Although the use of aromatherapy essential oils isn’t new, it has definitely gained a wild fanfare in recent years. More and more people are using essential oils in place of artificial fragrances in the home and on their bodies, for culinary purposes, and for health and healing. The more we use essential oils, the more we fall in love, and it’s hard to remember a time when aromatherapy was an unfamiliar term.
Everyone has to start somewhere, though – few of us were born into families who already used aromatherapy regularly. If you are just starting out and find yourself a bit lost in the jargon, recipes, and excitement, don’t worry. You aren’t alone. Let’s take a little bit of time here and catch you up to speed.
Table of Contents:
- Our Favorite Aromatherapy Blends
- What are Essential Oils?
- History of Aromatherapy
- Herbal Oils vs. Essential Oils
- How Aromatherapy Works
- Putting Oils in the Context of the Plant
- How Essential Oils are Used
- Conversions and Dilution of Essential Oils
- 3 Ways to Use Essential Oils (Inhalation, Topical, Ingestion)
- Beginners Guide to Aromatherapy
- 5 Steps to Getting Started with Essential Oils
Our Favorite Aromatherapy Blends
I’m not sure about you, but my wife and I utilize essential oils all day long. It enhances our mood, health and virtually every aspect of our lives! We have an essential oil diffuser in nearly every room in our home, and once we gave all those toxic plug-ins and aerosols the boot, we started to notice some pretty cool changes in our health and the health of our children.
These are our favorite blends:
- Good Bye Allergy Blend – Lavender, lemon, and peppermint
- Healthy Digestion Blend – Anise, caraway, fennel, ginger, lemon, tarragon
- Focus Blend – Cedarwood, frankincense, sandalwood and vetiver
- Christmas Blend – Fir (Balsam, Douglas, white), peppermint and vanilla absolute
- Holy Anointing Blend – cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh (cinnamon is a hot oil when used topically. Always dilute it appropriately or use in a diffuser instead of topical blend.)
- Immune Boosting Blend – Cinnamon, clove, eucalyptus, rosemary, orange and lemon
- Joyful Blend – Orange, lemon, bergamot, grapefruit and vanilla absolute
- Deep Breathing Blend – Cardamom, eucalyptus, lemon, peppermint, rosemary, tea tree
- Sleepy Time Blend – Roman chamomile, lavender, and vetiver
At this point, you may be asking, “How can these aromatherapy blends make a difference in my life?”
Well, it’s all about the healing power of essential oils…
What are Essential Oils?
“And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22:2)
I can think of no other substance on earth that epitomizes this Bible verse than essential oils.
The very first questions a newbie should ask – what is aromatherapy, and what is an essential oil? You might associate aromatherapy with massage therapists and thick massage oil. Or perhaps you picture heavy patchouli incense and a Volkswagen van. Or the base, middle, and high notes of a perfumery’s concoctions.
All of these can be accurate associations with aromatherapy – while at the same time, each of them may or may not be using essential oils.
The term essential oil doesn’t refer to how much we need it (though many of us argue that they are pretty vital parts of our daily lives!). In fact, the original scientific term for these oils is volatile oil, which paints a much better picture of what we’re referring to.
The volatile oil – or essential oil – of a plant is the part that releases quickly from the plant and into the air. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes the naming rationale:
Essential oil, highly volatile substance isolated by a physical process from an odoriferous plant of a single botanical species…Such oils were called essential because they were thought to represent the very essence of odor and flavor. (1)
The essential oil is why you smell a rose when you lean down and sniff the blooms. It releases as you walk through the garden and shake up the plants. How many plants can you identify by their scent alone? The scientists who had the privilege of naming this chemical component could think of plenty, as well, and thus believed the oils to be “essential” to the plant as much as it was volatile (quickly released).
We now know that essential oils are more prevalent in some plants than others, and can be found in roots, stems, leaves, and blossoms alike. They aren’t necessarily an essential part of the plant – in fact, we don’t always know the function the volatile oil serves, and it can very from plant to plant. But we do know that essential oils are complex, with broad therapeutic actions that vary based on their composition.
Ultimately, the essential oil of a plant is a component of the plant itself, filled with vast amounts of molecules specific to that plant’s needs and uses. This is important to remember, because chemical composition (phytochemistry, the chemistry of plants), tells us how we can best use a substance.
