Understanding Essential Oils

By Christopher Hobbs

Many of the aromatic compounds of plants are from classes of compounds that are volatile — they quickly dissipate into the air, even at room temperature. Many boil at 180 to 240 degrees Fahrenheit and are carried off in the steam that’s created when the herbs are simmered in water. This means that much of the healing essence of certain plants — peppermint, for example — is lost when you simmer them in an uncovered pot.

Essential oils or volatile oils are the most important group of chemical molecules of plants that make smells what they are. The origin of these names comes from the word “essence,” because the fragrances are the essence of many plants, and “volatile” because of their volatility. Volatile oils contain one or two hundred different carbon- and hydrogen-based compounds called terpenes or hydrocarbons. Each volatile oil is made up of a unique blend of up to one hundred different terpenes, which like an artist’s palette, gives the plant the ability to build unique essential oils each with their biological activity and mood- and emotion-affecting properties. Essential oils aren’t true oils like almond oil, olive oil, or flaxseed oil — those are called fixed oils. Fixed oils don’t vaporize the way essential oils do, and they are much heavier.

Essential oils are super-concentrated. For example, it takes about 16 pounds of fresh peppermint leaves to produce an ounce of essential oil. These oils constitute important active ingredients and flavor additives in many kinds of familiar, everyday products — candies, syrups, toothpastes, mouthwashes, cleaning products, skin creams, lip balms, shampoos, bath salts, and soaps. Essential oils even give flavor and aroma to the spices that you use to add zest to your cooking, such as cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg used for apple cider, pies, and baked goods. Nutmeg, allspice, thyme, oregano, basil, and savory all contain essential oils.

They smell good, and they add zest to foods, but essential oils have many therapeutic effects you can put to work in many situations. For instance, if you have a stomachache from indulging in a rich dessert, simply add 2 drops of peppermint oil to a cup of hot water and experience fast relief. Here’s more about how the healing powers of essential oils work.

  • The essential oils of plants are biologically active when the airborne molecules are inhaled, stimulating olfactory nerves which in turn stimulate centers of the brain. The molecules may stimulate an immune response after entering the bronchial area and lungs, helping your body fight an infection. When you inhale essential oils, from the steam from a simmering pot of eucalyptus leaves for example, you can help your body dry up mucus secretions, lower inflammation, shrink swollen sinus membranes, and enhance airflow. All of these effects can help you breathe more freely during a cold or hay fever attack.
    Try diluting a little essential oil, such as lavender (one-fourth teaspoon), with a fixed oil like sweet almond oil (six tablespoons) and rub it on the skin. You may notice an immediate boost in your mood. The individual components of the essential oil penetrate the skin and the blood vessels, relieving pain and swelling, stimulating blood flow, and bringing healing to the area, or may enter the blood, ultimately affecting the brain, nervous system, and organs.

  • Many essential oils are antiseptic and are among nature’s most powerful protectors against bacteria and other infectious organisms. Thyme oil contains a chemical called thymol that is murder on bacteria and fungus. The compound is included in commercial soaps and antiseptics.
  • Certain essential oils are toxic and a few are highly toxic when they’re taken internally in amounts over a few drops. This amount varies, but as little as one-half ounce of pennyroyal oil has caused death. When used in products for external use and applied to the area undiluted, toxic essential oils are unlikely to cause a major problem, although they may cause redness and irritation of your skin. Be aware of the following seven toxic oils — use them more cautiously or under the guidance of a qualified herbalist or aromatherapist (and never take them internally).

Pennyroyal: An infusion of the leaves makes a safe digestive tea, but the essential oil has killed women who took it internally in an attempt to abort a fetus.

Calamus: European calamus oil contains a cancer-causing terpene called thujone that is toxic to the nervous system. American calamus is free of it and is safe, but identity of any calamus oil isn’t certain. Avoid using any calamus oil internally.

Wormwood: Wormwood oil is the active ingredient of the infamous mind-altering drink (called absinthe) that was favored by artists at the end of the nineteenth century. It contains thujone. Don’t use wormwood or mugwort (a related plant) tincture or essential oil internally without the advice of a qualified herbalist.

Tansy: Tansy contains thujone. Another traditional abortifacient (used to induce abortions), tansy herb is toxic in all forms, including the tea. Tansy is a common pungent garden herb that looks a little like chrysanthemum and feverfew — both close relatives.

Wormseed: Used traditionally to kill intestinal worms, the oil is highly toxic and has caused deaths in children who were given too much.

Wintergreen: The fragrant oil contains a toxic terpene called methyl salicylate, which is from the same class of chemicals as aspirin. People often use wintergreen oil externally to help relieve the aches and pains of neuralgia and arthritis.

Camphor: This essential oil occurs in a semi-solid buttery state at room temperature (not as a liquid like most essential oils). Camphor is a single compound, a monoterpene, which is toxic to the nervous system, causing mental confusion, nausea, and vomiting when taken internally at a high enough dose. Camphor is commonly used externally in products to clear the nasal passages, open up the chest, stimulate circulation, and relieve pain — it’s the key ingredient in Vicks Vapo Rub and provides its pungent smell.

  • An alcohol-based preparation (such as a liquid extract or tincture) of a plant high in essential oils like eucalyptus or pennyroyal is much more potent than a tea made with water. This means that the teas made with these plants are extremely safe, but you need to be careful with the tinctures that contain the essential oil plants.

Aromatherapy: What you need to know

Each essential oil has its own chemical makeup and reason for use, so it is important to speak with a trained aromatherapist, nurse, doctor, physical therapist, massage therapist or pharmacist before applying or using an oil for healing purposes.

A trained professional can recommend and teach how to use each product, giving proper instructions on application or dilution.

Consumers should also be aware that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not monitor aromatherapy products, so it can be difficult to know whether or not a product is pure or if it is contaminated or synthetic.

Some beauty and household products, such as lotions, make-up, and candles contain products that may appear to be essential oils, but they are really synthetic fragrances.

Like medications, essential oils must be treated with respect. It is important to seek professional advice and to follow instructions carefully.

