason, the limbic region of the brain is often referred to as the ‘emotional brain’.
The Science Behind Absorption
If you don’t want to inhale essential oils, another option is to allow them to absorb into your body instead.
As we’ve already mentioned the molecules contained with essential oils are quite small, and this means they can easily penetrate into the skin.
From there they travel to the skin’s top layer, known as the epidermis, before going further down into the lower layers of the dermis.
This area is rich in blood vessels, and the small molecules then penetrate into these vessels and travel around the body via the circulatory system.
There are certain things you can do to increase absorption of essential oils, and help you to take advantage of their benefits quicker and more effectively.
For instance, if you massage the area you’re going to use the essential oil beforehand, the circulation in that part of your body will increase.
When you use the essential oil, the molecules won’t have to do much work in order to make their way to the blood vessels and be carried around the body.
As circulation is increased, effectiveness of the oils are increased too.
For this reason, massage with essential oil is thought to be extremely beneficial, because of the increased penetration into the skin and the boost in circulation as a result.
Many popular essential oils all have antibacterial properties, which makes them ideal for boosting your immune system and helping you get rid of any viruses or bacteria you may have lurking around.
Some oils are specifically anti-viral, e.g. great for colds and other bugs you might have picked up, whilst others are more anti-fungal or even anti-inflammatory.
In addition, there are powerful antioxidants contained within oils, and when penetrated into the skin and carried around the body via the circulatory system, the entire body benefits.
These antioxidants may help to prevent against cell damage and help to detox the existing cells of damage and junk.
As a result, you look and feel better over time.
Of course, what goes into your body must come out, and most essential oils leave your body via natural methods, either sweating or kidney excretion, in a few hours.
Despite the fact the oil has left your body, you will probably still benefit from the advantages as a lasting effect.
Another option is to ingest essential oils, however there is a very serious warning attached to this particular method.
Overall, it’s not advised to ingest oils unless advised do so by a qualified aromatherapist, and with the say so of your doctor.
Also, these oils would need to be diluted right down, in order to avoid damage to your body and overall health and wellbeing.
The bottom line is that when ingested, essential oils are very potent and powerful.
They are primarily meant to be extracted for the wonderful scent, and from there we benefit from mood improvement etc, and then via absorption via the skin and carried around the body by the circulatory system.
However, many people assume that ingesting oils gives them a quicker hit and a more powerful delivery.
That is true, but not always as a positive.
Many people falsely assume that because essential oils are totally natural, that must mean they’re completely safe, but again, that’s not always the case.
There are many plants which are toxic if you eat them, and you wouldn’t go around eating leaves that were going to poison you, would you?
There are also instances of essential oils molecules irritating the mucous membrane when swallowing.
This can cause burning and damage, completely going against the whole point of aromatherapy healing.
With this in mind, if you are going to try oral consumption of oils, it’s vital that you do so after advice from a trained professional and that you stick to oils which are considered safer than others.
For instance, eucalyptus and tea tree oils are amongst the list of oils which you should never attempt to ingest, as these are extremely toxic when used in this way.
Despite that, you will hear of several essential oil derivatives used to make tea.
For instance, peppermint tea is a very popular option, as well as lemon and bergamot.
Again, seek advice before doing so and ensure that you make the tea correctly and don’t go overboard with the oil ingredient.
Correctly making tea from a “safe” to ingest essential oil can however be a very soothing experience, and is especially useful in the form of peppermint tea for digestion issues and anyone suffering from sleep problems.
Creating Your Own Essential Oil Blends
Once you understand aromatherapy and you’ve used the various oils yourself, selecting your favourite choices from the very long list available, you might like to try making your own custom made oil, via blending.
Essential oil blending is very popular and a great hobby to try; of course, this is also a hobby which could have major health benefits too!
Before you start mixing potions willy-nilly, it’s important to realise that there are different scent categories which mix together and some which don’t.
You also need to learn how to safety blend your oils, so you can use them for your own greater good.
Before you get started, ask yourself what type of scent you want to create, or what effect.
Are you trying to recreate an old perfume you used to love, or are you trying to mix together certain oils which have similar benefits, maybe for a specific ailment that you suffer from?
