Alternative medicine enthusiasts have subscribed to the power of essential oils for years. But with their increasing availability (and claimed health benefits), they’re going mainstream.
“Essential oils are fantastic. They have many benefits,” says integrative medicine specialist Yufang Lin, MD. “The problem lies in how people use them.”
Here’s information on 11 essential oils, their benefits and how best to use them.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts.
“Plants are made of structural materials and phytochemicals. These chemicals have properties that not only benefit the plant but benefit people, too,” explains Dr. Lin.
It takes a tremendous amount of plant material to make essential oils, which can make some of them expensive. For example:
- About 250 pounds of lavender flower make 1 pound of lavender essential oil.
- About 5,000 pounds of rose petals or lemon balm make 1 pound of rose or lemon balm essential oil.
“Because it takes so much of the plant to make an essential oil, it’s a powerful botanical medicine,” Dr. Lin says.
Benefits of essential oils
Essential oils can be used in aromatherapy, a kind of complementary medicine that uses smell to improve your health or applied topically to the skin.
Studies have shown that essential oils may help:
- Boost mood.
- Improve job performance through reduced stress and increased attentiveness.
- Improve sleep.
- Kill bacteria, funguses and viruses.
- Reduce anxiety and pain.
- Reduce inflammation.
- Reduce nausea.
- Relieve headaches.
Here are some common essential oils and their benefits:
Lavender is Dr. Lin’s go-to oil. “It’s gentle and has a lot of benefits. You can use it in a variety of ways,” she says.
Try adding it to a bath or diffuser as aromatherapy, adding to water to make a room spray or body spritzer, or combining with a base oil to make body oil.
Lavender can help with stress, pain and sleep. “Before the discovery of antiseptics, lavender was also used as a cleaning agent in hospitals,” Dr. Lin says.
There have also been studies that show using lavender oil (and tea tree oil) can potentially disrupt hormones in young boys.
Tea tree oil
Dr. Lin says most people use tea tree oil as an antiseptic, antimicrobial or antifungal. You can also use it to help with:
- Acne. “Take a cotton swab and dip it into tea tree essential oil. Then, apply it directly on the acne — this is one exception where you don’t have to dilute it,” says Dr. Lin. “It can help resolve acne faster.”
- Athlete’s foot and ringworms. “Dilute it with a carrier oil (a base or vegetable oil like coconut or jojoba oil that helps dilute essential oils) and put the blend on the affected skin.”
One note of caution: Since tea tree oil can be neurotoxic, Dr. Lin says you shouldn’t diffuse it if you have small children or animals at home.
Known as the “king of oils,” frankincense can help with inflammation, mood and sleep. Studies have shown that it can also improve asthma and might prevent gum disease.
Frankincense oil has a woody, spicy scent and can be used as aromatherapy and can be found in skin creams. Makes sure you dilute frankincense oil before applying it to your skin.
Peppermint oil is known to:
- Be an anti-inflammatory, antifungal and antimicrobial.
- Ease headaches.
- Fight fatigue.
- Lift mood.
- Reduce gut spasms.
- Support digestion.
- Support memory.
“Peppermint tea can settle your stomach, too, if you have irritable bowel syndrome or gastric irritation,” adds Dr. Lin. “It’s very gentle and easy to use.”
When using the oil topically, make sure you dilute it.
Eucalyptus is a great essential oil to have on hand during cold season. It soothes a stuffed-up nose by opening your nasal passages so you can breathe easier. (Peppermint oil can also help with this.)
It can also relieve pain and fight against herpes simplex virus thanks to its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.
Take precautions when using eucalyptus oil, making sure to dilute it before applying topically. It should not be ingested and can have dangerous side effects on children and pets.
Extracted from the peel of lemons, lemon oil can be diffused into the air or applied topically to your skin with a carrier oil.
Lemon oil is known to:
- Reduce anxiety and depression.
- Reduce pain.
- Ease nausea.
- Kill bacteria.
A study also states that aromatherapy of essential oils like lemon oil might improve the cognitive function of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Lemon oil is safe for aromatherapy and topical use. But there have been some reports that lemon oil can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight and increase your risk of sunburn. Avoid direct sunlight exposure after use. This includes lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, lemongrass and bergamot oils.