Caution when using essential oils

Since essential oils cause reactions in the body, not all the oils will benefit everyone. Chemical compounds in essential oils can produce adverse effects when combined with medications. They may reduce the effectiveness of conventional drugs, or they may exacerbate health conditions in the individual.

A person with high blood pressure, for example, should avoid stimulants, such as rosemary. Some compounds, such as fennel, aniseed, and sage act similarly to estrogen, so a person with an estrogen-dependent breast or ovarian tumor should avoid these.

Concentrated products may be poisonous before dilution and should be handled with care. A maximum concentration of 5 percent is recommended.

Some oils produce toxins which can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system, especially if taken internally. Swallowing essential oils can be hazardous, and fatal in some cases.

Individuals with any of the following conditions should be extra careful when using aromatherapy:

  • An allergy, or allergies
  • Hay fever, a type of allergy
  • Asthma
  • Skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis

People with the following conditions must be extremely cautious:

  • Epilepsy
  • Hypertension, or high blood pressure

If the oil is to be mixed with a carrier, the individual should tell the aromatherapist or massage therapist about any nut allergies, because carrier oils are often obtained from nuts and seeds.

Aromatherapy can have side effects, but these are normally mild and do not last long.

They include:

  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Some allergic reactions

Use of aromatherapy by pregnant or nursing mothers has not been proven safe by research, so it is not recommended.

During the first trimester of pregnancy, aromatherapy may pose a risk to the developing fetus. Women who are breastfeeding should avoid peppermint essential oil, as it may be expressed in breast milk.

Essential oils derived from citrus may make the skin more sensitive to ultraviolet light, increasing the risk of sunburn.

Some oils may affect the function of conventional medicines, so people who are using medications of any type should first check with a qualified pharmacist or doctor.

Finally, when storing essential oils, it is important to be aware that light, heat, and oxygen can affect the integrity of the oil. Products should come from a respected and trustworthy source, to be sure of the quality. Following instructions carefully reduces the risk of compromising the user’s health.

In parts of Western Europe aromatherapy is incorporated into mainstream medicine as an antiseptic, antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial therapy. In the United States and Canada, this is less so. In France, some essential oils are regulated as prescription drugs, and they can only be administered or prescribed by a doctor.

Aromatherapy can help alleviate some conditions, but it should be used correctly, under the supervision of a qualified practitioner. The NAHA can advise on aromatherapists in your area, and some are members of a professional association, but until now there are no licensing boards for aromatherapists in the U.S.

How Do I Choose and Use Essential Oils?

What carrier oil should I use?

Common carrier oils are often available in natural foods stores or stores that specialize in natural bath and body products. Organic and cold-pressed carrier oils are preferred, and examples include sweet almond oil, apricot kernel oil, grapeseed oil, jojoba oil, or avocado oil. These oils do not have a strong smell of their own. They should be kept refrigerated until used and should be discarded if they smell rancid. (Oils typically keep about a year if refrigerated.)
For wound care, an ideal essential oil would be gentle to the skin and antimicrobial. Some essential oils can be used in different ways. For example, true lavender essential oil (Lavandula angustifolia) can be used on the skin for cuts and minor burns, and it can be inhaled to promote relaxation and sleep. Lavender is one of the few essential oils that can be used undiluted on small areas of the skin.

What are the techniques?

  1. Compress

    The essential oil is diluted in a liquid carrier (water or oil) and applied to a dressing or directly to the affected area. Optional heat or cold can be applied.
    For example, a few drops of ginger (Zinziber officinalis) essential oil can be added to comfortably hot water and mixed to disperse the oil; then a cloth can be soaked in the solution and placed on a stiff joint. Additional heat can be applied as desired.

  2. Gargle

    Drops of essential oil are added to water. You mix, then gargle the solution and spit it out. Do NOT swallow it. For example, one drop of tea tree oil in a glass of water can be gargled for sore throat discomfort.

  3. Bath

    Drops of essential oils are added to bath water in a dispersant immediately before stepping in. This method results in absorption through the skin, as well as inhalation of the volatilized essential oil. A few tablespoons of full cream milk can be used as a dispersant.
    Remember, essential oils are not water soluble; thus they will float on top of the bath and skin passing through the oil will be exposed to full strength essential oil. Bath salts can also be used to disperse essential oils. A relaxing bath base can be made by mixing one part baking soda, two parts Epsom salts, and three parts sea salt. Add six drops of true lavender essential oil to about two tablespoons of this mixture and mix it into bath water just before entering.

  4. Massage

    Drops of essential oil are added to a natural carrier oil and applied to skin areas with gentle rubbing. As noted earlier, massage blends should not exceed 1% concentration of essential oils (one drop in a teaspoon) for adults. For children, concentration should not exceed 0.25% for infants, 0.5% for toddlers age 6 months to 2 years, and 1% for children 2 years and older. The choice of essential oils for massage depends on the desired effect.

7 Healthy Benefits of Essential Oils (and why they matter)

Last Updated on December 23, 2019

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Why care about the benefits of essential oils? What are essential oils? and how can they help you? Why is it worthwhile to make a habit of using essential oils for your healthy living needs?

If you are thinking about creating a habit of using essential oils, this post gives you all the information you need to make informed decisions about essential oils, aromatherapy and what benefits of essential oils may be right for you.

Pharmaceutical drugs have dangerous side effects. These side effects can cause serious bodily harm.

More-and-more people are turning to more natural & holistic approaches to health. By using natural remedies to heal ourselves we can be free of the worries of unwanted side effects.

One of the safest and most effective forms of alternative medicines is aromatherapy.

Aromatherapy uses plant-based essential oils to provide the mind and body with numerous health benefits. These oils are typically inexpensive and free of harmful side effects. Even better, they work very quickly as the oils get absorbed through the skin and lungs.

What Is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is the use of aromatic essential oils derived from plants for the purpose of enhancing the well-being of one’s physical or psychological health. Aromatherapy has been used for centuries as an alternative medicine that safely and effectively treats numerous ailments.

