The Basics Of Essential Oils
Our human bodies are made of the same basic elements as all other living beings. As we attune deeply to this fact, it’s natural to begin to look in the direction of traditional earth-based medicines that have been used successfully for millennia to nourish the human body.
Many people have turned to essential oils to address a variety of imbalances of mind, body, and spirit.
Personally, leaning more on plant medicines has helped me to fine tune my system and use smaller and smaller doses of natural remedies to restore homeostasis, which makes my body really happy.
The benefits of essential oils are available to anyone, but many people have yet to explore the possibilities due to a lack of knowledge about how, when, and for what purposes we can use these powerful allies.
A Little History Of Essential Oils
Most ancient civilizations used fragrant oils and plants for a variety of reasons, including:
- To nurture the health of the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual body
- To induce altered states of consciousness
- To purify the atmosphere
- To support and strengthen connection with spirit realms during ritual and ceremony
The earliest evidence of human knowledge of the healing properties of plants dates back to approximately 18,000 BCE, where carbon dated cave paintings have been found that depict humans using medicinal plants in their daily lives.
These paintings are located in Lascaux, located in the Dordogne region in France, but herbal medicine has been used all over the world for many thousands of years.
Millenia old evidence of herbal and essential oil use has been found in Egypt, China, India, Greece, Rome, Persia, and all over Europe, to name a few.
Essential oils in particular have been dated back to around 3,000 BC, in Europe, China, and India, though some Indian Avurvedic records suggest even earlier use of essential oils in that region.
Even the Bible references the use of various essential oils. Regardless of the specifics of the exact dates, essential oils have undoubtedly been an incredibly effective core component of healing medicine for a very, very long time.
The Science Behind Essential Oils
Essential oils are concentrated extractions of the aromatic, volatile oils found in plants.
They are the strongest, most concentrated type of plant medicine extraction. In this way, they are amazingly potent medicines to use when you need something that will really take the edge off your symptoms and FAST.
Essential oils are made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. In general, pure essential oils can be subdivided into two distinct groups of chemical constituents; the hydrocarbons and the oxygenated compounds.
The main constituents found in essential oils are terpenes (the hydrocarbons), and phenols, alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, esters, and lactones (all oxygenated compounds).
These constituents are what give the oils their aroma, as well as their anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antiseptic, analgesic, sedative, and stimulating qualities, to name a few.
While the topical (and very, very rarely internal) uses of essential oils can be very effective for addressing all kinds of imbalances, illnesses, and symptoms in the body, this type of plant medicine REALLY stands out for its heavenly scent, and the sophisticated way it works through the olfactory system.
Working With The Olfactory System Just Makes Scents!
You know how smelling a familiar scent can immediately bring you back to a memory of a person, place or feeling?
This has been a useful mechanism for learning throughout evolution, as our sense of smell has guided us to find food, choose mates, and avoid painful stimuli.
While responding to and learning from odors in the environment is still an essential part of human functioning, we’ve also learned that we can intentionally choose and use aromas that positively impact our moods and learning capacity, thus empowering ourselves through our sense of smell to proactively support our well-being.
For example, by smelling a scent every time we feel joyful, we can later smell that same scent and recall memories and emotions that bring joy into the present moment.
When we are having a hard time emotionally, it’s common to feel a sense of urgency to regulate our emotions. How does working with the olfactory system help with this?
- Our sense of smell is 10,000 times stronger than any other sense. This means that works with this sense provides a powerful pathway for healing.
- Information received through odor molecules reach the brain immediately, whereas information received through touch or taste need to travel through the body before reaching the brain.
- The immediate relief offered by essential oil fragrances can help to calm the nervous system enough that we can clearly look at what is happening in our lives and make choices about how to address the challenges that arise. And it’s as simple as inhaling.
While the simplicity of inhaling the scent of the oils is one tried and true way of receiving the benefits, there are a few other ways that we can use these ancient remedies in our day to day lives.
How To Use Essential Oils
As essential oils gain popularity, more and more people are purchasing them with the intention to supplement their self-care regimen.
Yet, as commonly happens when we get a rush of excitement about a new array of products, a sense of overwhelm often follows.
