Last updated November 18, 2018 by Lisa Richards, CNC

A Beginner’s Guide to Essential Oils

lavender essential oil

Essential oils are a therapy with a long history and many health benefits. In this comprehensive article, I am going to cover the most common uses for essential oils, their safety, the health benefits of some popular oils, and a few tips for buying high quality brands. You can click on the subheadings below to go directly to each section:

Essential oils are the collective name generally given to liquids that are distilled by means of water or steam from the roots, leaves, bark, stems and flowers of a plant. Contrary to the term ‘oil’ these distilled liquids are in fact not particularly ‘oily’ feeling at all, instead boasting a much more water based, less viscous texture.

The majority of essential oils produced are of a clear color and consistency, but some specific varieties including orange, lemongrass and patchouli can be a warm yellow or amber color. The key characteristic of essential oils is that they contain the real, true essence of whichever specific plant they are derived from. Bottles with relatively small measures are commonplace, as the incredibly highly concentrated nature of the liquids means that a small drop of oil can go a very long way.

It is important to note that essential oils are not the same as fragrance oils or perfumes. Whilst perfumes are artificially created and infused with appealing smells and fragrances for a superficial effect, essential oils can actually provide the natural therapeutic benefits of the plants from which they are derived. It is for this reason that you will find essential oils used frequently in the practice of aromatherapy, whilst perfumes and fragrance oils are on the store shelves for commercial and aesthetic use only. Essential oils are also of a much more delicate and volatile nature than these commercial substances, and indeed they may evaporate completely if left uncapped for a period of time.

A History Of Therapeutic Use

The earliest recorded instances of practices associated with the use of essential oils can be traced as far back as the early thirteenth century in Andalusia. These early historical mentions point towards a medicinally beneficial use in the application of these oils to the skin and through regulated inhalation. Since then, the use of essential oils for therapeutic benefits has steadily grown. In recent decades their use has risen sharply along with the associated increase in popularity of aromatherapy (a branch of alternative medicine that uses essential oils and various other aromatic compounds and substances).

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Essential oils display curative effects when used in massage, used in an oil burner, or diffused in the air via a nebulizer. Other uses for essential oils in recent times have included cosmetics, soaps and other hygiene products, household cleaning products and, less commonly, the flavoring of drink and food.

How To Use Essential Oils?

As previously mentioned, the most popular way to use essential oils is through aromatherapy, a practice that uses the application of oils to improve spiritual, emotional, mental and even physical health and wellbeing. The three universally practiced methods of reaping the potential benefits of essential oils are:

  • Skin Absorption
    First, a little science! The majority of the chemical contents of essential oils have a molecular weight that is less than 1000m. A general rule is that any liquid substance that weighs in below 1000m may be absorbed through the skin. This method of skin absorption is widely used throughout the world. Methods include direct application to the skin, essential oil baths,
  • Inhalation
    Research has shown that essential oils can be absorbed in to the bloodstream through the process of inhalation. This occurs when the many blood vessels found in the lungs absorb the oils and circulate them through the rest of the body. Also note that a person’s sense of smell connects directly with the limbic system found in the brain, and the limbic system is responsible for the processing of things like emotions, memories and associations. By the process of inhalation, essential oils can both enter the bloodstream and influence our emotions though smell.
  • Ingestion
    We ingest essential oils in a large and varied number of widely available foods, usually when the oils have been employed as flavorings for food products. Examples of such products include peppermint-flavored chewing gums and toothpastes, certain types and brands of mouthwashes, and a number of flavored soft drinks. It is important to note that the strength and quantity of essential oil that is ingested in foodstuffs such as these is not comparable to therapeutic essential oils. No one would suggest drinking a bottle of essential oils outright!

When choosing one essential oil or a mixture of oils to use, it is important to consider the specific effect you would like the products to have on your body and your environment. Also remember that some oils are harder than others to extract. This means that they may or may not be available in your area, and the price may vary considerably.

If you choose to use a burner or nebulizer, the fragrancse of your chosen oils will be vital to your enjoyment of them. If you can, take your time to experiment and browse the wide variety that is available. If you do not enjoy the scent of a particular oil, it follows that you are unlikely to enjoy many of the therapeutic benefits that it offers.

The Three Most Popular Uses For Essential Oils

Once you have chosen a few essential oils to try, what do you do next? Here are handful of suggestions and practices on how to use these wonderful oils.

