For thousands of years essential oils have been used as an ingredient in perfume, cosmetics and drugs as well as for hygienic, therapeutic, spiritual and ritualistic purposes — even cooking (1). What exactly are essential oils? They are concentrated, fragrant extracts from plants and move quickly through the air, which makes them ideal for aromatherapy (1). Different oils can be used for different reasons. For example, lavender is known for calming, while lemon is great for an energy boost. Here are some of the many applications and varieties of essential oils.

AromatherapyThe University of Maryland Medical Center defines aromatherapy as the use of essential oils from plants for healing. These healing properties of oils were discovered in the 1920s by a French chemist who used lavender oil to treat a burn on his hand. Following this discovery, oils were used to treat burns and wounds in soldiers during World War I. Just 30 years later, they were being widely adopted by massage therapists, beauticians, nurses, doctors and other healthcare providers (1). Aromatherapy and oils became popular in the United States in the ‘80s and are a growing trend among consumers (2).

Inhalation.A few methods exist for inhaling essential oils. One way is to use a diffuser so the oil evaporates using either water or heat.

Another method of evaporation is to apply a few drops of oil to a cotton ball (or similar substance) and allow it to evaporate into the air. Using steam and a bowl is another common option: add drops to a steaming bowl of water and place a towel over your head, then breathe deeply. It’s important to keep eyes closed and not use more than 1-2 drops with this method. Doing this with eucalyptus oil is considered helpful for upper respiratory or sinus infections (3). Oils can also be used in a spray form. Fill a spray bottle with water and a few drops of the desired oil, then shake before use. Use to deodorize a room or spritz on linens for a clean scent. A new trend is personal diffuser pens where you can directly inhale an oil of choice for immediate results.

Topical Application.Various techniques can be used to apply oils topically, but it’s important to note most oils must be diluted before application. To prepare a solution, use vegetable oil, nut oil or water and apply no more than 3-5% essential oil to the solution. For massage or larger areas of the body use a 1% solution. If water is used be sure to shake well before use.

Four techniques can be used for the application (3). The first is compression — soak a dressing in the solution and apply directly to an area. For example, ginger can be beneficial for stiff joints. Another method can be gargling the solution. A sore throat can be aided by gargling with tea tree oil (3). To combine both inhalation and skin absorption, use oils in a bath with a dispersant (like full cream milk or bath salts). Essential oils can also be used in a carrier oil to massage into the skin, but should not exceed 1% essential oils (3).

Precautions.Despite their many benefits, if used incorrectly essential oils can be hazardous to your health (4). Be sure to read all labels and warnings on bottles before opening and using. Avoid contact with eyes, and be cautious with children around oils. Using too much or not diluting properly can also be dangerous. Some oils should not be directly applied to skin because they can cause rashes and irritation. Other oils should not be combined with certain medications, and can interact negatively with drinking alcohol (4).

Types of Essential OilsAlthough there are many essential oils and blends depending on the desired result, below are just a few of the most common, according

Bergamot.Citrus-scented and used as an ingredient in many perfumes and colognes, bergamot is typically used with a diffuser or in a bath or blended with massage oils. It is used for stress and anxiety and has a calming element. It may also help skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis (5). Those who use bergamot, however, can become sensitive to the sun and must be cautious when outdoors.

Sandalwood.Known for its woody fragrance, sandalwood is extracted and distilled from the wood chips of a mature tree (5). It’s used in oils and lotions, incense, with diffusers and can even be gargled. It can alleviate chest pain and is used as a calming agent. Many practitioners of yoga use sandalwood in aromatherapy because of its calming properties.

Rose.One of the first plants to be distilled for essential oils, rose tends to be pricey because of the volume required (5). Fresh rose petals are used for extraction, and then steam-distilled to obtain the oil. Rose oil is known to help uplift one’s mood, ease feelings of anxiety and aid digestion. It also support circulation, heart and respiratory health (5).

Peppermint.This essential oil is unique and has a refreshing effect that helps with alertness. It is a perennial herb with natural energy-boosting properties. The cooling agent enhances mood and focus, alleviates congestion and helps digestion (5).

Grand View Research Inc. reports that by 2022 the essential oil market is expected to reach $11.67 billion (6). Customers should consult a healthcare professional before experimenting with oils.WF

  1. Aromatherapy,, accessed June 21, 2017.
  2. Aromatherapy Market: Essential Oils Will Continue to Rule Consumer Preferences Owing to Their Therapeutic Benefits: Global Industry Analysis and Opportunity Assessment, 2016-2026,, accessed June 22, 2017.
  3. Chamomile Benefits,, accessed June 29, 2017.
  4. Essential Oil Market Size To Reach $11.67 Billion By 2022: Grand View Research, Inc., accessed June 22, 2017.
  5. How Do I Choose and Use Essential Oils?, accessed June 21, 2017.
  6. Safety With Aromatherapy Oils,, accessed June 20, 2017.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine August 2017