History of Aromatherapy
More recently, essential oils have been used under the guise of the aromatherapy profession, although we have records of people using them as far as thousands of years ago. Did they have essential oils like we know them today? Of course not! Modern distillation procedures are relatively new in relation to the Earth timetable. However, Nicander (b.c. 183—135), a Greek poet and physician for example, “Spoke of the extraction of perfumes from plants by what we should now call a process of distillation” and we have other ancient accounts of crude methods to extract the precious oil from plants. (4)
The term aromatherapy is relatively new in our history, coined by a French chemist named Rene-Maurice Gattefosse in the 1930s. His work ultimately led to the modern understanding of essential oils as therapeutic for health and healing benefits. (2)
This shift toward isolating and emphasizing the use of essential oils as a separate and concentrated compound with the goal of therapeutic results has shaped what we know about essential oils today. It gave us the vials of pure essential oils, separate from the other compounds they shared space with in the larger composition of a plant. But it wasn’t the first time essential oils were recognized for their healing abilities.
Because essential oils are part of herbs – the aromatic compound that hits your nose right away – they can be part of herbal preparations. The practice of using herbs as medicine dates back to the beginning of human history, and since we have always had noses, the fragrant component of those herbs did not go unnoticed.
Most civilizations utilized fragrant herbs for medicine and rituals, and oil extractions were commonly used to separate the fragrance and medicinal benefits from the bulkier material of the rest of the plant. Many of the oils used in this way were rich in essential oils that we continue to use to this day – myrrh, cinnamon, frankincense, cassia – prized for their fragrances and traded vigorously throughout the ancient world and into the development of the Western world we know today. (3)
The ‘spices’ were burned, infused into carrier oils, and even crudely distilled. This crude distillation produced something similar to what we now call hydrosols, which contain minute amounts of the essential oil from the distillation process.
Today, thanks to pioneers such as Gattefosse, we really do have essential oil extraction down to a science, and we’re learning more all the time.
Herbal Oils vs. Essential Oils
There is no doubt that the ancients realized the fragrance was something more than just pleasant. Such was the confidence in the therapeutic power of aromas that, at one point, the entire prevailing theory of disease centered around bad and good smells! (5)
So when we talk about essential oils being used from ancient times – for example, in the Bible, when fragrant offerings were commanded and incense was to be burned – it’s true in that the essential oils were present and utilizing the fragrance was the intended result.
Where ancient and modern use differs, however, is that we are now able to isolate the essential oil – not simply include it, but use it exclusively. An herbal oil is herbal matter infused with an oil such as olive, so that it contains the essential oil (albeit in very small amounts) alongside many other compounds from the plant. There are fewer compounds, obviously, since the plant matter is strained away and discarded, but there are still many, creating a highly usable oil infused with a range of medicinal properties.
The essential oils as we know them, on the other hand, take the small amount of volatile oil from part of a plant and concentrate it so that it’s the only product of the plant remaining. This is usually accomplished using steam distillation to release the droplets and then catch them. Because it’s an “extraction” of a very small facet of a plant, it takes large volumes of each plant to create even a 5ml bottle of essential oil.
It comes down to this: for herbed oils, the oil is now medicinally stronger than it was before, but the herbal matter is more varied and less concentrated than an essential oil.
For essential oils, the oil is concentrated and specific in use, condensed from large amounts of herbal matter that have been isolated for a single component, therefore compressed into much, much smaller volumes of oil.
To break it down further, the herbal oil can contain the essential oil but not vice versa.
How Aromatherapy Works
Let’s put this into practical terms. Cinnamon, for example, is a delicious spice. The cinnamon that you sprinkle onto toast is essentially ground-up bark and is the culmination of a combination of many chemical components – yes, including essential oils.
In cinnamon sticks or ground cinnamon, the oils are dispersed amongst the other components, giving you a wide range of substances to stir into tea or add to Christmas pie.
Now, to make cinnamon essential oil, that same bark would be placed through a distillation process, releasing and separating the essential oil. Great amounts of bark would be used in the process, and precious vials of aromatherapy essential oil would be the result.
Same bark, same plant. But would you shake your cinnamon essential oil bottle all over your morning toast, just like you did with the powder?
