You’ve probably heard the phrase “essential oils” many times, or at least read it. It’s likely you’ve even had a conversation about essential oils yourself — or maybe you occasionally use some in a diffuser or know that you like candles with essential oils in them. But do you actually know what they are? And do you know how they work?
Probably not! Essential oils promise a lot of health and wellness benefits, but few companies really explain why you might experience these great results when using essential oils. While being using a natural supplement to improve your emotional or physical health might sound appealing, you’ll probably get better use out of them if you fully understand essential oils and how they work.
So in order to understand how essential oils work, we think it’s important to first know what they are.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are, in essence, plant extracts. Makers of essential oils steam or press parts of a plant — it could be flowers, or bark, or leaves, or even sometimes fruit. By pressing or steaming these plant parts, you can isolate the compounds that make them smell good. These compounds do other things, too, but those are the basics.
Because plants tend to be so delicate, and their scents only become noticeable when you’re really close, or there’s a large group of them, it takes a lot of plants to produce a small amount of fragrance. A single bottle of essential oil can be the result of a truly staggering amount of pressing or steaming.
Once these compounds have been extracted, the essential oil producer combines them with a carrier oil. Carrier oils are used to dilute essential oils because essential oils can be quite abrasive or irritating to your body in their pure form. Carrier oils tend to have very light scents or to be unscented altogether, and so they mostly don’t impact the smell or effect of a plant extract. They just make the plant extract safer to use.
It’s important to know how essential oils are made and what exactly they are because with essential oils becoming more and more popular, there are more options. Some of those options are made with extracts obtained with chemical processes. If the extract hasn’t been obtained through steaming or pressing, it isn’t truly considered an essential oil, and these faux-essential oils may not have the same impact. So understanding where they come from does influence our understanding of how they work!
This brings us to…
Essential oils are most often used for aromatherapy. Aromatherapy has been around for a long, long time — like, several thousand years long. It was practiced by ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, among many other civilizations. So while it might be having a moment lately and getting more of your notice, you can rest assured it’s a tried-and-true practice, honed and performed since… well, nearly the beginning of civilization.
There are many different ways to practice aromatherapy. One of the most common ways to get the benefits of aromatherapy is by using an essential oil diffuser or even a humidifier that allows for the addition of essential oils. Diffusers and humidifiers disperse water and essential oils into the air in a fine mist, allowing you to get the benefit of them without being overbearing or having to apply them topically.
That’s another option — you can also get the benefits of aromatherapy by applying essential oils directly to the skin, where they can be absorbed. In order to apply an essential oil to the skin, you need to dilute it with water and/or a carrier oil so as not to irritate your skin.
You can also purchase typical cosmetics, like lotions and creams, that contain essential oils. Candles, bath bombs, bath salts, and other scent-enhancing devices can contain essential oils and offer similar aromatherapy benefits.
However you choose to use your essential oils, the point is for the essential oil molecules to be inhaled or absorbed, promoting whatever emotional well-being and physical health benefits the particular essential oil you’re using offers. Plus, they smell pretty great.
But Why Is Aromatherapy Effective?
Aromatherapy isn’t always acknowledged as a science, but there is some science behind why aromatherapy may work. Inhaling essential oils stimulates parts of your limbic system. Your limbic system is the structure of your brain that deal with your memory and your emotions. So it’s a pretty significant part of your brain!
It also regulates some of your body’s responses to emotional stimuli and contributes to the parts of your brain that deal with reinforcing behavior. The limbic system also has some involvement in some significant but unconscious bodily functions — like your blood pressure, your heart rate, and even breathing.
Because your sense of smell has an impact on your limbic system, the idea is that by inhaling essential oil molecules, essential oils are able to have an actual, physical impact on your body. There aren’t a lot of studies on this, and you should always speak to your doctor or care provider if you’re going to incorporate something new into your self-care routine for health reasons — but it’s a pretty compelling interaction!
What Can Essential Oils Do For You?
Now that you have a better idea of what essential oils are and how they’re used, you might be wondering how you can put them to work for you. There are a wide variety of essential oils to choose from, and many promise different emotional and physical health benefits. But there are some common ailments people turn to essential oils for.
Stress And Tension
It seems like every day, there’s a new list of things to do to help you manage your stress. A lot of them are time-consuming, like exercise, or difficult, like… also exercise. It’s not that we don’t appreciate the value of hard work or think that exercise is an important part of our lives — it’s just that sometimes when you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, adding one more thing to your plate can feel like too much.
Enter essential oils: an easy-to-use, low-effort thing to add to your daily routine that is thought to help relax you when you’re feeling stress or overworked. Th use of essential oils like bergamot, frankincense, and ylang-ylang can help promote relaxation.
The worst thing to stress about? Stressing about not getting enough sleep becomes a vicious cycle. If you’re looking for a natural way to help yourself relax and unwind after a long day and to clear the waters so you can drift peacefully off into dreamland, essential oils might be for you. There are quite a few essential oils that are thought to improve sleep quality and help get you ready for bedtime. Chamomile and lavender oil can be particularly helpful when it comes to falling asleep.
If you struggle with problem skin or have recently suffered a serious sunburn, there are essential oils for you. Whether you’re looking for a toner that will help cleanse your skin and keep it clear or looking for something to help you seriously moisturize after too much time in the sun, you have options! Sandalwood and tea tree oil are great for keeping skin clear, while peppermint oil and eucalyptus oil can help to treat skin irritation.
There’s a nearly endless list of things that aromatherapy and essential oils are thought to help with. You can use citrus oils and wintergreen oil to give yourself a wake-up or take advantage of the anti-inflammatory benefits of oregano oil. But that leaves you with one more thing to figure out.
So Which Essential Oils Do You Use?
Ah, the perennial question. What essential oils you use are up to you! As long as you dilute your essential oils properly when you use them, you can use any kind of essential oil for aromatherapy. This means distillation with water when you're taking advantage of the scent or diluting it with a carrier oil (like jojoba or coconut oil) when using essential oils for topical or skincare purposes. This is vital because otherwise, you risk allergic reactions and unpleasant side effects.
If you want the greatest effect, as we mentioned earlier, you’ll want to be sure that your essential oil is the result of steaming or pressing — not of chemical extraction.
It’s just about selecting the essential oil that is best suited to your needs and preferences. There are over ninety types of essential oils that are commonly used for aromatherapy, so there’s no shortage of essential oils to choose from. And once you get into mixing essential oils to get a more complex, beneficial experience, your options are nearly endless.
Essential oils mainly work through aromatherapy. Aromatherapy itself is an ancient practice, historically used in many cultures to ease a wide variety of physical and emotional ailments. The essential oil molecules absorbed by your body when you practice aromatherapy interact with your limbic system and are thought to impact your emotional wellness or even your physical health.
Different oils have different properties because they’re the result of different plant extracts. So now that you know how essential oils work, all that’s left is choosing which one works best for you!