Essential Oils: What They Are & How to Use Them
There's a lot of talk about essential oils these days. People use them for everything from beauty treatments to sleep aids to anti-depressants. If you're looking to understand the pros and cons of essential oils, read on.
What are Essential Oils?
To put it simply, essential oils are a plant's essence. They're concentrated chemical compound extracts from plants that are popular among alternative medicine practitioners, who use them for aromatherapy treatments. There are a variety of ways that essential oils are derived from the plants.
Distillation is the most popular method of essential oil extraction.
- Steam is directed through the plant, which then vaporizes the plant's volatile chemical compounds.
- The vapors flow through a coil, where they condense back into a liquid, resulting in two liquids: the essential oil and the water from the plant hydrosols.
Also known as cold pressing, expression is the most common method of essential oil extraction from citrus fruits.
- Fruit is placed in a mechanical device and is pressed to squeeze out the juice and the oil.
- Using centrifugal force, the oil is separated from the juice and leftover fruit solids and is siphoned off into another receptacle.
In this method, food-grade solvents are used to isolate the oil. It's ideal for delicate aromatics that would have difficulty withstanding steam distillation.
- The plant materials are covered by a solvent, such as ethanol or hexane, and dissolved into it.
- Once the solvent absorbs the essential oil, it produces a waxy aromatic compound called a "concrete."
- The concrete substance is mixed with alcohol, and the oil particles are released.
Thanks to growing demand and its popularity in personal self-care, the global essential oil market, which was valued at $8.58 billion in 2020, is expected to reach $17.92 billion by 2028.(1)
Essential Oil Benefits
With all this buzz, it's natural to get excited about the potential benefits of essential oils. While there isn't enough scientific research to confirm that essential oils are good for your health,(2) many people have had beneficial experiences using essential oils to:
- Reduce anxiety and depression
- Help with sleep
- Treat headaches
- Reduce inflammation
- Improve mood
Types of Essential Oils
There are a multitude of essential oils available, pulled from various parts of plants, including from flowers, roots, berries, leaves, seeds, bark and peels. Examples include:
- Ylang Ylang
- Tea Tree Oil
How to Use Essential Oils
The use of essential oils in a holistic medical practice is known as aromatherapy. There are two main ways to practice aromatherapy: inhalation and topically. While there have been some claims that essential oils can be ingested, there is no scientific research supporting the theory that essential oils are safe to consume.(3)
There are many ways to practice essential oil inhalation, such as steam baths and inhalers. Essential oil diffusers are an extremely popular form, as they are an eye-appealing addition to your home decor while infusing aromatics into the air.
Another centuries-old aromatherapy technique is using essential oil topically. Some oils need to be diluted with a carrier oil or lotion to prevent skin irritation. Be sure to check for that before applying any essential oil. Common places on your body to use essential oils are:
- The face
- The soles of your feet
- The chest
- Pulse points
- The abdomen
Things to Keep in Mind
When using essential oils, there are some important things to remember:
- Keep rooms well ventilated to ensure safe air circulation.
- Don't diffuse an essential oil for longer than 60 minutes.
- Certain oils (such as cold-pressed ones) are photosensitive, and will cause a chemical reaction on the skin if they're exposed to UV rays. Avoid going out in the sun wearing any photosensitive oil.
- Wash your hands immediately after applying an essential oil. If you have oil on your hands and then you rub your eyes or scratch the inside of your ears, you could have a bad allergic reaction.
When weighing the benefits of essential oils, there are safety factors to keep in mind. Before beginning an aromatherapy regimen, consider the following:
- Essential oils aren't regulated.
- You should not ingest essential oils. There is no scientific proof that consumption is safe.
- Some oils can't be used when pregnant or breastfeeding.
- Some oils can't be used around pets.
- Some oils need to be diluted before use.
- Topical contact can cause contact dermatitis as a side effect in some people.
- Previous studies have found that certain oils may act as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), leading to prepubescent boys developing breast tissue.(4)
Essential oils are beloved by many for their therapeutic abilities. Used wisely and cautiously, they may become an important part of your health and personal care routine. Always talk to your doctor if you have any concerns or questions.
1. "Essential Oils Market Size and Forecast," Verified Market Research, accessed March 11, 2022, https://www.verifiedmarketresearch.com/product/global-essential-oils-market-size-and-forecast-to-2025/.
2. "Aromatherapy: Do Essential Oils Really Work?" Johns Hopkins Medicine, accessed March 11, 2022, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/aromatherapy-do-essential-oils-really-work.
3. "Essential Oils: Health Warning," Government of Western Australia Department of Health, accessed March 11, 2022, https://www.healthywa.wa.gov.au/Articles/A_E/Essential-oils.
4. "Essential Oils," National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences," accessed March 11, 2022, https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/essential-oils/index.cfm.