Taking care of your overall physical and emotional wellness is an essential aspect of life, so it makes sense that essential oils are key elements in helping you do just that. It’s why essential oils have become so popular, not only in health care but also in personal care regimens.
But what exactly are essential oils, and how do they benefit us? Our complete essential oils guide tells you everything you need to know about essential oils and what they do.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils come from various species of flowers, grasses, fruits, leaves, stems and trees, says Kristin Rondeau, a learning and cultural specialist with Saje Natural Wellness. On average, essential oils are 80 times more potent than the dried herb, she adds.
“They are composed of plant molecules that are highly volatile, complex chemical structures created in nature,” Rondeau explains. “They are known to be the life force of the plant—concentrated energy that collects in the secretory system of plants and supports their metabolic functions.”
These oils not only capture the concentrated aroma of the plant they are derived from, but can also harness the healing power from their plant source, Rondeau says. “Essential oils are thought to work in a complementary fashion to offer a holistic effect.”
But, as clinical aromatherapist and reflexologist Amy Kreydin points out, calling them oils is “a bit of a misnomer.” That’s because unlike oils, fats, waxes and butters like coconut oil, cocoa butter or jojoba liquid wax, essential oils aren’t lipids, they are actually volatiles.
Volatile substances like essential oils evaporate into the breathing space, Rondeau says. They can be inhaled or applied directly to the skin when properly diluted.
Benefits of Essential Oils
The benefits of essential oils are vast. “Most essential oils are going to fit into the category of having some sort of antimicrobial, meaning they can be antibacterial, antiviral or antifungal,” Kreydin says.
They’ve also been used around the world for centuries. “Essential oils have been used medicinally and therapeutically for as long as human beings have had relationships with plants,” says aromatherapist and founder of the New York Institute of Aromatic Studies, Amy Galper. “There is evidence of plants being used for healing over 5,000 years ago, in civilizations like Babylonia, Egypt, China, India and Israel.”
These various essential oils, which have stood the test of time, can be used for everything from pain management to reducing stress, and so much more. Kreydin says that essential oils “tend to have a Swiss Army knife function,” in that they have a plethora of benefits and uses. There are also a variety of ways to apply essential oils and their accompanying carrier oils.
10 Essential Oils and Their Uses
To better understand the benefits and uses of essential oils, let’s take a closer look at 10 of the most popular essential oils out there:
Lavender Essential Oil Benefits
Arguably the most popular of the essential oils, lavender is loved because of its “whole-body calming and balancing benefits,” Rondeau says.
Easily adaptable and versatile to the body’s needs, the “floral and herbaceous” lavender can help calm our mental and emotional states, she adds.
Lavender is said to help with everything from stress management to sleep issues, including falling or staying asleep. When it comes to using lavender for sleep, Kreydin recommends turning on a diffuser 30 minutes before bed and unplugging it before going to sleep so that the room smells like lavender. “Your brain will remember, ‘This is the smell we use to sleep,’” she says.
Lavender, which is an anti-inflammatory, can also be used for pain management, such as sore muscles, body aches and tension headaches. For this use, Kreydin suggests pairing lavender with a carrier oil, such as jojoba. (A carrier oil is a fatty acid that works with the volatile so that the skin recognizes it as a form of nutrition and hydration, Kreydin explains.)
Tea Tree Essential Oil Benefits
Right behind lavender in terms of popularity and overall usage is tea tree. Native to Australia, this essential oil is “pungently fresh,” Rondeau describes. “It balances the skin with its refreshing and clearing properties.”
Used aromatically and topically (when mixed with a carrier oil), tea tree is widely used in both traditional and alternative medicine.
That’s because it’s an antimicrobial, which makes it helpful for first aid when it comes to treating minor cuts, scrapes and burns, Kreydin points out.
The cooling and cleansing properties can also be beneficial in preventing head lice and dandruff, which is why you’ll sometimes see tea tree oil in shampoos and conditioners.
Some also say that tea tree’s purifying properties make it ideal for chakra healing and balance, Rondeau adds.
Eucalyptus Essential Oil Benefits
An “invigorating and uplifting” essential oil, eucalyptus can be used to refresh and stimulate, Kreydin says. For instance, if you need a good jump-start to your day that isn’t coffee, eucalyptus may give you the energy you need. “This essential oil is fresh and light, and often one of the first aromas to reach the nose and dissipate quickly,” Rondeau says.
Since eucalyptus works so quickly in the nose passageways, it can also aid in opening up the lungs and chest during high allergy seasons. That said, because it travels in the airways and lungs, Kreydin notes that people with breathing issues, such as asthma, should use caution around eucalyptus as it could trigger an asthmatic attack. For those with asthma, she recommends using it in a well-ventilated room until you know how you will respond to it personally.
In order to get the benefits of eucalyptus, Rondeau suggests adding the recommended amount to a bowl of steaming water or to an ultrasonic diffuser. Kreydin says you can also put a couple of drops on your shower wall or into a washcloth on your shower floor.
Peppermint Essential Oil Benefits
Peppermint is a “zingy, herbaceous oil” that is designed to lift our moods and soothe the body, Rondeau says. “It creates a cooling, tingling effect that is known to help relieve pain and soothe tension. It provides a distinct cooling sensation to the skin while inspiring feelings of clarity and purpose.”
When applying peppermint to the skin, our experts recommend diluting it first as directed on the label.
Peppermint is also often found in over-the-counter products to aid with relieving coughs, due to its natural menthol elements. It can be a lifesaver during high-allergy times, such as ragweed season, Kreydin says. “Where eucalyptus goes toward the lung or chest, peppermint goes toward the sinuses.”