Putting Oils in Context of the Plant
When the essential oil – whatever is left after processing, packaging, and then your cooking methods – is part of the whole product, it is in such small and dispersed amounts that it’s only a small contribution to the whole. You’re enjoying powdered cinnamon for the combination of molecules that create texture, flavor, and varied benefits.
When you use an essential oil, you should use it for the very specific benefits that those specific molecules can provide. In the case of cinnamon bark, it’s pretty potent as an antibacterial, moreso than a dessert seasoning. (6)
And while it still does taste great and could be used with proper care in a culinary setting (we’ll get to that in a minute), it’s also a dermal irritant. In other words, it could really hurt your skin or the tender lining of your mouth and throat if you were to use it just like cinnamon sticks or powder.
To throw another wrench in the works, the essential oil gathered from the bark won’t have the same components as that of the essential oil taken from leaves. And it will vary between varieties of the same plant species, growing methods, seasons, and even the way it’s harvested. These are volatile oils, remember? They are pretty delicate in their composition and will adapt based on their conditions and use to the plant.
Pretty powerful stuff! The progress that we have made since Aromatherapie was first written allows us to choose essential oils for specific uses based on what we know of their composition. Rather than burning whatever smells good and hoping it chases away disease, we can combine the art and science of aromatherapy to be intentional and effective in our use.
How Essential Oils are Used
The term aromatherapy was coined to combine aroma and therapy, indicating therapeutic benefits using fragrance. This is still the heart of aromatherapy, but essential oil use has expanded in many ways and toward many uses. The main categories of use are (7):
Not only is inhalation the oldest form of aromatherapy essential oil use, it is also arguably the safest. Oils diffused throughout a room are relatively safe for most people in most cases due to the low level of concentration when used correctly.
More direct effects can be obtained by breathing in a steam directly or inhaling right from the bottle, or from a few drops on a cloth. This carries the volatile oil directly into your respiratory system and mucous membranes, diffused throughout the steam or air molecules.
Topical use is a step further than traditional inhalation-based aromatherapy, though still familiar in the context of massage therapy, which often utilizes aromatherapy for massage applications.
Instead of the broad diffusion through air droplets that inhalation provides, topical use of essential oils is much more direct. But at the same time, the oil is absorbed through the barrier layers of skin, while inhalation moves quickly through the thinner mucous membranes. Knowing your oil and the goal you have in mind can help you determine which application is more appropriate.
In theory and in professional practice, some essential oils can be used on the skin undiluted. However, the safest application is via dilution. Carrier oils like olive, coconut, jojoba and avocado oils usually have benefits of their own, and you can easily combine a couple of drops in a teaspoon to dilute the oils and help bypass potential irritation.
Finally, and most controversially, some oils are safe for ingestion. The most basic form of ingestion is in culinary use. Revisiting cinnamon, you could use cinnamon essential oil in a cake batter, but you’d only need one drop for the whole batch vs. a tsp. or more of the bark powder.
Another common internal preparation is to combine it into a drink. Do remember that oil and water do not mix, so simply adding a drop to water will leave that drop undiluted. Some oils are irritants and all oils are very strong, so it’s best to be safe and dilute it into some coconut oil first.
Many aromatherapists believe essential oils are never to be ingested, and most will suggest only trained professionals utilize internal methods. Again, it’s better to be safe, and for someone just starting out, this is excellent advice to consider. Additionally, when you are dealing with a specific medical condition, it makes sense to talk to your health care provider about ingestion and dosages.
Conversions and Dilution of Essential Oils
Dropper sizes vary and volume varies based on oil, so advanced techniques would include more specific measuring techniques. Most bottles that I’ve seen contain either 5 ml or 15 ml of oil, which would be 100 drops or 300 drops, respectively. For you math enthusiasts out there, this is how the conversions all pan out:
- 1/8 oz. = 3.75 ml
- 1/4 oz. = 7.5 ml
- 1/2 oz. = 15 ml.
- 1 oz. = 30 ml
- 4 oz. = 120 ml
- 8 oz. = 237 ml
- 16 oz. = 473 ml
The final conversion typically looks like this:
- 1/8 oz. = 75 drops
- 1/4 oz. = 150 drops
- 1/2 oz. = 300 drops
- 1 oz. = 600 drops
Using these conversions:
- 1% dilution: 6 drops of EO per oz of carrier oil (1% of 600 drops is 6)
- 2% dilution: 12 drops of EO per oz of carrier oil (2% of 600 drops is 12)
- 3% dilution: 18 drops of EO per oz of carrier oil (3% of 600 drops is 18)
If working with tablespoons are more comfortable for you, 1 oz. = 2 tablespoons. So, there are 300 drops of EO in a tablespoon.
