Guide to Essential Oils: What They Are & How to Use Them

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Guide to Essential Oils

As concerns grow today about our health and wellness, the realization that the synthetic chemicals we are exposed to in our everyday environment can negatively impact us leads many to seek alternatives. We find these synthetic chemicals in our cleaning products, health and beauty products, and medications.

Essential oils are a natural way to address these concerns. It’s not surprising that the popularity and use of essential oils are growing. Here is a high-level guide to essential oils to help get you started or learn more about the many benefits, such as using essential oils for cleaning and personal care.

Guide to Essential Oils: What Are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are the aromatic natural compound of a plant that produces a specific scent that is extracted by distillation (either water, steam, or a combination of water and steam) or by the cold press (mechanical pressing).

Technically the oil that is extracted is the natural concentrated hydrophobic oil that produces the fragrance or essence of that plant. Any time you have smelled a flower or a fresh herb you have experienced an essential oil. These oils help the plant to attract pollinators as well as offer defense and protection against insects and animals.

Essential oils that are purchased are a highly-concentrated amount of that particular plant’s aromatic substance. For example, it takes 50-75 lemons to create one 15 ml bottle of lemon essential oil.

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Essential oils have been used over the years in aromatherapy, health care, beauty products, perfumes, and for enhancing food. You can buy essential oils individually or in blends with other compatible essential oils. This allows the user to use the individual essential oil for their sole benefits or to achieve multiple benefits and/or enhancements, based on what is wanted or needed. Essential oils do not typically feel oily, unless they have been diluted or purchased in a diluted form in a carrier oil, such as coconut oil.

How Should I Store Essential Oils?

Essential oils should be stored in dark, generally amber-colored, glass to protect the delicate nature of the essential oil from damaging ultraviolet light. Caps and lids should be sealed tightly to avoid essential oil evaporation and oxidation.

The bottles should be stored upright in dry, darker, cool spaces such as a closet that has a non-fluctuating temperature of around 72 degrees Fahrenheit. Sunlight and heat can alter the composition of the oil as well as the rate of evaporation which can reduce the potency and therapeutic benefits of the essential oil.

How Are Essential Oils Made?

There are a few ways to extract essential oils from various plants. Initially, all essential oils were produced by expression or cold-press, literally squeezing the oil out of the various plant material such as the seeds, peel, bark, flowers, berries, stems, leaves, roots, buds, needles, etc. While this method is still used today, primarily with citrus peels, most of the other essential oils are now obtained through three methods of distillation.

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In steam distillation, the most common way to extract the plant’s essential oil, pressure is used while steam passes through the plant material. The vapor then flows through a condenser and cools. The essential oil rises to the top, for most plant types, and water sinks below. There are a few essential oils that sink to the bottom and the water rises above. After the essential oil and water separate, the essential oil can be collected.

In water distillation, the plant material is soaked in water, boiled, and then the vapor is collected and separated to isolate the essential oil.

Another method is using water and steam around the plant material, then collecting the steam to cool and separate the water and essential oil.

The water that remains after the distillation process contains many of the plant benefits, just a lower concentration. This product is called a hydrosol or hydrolate and can be purchased from some essential oil brands. Hydrosols are not as potent as the essential oil that is collected, are gentle on the skin, safer for children, and do not need to be used with a carrier oil.

The heat, pressure amount, and length of time for distillation vary by plant type. Some can be as quick as a few hours, while others can be days! The cost of essential oil can be impacted by the resources needed to extract the essential oil, not just the cost to obtain the raw plant material.

Another form of essential oil extraction that can be used is CO2 Extraction. This is done by liquifying carbon dioxide (CO2) at a low temperature with pressure, which is then used as a solvent that is applied to the raw plant material to extract the essential oil. After the process, the CO2 is converted back to a gas by raising the temperature and what remains is the essential oil.

Some distillers of essential oils can take shortcuts in the process that greatly impact the therapeutic benefit that the essential oil can provide. Knowing the steps that an essential oil company takes to create its products will help you to know if what you are purchasing will provide the benefits you are trying to obtain.

Are Essential Oils Regulated?

Essential oils, unfortunately, are not subject to any specific US government certification. They are generally regarded as cosmetic products that, under the current laws, are not required to have U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval.

If an essential oil label or company claims that it will provide healing of a specific medical condition or specific medical symptom then they would fall into the drug category and would then be required to obtain FDA approval. This is why you will oftentimes see that essential oil will be listed as providing respiratory support or aid to the digestive system, versus outright addressing a medical disease or specific symptoms. Some essential oils have GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) status by the FDA to be used as a food additive for flavoring.

Obviously, not having US government certification specific to essential oil purity and quality can be concerning for a consumer. It can be challenging to know that the essential oil you are purchasing is indeed the essential oil you want and not synthetic or full of filler materials that can be toxic.