In the Bath

Using essential oils in the bathtub is perhaps the most popular method of enjoying their health benefits. The process is easily undertaken by adding a small amount of the oil, anything up to ten drops, to the heated water of the bath. Then, simply allow the oils to absorb in to your skin and inhale the vapors that are simultaneously created. Add the oil just before you get into the bath, as otherwise the oils may evaporate before you get the chance to fully enjoy the fragrances and get the most out of the absorption process.

Though it is an easy and relaxing method, some believe that using essential oils in the bath can sometimes be a wasteful process, as a quantity of the product can stick to the sides of the tub and therefore reduce the amount of absorption in to your skin. An alternative, more efficient method is to apply the oils to your body before you get into your bath. This reduces the risk of wasted oils.

It is very important to consider which scented oils to use in the bath, as some have been known to sting. Oils derived from things like orange, lemon, aniseed, clove, spearmint, eucalyptus or peppermint should be used much more sparingly than others, perhaps only two drops in the tub instead of ten.


Another incredibly popular and relaxing method for applying essential oils to the skin is through massage. The process can be administered both as a full body massage or a most localized massage for a specific part of the body. For a full body massage, it is recommended to mix about six drops of oil with a separate lotion and incorporate any type of hand massage that you enjoy.

The oils will be absorbed in to the skin through close contact and repeated rubbing. Localized massages can be applied to small areas that are causing pain or discomfort like muscle sprains or stiff joints. Because these pinpointed areas are smaller, there is a lower dilution (along the lines of ten drops in one teaspoon of carrier oil).

For facial massage, a safe massage requires care and attention to prevent the oils from getting into the eyes, mouth or nose. Carefully select an appropriate oil and carrier oil for this process, and use a lower dose than for a full body massage. A dose of between one and three drops in a teaspoon of carrier oil is usually appropriate, or less if you have very sensitive facial skin.

Fragrancers & Diffusers

Rather than applying to the body, essential oils can also be diffused in the air via steam, mist, dry heat or even fan assisted evaporation. This can be a really effective and relaxing way to change the mood, calm the atmosphere and receive the bodily benefits of essential oils through the olfactory and respiratory systems.

There are two common types of fragrancers available on the market, the first of which is a standard fragrancer, in which essential oils are added to a bowl of water that is gently heated by a tea light candle. This method is cheap but not completely safe as is uses an exposed flame. The second type is an electrical fragrance, in which oils are dripped on to a metal plate surface and then heated by an electrical part. This is obviously a safer option, but be aware that too strong an electrical heat can actually damage the oils and reduce their effectiveness.

There are also a wide number of diffusers and nebulizers on the market that do an excellent job. Most of them are whole-room nebulizers, but there are also some single-person nebulizers that are designed for personal use. These generally use some kind of mouthpiece to deliver the oil directly to an individual patient.

Are Essential Oils Safe?

The overwhelming majority of essential oils available to buy on the market are deemed to be safe and free of any adverse effects when used and applied correctly. However, as with any product or substance that you are planning on introducing to your body, you should research as much as about them as you can. It is pretty much universally acknowledged that you should never drink or eat essential oils. Here are three other factors to consider with regards to your safety when using them.

  1. Method of Application
    The properties of different essential oils can vary. Where one may be suitable for inhalation, another may cause bodily irritation if used in that way. In fact a number of oils that are effective for inhalation have potential to cause irritation if used for skin application, such as oregano, clove, thyme and cinnamon. Conversely, oils such as bergamot, orange, angelica, lime and lemon are all great choices for the inhalation method but run the risk of photo-toxicity if exposed to sun bed radiation or natural sunlight following a skin application. It really is all about being educated on the different kinds and properties of individual oils, and knowing which types to use for which methods.
  2. Dosage
    Controlling and getting the right dosage is arguably the most important aspect of essential oil use and safety. In extreme cases, some oils used in the wrong doses, particularly too high a concentration, have been found in animal studies to contribute to tumor development and other negative bodily changes. And again, if used disproportionately, essential oils can be damaging to the skin, liver and other organs. However I must stress that this is in cases of extreme misuse and is not indicative of a sensible person’s use and experience.
  3. Purity
    Essential oils have been know to be altered by mixing in synthetic chemicals to enhance a certain scent, or sometimes even diluted using vegetable oil. When buying essential oils, have a good look at the bottle label for any language that indicates which level of purity it is. Note that is not necessarily a bad thing for your oil to be a combination of thirty percent essential oil and seventy percent vegetable oil. A popular reason for this is often to lower the cost of expensive varieties such as neroli or rose. If you wish to buy a one hundred percent pure essential oil, then just be careful of overdoing the dosage.

