Essential Oils Explained: What Are They and Do They Work?

Essential Oils Explained: What Are They and Do They Work?

People have used different types of essential oils for thousands of years, dating back to the ancient Egyptians. In today's world, essential oils are at the center of a global business worth about $12 billion. 

What exactly are essential oils, and do they really work?

What Are Essential Oils?

The term "essential oils" is an umbrella term that covers a wide variety of highly concentrated, cold-pressed, or steam-distilled extracts from a plant. Any part of the plant — the seeds, roots, stem, flowers, leaves, and even fruit — can produce essential oils. 

Essential oils keep the flavor and natural scent of the plant that produced them, making their use popular in aromatherapy. Each essential oil is different, having its own unique chemical composition. This gives the oils their wide variety in their smell, rate of absorption, and their effects on the body. An essential oil's chemical composition can vary within the same plant species, or even from plant to plant. 

There are synthetic oils available, but these are not true essential oils. 

How Do Essential Oils Work?

People around the globe have used essential oils for centuries in aromatherapy, a popular therapeutic method. Aromatherapy is practiced by breathing in the scent or vapor of the essential oil from a bottle or a diffuser. The scent molecules dispersed by aromatherapy may trigger regions of the brain related to emotions, blood pressure, heart rate, and hormones.

Essential oils can be applied directly to the skin, where they are absorbed just like many common pharmaceuticals such as nicotine patches and hormone replacement therapy creams. However, most essential oils must be diluted beforehand, as they are too strong in their pure, concentrated form for safe topical application. 

Some essential oils can be taken orally in teas or as supplements, but this is not recommended. In fact, it is discouraged unless you are under close supervision of a healthcare provider. Even just a drop or two of a highly concentrated essential oil can cause gastric distress or even burn the lining of your mouth. 

Health Benefits of Essential Oils

Essential oils are not magic pills that can cure your aches and ills overnight. The scent molecules produced by diffusers or from smelling the open bottle, or even when oil is applied to the skin, are absorbed into the bloodstream. When taken under the care of a trained healthcare professional, essential oils can be a helpful addition to your medical routine.

Some of the general benefits you may garner from essential oil use:

  • Decreased stress and anxiety
  • Headache and migraine relief
  • Nausea relief
  • Relief of menstrual cramps
  • Improved sleep patterns
  • Antimicrobial effects
  • Soothes muscle pain

These are potentially positive benefits of essential oils. Is there a downside to using essential oils?

Risks of Essential Oils

Essential oils are like any other medicinal substance — if used improperly, side effects can occur, from something as simple as a minor skin rash to allergic reactions to life-threatening toxicity or poisoning. The safety of essential oils depends on several factors, including:

  • Your age
  • Medication and supplement use
  • Underlying health conditions

When considering the use of essential oils, be certain to note:

  • Chemical composition and purity
  • Recommended method of use
  • Recommended duration of use
  • Dosage

Always seek the advice of a healthcare professional before using essential oils if you are pregnant or suspect you may be or are breastfeeding. Also, do not administer to infants or children without the advice of your healthcare provider.

Popular Types of Essential Oils

Some of the more popular essential oils and their uses are listed here.


  • Relieves nausea
  • Increases energy
  • Antispasmodic
  • Relieves muscular aches and pains
  • Relieves and reduces migraines

Caution: Avoid use in children under 30 months of age


  • Calming, anxiety reduction
  • Wound healing, including burns
  • Antispasmodic
  • Reduces itchiness, soothes insect bites
  • Cell regenerative

Note: Great for children and in general skin care


  • Lifts your mood
  • Improve depressive symptoms when used with massage
  • May improve focus


  • Decongestant and expectorant
  • Beneficial for flu/cold season
  • Energizing
  • May help in clearing the mind

Caution: Do not apply to or near the face of infants or children under ten years of age


  • Anti-inflammatory
  • Antidepressant
  • Soothing to the nervous system


  • Helps nourish the emotions
  • Aphrodisiac
  • Relieves stress and anxiety
  • Relieves PMS
  • Cell regenerative

Known as the Queen of Essential Oils

Tea Tree

  • Antimicrobial
  • Antifungal
  • Antibacterial
  • Antiviral
  • Supports and enhances the immune system

How to Choose an Essential Oil

The quality of essential oils can vary widely. Suppliers of essential oils are found around the world. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates foods, drugs, food additives, dietary supplements, and cosmetics. The FDA considers essential oils to fall into two categories, either drugs or cosmetics, depending on how they are used. Decisions concerning the regulation of essential oils are made on a case-by-case basis. 

There are no specific standards for quality control of essential oils in the U.S. This makes it vitally important to do your homework when purchasing essential oils from a store, an individual, or from an internet source. Some important questions to ask before purchasing essential oils include: 

  • Does the seller provide the Latin name of the plant used to make the essential oil? This is important to make sure you're getting the correct essential oil. This matters because there are multiple species of plants, such as lavender.
  • Does the label include the name of the country where the plants were grown? This is important to aromatherapists because quality can vary between countries.
  • Is there a statement on purity? The label should state if the product is not 100% essential oil.
  • Does it smell as you expect it should? If not, the purchase isn't recommended. 
  • Is the cost comparable with other brands of the same essential oil? If it's dirt cheap, it probably isn't pure essential oil.
  • Is there a statement about organic growing or wild gathering? Most U.S. essential oils are not certified regarding their organic status.

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