To create essential oils, the natural oils in certain plants are extracted and distilled, resulting in an extremely concentrated product packed with healing benefits.

Essential oils used in aromatherapy trigger responses in the brain that send healing to the body. These oils can balance out hormone levels, heal digestive disorders, and dramatically reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Scientific studies have shown that aromatherapy is a completely legitimate form of medicine. By inhaling essential oils, nerves in the nose trigger powerful brain responses. Similarly, topical application allows these essential oils to quickly enter the bloodstream by being absorbed through skin tissue.

When selecting essential oils, it is important to look for pure and natural products. Oils that contain synthetic chemicals and dyes will not be nearly as effective.

How Can Essential Oils Be Applied?

Aromatherapy can be applied in many different ways depending on the condition that you want to address.

Topical use of essential oils is very effective in treating skin ailments and mood disorders.

Some essential oils are highly beneficial when ingested. For instance, by swallowing peppermint essential oil, you can relieve gas and stomach cramps. Some essential oils can even be used as flavoring agents that offer nutritional value, such as lemon essential oil, which adds flavor to water while providing the body with vitamin C.

If you are using aromatherapy to address a psychological imbalance such as stress, depression, or anxiety you may wonder how an oil can effect your brain?

Essential oils for anxiety and other brain imbalances are delivered through diffuser or a hot bath. By simply breathing the oil in, you will receive the benefits that this oil can offer on a psychological level.

These scents work in two methods. First, smell is a powerful sense. pleasant smells can remind us of good times and relieve nerves, stress and anxiety. Second the chemicals inhaled actually enter the bloodstream and can help balance hormone levels.

The best (and most popular) method for using these oils is the diffuser. You can find our review of the best essential oil diffusers here.

An oil diffuser doubles as a humidifier, allowing healing essential oils to enter your body while you sleep.

When applying essential oils topically, some oils require a carrier oil. For example, tea tree oil is highly effective in treating fungal infections and inflammation, but may be mildly irritating to more sensitive areas of the skin such as the eye area and the genitals. In this case, a carrier oil may be required.

What Is a Carrier Oil?

A carrier oil is an oil in which the essential oil can be diluted. By diluting your essential oil in a carrier oil, it may then easily be applied to the skin. Carrier oils will reduce skin sensitivity and also increase absorption through skin tissue. There are several different carrier oils from which you may choose, including:

  • Olive oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Jojoba oil
  • Almond oil
  • Avocado oil

It’s important to experiment, as different carrier oils may affect your skin differently. For instance, if you are using an essential oil to treat acne, test out a few different oils on a small section of your face to see how your skin reacts.

7 Benefits of Essential Oils

1. Improve Mood and Set a Positive Atmosphere

Scents are powerful stimuli that directly enter the brain, triggering intense emotional responses.

By inhaling essential oils, your brain will signal certain emotions that can leave you feeling energized, optimistic, and hopeful.

These oils can be added to a hot bath or used in an oil diffuser to create a positive atmosphere inside your home.

Essential Oils to Improve Mood:

  • Eucalyptus essential oil is a natural stimulant that can help you wake up more easily in the morning. It can also greatly improve your overall mood.
  • Studies have shown that jasmine essential oil can not only significantly reduce stress, but also enhance your overall mood. It can also help make you more alert.
  • Orange, jasmine, sandalwood, and vanilla essential oils have all been shown to greatly enhance mood and promote feelings of optimism.
  • Grapefruit essential oil can give you an energizing boost to help you start your day.
  • Rosemary essential oil not only reduces stress and enhances positive feelings, but also improves cognitive brain function. This oil is highly effective if you need to study for an exam or make a good impression at a job interview.

2. Benefits of Essential Oils for Relaxation and Sleep

Studies have shown that aromatherapy is very useful in treating psychological disorders such as stress, depression, and anxiety.

By using essential oils to stimulate positive signals in your brain, you can significantly reduce negative emotional conditions. You may use these oils in an oil diffuser or a hot bath.

You can also apply these oils topically to emotional trigger points throughout the body, such as the neck, the elbows, behind the ears, and the backs of the knees.

Essential Oils for Relaxation and Sleep:

  • The use of lavender essential oil has been shown to be highly effective as an anxiety reducer. Studies have also linked the use of lavender essential oil to a decrease in depression symptoms. Lavender essential oil can even reduce symptoms of PTSD and postpartum depression. As lavender essential oil encourages relaxation of the mind, it can be a powerful sleep aid.
  • Bergamot essential oil is a natural anxiety remedy. It has been shown to encourage relaxation and lower blood pressure and heart rate. Bergamot essential oil can also slow down breathing patterns that tend to elevate during moments of anxiety.
  • Clary sage oil can reduce anxiety and depression significantly as well. It is a natural mild sedative that has even been shown to reduce seizures. Clary sage oil can balance hormone levels and is incredibly useful as a treatment for PMS symptoms.

3. Inflammation Relief

Certain essential oils have powerful anti-inflammatory properties that, when applied to the skin, can reduce irritation and inflammation. These oils may either be applied directly to skin or used with a carrier oil.

Essential Oils for Inflammation Relief

  • Tea tree oil is effective in treating acne and skin inflammation. It can reduce redness associated with inflammation as well.
  • For digestive inflammation, peppermint essential oil can be highly effective. Peppermint essential oil can reduce inflammation of the intestines that results from digestive disorders.
  • Rosemary and eucalyptus essential oils can reduce inflammation of the sinuses and throat associated with colds. These two oils can also open up congested airways and clear out clogged sinus passages.
  • If you have dandruff or an itchy scalp, rosemary essential oil can provide itch relief and dramatically reduce irritation.
  • Thyme essential oil is known for its potency as an anti-inflammatory. It’s been shown to reduce respiratory inflammation when inhaled.

4. Benefits of Essential Oils for Pain Relief

Aromatherapy can significantly reduce pain, as the oils can be absorbed through the skin. The topical use of essential oils in the treatment of pain is completely safe and works quickly.