Overall, the key message on essential oil safety is simply to research any new oil before you use it. Though some of the potential dangers may sound worrying, these are effects that have occurred in extreme circumstances and on the whole, educated use of essential oils is a relaxing and safe activity to undertake. Be careful of your dosage, make sure to use the oil in the way that is recommended, and you shouldn’t have any problems.

10 Popular Essential Oils And Their Health Benefits

Now that you are an expert on the ins and outs of using essential oils, it is time to learn just why they have become so popular. Here is a list of ten essential oils and the great health benefits that they have been shown to provide:

  • Lavender
    Lavender is extremely popular and often seen as the ‘go to’ essential oil. It is gentle enough to be used in an undiluted form, has antibacterial properties that allow it to fight off germs, and is very effective in warding off headaches and improving digestion.
  • Rose
    Rose, in addition to its reputation as a beautiful feminine flower, can also aid certain female problems including hormone balance, the impact of the menopause, and PMS. It can even improve the health and overall look of your skin.
  • Black Pepper
    Though black pepper oil may not have the sweetest aroma, it can help with a number of different ailments including cramps, bacterial infections and easing joint pain through the warming of muscles.
  • Peppermint
    As well as providing an addictive and pleasing scent, peppermint essential oils are blessed with the quality of boosting your energy levels when you need that little something extra to get through the day. There is also some evidence that using diluted peppermint oil as a mouthwash might help with oral thrush and Candida.
  • Sesame
    Though sesame oil’s reputation lies in its amazing moisturizing qualities, this essential oil’s health benefits go beyond that. The oil contains fatty acids that are believed to lower blood pressure and stress levels, and in one study were shown to slow the growth of cancer cells.
  • Geranium
    Research has shown that geranium oil can be used to fight the symptoms of PMS. It is also known for its astringent properties, which means that it can refresh the skin and help to reduce inflammation. Geranium oil can be used to treat skin conditions such as acne, and can also help to reduce the appearance of blemishes and light scars.
  • Clove
    Clove oil is extremely effective at providing relief from hangover headaches, and also has several dental uses like reducing tooth and gum pain. It is a good antiseptic and therefore is useful for skin ailments such as cuts and even bug bites. A versatile oil, clove can also help to clear earache, nasal problems, and stomach pain and is an effective stress reliever.
  • Lemon Balm
    Also known as Melissa essential oil, lemon balm can work as an effective antidepressant, helping to keep your nervous system running at smooth and steady pace. It can help to calm anxiety and can counteract symptoms of insomnia as well as fighting bacterial infection and ulcers.
  • Pine
    Though it may evoke memories of Christmas, pine has a lot to offer from its antiseptic and analgesic properties. It is used to help treat skin problems including eczema and acne and can also speed up metabolism, ease joint pain, kill germs and help to ease symptoms of cold and flu.
  • Basil
    Basil essential oil is known for its anti-spasmodic, analgesic and ophthalmic properties. It is regularly used to treat skin conditions, indigestion, stress levels, blood circulation issues, respiratory problems and certain infections. It also has a pleasing effectiveness at easing nausea.

How to Buy Essential Oils

It is really important to buy essential oils from reputable stores, whether online or on the high street. Be very cautious of lesser-known suppliers that use words and phrases like ‘aromatherapy grade’ or ‘therapeutic grade’ in order to try and sell their products. There is no regulating body for essential oils, therefore there is no such grading system. Although not all companies and brands use these terms with deception in mind, some do and it can be hard to determine which sellers to trust. Watch out for bottles marketed as ‘fragrance oils’ or ‘perfume oils’, as these are not the same products as essential oils. They will give you few of the amazing health benefits of essential oils.

Another great tip to remember is that reputable manufactures mostly sell their oils in small, colored bottles. Lower quality and “fake” oil sellers will often use clear bottles and larger quantities. A high quality, authentic essential oil will usually come in a colored bottle of about four liquid ounces or smaller.

Ultimately, it is all about using your common sense when looking in to buying essential oils. The Internet is a huge help when it comes to finding out information about who to buy from and who to avoid at all costs. A quick Google search will lead you to a number of aromatherapy based communities that are dedicated to making sure everybody gets the best quality products. There is no such thing as a short cut when it comes to essential oils. If you find something that doesn’t look right or seems much too cheap for what it is, then it is probably not authentic. The aim of aromatherapy and essential oils is to relax and heal the body, so make sure you go about this with the best possible tools available to you.

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