We may realize we just dove into the deep end and are now surrounded by 50 different oils and no clue of where or how to start manifesting the visions we had for how essential oils will transform our lives.
Not to worry, here is a breakdown of some common, easy ways to use essential oils:
- Aromatic: inhaling oils directly from the container or by diffusing oils into the atmosphere
- Topical: applying oils to the skin, almost always mixed with a carrier oil
- Internal: Only under supervision of individual professional advice.
- External: using the oils in and around the house to deodorize, clean, and enhance ambience
Benefits Of Aromatic Application
Inhalation of Essential Oils
Aromatic application (or inhalation) is the most classic way of using essential oils. In aromatic application, the constituents carried in the odor molecules of the oils reach the brain immediately and affect the physical, mental, and emotional body via the olfactory system.
Upon inhalation of an essential oil, the odor molecules enter and dissolve into the mucus of the nose, are picked up by olfactory receptors in the epithelium of the nose and transmitted to the limbic brain (or “nose brain”) via the olfactory bulb.
The olfactory bulb has direct connections to two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory: the amygdala and hippocampus, so by inhaling essential oils, we can:
- Directly affect and transform emotional states
- Impact and enhance cognitive functioning
- Reduce stress
- Promote well-being
- Nurture the sinuses
- Reduce inflammation
- Address sickness, pain, and systemic imbalances.
Diffusion Of Essential Oils
Diffusion is another form of aromatic application that offers all the same benefits as direct inhalation, (though in a milder form depending on how much oil is being inhaled into the body). Other benefits include:
- Cleans the air (many essential oils are antibacterial, antiseptic, and antifungal)
- Deodorizes a room
- Promotes better sleep
- Increases relaxation
- Creates a pleasant ambience – especially useful for intentional space held during ritual and ceremony, meditation, yoga, or any practice or gathering where enhanced nervous system relaxation is beneficial.
How To Inhale Essential Oils
The following are some options for ways to safely inhale essential oils:
- Open the bottle and take a big inhale! So simple, so effective.
- Place 2-3 drops of EO on a pillow, cloth or a cotton ball placed near the bed for a mild diffusion of oil throughout the room.
- Place 6-10 drops of EO in a bowl or jar with Epsom salt.
- Use a ready-made inhaler which comes with an ‘insert’ on which to place drops of EO.
- Put 2-3 drops of EO into a bowl with hot water and stir. Lean over the steaming bowl of water, close your eyes, deeply inhale, and enjoy. This can be especially useful when dealing with the respiratory system.
Speaking of respiratory issues, when you inhale essential oils the odor molecules enter the respiratory system.
As the odor molecules are absorbed, the constituents in the oil come into direct contact with the tissues of the respiratory tract, helping with issues like inflammation, respiratory congestion, sinus issues, throat pain, and coughs.
How To Diffuse Essential Oils
We’ve already discussed a few methods of using essential oils using direct inhalation. Now, I want to more specifically address diffusion as a form of aromatic application.
Diffusion is a safe and mild way to inhale them, since much less of the molecules enter the body, given that the oils are diffused into large spaces.
There are a variety of tools we can use to effectively diffuse essential oils into the air:
- Put a drop on a tissue and keep it in your pocket or near a vent in your home, office, or car. Great because it is easy and doesn’t require purchasing a diffuser. Perfect for budget-minded herb mavens.
- Tea light diffusers: The heat from the tea light helps to diffuse the oil, but be careful with this version as heat can damage oils. One of the best things I found recently was a plug-in Himalayan salt lamp diffuser! The heat from the lamp is so low that it doesn’t degrade the oils, plus you get all the negative ion and soft light effects of the salt lamp. Big bang for your buck on this one.
- Room spray: Mixing several drops of essential oil with distilled water in a spray bottle is a fast, easy, and portable way to diffuse aromas. A few spray pumps into the room or over your body and voila! Instantly enhance your environment. Lately, I’ve taken to spraying my friends in a ceremonious way, especially if an environment gets a bit tense. Works like a charm.
- Ultrasonic Mist diffuser: This one is a bit fancier, and amazing because it breaks down the molecules into even smaller particles that are easily absorbed into the air. It also uses very little essential oil and lasts a long time.
- Plug-in diffusers: These are budget-friendly, portable and easy to use.
