What are Essential Oils?

Someone holding a bush of lavender

Have you experimented with essential oils? They are everywhere these days, and the purported health benefits are seemingly endless. One of the more popular reasons to use them is to manage stress and promote a good night’s rest. Because our emotional and physical health are interconnected, if we are stressed, our bodies have a difficult time slowing down and relaxing, but it is vital to our overall health and wellness to take time for ourselves to slow down. By finding ways to relax, manage the stress that surrounds us, and create a healthy sleep regimen, we can improve our health. Before you dig into the world of essential oils, there are a few basics to know to use them safely and to avoid adverse reactions.

What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are extracted from the bark, roots, stems, and flowers of certain plants. Inhaling the scent of these oils can stimulate brain function and bring on the feelings of comfort and relaxation. If placed on specific acupressure points, essential oils have the increased effect of transmitting a message to a targeted area of the body. Essential oils, when used properly, can be very safe with minimal side effects.

How to Use Essential Oils

There are several ways to enjoy using essential oils, including diffusing, inhaling, topically, and some people are even using internally, which we don’t recommend. Each method has pros and cons, so learning a bit about each can help you to use them safely.

Diffuse them

in your home, you can purchase a diffuser that keeps the scent pumping into the room you use it in. You can use a single scent or combine oils for a customized blend. Many require combining water with the oil before diffusing, and they do vary with how concentrated the output is. The scent won’t be as strong as inhaling directly or using topically, but can last quite a while.

Inhale them

Just what it sounds like – taking a whiff of the oil directly or soaking a cotton ball to sniff. Often, people will choose an oil to inhale based on the desired therapeutic benefit. For example, instead of defaulting to caffeine and sugar for that afternoon pick-me-up, try sniffing peppermint oil. It is stimulating and can act to wake you up if you’re sluggish, whereas lavender is considered calming and may be a good one to use before bed or to help de-stress.

Topical use

Most experts recommend diluting the oil before applying to your skin, however. This is typically done with what is called a “carrier oil,” such as jojoba oil, coconut oil, almond oil, and others. This is due to the highly concentrated nature of oils and reports of skin reactions ranging from rashes to burn-like or allergic reactions. Take those directions seriously when it is advised to dilute before applying to skin!

Safety Concerns of Essential Oils

  • Consider the age of user – Infants, toddlers, and children are more sensitive and certain oils should not be used with kids.
  • Skin integrity is important – It can be dangerous to put oils on damaged, inflamed skin, which may absorb more oil and skin tissue can be further compromised.
  • Dose is key – Excessive use of oils can have negative effects including irritation or worse.
  • Know your oils – Some can cause photosensitivity (extra sensitivity to sun exposure), increasing the  risk of sunburn.
  • Most experts recommend caution when using oils during pregnancy, especially during the first trimester.
  • Oils are flammable! Keep away from direct contact with flames.
  • Keep oils out of eyes.
  • Store oils where kids and pets won’t have access to them.

People who have chemical (perfume) sensitivities don’t react the same to essential oils, response can vary. Working with a trained aromatherapist is your best bet to use oils safely and help you avoid potential pitfalls. Kelsey Lauer RN, BSN, HNB-BC, who is trained in Aromatherapy for Stress and Pain Management, can help you with your essential oil questions!

For additional safety information please visit the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.

NAHA: Safety Information
Essential Oil Basics