From there, you need to do your research in terms of oils which fit the bill and have the properties you’re searching for.
This isn’t difficult, thanks to the power of the Internet!
It is however always best to go for a site which is extremely reputable, in order to ensure your blends work out the way you want them to.
Shortly we will talk about the different categories of scents to choose from and which blend together best.
For now however, let’s talk about how you actually blend essential oils, to create your own bespoke product.
The items you will need are:
- Your chosen essential oils
- Testing strips
- Glass bottles, 10ml in size, with a dropper facility
Once ready, blend your chosen essential oils using the 30-50-20 rule.
This means you are going to use 30% of the total amount of your top note oil, e.g. the oil which dominates the scent, 50% your middle note, e.g. the one which isn’t quite as strong, and 20% your base note.
Once blended, leave your combination for at least 24 hours to rest and then test to see if you like the scent or not.
Obviously make sure you do your research into how to use the oils you’ve chosen, e.g. inhalation, etc.
This may seem confusing at this point, but will make more sense once we’ve learnt about the various categories of scents and which work well together.
Scent Categories Which Blend Together Well
You could go totally by what smells good to you, i.e. your overall aim, or you could go with some of the common categories.
It’s best to go with the common route as you begin, and as you become more confident with blending essential oils for yourself.
You will find that essential oils are often bunched together into groups in terms of their scents, with the most common being:
- Citrus scents – orange, lime, and lemon oils
- Earthy scents – patchouli, oakmoss, and vetiver oils
- Wood-like scents – wintergreen, pine, cedar oils
- Mint scents – spearmint, peppermint oils
- Floral scents – jasmine, lavender, neroli oils
- Spicy scents – clove, nutmeg, cinnamon oils
- Herb scents – clary sage, basil, marjoram oils
- Specific healing scents – rosemary, tea tree, eucalyptus scents
You can easily combine oils which are in the same scent category and they will compliment each other very well indeed.
If you want to be a little more adventurous as you get more used to blending, you can mix and match your categories and work out which you like and don’t like.
Again however, do your research to check you’re not mixing oils which don’t work together.
The combinations are endless, so this is something you will need to experiment with to a certain extent.
Side Effects and Precautions When Using Aromatherapy
Of course, aromatherapy has its list of possible side effects to pay attention to, and people who should not use it overall.
Always listen to advice from your doctor in terms of whether aromatherapy is of use to, and the specific oils you can and can’t use.
Everyone is different in terms of their requirements, so this is something you will need to look into yourself.
However, there are some specific precautions and side effects you need to be aware of.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you will experience any adverse effects, but you do need to be aware of them, just in case, and for completeness’ sake.
The possible side effects of overall aromatherapy use are:
- Respiratory problems, such as asthma attacks
- Allergic reaction
Experiencing a rash is the most commonly reported side effect, but remember that essential oils should be diluted with a carrier oil, to ensure you’re not using an oil which is too potent for your skin.
In most cases, when oils are diluted and either inhaled or used on the skin, there is little to be concerned about.
However, that doesn’t take away the safety risk completely and you should pay attention to any advice your doctor gives you.
In terms of ingestion, never do this unless a trained aromatherapist advises you to do so, and also with the advice of your doctor.
As we mentioned before, whilst some oils can be used in teas, this isn’t true of most oils and the potency used is extremely low.
It’s also worth pointing out that every oil may have its own list of possible side effects, especially if you have a personal allergy to that oil or any of its compounds.
The most common oil allergies are lavender, ylang-ylang, tea tree, and peppermint.
These are quite commonly found in many products so if you have an allergy, you’re probably already aware of it and therefore you should avoid that specific oil.
You should also think about doing a patch test if you’re going to use an oil on your skin (diluted with a carrier oil, of course), if you have any concerns.
Overall, aromatherapy is considered a generally safe and very effective way to naturally treat a range of health and wellbeing ailments.
Ensuring you listen to advice and use correctly, will ensure that your aromatherapy experience is a positive one, which helps you treat whatever problem you have.
In addition, aromatherapy is a very relaxing and pleasant holistic therapy to enjoy.