What Are Essential Oils, and Do They Work?

The popularity of essential oils has skyrocketed in recent years as people have increasingly looked for natural ways to take control of their well-being.

But these helpful elixirs can be overwhelming with so many to choose from, which ones do you really need?

Take a deep breath: I’m going to explain what these powerful oils are all about, as well as how to select, use, and store them.

What Are Essential Oils
Essential Oils

What Are Essential Oils?

Essential oil is a highly concentrated plant extract that contains active chemical compounds, the most common of which are hydrocarbons in the form of terpenes.

These compounds team up to give a plant a particular aroma, which plants pro- duce to attract pollinators, defend against insects or other plants, or protect from bacterial or fungal attacks.

These chemical agents also lend essential oils their antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties that are right, they do more than just smell good!

Unlike cooking oils, essential oils feel light and nongreasy. They’re also highly volatile, meaning that they quickly turn to vapor and evaporate when heated. They dissolve in other oils, alcohols, honey, and milk (but not in water).

Essential oils may be extracted from flowers, leaves, seeds, or berries. Rose essential oil, for example, comes from petals (it takes 1,000 to make one tiny bottle!), while citrus essential oils are drawn from the peel and eucalyptus essential oil originates in the leaf.

The most common method of extracting this so-called essence is distillation, the process by which plants inside a high-pressure still are subjected to steam or water, which softens the organic matter so that the oils can be extracted and separated from the water.

Another common process is cold press or expression: The organic matter undergoes extreme pressure and rotation, which batters it and makes it release oil.

Oils from fragile plants like jasmine, gardenia, rose, and neroli is sometimes extracted using a solvent, which creates an absolute.

Essential Oils Benefits?

“The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day,” said Hippocrates, the Greek physician considered the founding father of natural medicine. And, 2,500 years later, who can argue with that?

Essential oils generally work in two ways. First, they have powerful aromas.

When we inhale one of their scents, it sends messages to our brains’ olfactory bulbs, affecting emotions and the limbic system (the part of the brain that controls memory), as well as breathing, blood circulation, and hormones.

Second, essential oils’ small molecular structures allow them to penetrate the skin more easily than other vegetable or nut oils, which stay on the skin’s surface; this trait makes essential oils ideal for topical application.

The tiny molecules work their way into the bloodstream and lymphatic system, treating aches and pains or repairing scars and skin tissue.

How do you use essential oils?

Essential oils are helpful in a myriad of applications. Here are a few common ways to add them to your daily routine.

DIFFUSION A reed diffuser, room spray, or steam vaporizer allows you to fill your environment with the aromas of essential oils. You can buy a diffuser—several stylish models are readily available from major retailers and online.

INHALATION There are several ways to breathe in the benefits! Apply 1 or 2 drops to a handkerchief, carry it in your pocket, and pull it out to inhale the aroma, reviving your energy or resetting your mood whenever you like. You can also sprinkle a few drops on your pillow at night. For an effective steam treatment, add 1 or 2 drops to a bowl filled with 3 cups (710 mL) of boiling water. Place a towel over your head and the bowl, and breathe deeply for no more than 10 minutes.

BATH Dilute 4 to 6 drops of essential oil in 1 teaspoon carrier oil, milk, honey, or unscented liquid castile soap, and add to a warm bath. You’ll get the aromatherapy benefits while absorbing the essential oils through your skin. Some essential oils like a cinnamon leaf, clove bud, ginger, and oregano can irritate sensitive skin, so increase the dilution or avoid using these oils topically.

MASSAGE For relaxing at-home massage oil, add 4 to 6 drops of essential oil to 2 teaspoons of carrier oil (such as grape seed or sweet almond). Start with a scalp massage if you want the oils to quickly enter the bloodstream, then move onto the shoulders, back, feet, and more.

COMPRESS A cool compress is always a soothing treat for irritated skin whether it’s puffy eyes or a sunburn. Add 2 or 3 drops of an anti-inflammatory essential oil (like Roman chamomile) to 3 cups (710 mL) of water. Soak a washcloth in the mixture, wring it out, and apply it to the affected area.

How to Select High Quality Essential Oils

When starting your collection, don’t buy a dozen at once you’ll find them unused months later (like I did). Instead, start with one or two classics (like tea tree, laven- der, or lemon) that have a wide range of uses for wellness, home, and beauty. Then add one or two more oils at a time as you discover your favorites.

When it comes to quality, look for essential oils that are naturally derived via distillation or expression and that comes with no added ingredients.

If there’s an alcohol or a preservative listed on the label, steer clear. There are many synthetic and low-quality oils on the market, so do your research and buy direct from dis- tillers or well-trusted brands.

It’s crucial to purchase only oils that say “100 percent pure” on the label. Pure oils seem expensive, but you’ll only use a few drops per recipe, so a small bottle will last a long time.

If a pricey pure oil (like rose or jasmine) is out of your budget, look for it prediluted in a carrier oil or its main ingredient in a blend of other essential oils.

Keep in mind that fragrance and perfume oils are not the same as essential oils. They have no therapeutic benefits. Skip these!

How to store essential oils

Light, heat, moisture, and oxygen can harm essential oils, so store yours in blue or amber glass bottles, and keep them in a cool, dark spot.

Don’t use plastic containers, as both the bottle and the oil will degrade. Keeping the bottles tightly closed and replacing the caps quickly after use will also help prevent evaporation and oxidation.

In general, essential oils will keep for at least 1 year. Citrus oils will start to lose their powers after 2 years, but floral, herbal, and wood oils can last 4 or more.

When mixed with carrier oils, however, your concoctions will have a shorter shelf life, so make them in small batches and use them within 6 months (or as specified in your recipe). Always label your blends with the recipe ingredients and expiration dates.

When making beauty treatments using essential oils, be sure you sterilize all glass containers before storing your recipes in them. Wash them in hot soapy water or boil them for 20 minutes, then dry thoroughly.

Essential oils are very concentrated, so it’s important to follow all safety guidelines on the labels and consult with your physician when adding them to your wellness routine

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