What Are Essential Oils? Complete Guide
Essential oils have exploded in popularity during the last 5 or so years. But what exactly are essential oils and are they worth trying?
You don’t have to look very hard on the Internet to see all kinds of claims about what essential oils can do.
It can get a little tricky to figure out what’s true and what’s not.
A love for plants led me to a degree in horticulture, studies in herbalism, and eventually to essential oils.
They are currently a vital part of my natural wellness routine and have many potential benefits.
But the question is:
Will they be beneficial for you and do they really work?
If you want a realistic picture of what essential oils are, how they work, and how to use them, this post has got you covered!
The material in this post is for informational/educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Essential oils are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any diseases.
What Are Essential Oils?
The easiest way to think of what essential oils are is to picture them as the essence of the plant that they came from.
Essential oils are the volatile oils that are extracted from certain plants and are filled with beneficial plant compounds.
These oils can come from flowers, leaves, trees, roots, shrubs, seeds, and even fruits.
They need to be extracted through a careful process so that the live compounds in the oils are not destroyed by heat or chemicals.
Steam distillation is the most common method used, but essential oils can also be extracted by cold-pressing (citrus oils) and resin-tapping (woody oils).
The chemical compounds found in essential oils can number in the hundreds, and many of them are highly beneficial to the human body.
How Are Essential Oils Used?
That was a simple explanation of what essential oils are but you’re probably also wondering how they are used.
There are three main ways of using essential oils and each one belongs to one of three main models: English, German, and French. (1)
- Applying essential oils to the skin in one way to use them and follows the English model.
This can be a very effective way of using and benefiting from essential oils because the small size and unique makeup of essential oils allows them to easily absorb into the skin. (2)
You can use oils as part of a massage for sore muscles, apply them to specific locations (stomach, joints, chest, etc.), or put them on the Vita Flex points on your hands or feet.
- One of the most familiar ways of using essential oils is in a diffuser. Using oils aromatically follows the German model.
Inhaling essential oils can be highly beneficial for your brain and emotions because our sense of smell is directly connected to the limbic system in our brains. (3)
Sometimes known as the emotional center of the brain, the limbic system plays a large role in emotions and memory.
This means that diffusing essential oils will not only make your home smell wonderful. It can also help with things like stress, mood, and anxious feelings.
- The third way of using essential oils is internally (ingesting them). Those who follow or have studied mainly the English/British model are often against ingesting oils.
However, this way of using them follows the French model and has been used for many years. (1)
Not all essential oils should be ingested, but many of them are actually certified as GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) or as food additives by the FDA.
You can check out the (long) list of these oils for yourself on the FDA’s website here. Look for ones labeled ESO (essential oil) and GRAS.
Oils like Peppermint and Ginger can be taken internally for digestive support. Lemon and other citrus oils help the body to naturally cleanse.
There’s a long list of benefits from internal use, just be sure you only ever ingest pure essential oils! (More on that later.)
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Do They Really Work?
Right. So far we’ve look at what essential oils are and how they are used.
But the biggest question is:
Do they really work?
And the answer to that is:
Essential oils most definitely work. I’ll get more specific about their benefits in a minute, but there is a reason essential oils are popular.
More than just a fad, essential oils have been used since ancient times (even mentioned in the Bible) for things like natural beauty and skincare, aromatherapy, spiritual practices, and physical wellness.
Science is still doing research to try and “prove” these benefits, but there are already some studies showing the potential health benefits of oils.
However, there are two big “buts” to keep in mind.
#1- Quality is hugely important. There’s a section later on in this post about quality and how to choose the right essential oils.
What you need to know for now is that poor quality essential oils will not work and may cause more harm than good.
100% pure, therapeutic grade essential oils have many potential benefits, but cheap oils and those extracted using chemicals do not.
#2- They aren’t a miracle cure. I firmly believe in the healing power of nature and that it goes far beyond what can be proved in a lab.
That being said, there is no such thing as a cure-all.
The power of essential oils and the benefits they can have for you come from the way they work with your body.
The oils help your body to function like it’s supposed to and support the natural healing processes your body already has.
Your body already has the capacity to heal itself.
Essential oils provide the natural compounds to support every system in your body and your emotional health.
Not a cure-all, but still pretty powerful!
What Are The Benefits of Essential Oils?
Okay, so essential oils work.
But why are they so beneficial and why are people so into them?
First of all, one of the reasons essential oils are so beneficial is that their molecules are so tiny that they easily disperse throughout the whole body.
They can easily be absorbed into the skin, cross the blood-brain barrier, and even penetrate into individual cells.