Essential Oils for Pain Relief

  • Ginger, frankincense, and myrrh essential oils can provide fast relief to the muscles, joints, and tendons for arthritis pain.
  • Helichrysum oil can heal damaged muscle tissue and reduce pain associated with illnesses such as fibromyalgia.
  • Chamomile oil can quickly relieve pain related to the digestive system, as well as menstrual cramps. Chamomile oil is also an effective pain relief treatment for lower back and muscle pain.
  • Peppermint essential oil can instantly relieve pain associated with gas when ingested. It can also relieve nausea and indigestion.
  • Both lavender and rosemary essential oils have been shown to greatly reduce tension headaches and migraines. By applying these oils directly to the temples and on either side of the nose, the inhalation sends quick pain relief, as these oils are received by the brain in seconds.

5. Prevent Certain Illnesses and Boost the Immune System

Many essential oils have anti-fungal, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties that can prevent the development of certain illnesses.

Aromatherapy can also improve the immune system, as essential oils that are breathed in enter the lungs and are then absorbed into the bloodstream.

Essential Oils to Boost the Immune System

  • Eucalyptus, peppermint, and tea tree essential oils can greatly prevent colds by keeping your passageways clear of congestion and bacteria.
  • Cinnamon, eucalyptus, oregano, sage, and frankincense essential oils have been shown to boost immune system function when inhaled.
  • Tea tree oil is a powerful antibacterial and anti-fungal that can prevent cuts and fungus from developing into severe infections.
  • Clove essential oil has successfully boosted immune system function in patients with Lyme disease.
  • A powerful antibacterial, oregano oil can be ingested to heal infections throughout the body, preventing them from developing into more serious conditions.
  • Garlic essential oil is a powerful healing oil that can be ingested to fight off various fungal, viral, and bacterial infections.

6. Heal Skin Irritations

Certain essential oils have powerful anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. This makes them a highly effective natural method to healing skin irritations of all kinds.

When applied topically to the skin, these essential oils quickly get absorbed into the deeper levels of skin tissue and promote healing.

Essential Oils to Heal Skin Irritations

  • Tea tree essential oil can effectively reduce pimples and blemishes by killing the bacteria on the face that causes acne. It can also reduce eczema and provide quick relief to insect bites and sunburn.
  • To heal cuts quickly, apply lavender essential oil to the skin directly. The antibacterial properties of lavender essential oil will hasten the healing process.
  • Lemongrass essential oil is an effective facial astringent, eradicating acne and significantly reducing the appearance of large pores.
  • Basil essential oil can reduce itching and irritation associated with insect bites and eczema.
  • Rosemary essential oil can reduce skin irritation on the scalp and face by working as a gentle anti-inflammatory.
  • To treat sun damage, apply carrot seed essential oil to the skin. This will reduce sunburns effectively.

7. Safer Alternative to Candles and Incense

Aromatherapy is an effective way to make your home smell wonderful in a completely safe way.

Candles and incense put your home at risk of fire. They are especially dangerous if you have pets or small children.

However, by using an oil diffuser, you can dramatically change the smell of your home without putting your precious belongings at risk.

An oil diffuser is a small device that can be placed on any surface of your home. It acts as a miniature humidifier, filling the room with steam or sonically induced water vapor.

Simply fill the tank with water and add 10-15 drops of your favorite essential oil combination. As the water vapor “diffuses”, the fragrances will take over your home, allowing you to enjoy the benefits of aromatherapy while you go on with your daily routine.

Final Thoughts on Aromatherapy and Essential Oil Benefits

We hope that you found this article on the natural benefits of essential oils to be valuable. We tried to link to the deeper research many of the essential oil benefits are based upon as often as possible.

By understanding the many essential oils benefits, you can heal your mind and body in a completely safe and natural way. Aromatherapy has been around for centuries and is an effective way to treat an enormous variety of ailments.

If you are new to the concept of aromatherapy, you can get an essential oil starter pack here.

Also, if you would like to enjoy the many benefits of using an oil diffuser in your home, this oil diffuser is a favorite of ours.

Pure Enrichment PureSpa Essential Oil Diffuser

If you enjoyed the article or have any further questions about aromatherapy or the essential oil benefits, please let us know in the comments below.

If you have your own stories about how aromatherapy or essential oils impacted you life, please also share these thoughts in the comment section below.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the essential oil benefits.

Like this article on essential oil benefits?

More and more Americans may have heard some buzz about essential oils, and may be experimenting with them in hopes of improving their moods or feeling better. These fragrant oils, such as lavender, peppermint, eucalyptus, orange and tea tree, are extracted from a plant’s leaves, flowers, roots, barks, seeds or peels.

People may turn to essential oils as part of aromatherapy, an alternative-medicine approach in which these highly concentrated, aromatic plant oils are used in small amounts in hopes of improving someone’s physical or emotional health. The oils are sold online and in natural food stores.

But although many essential oils have pleasant smells and some of their active ingredients are purported to have health benefits, there is limited scientific evidence that they actually improve people’s health or mood. And even small vials of these concentrated oils can be pricey.

Essential oils are mixtures, sometimes containing almost 300 substances, said Gerhard Buchbauer, a professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Vienna in Austria, who has researched and written about the chemical compounds used in aromatherapy. The oils contain both simple and complex chemicals, he said.

Pure essential oils are free of aromatic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which may be linked with cancer, but they do contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — otherwise, they could not be smelled, Buchbauer said.

Using the active compounds in essential oils in low concentrations and inhaling the vapors of these oils are normally safe for most people, Buchbauer said. Safety testing of essential oils have shown they have few negative side effects, when used as directed.

However, research suggests that because some of the oils mimic the female hormone estrogen, they may have unwanted effects on males. Lavender oil and tea tree oil may cause enlarged breast tissue in prepubertal boys, according to a 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

How essential oils are used

Aromatherapists recommend the oils be directly inhaled from a bottle, cloth or palm of the hand, or massaged into the skin after being diluted in a carrier oil, such as olive oil or almond oil.