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What to Look for When Buying Essential Oils

There are a number of reputable essential oil companies, some are traditional retail businesses that sell their product directly to consumers and others utilize a multi-level marketing strategy. When marketing an essential oil as therapeutic grade there is no standard percentage of pure essential oil that must be met, so be sure to look at the ingredients that are listed on the essential oil bottle.

When purchasing an essential oil you should spend time learning about the brand or company that makes the essential oil. Look at information such as:

  • How do they source the raw plant material?
  • Is the raw plant material organic? If not organic, do they know or document whether the soil that the plants are being grown are free from pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizer (if these chemicals are on the raw plant material when distilled they will end up in the essential oil)?
  • Do they test their essential oils to ensure quality? Do they make the testing results available?
  • How often do they review their suppliers’ processes to ensure they maintain the quality level expected?
  • Do they distill in small batches or is it done on a large scale?
  • Do they distill the essential oil or is this outsourced?
  • Do they provide information on how to use essential oils safely? Especially regarding children; if you plan to use around, on, or near.
  • Do they provide access to the certified aromatherapists on staff with any essential oil questions?
  • Have they been in business for a number of years or do they seem somewhat unknown with little information and industry presence?
  • How does the price of the essential oil compare to others in the industry? Is it similar or much cheaper? Or more expensive?
    • If cheaper, is there a noticeable reason why? For example, is it diluted in a carrier oil or is the bottle size smaller? Otherwise, there might be some quality concerns.
    • If more expensive, what justifies the cost? Some brands own their own farms and this could cause the price to be higher.

It is important to keep in mind that essential oils are not perfume oils or fragrance oils, which can be extremely diluted or artificial and do not offer the same therapeutic and wellness benefits. When looking at the ingredients you should not see “fragrance” listed as this can be an undefined category of synthetic chemicals, which is counterproductive because reducing chemicals and toxins is often one of the primary benefits of using essential oils.

When purchasing essential oils, be sure that you not only see the common name listed, but also the botanical name (listed in Latin) on the bottle. Many plants have different species and the botanical name is the exact name for that species so you can identify the specific aroma and therapeutic benefits attributed to that specific plant. This is to ensure you know what you are purchasing and that you will receive the therapeutic benefits intended.

How Do You Use Essential Oils?

Essential oils can be used in a variety of ways to impact our physical, emotional, and mental wellness as well as for their medicinal properties, beauty, and overall wellness and balance. Using essential oils for cleaning is another fantastic way to use essential oils.

There are many DIY recipes for how to use essential oils in your daily routine to replace items that are not beneficial for your overall health and wellness. Essential oils can be used aromatically, internally, and topically. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for their essential oils on the bottle as well as on their website and marketing materials for specific guidance on how to use their essential oils.

Depending on where an essential oil might have been placed on the body during a topical application or if the essential oil was diffused or ingested, the essential oil can remain in the body for 12-24 hours. Start with a little and add to it as needed, to know how your body reacts to a specific essential oil. Therapeutic grade essential oils are potent. For example:

  • It can take 50-60 rose flowers to make one drop of rose essential oil.
  • It takes 75 square feet of lavender plants to make one 15 ml lavender essential oil bottle
  • It takes 1 pound of peppermint material to make one 15 ml peppermint essential oil bottle. One drop is equivalent to 28 cups of peppermint tea!

Take your time to learn about your body and how it reacts to a specific essential oil or essential oil blend. Keeping a guide to essential oils, like this one, on hand or bookmarked in your computer browser, can be helpful to refer back to when you have questions.

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Things to Consider When Using Essential Oils

Essential oils are amazing little products that can have a huge impact. However, no guide to essential oils would be complete without including information on things to consider and know before using.

Do Not Put Essential Oils in Eyes, Nose, Ears, or Genitals

Essential oils are not intended for membrane areas of the body or genitals due to the sensitivity in these body parts and the difficulty to remove the essential oil in these areas.

How to Remove Essential Oil if Skin Irritation Occurs

If you need to remove an essential oil due to skin irritation, use warm or cool water and soap to remove any of the excess essential oil from the skin. Then a carrier oil can be used to rub into the skin to help dilute the essential oil that has started to be absorbed as well as moisturize and soothe the irritated skin. The carrier oil that remains on the skin can be left to absorb into the skin or wiped away with a cloth or towel.

Do Not Use Essential Oils in Plastic

When using high-quality, therapeutic grade citrus essential oils (lemon, lime, grapefruit, blends with these essential oils) do not use in plastic as it can cause the plastic to breakdown and toxins to be leached into whatever it is you are using. Please note that there are certain plastics that will not have this issue, and are used to create diffusers and other essential oil-specific products. However, most plastic cups and storage containers do not use this higher-quality plastic.

They Can Cause Sensitivity to Sunlight

Also, with citrus essential oils and some others there can be some sunlight sensitivity or they can be phototoxic. It is recommended that you do not go directly into the sunlight for up to 12 hours after applying topically, depending on if and how it has been diluted.