- 1% dilution: 3 drops of EO per tablespoon of carrier oil (1% of 300 drops is 3)
- 2% dilution: 6 drops of EO per tablespoon of carrier oil (2% of 300 drops is 6)
- 3% dilution: 9 drops of EO per tablespoon of carrier oil (3% of 300 drops is 9)
If working with grams, 1 drop of essential oil = 0.02 to 0.03 grams approximately (depending on your dropper), which converts to 20-30 milligrams or 20000 micrograms (µg).
So 30 mg is about 1 drop.
3 Ways to Use Essential Oils
Within the major types of aromatherapy essential oil use, there are many ways to actually apply them. These suggestions and guidelines can get you rolling, but once you are familiar with your oils and their safe use, you can really start to think outside of the box.
For inhaled oils, you only need a small amount to create a big impact. Diffusers will use a bit more, but direct inhalation is up close and personal and only requires a couple of drops. Here are some of the methods you might use to inhale essential oils.
- Diffusion – Good for blends intended to affect the entire room. Place as few as 2-3 and as many as 6-10 total drops in the diffuser or in a pot of simmering water and let it disperse throughout the room. The benefits should be lasting after the diffusion has ended; there is no need to run it continuously. Ideal for essential oils that are energizing, antimicrobial, promoting memory and focus, relaxing. Ex: citrus, lavender, rosemary.
- Personal inhalation – Good for portable, direct inhalation for specific benefits to an individual. Fewer drops are needed due to the close proximity of use. Up to 20 drops of an essential oil blend can be used in a commercially made personal diffuser. Or consider jewelry style inhalers such as a piece of porous jewelry, a piece of cloth or handkerchief, or inhalers made of a wick of sorts placed in a glass tube. Place 1-2 drops of a single oil or a pre-prepared blend of oils on the jewelry inhaler, then hold it close to the nose and breathe in periodically. Ideal for personal benefit such as clear breathing, focus, anxiety, headaches, and stress relief. Ex: eucalyptus, bergamot, peppermint.
- Steam inhalation – Technically also personal inhalation, “tenting” is more intensive and not very portable. When the essential oils need to be inhaled in greater concentration and affect the respiratory system more directly, 2-3 drops of a single oil or pre-prepared blend can be placed in a bowl of boiling water – usually warmed in and poured from a tea kettle. Place a towel over your head and drape it over the bowl (forming a tent, of sorts), close your eyes, and breathe deeply. Avoid the more hot oils that would irritate mucous membranes. Ideal for clearing the nasal passages and respiratory system. Ex: eucalyptus, citrus, tea tree.
- Sprays – Aromatic sprays have benefits of both inhalation and, in the case of antimicrobial oils, surface cleaning benefits. Combine 10-20 drops of a combination of oils to ½ oz 190 proof grain alcohol or the 91% isopropryl you can find in the store , then add ½ oz distilled water and shake to combine. Spritz in the air, on linens, or on clothes as desired. Ideal for air freshening, cleaning, antimicrobial purposes, body sprays, and even topical anti-inflammatory benefits and healing. Ex: tea tree, lemon, thyme.
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Essential oils placed directly on the skin are able to sink in through the pores and then move through the body, creating both topical benefits as well as systemic. While there is a time and a place for neat application, the smart way to apply oils topically is to first dilute them. Carrier oils are non-volatile oils and are not irritants, so essential oils can be blended into them first and then the mixture applied.
Popular carrier oils include: coconut, olive, almond, jojoba, avocado, apricot, and sunflower. Most carrier oils have benefits of their own that can be explored to create even more beneficial blends.
Topical application can be direct in a small area such as for scar healing or broader such as for a massage oil. The important variables here are the dilution rates you choose:
- 0.5% dilution – Strong oils, application on children, and oils that you are testing for sensitization. The heavy dilution allows for greater distribution throughout the application and less per dose. Ideal for irritating oils, children, and those who are highly sensitive. Ex: cinnamon, eucalyptus, peppermint.