When inhaled, “the absorption of essential oils by the nose is as fast as an intravenous injection,” Buchbauer said.Essential oils are sometimes called volatile oils, meaning they evaporate quickly when exposed to the air, which releases their scents.

In comparison, the absorption of essential oils through the skin is slower, because some of their chemical compounds need to pass through the fat layers under the skin and may even get stored there, Buchbauer said.

He stressed that because of their potency, it’s important to use only a few drops of a diluted form of essential oils when applying them to the skin. Unless they are diluted, essential oils can irritate the skin.

Some consumers add essential oils to their baths, or use them as home remedies, such as inhaling eucalyptus vapors to relieve congestion.Others may place the oils in a diffuser to scent the air — peppermint is promoted for stimulating alertness, and lavender is often listed as a way to promote calmness, although there are no rigorous studies to support such claims.

Do-it-yourselfers may add drops of essential oils when making natural beauty products to give them fragrance, or use them in green cleaning products because of their disinfectant or cleansing properties.

Limited evidence

Smell plays a big role in how essential oils may affect the body: When breathed in, these plant oils stimulate smell receptors in the nose that send chemical messages through nerves to the brain’s limbic system, which affects moods and emotions, and may have some physiological effects on the body, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). (When used on the skin, the oils are absorbed into the bloodstream.)

Some oils may cause skin irritation or allergic reactions, which is why people should test their sensitivity to an oil on a small patch of skin, before they begin to use an oil more broadly, said Dr. Wolfgang Steflitsch, a chest physician at Otto Wagner Hospital in Vienna, and vice president of the Austrian Association of Aromatherapy and Aroma Care. He also said that certain citrus oils when applied to the skin can increase sun sensitivity, and that some substances in essential oils may be risky for pregnant women.

Although Americans may think of aromatherapy as part of a spa or beauty treatment, medical aromatherapy is popular in Europe, where some physicians may prescribe and use the oils therapeutically as part of complementary medical care.

About 100 different essential oils are used for medical aromatherapy in Austria and other European countries, Steflitsch told Live Science.

One example of oil that shows some evidence of effectiveness is tea tree oil, which may be an effective treatment for acne, according to the NIH. In one clinical trial, researchers compared gel containing tea tree oil to a benzoyl peroxide product, and found that the benzoyl peroxide worked slightly better but that the tea tree oil had fewer side effects, according to the NIH.

A few preliminary studies have suggested that peppermint oil may help with irritable bowel syndrome. Although the oil is touted for working as a decongestant and reliving headaches and muscle pain, “there is no clear-cut evidence to support the use of peppermint oil for other health conditions,” the NIH says on its website. Capsules of peppermint oil may cause heartburn.

Lavender oil is claimed to have a slew of a health benefits, with aromatherapy practitioners using it for anxiety, restlessness, insomnia, depression, headache, upset stomach and hair loss. Some small studies on using lavender for anxiety have yielded mixed results, and some studies suggest the oil may work in combination with other oils to fight a hair-loss condition called alopecia areata, according to the NIH. However, “there is little scientific evidence of lavender’s effectiveness for most health uses,” the NIH says.

Steflitsch said that aromatherapy is an offshoot of herbal medicine, and European patients and physicians have traditionally been more open to using plant-based therapies as part of their medical treatment compared with the United States, which has a different legal and regulatory climate.

Steflitsch said there is some high-quality evidence that essential oils are effective in treating viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitic infections, and in providing relief from sleep difficulties and pain. The oils may also improve moods, such as anxiety, depression, and reduce stress.

But American physicians typically look to research from clinical trials to determine the effectiveness of medical treatments, and many of the existing studies on essential oils are small. They do not meet this “gold standard” criteria.

Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Essential Oils


What are essential oils?

Essential oils, which are obtained through mechanical pressing or distillation, are concentrated plant extracts that retain the natural smell and flavor of their source. Each essential oil has a unique composition of chemicals, and this variation affects the smell, absorption, and effects on the body. The chemical composition of an essential oil may vary within the same plant species, or from plant to plant. As an example of how concentrated essential oils are, 220 pounds of lavender flowers are required to produce approximately one pound of lavender oil. Synthetic oils are not considered true essential oils.

Have researchers studied essential oils?

Previous studies have shown that lavender and tea tree oil may act as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which are natural or man-made compounds that mimic or oppose the actions of hormones produced in the human body. Also, clinical research found a possible link between the topical use of essential oils and the onset of male gynecomastia, or the development of breast tissue, in prepubescent boys. Since lavender and tea tree oil are composed of hundreds of chemicals, NIEHS scientists wanted to find out which of these chemicals displayed hormonal activity that could potentially lead to prepubertal gynecomastia.

What is NIEHS Doing?

NIEHS Lavender Oil and Tea Tree Oil Study

How did NIEHS researchers conduct the study?

The scientists applied lavender oil, tea tree oil, or eight of their chemical components to human cell lines in test tubes, known as in vitro experiments. They found that the compounds displayed a range of hormonal activities, which may stimulate prepubertal gynecomastia in boys.

Which essential oils and components were tested in the NIEHS study?

The researchers tested lavender and tea tree oil, as well as four chemicals commonly found in both: eucalyptol, 4-terpinenol, dipentene/limonene, and alpha-terpineol. These compounds were selected because the International Standard Organization mandated that they be included in both lavender and tea tree oils. The NIEHS research team also studied linalyl acetate and linalool, which are specific to lavender oil and alpha-terpinene and gamma-terpinene, which are specific to tea tree oil.

Do other essential oils contain these chemicals?

According to a chemical analysis of the chemical components of 93 essential oils, the chemicals selected in the NIEHS study appeared in at least 62 of them. The following list details how widespread these compounds are.

  • dipentene/limonene – 90
  • alpha-terpineol – 87
  • linalool – 82
  • 4-terpinenol – 80
  • eucalyptol – 79
  • gamma-terpinene – 79
  • alpha-terpinene – 77
  • linalyl acetate – 62

What age range are boys at risk for gynecomastia?

