Everything You Want To Know About Essential Oils

You’ve probably heard about essential oils by now, considering they’ve popped up everywhere from your Facebook feed to your grocery store. You might be wondering “What’s the hype?” There’s plenty, and for good reason. As the resident essential oil enthusiast over at Literally, Darling, I’m answering questions fellow writers have about these oil things I keep talking about. I’m covering everything you need to know, and then some. 

Part of my always growing collection of essential oils.

1. What even are essential oils?

To put it (somewhat) simply, essential oils are the part of a plant or natural material that, when distilled, gets separated from the rest of the plant and the water in the plant. Essential oils can be distilled via water or steam, by mechanical processing of citrus rinds or via dry distillation of natural materials. Plants actually produce essential oils all on their own for a variety of reasons—like attracting pollinators, to stop other plants from growing within their growing area, to defend against insects or other animals, and more. So they’re naturally occurring parts of plants that have to be “extracted” through distillation in order to use them. You can read more about the science involved on the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) site.   

More of my essential oils.

2. What are the benefits of using essential oils?

The research is limited, but studies have shown that aromatherapy (the therapeutic use of essential oils extracted from plants) might have health benefits including emotional support, improved sleep, and improved quality of life. Aromatherapy is thought to work by stimulating smell receptors in the nose, which then sends messages through the nervous system to the limbic system—the part of your brain that controls emotions.  So, when you smell an uplifting oil like a citrus oil, you may feel more awake or have more positive emotions. Or, when you smell a relaxing oil like lavender, you may feel a little calmer. It’s kind of like how chamomile tea makes you sleepy—same plants, same concepts.  

Beyond that, they’re a natural way of bringing good scents into your home—without the nasty chemicals involved in synthetic fragrances. Essential oils are a great alternative for people like me who want products that smell great but are highly sensitive to synthetic fragrances in candles, cleaning products, skincare products and detergents.

3. What ways can I use them?

There are three primary ways to use essential oils: through inhalation, topically applied to the skin, and ingested internally.  The most common is inhalation, often through a diffuser—a device that disperses essential oils throughout a room.

An example of an essential oil diffuser.

Most essential oils shouldn’t be applied directly to your skin without diluting them with a carrier oil—a skin-safe oil like coconut oil, sweet almond oil, apricot kernel oil, etc. You can find carrier oils on Amazon or at your local health food store (Now Foods is the brand I buy). You can dilute them with an unscented lotion, too.

Oils that can be used topically should be labeled on the bottle with instructions for how to use that specific oil on your skin. Some oils, like lavender, for example, are mild enough that they can be used undiluted directly on the skin—but it’s always best to dilute them until you know how your body reacts to them. You can also mix oils with Epsom salts in a bath to use them topically—but it’s highly important you include the Epsom salts, since oils aren’t water soluble and will float on the surface of water if you don’t break them up first.

Some of my favorite carrier oils, for topical use of oils.

As for using oils internally, personally, I very rarely do this. In the U.S., the ingestion of essential oils is only recommended under the supervision of a licensed healthcare provider. Oils that are safe to be used internally will be labeled as such, but still use caution and common sense.  If it’s labeled “not for internal use” or “don’t ingest”—take the hint. If you want to learn how to safely use essential oils internally, the NAHA is the place to go for this too. If you have more questions about using essential oils, you can always check Airlifebetter.

4. How can I tell what oils are meant to be used in which way?

Most oils are safe to diffuse—but some are stronger than others. For example, I can’t diffuse cinnamon bark or one of my favorite blends called Thieves, because the scent is too strong for me—even with only a drop. If an oil isn’t labeled as safe to use topically or internally, I personally wouldn’t use them as such. Certain oils are known skin irritants and should never be used topically. Cinnamon bark and oregano are two examples, but head over to the NAHA safety page again for a more complete list. You should also be careful using citrus oils topically, because they increase the photo-sensitivity of your skin—meaning you’re more likely to get sunburned if you apply them to exposed skin.

5. How much do I use at a time?

When diffusing, it really depends on the size of your diffuser, but I usually stick to three drops per oil and six to eight drops total at a time in my diffusers. Your diffuser should come with guidance on how many drops of essential oil to use in it. When you’re first using oils, start with one or two drops until you see how you react.

I like to pre-mix oils in roller bottles for easier diluting when applying them topically.

For topical use, you should have between 1 and 5 percent dilution—think one or two drops of oil per tablespoon of carrier oil, especially when first starting out. For babies and children, you need to dilute even further (think .5 percent) —and you should consult a doctor first.

6. What other safety concerns should I think about?  

If you’re pregnant or nursing, you should consult a doctor and do additional research before using essential oils. Some may be used safely, but there’s a long list of oils to avoid when pregnant due to risks they pose, so consulting a professional is key.

