Updated October 21, 2016
They may come in tiny bottles, but essential oils pack a big punch. A few drops of these potent powerhouses can have benefits for both the mind and body. Here, the lowdown on these wonder workers and how to use them:
What are essential oils?
First, the basics. Essential oils are aromatic extracts that are extracted from plants and botanicals,” explains Amy Galper, Executive Director and Founder of the New York Institute of Aromatherapy. Many essential oils are obtained via steam distillation; the plant material is enclosed in a special piece of equipment called a still (picture a vegetable steamer) that captures the steam and transforms it back into water. At that point, the oil from the plant floats on top and can be skimmed off. Other essential oils, namely those that come from citrus, are extracted through physical pressing.
How do you use essential oils?
While you can apply fixed oils (plant-based oils made up of fatty acid chains like jojoba, rosehip, avocado, coconut, olive, and grapeseed oils) directly to your skin, you should never (ever!) do the same with essential oils. These are concentrated plant essences, and can cause irritation — particularly for those with sensitive skin,” cautions Villecco.Always mix them with another unscented plant-based oil (known as a carrier oil); Galper suggests olive oil or coconut — about three to five drops of essential oil per one tablespoon of the carrier oil should do it. And, it’s always worth testing the blend on a small area first, says Villecco.
If you want to reap the aromatherapy benefits without applying anything to the skin, something as simple as taking a quick whiff directly from the bottle may do the trick, says Galper. Alternately, put a few drops on a cotton ball and keep it in a zip-top bag that you can easily stash in your purse or car. Or, mix and match a few different oils to create a DIY diffuser blend, refreshing body mist, or face mist that will leave your complexion glowing.
Essential oils are also a great addition to any shower or bath; mix with a tablespoon of bath salts, or make your own body scrub with just a few simple ingredients. And the aromatherapy benefits go way beyond personal care. Combine essential oils with baking soda and vinegar for a DIY cleaning spray, use them to refresh a grimy yoga mat, or create a natural room scent.
What are the benefits of essential oils?
Now that you know what they are and how they’re sourced, let’s talk about the benefits of essential oils, which are, in a word, endless. Galper calls them the quintessential holistic tools: “They work with the physical body when applied topically, and when you smell them they impact your emotional and spiritual self. It’s truly a mind-body, experience” she says. Jody Villecco, Quality Standards Coordinator for Whole Foods Market adds: “They can soothe stress, benefit your mood, increase alertness, and enhance your general well-being and relaxation.” So, whether your issue is physical, mental, or both, essential oils can offer a solution. Below, just a handful of the beneficial capabilities of some of the most common essential oils:
- Ginger: Rub this onto sore muscles (using a carrier oil, of course); it’s great for improving circulation, says Galper. Mentally, it’s grounding and centering, strengthening your connection with yourself and others. Our favorite: Aura Cacia Ginger Essential Oil.
- Lavender: Commonly known for its relaxing properties, this is incredibly calming, both for mind and body, and is choice for soothing skin. Pick up EO Pure Essential Oil French Lavender.
- Frankincense: It also helps still your mind when dealing with excess thoughts and worry.
- Eucalyptus: Mentally, it’s a good option before a big meeting or event, since it keeps your mind clear, too. Try 365 Everyday Value Eucalyptus Oil.
- Mandarin: As a rule, essential oils from all citrus fruits are uplifting and energizing, great for getting out of a funk (try mixing them with cocoa butter for an energizing body cream). They’re also astringent and can absorb excess oil in the skin.
How do you shop for essential oils?
No matter what you’re using them for, be sure to look for the following on the bottle to ensure you’re buying only high-quality essential oils:
- The plant name (the hard-to-pronounce Latin one, not the layman version). This is the only way to know that the oil is coming from the exact species of plant you want it to, says Galper.
- The origin or source. “Essential oils are agricultural products with natural variations that differ from place to place,” explains Villecco. Where the plant is grown can affect its aroma.
- A third party certification. There are multiple ones out there, but certifications like USDA organic can help you feel confident that you’re getting the real deal, points out Galper.