Definitive Guide: What are Essential Oils? (Benefits, Uses and Side Effects)

What are essential oils

Even as technology advances at an astounding speed and the pace of daily life picks up, people want to go back full circle, back to basics, to reconnect with nature and the ancient arts of healing. According to PubMed Central (1), interest in Complimentary and Alternative medicine (CAM) is on the rise, and it is a growing industry that is gaining popularity by the day. Essential oils and aromatherapy play a major role in this field.  Which brings us to the question:

What are essential oils?

Most people have heard of essential oils, even if they don’t fully understand what they are or how they work. Aptly named, essential oils are natural oils that are extracted from plants, and carry the plant’s true essence, such as its flavour, its scent, and other natural properties. The oils must be extracted naturally, without using chemicals, as these can interfere with the oil’s properties, and that is usually done through distillation using steam/water, or through mechanical extraction such as cold pressing.

Where do essential oils they come from?

Different oils come from different parts of the world; where the plants were once native or are now being grown. Depending on the oil, fresh oils come from different parts of a plant, such as the roots, leaves, bark, flowers, or fruit, and it usually requires several pounds of plant to extract one bottle of essential oil. As an example, it takes over 200 pounds of lavender flowers to produce just one pound of lavender essential oil. (2)

How essential oils are used

Good quality, undiluted essential oils are usually very concentrated and highly potent, (not to mention most often expensive). If they are used directly without being diluted first, they can do more harm than good. (3) The best way to dilute them to safe levels is through using carrier oils. Carrier oils are plant oils (such as coconut, jojoba, argan and olive oils to mention some)(4),  that have neutral scents and don’t interfere with the chemical and medicinal properties of the essential oils, and they are used to “carry” essential oils to their target. Different carrier oils are paired with different essential oils, and the concentration of the essential oil varies, based on what (and who) it’s intended for.

How can we use essential oils?

Essential oils are not meant to be swallowed but are used topically. When the oils apply to the skin, the absorption of plant chemicals takes place within the body. Essential oils are typically used in one of two ways, either through aromatherapy or through topical application. Here we will explore both options.

Aromatherapy

When used through aromatherapy, essential oils are first diluted with water (or carrier oils) and then diffused through different ways, such as an oil diffuser, a water diffuser, a steam bath, or direct inhalation from a fabric or scented object (5). Once the oil has diffused, the scent is inhaled and absorbed.

The most basic advantage of aromatherapy is breathing in the soothing and pleasant aromas of the oils. Taking deep breaths in of the nicely scented air carries the scent in, invoking relaxation and a pleasant state of mind. But the benefits don’t stop there. Aromatherapy works internally as well; once the oil droplets are breathed in, they travel through the mouth and the nose, and into the lungs and from there into the rest of the body.

Some oils have disinfecting and decongestant properties, helping to cleanse and support the respiratory system. The scent of the oil, picked up by receptors in the nose, stimulates the olfactory system, which stimulates the limbic system, which ties into our emotional wellbeing, stress management centers of the brain, that regulates breathing, blood pressure, and hormonal balance. (5)

Topical Application

Essential oils can also be applied topically to the skin, after they are properly diluted with carrier oils. They can be added to a massage oil, to be applied overall, or massaged into problem areas of the skin or parts of the body needing attention (such as joints, scalp, locations of inflammation).

Many essential oils have found their way into skincare and bath products, where their benefits can come into play, like ointments for irritated skin or special hair or body care products with special properties.

When planning to apply the diluted oil to the skin (such as in a massage or treatment) the oil will be absorbed directly into the body through the skin, and so it must be preceded by a skin patch test to make sure that it won’t cause an allergic reaction. The test is usually done by applying a more concentrated dose to a small patch of skin and then observing the area for an allergic reaction before commencing with using the oil as intended. (5)

Luckily, where one essential oil irritates, another soothes. Multiple essential oils can usually provide similar benefits, so there are always alternatives.

Essential oils benefits

Whether essential oils are being used in aromatherapy or applied topically, there is a lot to learn and explore and so many interesting possibilities. Different oils do different things, such as alleviating stress and anxiety, fighting infections through antibacterial qualities, relieving headaches, insomnia, and inflammation.