Lemon Essential Oil Benefits
When you think of lemons, you think of summer and happiness, right? Well, there’s a reason for that. Lemon essential oil is often referred to as “sunshine liquid,” Rondeau says, thanks to its “ability to brighten your mood and your outlook.
“Lemon energizes the body, balances your skin tone and can be used to freshen your home,” she adds.
Cold pressed from the rind of ripe yellow lemons, this essential oil is used to uplift and inspire. For example, you might try using lemon with an inhaler or aromatherapy stick to help sharpen your mind while studying or to clear your head.
For many, lemon is tied to scent memory, Kreydin points out. The scent may remind you of cleaning, so don’t be surprised if it motivates you to do just that.
In addition to being an antimicrobial (meaning it can be used for first aid, such as helping with paper cuts or scratches), lemon is also a natural astringent. Galper suggests adding lemon essential oil to a sugar scrub as a detox remedy.
However, because lemon is a phototoxic oil, it can maximize the damage of UV rays, including sunburn and dark spots. You’ll want to dilute lemon before going into the sun and follow all instructions, Kreydin says.
Orange Essential Oil Benefits
Another citrus-based essential oil, orange is known to have mood-boosting properties. It’s derived from the peel of the flowering plant, Rutaceae, which is a hybrid of pomelo and mandarin. “Sweet yet soothing, orange can gently lull you into a deeper state of rest and help to remind you of the positive in life,” Rondeau says.
Since it’s not as overpowering as lemon, orange is ideal to use for seasonal affective disorder, Kreydin says. During those dreary winter months, you can use an aromatherapy stick or wear aromatherapy jewelry with diffuser stones to get that burst of summer smell.
However, orange oil is just as helpful in the summer months, Kreydin points out. When paired with cypress in a massage oil, the properly diluted amount of orange may help with fluid congestion in the legs.
Orange can even help with removing the residue of adhesives from stickers!
Cypress Essential Oil Benefits
Obtained from steam distillation of the needles and twigs of the evergreen tree, cypress has a variety of potential uses, including aromatherapy for relieving cough and flu symptoms and rheumatoid arthritis pain, Rondeau explains.
Kreydin notes that people who want (or need) to avoid commercial antiperspirants containing aluminum can use cypress as an ingredient in homemade deodorant. It also works well in body scrubs and cleansers “to wash away germs and improve vitality,” Galper adds.
Known for its notable, forest-like odor, cypress can be diffused indoors. You can add cypress to a diffuser to clear the air, Galper says, as it’s “good for circulation…it’s cleansing and detoxifying.”
For those who desire a less pungent, outdoorsy smell, Kreydin suggests mixing cypress with rose geranium for a lighter, more floral scent.
Rosemary Essential Oil Benefits
Rosemary is a stimulating and warming herbal essential oil that is known to help release stressful feelings, Rondeau says. It can also help “soothe muscular aches and pains, while keeping your mind sharp and your senses invigorated.”
Rosemary, which is steam-distilled from the flowering tops, stalks and leaves of the rosemary plant, can also be used to clear up sinus congestion, Rondeau adds.
Rosemary verbenone oil is gentle on the skin. It can be used to help treat acne, repair damaged skin and reduce wrinkles and age spots, especially when paired with rose geranium, Kreydin says. Rosemary cineole oil, on the other hand, should never be used on the face, she says.
As with all essential oils, follow labeled instructions for proper dosage, Rondeau advises.
Lemongrass Essential Oil Benefits
Lemongrass, which is derived from a slender, yellowish tropical grass, has a myriad of uses. “It has a long history of use as a folk remedy, Rondeau says. “Invigorating with a cleansing, fresh aroma, lemongrass has uplifting properties that make it a valuable addition to blends for promoting a sense of joy and releasing stressful thoughts.”
That very same “tropical” smell lemongrass possesses can also be useful for getting rid of musty odors in the home, Kreydin says.
In addition to its aromatherapeutic properties, lemongrass can work as an effective bug repellent, Rondeau notes.
However, since lemongrass can irritate the skin, it’s important to dilute it properly and is best used through a diffuser, Kreydin says.
Sage Essential Oil Benefits
There are different types of sage available, but overall, Rondeau describes the essential oil as “a warm, sweet and lively herb that inspires clearing and feelings of inner balance.” (For instance, dried sage—with its sweet and herbaceous aroma— can be burned to clear out negative feelings from physical surroundings.)
Sage, in its various uses in aromatherapy, may help soothe digestive discomfort, headaches, sore throats and muscular aches and pains, Rondeau says.
One of the most popular types is clary sage, Kreydin notes. “Generally considered a women’s essential oil, it’s popular for use during PMS and menopause.”
If you spritz diluted clary sage onto your sheets before going to bed, it can help cool you down. It provides hormonal support, Kreydin says, and can “gently nudge your body in the direction” you need it to go.
Essential Oil Safety
When using essential oils, there are important safety precautions to remember. Some oils are not safe to use around children or pets, for example. In addition, pregnant or breastfeeding women and people with medical conditions, such as epilepsy or high or low blood pressure, should always use essential oils with caution and follow their labeled instructions, Rondeau warns.
Proper use and dilution of essential oils is key. Guidelines must be followed, Galper explains. For instance, “If you’re using essential oils on the face, the portion should never be higher than 1 percent.” (In other words, for a 1-ounce bottle, you should only use 8-10 drops of the essential oil.)
However, if you’re using an essential oil for something like physical pain, the dilution will be higher, around 5 to 8 percent. That’s why following instructions and dosage is of the utmost importance.