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24 November 2022 / Laura Garvin Gomez

What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils seem to be dominating the sphere of health, wellness, and self-care - but what actually are they?

Close up of a dropper bottle with a drop coming out

Whether its in passing at a spa or as part of your daily wellness routine, its likely we've all come across essential oils at one point or another.

Essential oils have blossomed in popularity in recent years - feeding into major wellness industries including cosmetic goods, massage services, cleaning products and even hospital care.

This is largely due to the vast amount of benefits they can provide across different areas of the mind and body - helping to facilitate overall wellbeing as well as creating a peaceful and grounding atmosphere.

While aromatherapy itself has been around for centuries, many people still struggle to understand its fundamental roots, as well as how and why essential oils are so important beyond just their pleasant scent.

We'll be touching on all the amazing things that essential oils can do, as well as how they work, what their benefits are, and how to use them in your day-to-day life.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are natural compounds, or "essences" extracted from plants and fruits.

They can be drawn from various regions of the botanical - including its flowers, bark, seeds, and even resins - and each one contains its own unique set of characteristics as a result.

The compounds and essences that create essential oils are naturally produced within the plant's ecosystem, and generally function as a way to attract pollinators, deter other plant species, and repel predators.

How are essential oils extracted?

The process of extraction used to obtain these essential oils is designed to capture the scent, flavour, and function of the botanical, and can be done in a number of ways in order to bottle the best versions of the plant.

Some methods of essential oil extraction include:

  • Steam distillation
  • Cold pressing
  • Solvent extraction
  1. Steam distillation: The most common of these methods; using steam and cold water to separate the oil from its botanical.
  2. Cold pressing: Widely utilised for citrus essential oils in particular, whereby the peel of the fruit is punctured and the essence collected. This is generally conducted as a by-product of the juice making industry.
  3. Solvent extraction: The least customary of the three, and is mainly implemented for delicate or resinous oils like benzoin that harden too quickly under cooler temperatures.

Learn more about how essential oils are made.

How do essential oils work?

Employed mostly for their benefits in aromatherapy, essential oils can be inherited for different purposes depending on their characteristics.

Inhalation using a diffuser or oil burner is the most popular way to experience an essential oil, as it is the most open channel for your body to interact with and therefore creates the largest number of benefits overall.

Inhaling essential oils can help stimulate regions of the mind - including the hippocampus and limbic systems - to create a sense of calm, emotional balance, and enhanced focus.

The limbic system is also responsible for scent memory, so may explain why certain aromas draw the mind back to certain nostalgic events.

Essential oils can also be diluted with carrier oils and applied to the skin, allowing the natural compounds to soak into the body and target specific physical ailments.

Hand holding up clary sage 50ml against a clear bright blue sky

Can essential oils be taken internally?

Though some sources consider it safe to do so, essential oils should never be taken internally. Doing so can cause irreparable damage to the internal organs as essential oils are far too powerful when undiluted.

What are the different types of essential oils and their uses?

Essential oils come from such a wide variety of botanical sources that it can be hard pinpoint the best ones for you without proper guidance.

At a basic level, essential oils can be categorised through the following scent profiles:

Each of these oil categories can have generalised benefits to them - like citrus oils being good for energy, for instance - but overall are only really an indicator of scent in your chosen essential oil.

A better way to go about choosing your oils would be through function. Essential oils carry a number of popular applications including, but not limited to:

Essential oils like that work extremely well for sleep, will not necessary target a stubborn cough in the same way as would.

Selection of three essential oils; eucalyptus, lavender and tea tree laid out on a palm

What are the most popular essential oils?

Some of the most popular essential oils for day-to-day use are:

This list of essential oils and what they are used for primarily targets oils that are considered to have objectively pleasant scents as well as enhanced benefits, but feel free to explore more essential oil types that may be a better fit for you.

Find out more about the top 10 best essential oils.

What are the benefits of essential oils?

Each essential oil will have its own list of unique and impactful benefits for the mind, body, and spirit.

That being said, there are some benefits that are used to describe the appeal of aromatherapy and essential oils in general. These benefits include:

  • Boosting mood
  • Improving sleep
  • Killing bacteria, funguses, and viruses
  • Reducing inflammation
  • Improving job performance (through stress relief and increased alertness)
  • Reducing nausea
  • Lowering anxiety levels
  • Reliving pain

Dropper bottle upside down with a drop coming out of it

Popular essential oils and their benefits

1. Lavender oil

Lavender oil is by far the most popular essential oil in wellness circles, and is even coined as "the mother of aromatherapy" due to its versatile, and extremely potent, effects.