Male gynecomastia is a common clinical symptom observed during infancy, adolescence, and older age. Some physicians theorize that these times of major hormonal change may lead to the condition. However, prepubertal gynecomastia is relatively rare, since prepubescent boys have lower circulating hormone levels. Scientists suspect that this population may be more susceptible to hormonal changes and disrupting chemicals, which may lead to gynecomastia.

Is direct skin exposure the main link to male gynecomastia or can smelling or inhaling essential oils, as in aromatherapy, be linked, too?

The clinical cases have only described using essential oils on skin or topical exposure and not aromatherapy. In the NIEHS study, the team described whether topical exposure to the chemicals led to hormonal activity. Further studies are needed to determine if the same can be said about aromatherapy.

Are girls or women affected by lavender and tea tree oil?

No clinical cases describing abnormal breast growth in prepubescent girls or women have been reported. However, because breast growth is a natural process for pubescent girls, it is more difficult to determine whether lavender and tea tree oil have the same effect in females.

Are there differences between diluted essential oils and pure essential oils?

NIEHS researchers created different dilutions of the pure essential oils and the eight selected chemical components and tested their activity. They found as the dilution increased, the EDC activity of the oils and chemicals decreased.

Should the public discontinue the use of essential oils? Why or why not?

Whether a person uses essential oils is up to the individual. It isn’t a decision the scientists can make. The researchers want the public to be aware of the findings, since some essential oils and their components display hormonal activity and could be potential EDCs.

Further Reading

Stories from the Environmental Factor (NIEHS Newsletter)

Lavender Oil Linked to Early Breast Growth in Girls

What Does the Research Say About Essential Oils?

Barker, S & Altman P. (2010). A randomized, assessor blind, parallel group comparative efficacy trial of three products for the treatment of head lice in children – melaleuca oil and lavender oil, pyrethrins and piperonyl butoxide, and a “suffocation” product. BMC Dermatology, 10, 6.

Benencia, F. (1999). Antiviral activity of sandalwood oil against Herpes simplex viruses-1 and -2. Phytomedicine, 6(2), 119-23.

Bernardes W, Lucarini R, Tozatti M, Flauzino L, Souza M, Turatti I, Andrade e Silva M, martins C, da Silva Filho A & Cunha W. (2010). Antibacterial activity of the essential oil from Rosmarinus officinalis and its major components against oral pathogens. Journal of Biosciences; 65(9-10):588-93.

Bouhdid, S, Abrini, J, Zhiri, A, Espuny, M & Manresa, A. (2009). Investigation of functional and morphological changes in Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Staphylococcus aureus cells induced by Origanum compactum essential oil. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 106(5), 1558-1568.

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Burt, S. A. (2003). Antibacterial activity of selected plant essential oils against Escherichia coli O157:H7. Letters in Applied Microbiology 36, 162-7.

Canyon, D & Speare, R. (2007). A comparison of botanical and synthetic substances commonly used to prevent health lice (Pediculus humanus var. capitis) infestation. International Journal of Dermatology, 46(4), 422-426.

Chang, SY. (2008). Effects of aroma hand massage on pain, state anxiety and depression in hospice patients with terminal cancer. Daehan Ganho Haghoeji, 38(4), 493-502.

De Groot, A.C., & Weyland, W. (1992). Systemic contact dermatitis from tea tree oil. Contact Dermatitis, 27, 279-80.

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Khan, M, Zahin & Hassan, S. (2009). Inhibition of quorum sensing regulated bacterial functions by plant essential oils with special reference to clove oil. Letters in Applied Microbiology, 49, 354-360.

Kim, J. et al. (2006). Evaluation of aromatherapy in treating post-operative pain: pilot study. Pain Practice, 6(4), 273-277.

Lemon, K. (2004). An assessment of treating depression and anxiety with aromatherapy. The International Journal of Aromatherapy, 14, 63-69.

Nguyen, Q., Paton C. (2008). The use of aromatherapy to treat behavioral problems in dementia. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 23, 337-346.

Price, S. & Price, L. (2007). Aromatherapy for health professionals, 3rd Ed. Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.

Saeki, Y. (2000). The effect of foot bath with or without the essential oil of lavender on the autonomic nervous system: A randomized trial. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 8, 2-7.

Snow L, Hovanec L & Brandt J. (2004). A controlled trial of aromatherapy for agitation in nursing home patients with dementia. J Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 10(3), 431-437.

Takarada, R. et al. (2004). A comparison of the antibacterial efficacies of essential oils against oral pathogens. Oral Microbiology and Immunology, 19, 61-64.

Toloza A, Zygadlo J, Biurrun F, Rotman A & Picollo M. (2010). Bioactivity of Argentinean essential oils against permethrin-resistant head lice, Pediculus humanus capita. J of Insect Science, 10, 185.

Torres Salazar A, Hoheisel J, Youns M & Wink M. (2011). Anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer activities of essential oils and their biological constituents. International J of Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 49(1), 93-95.

Tyagi A & Malik A. (2010). Liquid and vapour-phase antifungal activities of selected essential oils against Candida albicans: Microscopic observations and chemical characterization of Cymbopogon citratus. BMC Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 10, 65.

Van der Ploeg E, Eppingstall B & O’Connor D. (2010). The study protocol of a blinded randomized-controleed cross-over trial of lavender oil as a treatment of behavioural symptoms in dementia. BMC Geriatrics, 10, 49.

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Sure, essential oils smell great. But are they good for anything else?

Essential oils are all the rage — but do they live up to their claims?

You can’t pass through the personal care aisle of a supermarket without seeing labels that tout the benefits of essential oils, including the relaxing effects of lavender and the skin-nourishing properties of pomegranate seed. And anyone with a Facebook or Pinterest account has likely witnessed the growth of multilevel marketing companies that reap large profits from independent distributors who sell essential oils from home and advertise their wonders through social media.

But what is it exactly that makes an oil “essential”? And is there evidence that essential oils actually do anything?