Certain oils have become popular in relation to the treatment of certain issues, such as using lavender oil to relieve stress and induce relaxation and a good night’s sleep, and peppermint oil for its cleansing and decongestant properties. (6)

While a lot of information on this topic comes from ancient healing practices and anecdotal evidence, as the industry grows, more and more studies are underway to quantify and fully understand the effect of various essential oils on the human body. Deeper studies and experiments are ongoing, and some have already arrived at conclusive positive results, such as the proven effectiveness of Eucalyptus oil in relieving headaches (7) and using citronella oil as a mosquito repellent (7).

Below, we summarize recommended essential oils in treating some common health problems and conditions.

Best essential oils for treating eczema

Eczema is fairly common, ranging from a mild and short-lived irritation, to a severe and chronic skin condition. People suffering from eczema come from all walks of life, ranging from babies to seniors in all parts of the world. Commonly associated with dry and/or sensitive skin, the name eczema covers multiple subtypes such as atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis (amongst others.)

While prescribed medication exists for treating Eczema, many prefer natural remedies based on essential oils as a more natural option, that allows treatment of this condition without resorting to harsher chemicals and compounds. (8)

The best essential oils for alleviating eczema work on two levels: reducing the itchiness caused by the rash, and the pain and inflammation that comes with it. Among the top choices (8):

Patchouli Oil

Derived from the dried stems and leaves of the Patchouli plant, we know Patchouli oil for its anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, and it can help relieve the painful, itchy red rashes caused by eczema (8).

Eucalyptus oil

Eucalyptus oil is extracted from the leaves of the Eucalyptus tree, a tree that was once native to Australia but is now grown all over the world, in a testament to the popularity of this plant and the benefits of its essential oil. With multiple benefits and uses, Eucalyptus essential oil can act as a moisturizer and a pain reliever for painful rashes caused by eczema. (8)

Thyme and Lavender oils

The calming effects of lavender combined with the anti-microbial and disinfecting properties of thyme sounds like a perfect combo for alleviating the symptoms of Eczema. One study, published by PubMed (9), found that using a combination of the two had positive results in treating eczema in mice. It is important to note, however, that Thyme oil should not be used in children. (10)

Lavender oil is also effective in treating skin rashes and conditions such as eczema on its own.

Bergamot oil

Bergamot oil’s distinctive citrus smell makes it a popular addition to many baths and body care products and is a popular choice for treating multiple conditions. Extracted from the rinds of Bergamot orange trees, it is also available in an edible form and is used to flavour certain foods (Such as earl grey tea!). Bergamot has anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce the inflammation and redness that accompanies eczema, although it’s worth mentioning that it’s not recommended for use on sensitive skin. (11)

Roman Chamomile

Roman Chamomile essential oil is known for its soothing qualities and can be used in edible form and in compounds and creams that apply to the skin. Its gentle nature makes it a popular choice for baby care products, and its profile makes it a perfect candidate for calming and soothing eczema. (12)

Best essential oils for psoriasis

A common skin condition, psoriasis is caused by an underlying autoimmune disease targeting skin cells. In people suffering from psoriasis, skin cells will grow too fast, causing thicker ridges or patches of skin to develop, accompanied by redness and irritation. As the patches grow, they become scaly in appearance, and can become inflamed and are usually itchy. People suffering from the disease tend to scratch the patches and they can crack and bleed as a result, which may lead to infection. Essential oils that have anti-inflammatory, cleansing, soothing, and comforting qualities can come in handy in the complimentary treatment of Psoriasis. As always, when applying essential oils topically, they must be properly diluted with a carrier oil, and the mixture tested on the skin first before using it. (13)

Lavender Oil

This over-achiever with multiple healing properties, Lavender oil has had more than its fair share of study. From healing wounds to treat cold sores to chasing away headaches, lavender oil is a prime candidate in the treatment of the symptoms of Psoriasis. While lavender may not cure the underlying cause of the disease, its soothing qualities and anti-fungal and antibacterial properties would ward off infection due to cracking or bleeding patches and can calm the irritated skin and sooth inflammation. (14)

Peppermint Oil

One of the more common oils with multiple uses (including edibles), Peppermint oil in all its different varieties derives its power from the menthol component of the oil. Menthol has a cooling, calming effect on red and inflamed skin, and can relieve and sooth itchiness that accompanies psoriasis, as well as other skin conditions.