Lemongrass oil has a strong citrus scent and is known to help relieve stress, anxiety and depression.
Its antibacterial properties make it a good natural remedy to heal wounds and kill bacteria. It has been shown to prevent the growth of fungus found in athlete’s foot, ringworm and jock itch.
A study found that using lemongrass oil can help reduce blood sugar in those with type 2 diabetes.
Be sure to use a carrier oil before applying to your skin.
Orange oil is made from the rinds of the citrus fruit. It can be diffused into the air, topically on the skin (with a carrier oil) or even used as a natural cleaner in your home.
Orange oil is known to:
- Kill bacteria.
- Reduce anxiety.
- Reduce pain.
Orange oil has the potential to make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so be careful about using it on your skin and then going outside.
You’ve probably reached for rosemary to add flavor to some of your recipes. But using rosemary oil also has some additional benefits like improving brain function, promoting hair growth, reducing pain and stress, lifting your mood and reducing joint inflammation.
Rosemary oil is safe to use in aromatherapy and topically on the skin with a carrier oil. If you’re pregnant or have epilepsy or high blood pressure, it’s advised to avoid using rosemary oil.
What is bergamot? If you’re a fan of Earl Grey tea, then you have had bergamot. The oil, which has a fruity and floral aroma, can be diffused or applied topically with a carrier oil (but it can make your skin sensitive to the sun).
Bergamot oil is known to:
- Reduce anxiety.
- Lift mood.
- Lower blood pressure.
Cedarwood oil, which has antioxidant and antibacterial properties, is a popular ingredient in insect repellent, shampoo and deodorant with its woodsy scent. But you can also use cedarwood oil to help with sleep and anxiety.
You can use cedarwood oil as aromatherapy, as well as a topical treatment mixed with a carrier oil.
How to use essential oils
Because essential oils are so strong, Dr. Lin recommends being mindful about why and how you’re using them. Only small amounts — typically just a few drops — are used.
“It’s also a good idea not to use them routinely, as your body can get used to them, lowering their effectiveness,” she says.
Here are some ways you can use essential oils:
You can diffuse essential oils, which is a type of aromatherapy.
“It’s a great way to change your mood quickly. As you breathe in, the oil’s aroma immediately stimulates your central nervous system, triggering an emotional response,” explains Dr. Lin. “It can reduce anxiety and stress response quickly.”
Mix essential oils and water in an essential oil diffuser and turn on the magic. A diffuser is a device that disperses tiny oil particles around the room so you can breathe them in. Follow your diffuser’s directions for the right oil-to-water ratio.
There are several other aromatherapy methods. “Whichever method you choose, avoid direct contact with the essential oil and dilute it first,” says Dr. Lin.
Other aromatherapy methods include:
- The old-fashioned way. Take deep breaths of the aroma after opening the bottle.
- Dry evaporation. Put a few drops of essential oil on a cotton ball and smell the aroma as it disperses.
- Steam inhalation. Put a few drops of essential oil in a bowl of hot water. Put your head over the bowl, a towel over your head and breathe in the steam.
One caveat is that aromatherapy may not work as well for older adults with dementia or behavior problems, Dr. Lin notes. That may be because people tend to experience loss of smell as they get older.
Roll directly on your skin
You can also reap the benefits by applying essential oils to your skin, where it’s absorbed into your body. But Dr. Lin cautions against directly applying most essential oils to your skin without diluting them.
“With few exceptions, it’s best to dilute the essential oil with a carrier oil, such as coconut or jojoba oil, to avoid skin irritation,” she says.
Some people put their essential oil blend into a small rollerball bottle for easier application.
Some people take essential oils orally in teas, supplements or even via a drop or two on their tongue.
“Unless you’re directed by a trained herbalist, I recommend against using them this way. Since they’re so strong, they may be harmful,” advises Dr. Lin. “Even with just a few drops of essential oil, you’re taking a lot of plant material without realizing it. They can even burn the mucosal lining in your mouth.”
Some food recipes call for essential oil like orange, but always check dosing and follow directions closely.
Be careful when using essential oils in children, people with weakened immune systems, pregnant women and seniors.
“Some essential oils can be harmful to the liver and nervous system when used in excess. Tea tree and eucalyptus oil have also been known to cause seizures,” warns Dr. Lin. “They’re toxic for animals as well.”