Essential oils aren’t essential to either human or plant life. The “essential” in their name refers to the fact that they are the concentrated essence of a plant, says John Labows, a fragrance technology consultant in the Philadelphia area.


Though humans have used botanical essences for thousands of years (ancient Egyptians anointed their bodies with perfumed oils and medieval healers treated ailments with botanical extracts), essential oils as we know them today are removed from plants by steam distillation or, in the case of citrus oils, mechanical expression.

“Essential oils are certainly part of most fragrances,” says Labows, explaining that fragrances typically contain a mixture of natural and synthetic chemicals. “The main difference between essential oil and fragrance is that essential oils are more complex.”

This chemical complexity composes the unique aroma of a particular essential oil. A primary scent component of lavender is linalool, which is often synthesized in the laboratory. When manufacturers add linalool to a fragrance, it gives the impression of lavender, but it smells “harsher,” says Labows. “When you use the natural essential oil, you get a rounded scent.”

The recent trend in essential oils has more to do with healthcare than perfume, however.


Proponents not only use essential oils in body care, but also diffuse them through the air, pour them into bathwater, inhale their vapors and apply them to reflexology points on the bottoms of their feet. Some people even ingest them.

Therapeutic benefits attributed to essential oils run the gamut from mood elevation and stress relief to remedies for chronic pain, insomnia, migraine, arthritis and more. The Food and Drug Administration has cracked down on such health claims, leaving companies to adopt more general language such as “promotes wellness” or “may be an important part of a daily health regimen.”

Questionable claims aside, there is a large body of research looking into therapeutic uses of essential oils. In some cases, the effects are straightforward. Laboratory studies show that lavender and tea tree oil kill common strains of fungi and bacteria. Menthol in peppermint oil stimulates cold-sensitive nerve receptors to produce a “cooling” sensation without actual temperature change and desensitizes nerve receptors in the airways, suppressing the cough reflex. Clove oil, which has long been used to treat toothaches, contains a numbing agent that inhibits neural response in much the same way that local anesthetics do.

But when it comes to the effects of essential oils on mood, cognition or systemic wellness, the evidence is fuzzy.

There have been few studies on the effectiveness — or safety — of ingesting essential oils. And it seems that for every aromatherapy study showing the positive effects of inhaling or applying an essential oil, another study shows the same oil has no effect.

A 2012 analysis of 10 scientific reviews looking at several studies on the effects of essential oils for some health conditions (including hypertension, depression, anxiety, chronic pain and dementia) concluded that “the evidence is not sufficiently convincing that aromatherapy is an effective therapy for any condition.”

There is evidence that smells in general influence mood and behavior, however.

Studies show that people exposed to pleasant odors report improved mood and increased productivity compared with people exposed to unpleasant odors or odor-free environments.


Researchers at Marywood University exposed people to three ambient scent conditions: neroli (traditionally classified as stimulating), lavender (traditionally classified as relaxing) or no scent. No matter which condition they were in, people who were told they were smelling a stimulating scent showed changes in heart rate and skin conductance that indicated physiological arousal. When told they were smelling a relaxing scent, they exhibited decreased physiological arousal.

“It just goes to show that the power of suggestion and the power of the mind can override the inherent quality of an odor,” says Estelle Campenni, a psychology professor who led the study. “There really is a mind-body connection.”

So it might be that the primary aromatherapeutic mechanism of an essential oil is driven by the placebo effect. But since aromatherapy has few adverse effects, there’s no harm in giving it a try if you enjoy the smell of essential oils. After all, if you believe they will work, there is a good chance that they will.

Making scents with Lather founder Emilie Davidson Hoyt

Walking into Lather from the bustling streets of Old Town Pasadena is like stepping into a garden oasis.

It’s calm, quiet — and the place smells divine. The shop’s aroma isn’t heady like a department store perfume counter, where you’re bound to leave with temples throbbing and a nose that’s numb to fragrance for several hours. Rather, it’s a clean, natural scent. Think crushed lemon grass, tangerine peel, vanilla bean. You want to close your eyes and breathe deeply.

Lather’s creator, Emilie Davidson Hoyt, was inspired to start the business after growing up with severe migraine headaches.

Emilie Davidson Hoyt is the creator of Lather.

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“One thing that triggered my migraines was synthetic fragrance. So I had to eliminate fragrance from lotion, shampoo — any kind of beauty product or personal care product,” Hoyt said. She looked for products scented with essential oils, which are concentrated compounds extracted from plants but at the time they were considered “alternative” and geared more toward the health-food market than the mainstream market.

“That was very weird to me,” she recalled. “I thought, why is natural the alternative? The fragrance should be the alternative.”

So she created her own olive oil soap, scented with essential oils. She has since expanded to gift baskets filled with essential-oil-scented skin creams, exfoliating scrubs, shower gels and other products. She opened her first store in Pasadena in 1999, and over the past 15 years Lather has grown to five stores and a line of naturally scented hotel, spa and boutique products.

There’s a blending bar where customers can sit at the counter in front of an array of amber-colored bottles filled with essential oils ranging from basil and black pepper to vetiver, violet and ylang ylang — any of which can be added by the drop to lotions, massage oils, spritzers or perfume vials to create customized scent blends.

Some people come for the aromatherapeutic benefits of essential oils.

Others come seeking personalized, natural perfumes.

“We keep everybody’s recipe on file,” says Hoyt, pulling a card from a box behind the counter. Reading the recipe of a nervous flyer who was about to board a plane and wanted a roll-on tube filled with a tranquilizing aroma, she said, “I used lavender and camomile to calm her, and then I wanted to use something she really enjoyed, so we added some vanilla smelled comforting to her and had good memories for her.”

Hoyt says that people typically smell the blend as she mixes it, guiding her to use more or less of a particular essential oil. When customers want a relaxing blend, she might suggest her favorite, German blue camomile, Moroccan rose or some of the more meditative scents like frankincense or sandalwood (which smells more earthy and less sweet than synthetic sandalwood). For stimulating scents, she might suggest citrus oils such as orange, tangerine or lemon grass, or other energizing scents such as ginger or peppermint.