Best essential oils for inflammation

Inflammation can be temporary; caused by an injury or accident, or it can be long term and chronic, such as joint inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis. The essential oils below work on reducing inflammation.

Eucalyptus oil

Eucalyptus oil is prolific, which is why you may see it mentioned multiple times in the treatment of unique problems and conditions.  Eucalyptus oil has been shown to reduce inflammation and help to reduce pain associated with inflammation, such as that caused by surgery and rheumatoid arthritis, for example. (16) A study conducted in 2013 on patients recuperating from Knee replacement surgery found that those patients using eucalyptus oil for 30 minutes a day for 3-day intervals reported a reduction in pain and inflammation. Aside from using it in aromatherapy, a few drops of eucalyptus oil can be added to the bath water or diluted and applied to the skin in a topical application.

Lavender oil

Lavender oil shows itself again in its effect and benefits in reducing inflammation and associated discomfort. In a study conducted in 2016 and publicized by the official journal of pain management nursing, (17) patients with knee join pain and inflammation who massaged a diluted mixture of lavender oil into the affected area, daily for 3 weeks, reported reduced pain after the first week.

Frankincense

Frankincense oil is steeped in history. For thousands of years, healers and practitioners of natural medicine have used this oil in alleviating pain and inflammation. This oil is usually ingested in controlled doses, such as in capsules, and acts as an analgesic and anti-inflammatory supplement. (16)

Evening primrose oil

Evening primrose oil is a commonly known and popular oil. The benefits of this oil come form one of its primary component, an omega fatty acid, called Gamma-linoleic Acid or GLA for short. Once digested, our bodies metabolize the GLA and convert it into an active anti-inflammatory agent. (18)

Best essential oils for hair growth

People invest a lot of time and effort into taking care of their appearance, and that includes their hair. Everyone wants healthy hair, and manufacturers have tapped into the popularity of essential and natural oils as enhancers for their haircare formulas. You can gain even more benefits by using properly diluted and mixed essential oils in the treatment of your scalp and hair, to enrich hair growth. Some prime candidates are:

Lavender oil

Lavender oil has earned another appearance on this journey to health and wellness. A versatile oil, it’s antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, helps nourish and protect the scalp, while it also works on cell regeneration and growth, which helps to speed up hair growth.

Cedarwood oil

Extracted from the Conifers known as Cedars, Cedarwood oil is extracted from the bark and needles, berries of cedar trees. The oil is popular and commonly used in shampoos, deodorants and used an insecticide. Its antimicrobial and antifungal properties are good for the scalp, reducing dandruff and preventing hair loss and promoting hair growth by helping to balance and control oil glands in the scalp.

Rosemary Essential Oil

The Rosemary plant has been known and revered for centuries. An evergreen shrub with a distinct woodsy scent, it can be used as a seasoning in cooking and its leaves are dried and used for multiple purposes. It’s essential oil contains no oils, but carries the essence of the plant, and has also been known and used for centuries by natural healers, to relieve a host of symptoms. One known quality for rosemary is its ability to help boost cell regeneration and growth, which makes it a prime candidate in promoting hair growth and preventing hair loss.  In one study published on PubMed(19), rosemary was tested in comparison with minoxidil 2%, a drug that is commonly used to treat alopecia and  promote hair growth, and found that treatment using rosemary essential oil was equally effective, with no itching of the scalp as a side effect.

Best essential oil for bug bites

Bug bites can be itchy and annoying and painful and dangerous at worst. Essential oils can help ease the itchiness, cool the site of the bite and reduce inflammation and pain.

Tea Tree Essential oil

The anti-inflammatory, anti-swelling and itch reducing qualities for this oil make it a perfect candidate for treating various types of bug bites, from bees to mosquitos to even bed bugs. Its anti-itchiness properties work alongside the anti-bacterial and anti-microbial properties to help reduce the itchiness brought on by a bug bite, at the same time reducing the swelling and inflammation.