Everyone Reacts Differently

Different oils work differently for different people due to variations in body chemistry and how our bodies metabolize the oil. When using a new oil for the first time, especially topically, you might want to test a drop or two on the inside of your arm to see how it feels and if any reaction occurs.

Repeated Use

Essential oils that are being used for a specific need, like addressing respiratory function during cold and flu season, will need to be reapplied while any symptoms persist. It is similar to traditional Western medicines that wear off after a few hours and an additional dose is needed.

Use Care and Caution When Using Essential Oil for Kids

With kids, depending on the age, you will want to use the essential oil with a carrier oil with a proper dilution rate to safely apply topically. The bottom or the top of the feet is one of the safer locations to apply the essential oil topically since the skin is less sensitive and avoids the risk of being rubbed into some of the more sensitive areas of the body, such as the eyes and can be covered with socks.

Not all essential oils are suitable for young children, be sure to do your research before using them. Some can cause skin irritation and sensitivity while others can potentially cause slow respiration in some children. Peppermint essential oil would be an example of essential oil that can potentially cause respiratory distress due to the menthol content, another would be eucalyptus essential oil and rosemary essential oil due to the 1,8-cineole content.

Keep essential oils away from children as you would supplements and medication.

Shelf Life

Most essential oils have antiviral, antimicrobial, antifungal, and antibacterial properties and do not contain water so they won’t grow yeast, mildew, or mold or become rancid. However, they can oxidize or evaporate which results in potential topical sensitivity as well as a reduction of potency, and full therapeutic benefit of the oil. Different essential oils vary in the speed of oxidation or evaporation, so shelf life can vary from 1-2 years for some and up to 6-8+ years for others.

Also, how the essential oil is stored will impact the shelf life. If an essential oil becomes a thicker consistency, looks cloudy, or begins to smell differently, specifically acidic, then oxidation may be occurring.

Diluting an essential oil in a carrier oil and how it is stored can also impact the rate of oxidation and evaporation. Oftentimes, carrier oils will go rancid before the essential oil would.

Will Essential Oils Work For Me?

Essential oils work for everyone and there are so many ways to use them on their own or to replace or enhance the products in your everyday life.

It should be known that a specific essential oil might not have the same results for each person who uses it. We’re all different and specific essential oils will impact each of us differently due to the ph of the body, rate of metabolism, state of health, etc.

If you are looking to address a specific concern and one essential oil does not work as well as you would like, you might need to try another 1-2 essential oils to find the best fit or use a combination of essential oils. This also means that it is possible for a negative reaction that others don’t typically experience. This is why you should start slowly with a drop or two, see how your body reacts, and increase as necessary.

If printing this Guide to Essential Oils, consider adding a page or using the back of one of the pages to track how much essential oil you use for something specific as well as your response to help you learn how to best use your essential oil for your body.

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What are the Benefits of Using Essential Oils

One of the benefits of using essential oils is that you are working with your body to help it naturally function at a higher level to achieve an overall state of wellness or to maintain wellness. We live in an environment where we are exposed to a multitude of chemicals, toxins, and free radicals as well as we live crazy, busy, and stressful lives.

Essential oils can be used for beauty, relaxation, emotional support, immune support, supporting various systems in the body to help with various symptoms, sleep, dealing with stress, and immune support. Also, it is great to use essential oils for cleaning to reduce the harmful toxic load on you and your family with traditional cleaners.

When we are able to create an environment with reduced chemicals and toxins we relieve stress on our body, and specifically our organs responsible to eliminate the chemicals and toxins.

Some of the easy ways to make this transition away from synthetic chemicals and toxins to a more natural approach:

  • Use essential oils to support body systems or skin-related issues instead of totally relying on medications and antibiotics to alleviate troublesome symptoms. I love this article about essential oils potentially becoming the “new antibiotics”. 
  • Clean with essential oils to naturally kill germs and bacteria instead of traditional household cleaners that can be harmful to your health. Here is a great overview of household cleaner health concerns on WebMD.
  • Use essential oils to make natural bug sprays with lemongrass essential oil and/or citronella essential oil.
  • Add essential oils to shampoo, soaps, lotions, etc., or make your own to receive the amazing beauty benefits of essential oils. Making your own products is a great way to reduce exposure to unnecessary synthetic chemicals.

Related: Can You Add Essential Oils to Laundry?

Final Thoughts on Guide to Essential Oils

Essential oils have many benefits that can be applied to so many areas of life. In this Guide to Essential Oils, we have shared what essential oils are and how to use them.

There are so many uses for essential oils from personal care to first aid to household items such as the laundry. Using essential oils for cleaning is another way that the strengths of these products can be tapped into on a daily basis. Now that you know more about essential oils you can start using them in many different ways.