“Peppermint is a big one for focus,” says Hoyt. “I tell kids to use it when they’re studying and then to use it again when they’re taking the test. It’s a very simple trick and it creates a strong memory association.”


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How and why to use essential oils

As dependence on prescription opioid medications reaches an alarming high, many people suffering from conditions like chronic pain and anxiety are seeking relief from safer, natural home remedies, like essential oils.
Aromatherapy, or the use of essential oils, dates back thousands of years, when the ancient Egyptians first burned incense made from aromatic woods, herbs and spices. Today, the practice has evolved into a $12 billion global business.
“Essential oils are a fantastic way to help with myriad issues such as sleeplessness, nausea, anxiety, allergies and pain,” says Michele Mack, LMT, CPMT, a licensed massage therapist at Ohio State Integrative Medicine.
Despite a surge in popularity, essential oils are not regulated by the FDA, and not all are created equal. This may have some wondering: How do essential oils work? How do you use them? And are there risks?

How do essential oils work?

Essential oils are an umbrella term used to describe highly concentrated, steam-distilled or cold-pressed extracts of almost any part of a plant, such as seeds, flowers, fruit, leaves, stems and roots, that are said to improve physical and psychological well-being.
To this day, neither the government nor the FDA have widely studied or regulated essential oils, so their effects have yet to be supported by scientific research. However, millions of people turn to aromatherapy every day, swearing by its ability to treat common health ailments like anxiety, congestion and joint pain.
According to Mack, essential oils have psychological (affecting emotion), pharmacological (affecting chemistry) and physiological (affecting bodily function and process) benefits. The most common ways to use essential oils are by breathing them in (inhalation) and by applying them to the skin(topical). Swallowing them is an option, but Mack says ingestion should only occur under direct supervision of a doctor or certified aromatherapist.

Those who use essential oils topically tend to do so for cosmetic purposes or to treat pain. Oils are absorbed via the epidermis (top layer of skin), move from the soft tissue to the bloodstream, are carried to the treatment areas and then metabolized in the liver.
Most essential oil users inhale them to experience their psychological effects, such as stress relief. When inhaled, the molecules are distributed into the respiratory system, but a small amount has been shown to affect our brain.
“When it is routed to our brain, we identify the smell and, in some cases, we have an emotional response to that smell,” Mack says. “In animal studies, it has been shown that inhalation has a quicker effect of distributing the sedative properties of certain oils in the body.”
Mack adds that psychological reactions to essential oils tend to be subjective, as scents can mean different things to different people.
“The area where I grew up had an abundance of pine trees and citrus groves. So, for me, the smell of citrus and pine triggers a deep emotional response that both calms and revitalizes me, and these are often the oils I turn to in times of stress,” she explains. “However, someone who grew up in other parts of the world may not have the same psychological response to these scents, as they may mean nothing to them.”
While the effects of certain oils are tied to a person’s history, Mack says there are some trends for which oils are most beneficial for different goals.
What are common kinds of essential oils and their uses?

  • Bergamot: skin healing and anxiety-reducing
  • Chamomile: cold, fevers and nausea
  • Clove: dental and pain-relieving
  • Eucalyptus: topical pain-reliever and decongestant
  • Frankincense: mood-enhancer and stress-reducer
  • Lavender: calming and sleep-inducing
  • Lemon: a natural household cleaner and disinfectant
  • Oregano: skin-healing
  • Peppermint: cold and flu prevention and energy-booster
  • Rosemary: skin and hair health and joint pain

When shopping for essential oils, Mack cautions that not all brands are created equal. Many mass-marked oils (i.e. sold in grocery stores or big-box retailers) include a combination of lesser and/or synthetic oils.
Mack adds that it is important to research the botanical name, batch number and the corresponding GC/MS (purity) report before purchasing a specific brand of essential oil.

How do you use essential oils?

Mack advises that the safest ways to use oils are to dilute them for topical use or diffuse them for direct inhalation. When using topically, Mack says essential oils should always be applied with a barrier substance (like an oil, lotion or aloe jelly). If using in a bath, it is even more important to mix the oils with a barrier substance first, as oil and water don’t mix.
Mack also dispels the notion that applying essential oils to the bottom of the feet is the best way to absorb the properties. She says applying oils to the tops of feet, arms, wrists, neck and behind the ear generally produce better and more consistent results for most people.
For those inhaling essential oils, Mack recommends using a waterless or water-based diffuser. Waterless diffusers are great for those with respiratory issues or immunocompromised states, as the deletion of water reduces the risk of waterborne bacteria being distributed.

Can you use essential oils in place of prescription medication? Does insurance cover it?

“Using essential oils should never be used in place of any medication without proper supervision by a physician. However, they can be used to complement your current medication regime,” Mack says.
And because essential oils are not recognized as a medication or essential to medical well-being, they are not covered by insurance, Mack adds.

Are essential oils safe?

For the most part, if used correctly, essential oils are safe. Even poor-quality oils are safe to use, although they may be less effective.
However, essential oils do carry some risks, which Mack says can be avoided by following these steps:

  1. If ingesting essential oils, only do so under the direct supervision of a doctor or certified aromatherapist.
  2. If using oils topically, first test them out by mixing a few drops with a barrier substance (like coconut oil), applying to a small area and watching for a skin reaction. Some essential oils, like bergamot, can cause skin sensitivity when in direct sunlight. Be aware of possible side effects.
  3. Exercise caution when using essential oils around children, as many oils are not considered safe for children under the age of 5. Some oils can cause physical and respiratory distress in still-developing bodies.
  4. Never apply oils directly to an animal, and always ask a veterinarian before using essential oils around a pet.
  5. Consult a certified aromatherapist to discover the oils that work best for you and to determine their safety and side effects.

“Essential oils and aromatherapy are highly individualized and can affect everyone differently,” Mack explains. “Know that if there is a single oil that is not appropriate for you, there are several more that can be used with the same benefits.”

Using oils for health

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