You also need to be careful of eye safety. Don’t touch essential oils and then touch your eyes. If you do happen to get oils near your eye, don’t rinse it with water, because oils and water don’t mix—use a carrier oil like coconut oil to cleanse the area.

You also should keep all essential oils out of reach of children and pets (obviously). Some essential oils can be used on and around dogs with proper dilution, but cats have very sensitive metabolic systems and can’t process essential oils the same way humans and dogs do, so it’s not recommended that you use essential oils on or near cats.

For more complete safety information, check out this NAHA safety statement page. For more animal related safety, start with this NAHA guide.

My favorite diffuser. It has several light colors, can play music, and diffuses for 1, 2, or 3 hours.

7. How do I pick a diffuser? There are so many options.

This is more of a personal preference based on the style of diffuser you want and the size of the room you’re using it in. I personally have only ever used Young Living brand diffusers, because that’s the brand of essential oils I use and they have warranties for use with those oils. But there are tons of well-rated, affordable diffusers on Amazon. The URPOWER 100ml essential oil diffuser, for example, has over 20,000 reviews, and it’s rated five and a half stars (and it’s only $16!). The VicTsing 300ml Cool Mist Ultrasonic Essential Oil Diffuser is another popular one (and this one will fill a larger room). You should pick a diffuser based on what you want it to do. Some common things to look for:

  • Does it have lights, and can you turn them on and off?
  • What mist settings does it have—continuous, intermittent, etc.?
  • What size of room can it reach?
  • How long does it diffuse for? I have one that can run eight hours and another that has a maximum of three, so this is important depending on how you plan to use it.
  • Does it have auto-shutoff? The answer to this should be yes if you plan to use it overnight.
Another diffuser I love. This one also lights up and diffuses for about four hours.

8. Can I get one of those heated diffusers?

I wouldn’t recommend it. Essential oils should never be directly burned, because the chemical structure of the oil can change, so it won’t have the same potential benefits, and it’s not as safe. Don’t go for “diffusers” that have you put a drop of oil in with a little bit of water over a candle that heats up the oil to disperse it.  There are tons of cheap diffusers like the ones I linked above. Stick with those instead.

9. What ingredients should I look for on my oil bottle?

You want essential oils that only have essential oils inside. As intuitive as that may sound, many oils—especially some of the cheaper ones you can find on Amazon or your grocery store—often have ingredients added to them. You want your oil bottle to be filled 100% with the essential oil you’re buying. If there’s anything added, like alcohol, for example, put it back on the shelf. 

Most reputable brands of essential oils include the scientific name of the plant. For example, the bottle of lemon essential oil sitting next to me has one ingredient, and it’s listed as “Lemon (Cistus limon) peel oil.”

A close up of the label on my lemon essential oil bottle.

One thing to keep in mind is that essential oils are not regulated by the FDA—so any company can slap a label like “100% pure,” “natural” or “therapeutic grade” on their essential oil bottle, and most of the time that really means nothing beyond however they choose to define it. 

10.  So, how do I find a reputable brand of oils to use?

Do your research to decide what brand you’re most comfortable with. Personally, the only brand of essential oils I have ever used is Young Living, so they’re the only specific brand I can speak to the quality of. The reason I chose these oils was because, after much research, I decided that I trust their seed to seal process the most. They own their own farms and they track their oils from the time they are planted through the full distillation and bottling process, with many safety and quality checks along the way. You can also literally go visit their farms if you want to, and they test their oils in their own labs and through third-party testing.

Although Young Living is the best brand for me personally, there are other companies out there with their own standards and processes for testing. Only you can decide what brand is best for you and your family. A reputable brand will have information available about what testing procedures their oils go through, where there oils are sourced, and the only ingredients on their bottles will be the oil that’s inside—again, preferably, with the scientific name. This Herbal Academy article is a good place to start for more ways to weed through the oil companies and find the one that’s right for you. 

11. Can you share some specific uses for specific oils?

I could, but this list would literally go on and on and on. Here are a few:

  • I use lavender for winding down before bed.
  • I roll on peppermint when my head is pounding or I sleep funny on my neck.
  • Lemon and orange are my go-to oils when I need a big of a pick me up in the mornings.
  • A blend called Joy is my favorite when I need some emotional support (or when I’m being grumpy cat).
Two essential oil / natural beauty books I love.

If you’re interested in using essential oils, I recommend you grab the book “Essential Oils: All-natural remedies and recipes for your mind, body and home.” It has education about many different oils and how to use them, and it’s filled with DIY essential oil recipes. The NAHA bookstore also has good resources (and their site is a wealth of free information). For even more natural beauty recipes using essential oils, I’m a huge fan of the book “Hello Glow” by Stephanie Gerber.

Got another question about oils I didn’t cover? Share it in the comments or tweet us @litdarling and I’ll help answer it!

Feature photo credit: Annie Splatt, Unsplash.com

Scroll To Top