- Nebulizing diffusers deliver the aroma of essential oils without using heat or water. They do not alter the chemical composition of the essential oils and do use a good deal of oil.
- Evaporative diffusers combine pads infused with essential oils with fans to scent and cleanse the air.All these diffusers distribute essential oil molecules in different ways but achieve the same end: A controlled and effective diffusion of healing aromatherapy into your environment.
Safety Precautions For Aromatic Use
- Prolonged inhalation of concentrated essential oil may cause headaches, vertigo, dizziness, nausea, lethargy, etc.
- Diffusion should be done in a well-ventilated area and the proper time interval between diffusion should be observed. Stepping outside for fresh air periodically is always a great idea.
- Some people are very sensitive to scents. Be mindful when using essential oils in public places or during gatherings.
Benefits Of Topical Application
Another option for using essential oils is topical application. Essential oils are fat soluble and have low molecular weight, so are quickly absorbed by the skin.
Using essential oils topically is a great excuse to love up your body a little bit more intentionally, and has a number of benefits:
- Reduces inflammation.
- Useful for localized pain as the oils can be applied directly to the area of discomfort for immediate symptom relief.
- Relaxes muscles, especially good to use during massage to amplify the benefits of touch. Also, massage helps with the absorption of the oils.
- Deodorize and perfume the skin.
How To Use Essential Oils Topically
There are options for topical use of essential oils, all of which are really sweet ways to practice self-love:
- Add 1 drop of essential oil for every teaspoon of carrier oil (see below for more information on carrier oils). Massage onto affected areas, or all over the whole body for a fragrant nourishing massage.
- Add a few drops of essential oil to bath salts, or directly to a bath. Some of my favorites are rose, lavender, ylang ylang, and sandalwood.
- Make homemade deodorant! I started doing this several years ago after realizing that many deodorants contain harmful chemicals. A simple blend is coconut oil, baking soda, cornstarch, and essential oils of your choice.
- Add EO to lotions, hair rinses, perfumes, body scrubs…
- Add EO to a hot compress and apply directly to the skin.
*Use caution when applying EO directly to the skin. They are best applied diluted using a carrier oil.
Safety Precautions For Topical Use
- Always test a small patch of skin before applying liberally all over the body. Essential oil sensitivities and allergies happen and it’s best to catch them before you slather your whole body!
- The general ratio is 1 drop of essential oil to 1 teaspoon of carrier oil. Sometimes 2 or 3 drops is fine, but remember this stuff is ULTRA CONCENTRATED, so too much can really be too much. Especially with strong oils like camphor, eucalyptus, clove, cinnamon, and rosemary, to name a few, keep it to 1 drop. There are other strong essential oils that you will want to use only in very diluted amounts. Make sure to do due research before using. Over concentrated application can lead to skin, irritation, rashes, burns, or even toxic levels of essential oil in the body.
- In general, do not apply essential oils to broken skin. Gentler forms of plants medicines, like leaf poultices will work better and more safely.
- Always check if the essential oil you are using is safe for children, pregnant and nursing women, and people with certain health conditions.
- Pregnant women should avoid abdominal massage with essential oils.
It is not recommended to regularly use essential oils internally. Teas, tinctures, and eating the plant are much better ways to get the medicine in the body on a daily basis.
However, essential oils can be great for internal use when there is an acute issues – but only under the correct supervision of your primary health care professional or an appropriately qualified aromatherapist who is trained in aromatic medicine.
Safety Precautions For Internal Use
- Ingesting essential oils should be done ONLY with guidance of experienced and trained professional.
- One drop of essential oil is highly concentrated and should never be ingested on its own.
- Again, test a skin patch for any reactions to the oil before using it internally. If you have an adverse response to topical use, it will certainly feel much worse from the inside!
- Do not use internally on children under the age of 12, or with pregnant or nursing women.
- Always check with an herbalist, doctor or other trained aromatherapy specialist before using essential oils internally, especially if you are on medications or have other health conditions.