And also, all of the natural, powerful plant-compounds found in essential oils are really good for us humans.
Oils & Physical Wellness:
- Essential oils can be a huge support for your body because of the reasons I just mentioned (tiny molecules and powerful plant-compounds).
Different oils can support your digestion, immune system, endocrine system, musculoskeletal system, nervous system, brain, circulatory system, respiratory system, and more.
- Many essential oils have also been used since ancient times for beauty and skincare.
Oils like Frankincense, Lavender, Sandalwood, and citrus oils can cleanse and brighten skin tone, nourish skin, and smooth out signs of aging.
Oils & Emotional Wellness:
- Using essential oils can also be a big support for emotional and mental wellness.
Diffusing, applying, and taking essential oils can help to calm anxious feelings and tension, reduce stressful feelings, relieve feelings of overwhelm, lift a bad mood, and promote clear thinking. (4)(5)
- The calming nature of certain oils like Lavender and Cedarwood can have a positive effect on sleep (6), while other oils (like Peppermint) have an energizing effect.
3 Reasons To Give Them A Try
I’ve just gone over many of the benefits (although there are more than I can fit in this post), but I think there are 3 key reasons essential oils stand out.
#1- They are really easy to use
I love all different kinds of herbal and natural teas, remedies, etc. But out of everything I’ve tried, oils are by far the simplest to use.
Using them can be as easy as pouring a drop or two out of a bottle.
There are a few basics to learn, but there are no complicated instructions and no certifications required to use and benefit from essential oils.
#2- They are really powerful
Another reason essential oils are so effective goes back to what they are: the concentrated essence of the plant.
This concentrated nature makes even one drop of oil really powerful and beneficial.
A small amount goes a long way and has a big impact.
#3- Nature in a bottle
With essential oils, all of the work is done for you.
You get all the many benefits of nature without having to plant, grow, harvest, or process anything.
Even as someone who loves growing and using herbs and plants, there’s something magical about having nature in a bottle, ready to use.
How Do You Know Which Oils To Buy?
Everything I just went over about the benefits of essential oils is true BUT (as I said before) it only applies to high-quality essential oils.
The essential oil industry is unregulated. This means there are no standards or tests to be passed before the oils can be sold.
And unfortunately, a large percentage of the essential oils on the market in the U.S. are not high-quality.
So how do you tell the difference?
Here are some things to look for:
- Purity: Companies will add in synthetic compounds to make essential oils last longer or to sell them at a lower price.
A pure essential oil should only contain the oil listed on the label or the oils that make up a blend.
For example, Peppermint essential oil should only contain the ingredient Mentha piperita, which is the botanical name for Peppermint.
- Extraction method: Essential oils that have been subjected to high heat or high pressure will be poor-quality because these two thing break down many of the beneficial compounds found in the plant.
Some companies will extract using chemical solvents because they can get more oil out of the plant in less time.
However, this means those chemicals will still be present in the essential oil, making it toxic.
Look for companies/brands that use steam distillation, cold-pressing, and resin-tapping- not high heat or chemical extraction.
- Growing/sourcing: The quality of the essential oil begins with how the plant the oil comes from is grown.
For me, this goes beyond whether something is certified as ‘organic’ or not.
Organic growing practices are very important, but a plant can be certified organic and still grown poorly. (I studied organic farming in college.)
Look for companies that own their own farms, are involved in the farming process, don’t use chemicals, and are transparent about their growing methods.
- Price: Just because an essential oil costs a lot doesn’t mean it’s automatically high-quality.
But extremely low prices are a huge warning sign that corners have been cut somewhere.
Producing quality essential oils is not cheap. It’s a long and complex process, and this is reflected in the price.
Remember, a little goes a long way with essential oils, so they do last a long time.
But high-quality, pure essential oils are not going to be sold at Wal-mart prices.
- Reputation: It can get frustrating trying to sort through all the information about essential oil brands (especially on the Internet!).
It can be helpful to look for a company/brand with a good reputation and a history of producing high-quality essential oils.
This doesn’t mean that newer companies are out of the question, but a proven track-record in this industry is a good thing.
Are You Ready To Try Essential Oils?
Now that you know what essential oils are, their benefits, how they can be used, and how to find a quality brand…
Why not get started and try them for yourself?
Try a Starter Kit to get a range of oils or pick one that you’re interested in to try first. Either way, you can only learn more about them by using them!
(1) Essential Oils Pocket Reference: Seventh Edition. Life Science Publishing. Copyright November 2016.