Basil Essential oil

Basil, in all its types (such as sweet Basil ,Thai basil) has been used to flavor food and as a herb for a long time, and healers and practitioners of traditional medicine have known about its ant-inflammatory properties. Its essential oil has infection fighting properties and can be an excellent choice in the treatment of sting bites, especially bee bites. (20)

Best essential oil for nausea

Nausea can cause extreme discomfort. Essential oils can ease the symptoms of nausea. Here are a few of the best essential oils for nausea:

Ginger essential oil

From ginger infused lozenges prescribed for nauseous adolescents to ginger ale beverages being chugged down by pregnant women, anecdotal and folk medicine have long associated the use of ginger with the treatment of motion sickness and nausea.

Current studies confirm this wisdom, with findings that support the role of using ginger essential oil in fighting nausea. (21) The oil can be massaged into pressure points such as the temple or the wrists, or massaged unto the abdomen, alternatively it can also be infused and breathed in through aromatherapy.

Fennel Essential oil

I have known the properties of fennel and its ability to aid digestion and alleviate stomach aches amongst practitioners of traditional medicine and natural healing for some time. Now modern studies support these findings. (22) Fennel essential oil is usually diffused through oil diffusers and can also be applied to pressure points to help combat nausea and indigestion.

Best essential oil for sunburn

Vitamin E essential oil

Vitamin E essential oil can help the body to recover from sunburn in multiple ways, by promoting healing of the damaged tissue, thickening the exposed skin layers to increase resistance of the damaging UV rays of the sun, and as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agent to help the body recover and reverse the effects of exposure to the sun’s harmful rays.

I usually apply it topically after being diluted with a carrier oil or as part of an ointment or body cream intended for after-sun use.

Peppermint essential oil

Peppermint essential oil has versatile anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and cooling properties that make it ideal in the treatment of sunburn. Known also as a vasoconstrictor, it encourages blood vessels to constrict, reducing redness and inflammation.

Lavender essential oil

Lavender shows itself effective again in the treatment of sunburns, because of its anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and healing properties. By boosting the immune system and promoting skin regeneration it helps to combat the inflammation and risk of infection and the damage caused by sunburn.

In summary, it seems truthful to say no matter what ails you, there’s an essential oil out there for you. So go ahead, infuse your world with the nourishing aroma of these essential oils and many others; indulge your senses, your mind and your body in this bounty that mother nature has to offer. Just remember, that if one essential oil doesn’t work, most likely another would, so make sure to explore as many essential oils as you can. If it’s an essential oil, it may become essential to you, and your body will be better for it too.

(1): https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3307506/

(2): https://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/aromatherapy-overview#1

(3): https://www.healthline.com/health/carrier-oil

(4): https://www.healthline.com/health/carrier-oil#olive-oil

(5): https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/10884#using_aromatherapy

(6): https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/what-are-essential-oils#benefits

(7): https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7954745/

(8): https://www.healthline.com/health/essential-oils-for-skin#skin-conditions

(9): https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26159138/

(10): https://www.prohealth.com/library/20-health-benefits-of-thyme-oil-36291

(11): https://www.healthline.com/health/bergamot-oil

(12): https://www.doterra.com/US/en/blog/spotlight-roman-chamomile-oil

(13): https://www.healthline.com/health/psoriasis

(14): https://www.healthline.com/health/essential-oils-for-psoriasis#lavender-oil

(15): https://www.healthline.com/health/essential-oils-for-psoriasis#peppermint-oil

(16): https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321853#what-can-essential-oils-do-for-ra

(17): https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Leyla_Ozdemir/publication/301344191_The_Effects_of_Aromatherapy_Massage_and_Reflexology_on_Pain_and_Fatigue_in_Patients_with_Rheumatoid_Arthritis_A_Randomized_Controlled_Trial/links/59df0847458515376b386139/The-Effects-of-Aromatherapy-Massage-and-Reflexology-on-Pain-and-Fatigue-in-Patients-with-Rheumatoid-Arthritis-A-Randomized-Controlled-Trial.pdf

(18): https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321853#mixing-oils

(19): https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25842469/

(20): https://www.healthline.com/health/outdoor-health/home-remedies-for-bee-stings

(21): https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/acm.2010.0862

(22): https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4137549/

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