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Caitlin Carlson

Updated: 03/25/2022

Distilled botanicals don’t just smell nice — they can have a powerful impact on your mood, skin and more.

It takes hundreds — sometimes thousands — of pounds of plant material to make a tiny amount of essential oil. And because of that, it’s potent stuff.

Using essential oils is “an art and a science that can affect physical, mental and spiritual changes in you and others,” says Michelle Gagnon, a bio-alchemist, consultant for THE WELL and founder of MKG Bio Alchemy and Bio Alchemy Olfactive. “I use essential oils in every aspect of my life — for my skin, body, and hair care products and as medicine, household products and natural perfume.”

Aside from potent and powerful, another "P" word is used to describe essential oils: Provoking. “From a Traditional Chinese Medicine standpoint, provoking can be good because it helps take things out of latency and move them out of the body,” says Amy Leigh Mercree, author of Essential Oils Handbook and The Mood Book. “In TCM theory, dormant or latent energy and emotions, for example, tie up our vital life force.”

While there are some studies to back up the effectiveness of certain oils for certain ailments (such as depression, sleep disturbances, and anxiety) we don’t yet have enough research to support the heaps of anecdotal evidence that exists touting the positive results.

However, the use of aromatic materials by various cultures around the world for thousands of years is a strong testament to their efficacy. Get acquainted yourself, but always consult a doctor before self-treating any serious conditions.

Essential Oils 101

Essential oils are volatile aromatic compounds that are extracted (usually by using steam, water, and heat) from various parts of plants — roots, bark, wood, leaves, grass, flowers, fruits, seeds or resin, Gagnon explains. “The vapor is then cooled in a condenser, which returns the essence to a liquid form. There's also a cold-press extraction method, which is commonly used for citrus essential oils."

Regardless of how they’re made, here’s how they work: “Scent is processed in the same part of the brain as memory and emotion,” says Gagnon. “It can conjure many feelings and images, and it can enhance and entice all of the senses.”

What's more, “the efficacy of an essential oil depends completely on its quality and wholesomeness,” says Gagnon, who travels around the world to source the materials she works with. “Many essential oils lack a sparkle and smell flat and dull and that can be an indicator to a seasoned nose.” A few tips: “I prefer organic just like I do for food,” says Mercree. In addition, Gagnon suggests looking for detailed information, such as botanical name, plant part and country of origin. Though there is no guarantee unless you are super familiar with the sourcing, these nuances can indicate a level of conscientiousness.

"Scent is processed in the same part of the brain as memory and emotion... it can conjure many feelings and enhances all of your senses."

How to Use Essential Oils

You can gently inhale them directly from the bottle or rub a few drops in your hands and then take a deep whiff, though using them “neat” (undiluted) can cause skin irritation, so just be careful. You can also emit them into the air through a diffuser, or add them to a carrier oil and apply to your skin. Here’s how the experts suggest putting them to use:

Inhalation: “I recommend inhalation for ailments pertaining to the mental and emotional space,” says Gagnon. Gently inhale from the bottle throughout the day, or add a few drops to a diffuser. You can even add a drop to your pillowcase at night.

Topical application: “This method allows your body to absorb the oil and for it to pass through your bloodstream and is an obvious application for skincare,” says Gagnon. “Topical application is also appropriate for treating isolated areas, pain, muscle aches and inflammation,” she says, noting that roll-on applications are convenient and easy for small areas of treatment.

Note: You should dilute essential oils in a carrier oil (Gagnon recommends using jojoba oil, coconut oil, sweet almond oil or apricot kernel oil) before applying topically. A general guideline is 10 to 15 drops essential oil per one ounce of carrier oil.

Scent Strategies

Below, aromatherapy advice for treating what ails you:

1 For warding off sickness:

To boost and to support your immune system, Gagnon suggests diffusing essences of oregano, thyme, cinnamon, clove, orange and lemon. Lavender and tea tree are also great for antibacterial purposes, adds Mercree: “If you're traveling, you can put a few drops of lavender essential oil on your hands, rub it in, and it'll help stop the spread of germs.” Again, just be careful when you are using essential oils undiluted, as they can cause an allergic reaction.

2 For better digestion:

You can use ginger or sweet orange topically as a digestive aid, says Mercree. The same with basil, chamomile and lemon, adds Gagnon, who suggests adding these scents to carrier oil and rubbing over the abdomen in a clockwise motion.

3 For clarity of mind and awareness

“We can use clary sage for clarity of mind,” says Mercree. Adds Gagnon: "Rosemary and laurel are neurotonics — great for focus, memory and awarenes — best used in the morning."

4 For sounder sleep:

Scent that encourage slumber per Gagnon, are marjoram, lavender, chamomile, sweet orange and valerian. You can put the essential oil in a diffuser and let it run through the night or use in the form of a body oil.

5 For more energy:

Energizing aromas include rosemary, laurel, lemongrass and citrus oils, says Gagnon, who likes to add a few drops to a morning shower or smell directly from the bottle.

6 For heartache:

“Rose essential oil has a lot of spiritual qualities and can help ease heartache,” says Mercree. Try adding a few drops in the bath.

7 For stress relief:

Welcome calming vibes with lavender, blue tansy, chamomile, vetiver, frankincense, bergamot and neroli. Ylang ylang is also a sedative, per Mercree, who adds that it’s thought to be an aphrodisiac as well. You can enhance a meditation practice with frankincense, sandalwood and rosewood, says Gagnon.

8 For skin tone and elasticity:

“Rose Otto (steam distilled), neroli, immortelle, geranium, sandalwood and myrrh work wonderfully on the skin,” says Gagnon. “I’ve used essential oils to treat wounds, burns, scars, stretch marks and to balance all types of skin and even to improve elasticity and cellular regeneration.”

Some Words of Caution

The potency of essential oils is why they have so many purported benefits, but it also means you need to use them carefully. Never ingest essential oils, even “food grade” oils, unless you’re working with a trained practitioner.

A few more cautionary notes: Some oils are dermal irritants and can cause redness and allergic reactions. “Citrus oils can increase photosensitivity, so you don't want to rub them all over your body and then go in the sun because you might promote hyper-pigmentation,” warns Mercree.