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Essential Oil Guide Part 1: The Basics

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Written by Christina Storto on 2018/09/13


Hello, and welcome to your crash course on essential oils. If you are seeking more information on the age-old plant extracts or just curious how you can use them, I'm here to help you with this comprehensive guide to essential oils and all the ways you can use them to your advantage.

Let's jump right into it, shall we?

First things first, what are essential oils?

Simply put: Essential oils are the highly concentrated version of the natural oils in plants obtained through different extraction methods, including steam distillation and cold pressing. Distillation is the process by steam or water where many parts of the plant is used, including the plant roots, leaves, stems, flowers, or bark.

After distillation, the outcome is a highly concentrated portion of essential oil, which will have the characteristic fragrance and properties of the plant from which it was extracted, and contains the true essence of the plant it came from. This includes the smell, but also the plant’s healing properties and other plant characteristics. You can see how this highly potent extract of a plant or herb can be extremely useful for many purposes.

There are actually thousands of known essential oils with about 300 available commercially, all of which boast different health and lifestyle benefits. Because essential oils are obviously all-natural, it might be easy to assume that they're gentle and largely nonreactive. This isn't the case at all—by definition, it's extremely potent stuff. They can be up to 75 times more powerful than dried herbs. As such, essential oils must be handled with care. This means that a couple drops go a long way, and aside from very specific oils (more on that later), essential oils should always be diluted properly before applying them directly to skin

How are essential oils used?

Essential oils can be used in many ways, and not just for skin care. Essential oils can be diffused for inhalation, used in personal care products, in home cleaning, aromatherapy, general well-being in the context of emotional support, treating skin conditions, soothing muscle inflammation... the benefits of essential oils are boundless.

It may be best to inhale essential oils if your concern is internal or emotional (lavender oil may be an excellent choice for this). Clinical studies have shown that aromatherapy by inhalation can have real benefits for people with, for example, anxiety, mental focus, depressive symptoms, and menstrual pain, using essential oils via bathing, diffusing, and topical application can also be helpful in terms of well-being.

When it comes to essential oils used in skin care, things can get tricky. While there are several oils that may aid in healing, toning, and brightening skin ( tea tree, rose, rosehip, sandalwood, chamomile, and lavender), there are also elixirs that can spark serious skin reactions due to allergies and phototoxicity.

Phototoxic essential oils include bergamot and citruses like lime and lemon, that should not be used at more than 0.5 percent on skin exposed to any amount of sunlight, (It's also worth noting that the type of extraction used can actually determine whether a certain essential oil becomes phototoxic or not. For instance, when bergamot is cold pressed, it is phototoxic and when it's steam-distilled it's not.) "Phototoxic reactions can be pretty nasty, regardless of whether you have sensitive skin. oils like cinnamon, clove, lemongrass, cassia, black pepper, and wintergreen can be irritating and recommends always using proper dilution and doing a skin patch test first.


Wait, but what is dilution?

Dilution might just be the single most important factor when it comes to using essential oils safely in skin care. "When used on the skin, the more an essential oil is diluted, the less risk there is of an adverse skin reaction In addition to avoiding a potential skin reaction, diluting essential oils allows them to work better—when exposed to air alone, the molecules of the pure essential oils tend to evaporate very quickly. "Adding the essential oil to a carrier substance better facilitates the absorption of the oil by the body.

In most cases (even if you're just adding the essential oils to a bath), you'll need a carrier oil—a neutral, plant-based oil that can act as a base. Common carrier oils include sweet almond, jojoba, olive, sunflower seed, argan, coconut, avocado, and grapeseed oil. While specific dilutions can vary based on personal needs and individual essential oils, the general rule of thumb is to aim for a one to five percent dilution. "A one percent blend is six drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier, while a five percent blend would be 30 drops per ounce of carrier," she says. For specifics, check out Aura Cacia's handy dilution guide here:


Do Essential Oils have Therapeutic Benefits?

Essential oils have been used throughout history in many cultures for their medicinal and therapeutic benefits. While the oils are still in the plant, they provide the plants with protection against predators and disease, and also play a role in plant pollination. As these properties carry forward into the essential oils, folk medicine since ancient times has made use of essential oils in medicinal practices.

This knowledge is also still widely used today. Modern scientific studies and trends in recent years have been leaning again towards more holistic approaches to wellness and a revival of essential oils for physical and psychological health and well-being applications. The most common therapeutic application of essential oils is that of aromatherapy, where healing effects are achieved through the aromas of the essential oils. Many essential oils are believed to have an uplifting effect on the human’s mind; and many essential oils also have antiseptic properties, which means they reduce the possibility of infection when applied to the human skin.

Four favorites of essential oils for therapeutic benefits have been identified as:

  • Lavender – helps to alleviate stress, anxiety, irritability mental fatigue, panic attacks and depression, but also good for bruises and stretch marks.
  • Peppermint – helps with nausea, vertigo, and exhaustion and also good for headaches.
  • Frankincense – used for immune system stimulation and to help with asthma, coughing and bronchitis.
  • Tea Tree – disinfecting and good for skin blemishes and acne.

Popular Types of essential oils

There are more than 90 types of essential oils, each with its own unique smell and potential health benefits.

Here's a list of 10 popular essential oils and the health claims associated with them:

  • Peppermint: Used to boost energy and help with digestion.
  • Lavender: Used for stress relief.
  • Sandalwood: Used to calm nerves and help with focus.
  • Bergamot: Used to reduce stress and improve skin conditions like eczema.
  • Rose: Used to improve mood and reduce anxiety.
  • Chamomile: Used for improving mood and relaxation.
  • Ylang-Ylang: Used to treat headaches, nausea and skin conditions.
  • Tea Tree: Used to fight infections and boost immunity.
  • Jasmine: Used to help with depression, childbirth and libido.
  • Lemon: Used to aid digestion, mood, headaches and more.

Which types of oil should I use on my skin and are better for non-beauty purposes?

Aside from cleaning and topical skin-care application, the below essential oils can be diffused for inhalation.

For stress and anxiety: Lavender, cedarwood, lemon, bergamot, orange, and valerian.

For skin care: Lavender, carrot seed, rose, rosehip, frankincense, geranium, tea tree, ylang-ylang, and patchouli.

For cleaning: Cinnamon, pine, and lemon.

For a pick-me-up: Lemon and peppermint.

For immune-boosting: Lemon, lavender, tea tree, eucalyptus, oregano, thyme, orange, and cinnamon.


How to Choose The Right Essential Oils

Many companies claim that their oils are "pure" or "medical grade." However, these terms aren't universally defined and therefore might hold little weight. Given that it is an unregulated industry, the quality and composition of essential oils can vary greatly

Keep the following tips in mind in order to choose only high-quality oils:

  • Purity: Find an oil that contains only aromatic plant compounds, without additives or synthetic oils. Pure oils usually list the plant's botanical name (such as Lavandula officinalis), rather than terms like "essential oil of lavender."
  • Quality: True essential oils are the ones that have been changed the least by the extraction process. Choose a chemical-free essential oil that has been extracted through distillation or mechanical cold pressing.
  • Reputation: Purchase a brand with a reputation for producing high-quality products.

High-quality oils only use pure plant compounds extracted by distillation or cold pressing. Avoid oils that have been diluted with synthetic fragrances, chemicals or oils.


How to Store Essential Oils

Essential Oils should be stored in dark glass bottles (brown or blue, which they hopefully were packaged in), and out of direct sunlight. So an open shelf in your bathroom might not be the best place to have them. This method of storage keeps them from having their chemistry changed by the light as it can interact with some chemicals in the oils.


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