How To Use Essential Oils Externally (Home, Cleaning…)
Wow, so that’s a lot of options for using essential oils, and there’s room for even more creative ways to use essential oils in our lives! Here are some fun suggestions:
- mixed with the water to be used for washing dishes
- disinfect sponge used for dishwashing
- mixed with household cleaners
- sprayed on fabrics before drying them
- homemade insect repellent
- used to remove gums and stickers from walls and other surfaces around the house
- deodorize the refrigerator
- remove lingering cigarette and smoke odors
- deodorize car upholstery
Safety Precautions For External Use
- External use will be the safest option by far because essential oils are not making contact with the skin, so it’s a great option for people who are really sensitive.
- However, some people are still very sensitive to scents and can have adverse reactions like nausea or headache, simply by smelling an essential oil. If you are going to be in a public place especially, be mindful of this and check with the other people around you before entering the smell space with an aroma.
- Some oils, especially if not diluted, can discolor or otherwise damage clothing, upholstery, leather, and other fabrics and textiles. Test a small, unseen patch of fabric before applying oils to any surface.
Carrier oils are base oils that are naturally derived from vegetables, seeds, and nuts. They are often mixed with essential oils to help decrease their concentration without any effects on their therapeutic properties.
These oils generally have a high-fat content, which helps with absorption. They also contain vitamins, minerals, and nutrients which improve and moisturize the skin and soothe irritation.
Carrier oils are usually odorless, though their odor may change when they go rancid.
It is recommended to use a carrier oil within six months, and definitely switch it out when you notice a change in it’s scent, as old oils can cause skin irritations and allergies.
Some tips for choosing and using carrier oils:
- Choose a carrier oil which had been cold-pressed or cold-expeller pressed.
- Store oils in a cool, dark place inside glass bottles with tight caps.
- The price of a carrier oil may vary based on the botanical where it was sourced, the process of extraction it has undergone, and if it is organic. It is always recommended to choose organic, ethically-sourced products.
- Always test a patch of skin when using any carrier or essential oil, to check for allergies or skin sensitivity. Essential oils should not be applied to damaged skin.
- Avoid sun exposure when using photosensitive or phototoxic essential oils. These oils may cause severe skin burns and increase the risk of having skin cancer.
- Consult a dermatologist prior to using essential oils topically if a person has an existing skin condition
- Essential oils should not be applied in sensitive areas of the body, particularly near the eye, mouth, or genitals.
- Each carrier oil varies in consistency, absorption rate, aroma, shelf life, color, and offers a different combination of therapeutic properties based on the fatty acids and nutrients they contain.
General Safety Tips For Essential Oil Use
- Proper storage of essential oils will keep it from oxidizing. When the oil oxidizes it may irritate the skin and lose efficacy.
- When skin irritation occurs, apply vegetable oil or fractionated coconut oil in the area. Do not use water as it will only drive the oil further to the skin.
- Use particular caution when ingesting essential oils, as their high concentration of volatile oils can cause adverse, even toxic reactions.
- Do not store essential oils in plastic containers. Be careful when putting essential oil bottles above wood furniture as a drop of oil can pull off varnish from the wood.
- Store the essential oils away from the reach of children and pets.
- Keep oils away from sources of flames and fire hazards
- Be especially cautious and seek professional advice when using essential oils for pregnant women, children, and animals.
Do Not Use The Following Essential Oils!
The International Fragrance Association has banned several essential which have been found unsafe to be used topically and internally:
- Cade oil
- Costus root
- Fig leaf absolute
- Stinging nettle
- Stryax gum
- Tea absolute
- Inhalation is a classic, safe way to apply essential oils and really shines at improving mood and cognitive functioning. It’s also the fastest route to reach the brain!
- Topical application is best for skin care and should be done primarily using carrier oils. Finding a friend to massage you or practicing self-massage is an amazing way to amplify the benefits and enjoy the healing effects of touch!
- Internal use without proper guidance of a professional is not suggested.
- External use is very safe and can be a great way to clean, disinfect, deodorize, and improve the atmosphere of your home, car, or office.
- Research the specific oils you want to use and their benefits and try a few different kinds to see what works best for you and go organic when possible!
- If you are pregnant or nursing, take extra caution with using essential oils, and never use them internally.
- Take care when administering essential oils to children, especially children under 2. Some are gentle enough for use in toddlers, but you’ll want to research to make sure that it is indeed safe.
Most importantly, have fun deciding which scents work best for you, and how you most like to use them, and let us know what you discover!