Lavender is best known for reducing anxiety and stress levels as well as facilitating a better night's sleep. It's also used extensively for pain relief and can even assist in the healing of first-degree burns.

Learn more about the benefits of lavender essential oil.

2. Lemon oil

Lemon oil is also highly versatile, but is perhaps most famous for its antibacterial effects. These properties make the oil a popular choice for use in homemade cleaners and for tackling airborne contaminants.

Lemon essential oil is also popular for promoting feelings of positivity as well as easing nausea and reducing pain.

Learn more about the benefits of lemon essential oil.

3. Tea tree oil

Nicknamed the "medicine cabinet in a bottle", tea tree oil is best used as an antiseptic, antibacterial, and antifungal remedy.

Because of these effects, tea tree can be used to tackle common skin conditions like acne, athlete's foot, and ringworm once diluted with a carrier oil. It's also great for improving respiratory health.

Learn more about the benefits of tea tree essential oil.

4. Eucalyptus oil

Sharp and refreshing, eucalyptus oil has earned its spot in aromatherapy circles as an effective reliever against cold and flu symptoms.

In particular, eucalyptus oil has been proven to open up the airways and facilitate better breathing when suffering from blocked-up sinuses. It is also known for relieving pain and reducing inflammation in the body.

Learn more about the benefits of eucalyptus essential oil.

5. Rosemary oil

Rosemary oil has sky-rocketed in popularity due to its extremely powerful properties for hair growth. Applying diluted rosemary oil to your hair can help create thicker, longer, and healthier locks with frequent use.

It's also well-known for improving brain function, including an increase in memory levels.

Learn more about the benefits of rosemary essential oil.

50ml of orange essential oil being held in front of a orange patterned background

How to choose the right essential oils

When choosing essential oils, always pick ones that are 100% pure and free of additives or synthetic compounds.

As essential oils are not regulated, many companies will claim to have pure oils when they actually don't. Here are some good identifiers to look out for when choosing yours:

  • Purity: Find oils that only contain the plant's naturally occurring compounds. Pure oils will usually list the botanical name of the oil instead of just "lavender oil".
  • Quality: Essential oils that are steam distilled or cold-pressed will have the best quality. These processes do not use chemicals and will produce the least amount of changes in the final product.
  • Reputation: make sure you're choosing a brand that is well-respected by its customers for producing high-quality essential oils.

How to use essential oils

Once you've chosen the best set of oils for you, it's time to figure out how to apply them in your daily routine.

  • Diffusion: Diffusing essential oils with an electric diffuser or oil burner is an impactful way to experience both their scent and their mind-balancing characteristics. If you're feeling stressed, mentally fatigued, or physically blocked, this may be the best choice for you. The scent of an essential oil can also be appreciated within candles and soaps, so don't be afraid to add a few drops to your next crafting project.
  • Massage: Using a carrier oil to dilute them, essential oils can be absorbed into the skin to help target pain, ease tense muscles, and provide a calming atmosphere. This is a great option if you're someone who struggles from sore points in the body, or if you're looking to create your own at-home spa experience using essential oils.
  • Skincare and haircare: Certain essential oils like and work very well in cosmetic applications. They can be used to tighten pores and brighten complexions as well as promote hair growth and scalp health. Try diluting a skin-benefitting oil and using it as a daily cleanser, or adding a few drops of hair-boosting oil into your shampoo to stimulate hair growth over time.
  • Cleaning sprays & bug sprays: Essential oils can sometimes contain antimicrobial properties that make them extremely proficient for cleaning the home. If you're looking for an all-natural cleaning agent, or want to give your surfaces an impactful top-up, try combining some useful essential oils with water and an emulsifier in a spray bottle. This same technique works well if you're looking to get rid of unwanted pests, as certain essential oils are known to deter insects as well as protect against carried diseases.
  • Candle & soap making: Wanting to go beyond the bottle to enjoy your favourite essential oils? Try using them to craft your own homemade soaps, candles, wax melts, and more. Their natural benefits and attractive aromas provide an all-natural alternative to commercial products, and can be useful for gifting out to friends and family.

Black and white illustration of a leaf

More scientific research is constantly being conducted on what makes essential oils so naturally powerful, and while they may only seem like an accessory to a good-smelling home, they can provide a much greater impact when utilised in the correct way.

Don't be afraid to try blending essential oils, or stick to the classic, to find the best one for you and your wellness journey.

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