- 1% dilution – Even adults who tolerate oils well will still find some oils too strong for normal applications. A 1% dilution rate protects your skin while still enjoying the benefit of the more powerful essential oils or use on sensitive areas of the skin. Ideal for facial applications, and treatment of delicate skin. Ex: tea tree for acne, frankincense in a facial toner, etc.
- 2-3% dilution – This is the most common dilution range, suitable for massage oils, healing treatments, lotions and creams, and cosmetic applications. It is enough to gain significant benefits of the essential oil without risking sensitization. Unless the oil is particularly potent or you have sensitive skin, this is likely to be the dilution you’ll use. Ideal for most applications – lotions, creams, salves, balms. Ex: geranium, helichrysum, chamomile.
- 5%+ dilution – Higher concentrations should be used with care. Or, extremely safe oils can be used in small amounts on tiny areas of the skin – for example, as a strong acne treatment. Know your oil’s safety profile and choose high concentrations with caution. Ideal for specific situations based on either extreme safety and high potency in a targeted area OR further dilution beyond the initial formula. Ex: lavender, sweet orange, tea tree.
Typically reserved for culinary oils or for use by trained aromatherapy professionals, ingestion is used when there is a need for specific dosing or certain areas of the body need to be reached that cannot easily be affected by other application methods. Dosage is important, as does education before use. Some of the more common ways ingestion is used are highlighted here.
- Excellent for digestive oils or simply to enjoy the flavorful concentration, 1-2 drops can be mixed thoroughly into a lipid or syrup portion of the recipe and then added to the rest of the batch. Ideal for oils that benefit digestive wellness, essential oils of culinary herbs, and oils of culinary spices. Ex: dill, sweet orange, cinnamon.
- Dispersing an oil into a glass of water is the quickest way to ingest it, but do not miss the importance of both dosage and dilution. One drop is more than sufficient, and remember that oil and water do not mix! Without dilution or dispersion, the drop is likely to make direct contact with sensitive internal organs. You can use a dispersing agent like Solubol for essential oils taken in water, or you can quickly mix a drop into a teaspoon of honey and take the spoonful.Ideal for quick and simple use, especially for digestive wellness. Ex: chamomile, ginger, lavender.
- A truly medicinal application, encapsulated oils are used to get the oil directly to the stomach, or – in the case of enteric-coated capsules – to the intestines. This is used when the oil is to be consumed regularly and when the individual struggles with the taste of it in other forms. Dilute the essential oil into a carrier before making the capsules, or purchase encapsulated oil blends already made. Ideal for professional guidance, digestive health, and oils that need to make it directly to the intestines. Ex: peppermint, lavender, lemon.
Beginners Guide to Aromatherapy
So now that you know what an essential oil is to a plant, how to differentiate between an herbal oil and an essential oil, how the ancients used oils and how that has evolved over time to the modern science of aromatherapy – are you hooked yet?!
Aromatherapy is absolutely incredible. Plants are literally throwing these substances at us (Really! Pay attention the next time you walk past a lavender shrub). And then chemists can isolate those substances and analyze their very molecules. And THEN we can begin to study how these things impact our health? Amazing. If you aren’t hooked yet, you will be once you get started.
5 Steps to Get Started with Essential Oils
- The best place to begin with aromatherapy is with familiar scents that are personal favorites. Lavender is both a familiar scent and a versatile and safe essential oil. The citrus oils are also easy to use on their own or in blends. Choose a few, and then learn all you can about them.
- Next, locate a source and make your purchase. Remember that it takes large amounts of plant matter to make small amounts of oil, so a cheap bottle of a precious oil is not likely to be high quality. You want real essential oils – nothing synthetic – and always pure, especially if you are going to learn to safely ingest them.
- Once you have a few oils ready to go, start by diffusing them on their own, and then in combinations of a couple of drops of two or three of them at a time. You can buy a diffuser, or you can simply simmer a pot of water on the stove and add your drops there.
- When you are familiar and comfortable with the scents, you will start to learn what blends you like. As you learn more about their effects, you can begin to create blends for specific reasons, like energizing your sluggish afternoon or clearing the air after a virus passed through the house.
- From there, you can begin to experiment with diluted topical applications, like a soothing peppermint rub or a calming massage.
The important thing is to always be learning – never stop learning! The more we learn and grow, the better we can utilize these precious, truly essential oils.