Posted by Karen Williams on

Learning about essential oils and aromatherapy is nothing short of a life-changing journey. Taking the first steps on any journey is always exciting, but sometimes undertaking endeavors like that can be a bit daunting. Fortunately, Aromatics International is here to help! This introductory guide to essential oils is meant to help you get started in exploring and understanding the basics of essential oils. Whether you’ve decided to pursue a certification in aromatherapy or just seeking natural alternatives and remedies for a holistic lifestyle, knowledge is crucial to using essential oils effectively and safely. Hopefully, by the end of this Essential Oils 101 blog, you will feel more prepared and ready to embark on your essential oil journey!

What Are Essential Oils?

essential oil distillation
Rose Essential Oil Distillation

According to the dictionary, an essential oil is, “… a natural oil typically obtained by distillation and having the characteristic fragrance of the plant or another source from which it was extracted.” To simplify it even more, an essential oil is a highly concentrated oil extracted from plants.

Plants have their own naturally occurring oils that are found in leaves, stems, fruits, seeds, flowers, roots, wood, and/or resins. Those oils serve specific biological purposes. For example, the oil can attract pollinators, repel and defend against harmful insects, protect against fungal and bacterial infections, and even prevent competing vegetation from growing too close (known as allelopathy). Fortunately for us, these oils can also have profound benefits for humans.

So how do we get the oils out of the plants and into the form of the essential oils we use today?

There are a number of methods used to extract the precious and highly fragrant oils from their plant parts, with the most common method of extraction being steam distillation. Other common extraction methods include cold pressing and solvent extraction of the botanical material. The distilling process creates a much higher concentrated oil than that which occurs in the plant itself. Most people don’t realize just how concentrated essential oils really are.

For instance:

  • Orange Sweet Oil requires roughly 14 Oranges to produce one 15 mL bottle of essential oil.
  • Lavender Oil requires over 200 pounds of plant material to yield 1 pound of essential oil.
  • Rose Oil requires roughly 5,000 pounds of rose petals to yield 1 pound of essential oil.

When you consider the amount of plant material required to produce essential oils, it becomes clear just how powerful and effective a single drop is. Just a few drops of essential oil can fill up a room with its scent for hours or help bring relief to painful muscle cramps or joint inflammation. To find out more, check out our blog, "What is an Essential Oil?".

What is Aromatherapy?

what is aromatherapy
Essential Oils are Powerful Aromatherapy Tools

Aromatherapy is probably best defined by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy as, “… the art and science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize, and promote the health of body, mind, and spirit.” They go on to say that aromatherapy unifies physiological, psychological, and spiritual (energetic)processes, thus enhancing one’s innate healing process.

Although the term aromatherapy— as “aromatherapie”— was coined in 1937 by Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, a French perfumer and chemist, in his book, Gattefosse’s Aromatherapy, the practice of using plant essences, infusions, and essential oils for healing purposes goes back to ancient times. Our oldest ancestors often used the healing power of plants to treat and prevent all kinds of ailments and conditions. Using essential oils to heal and soothe is a truly timeless practice!

Benefits of Essential Oils

So how do essential oils work? Well, simply put, every essential oil is comprised of natural chemical components that are unique to that specific plant. These chemical components work together synergistically to have remarkable therapeutic effects on every aspect of our being; from physical to mental, to emotional. For example, did you know that oils rich in 1,8-cineole, a chemical component in the Oxide family, are really helpful for supporting healthy lung activity in case of a cold or the flu? Knowing the chemistry of essential oils opens up a wealth of science-backed knowledge on the effects that essential oils can have. This not only lends credibility to the effects of essential oils but also helps us use them safely and effectively. For more specifics regarding the chemistry of essential oils, check out our Chemical Families page.

The therapeutic benefits of essential oils are boundless. Especially considering many oils have numerous different benefits just by themselves and when blended with other essential oils can have additional synergistic benefits, as well. The possibilities are truly remarkable.

Some of the most well-known therapeutic benefits and uses of essential oils include:

  • Soothe pain and inflammation
  • Reduce stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Balance, ground, and uplift emotions
  • Heal and soothe skin conditions
  • Ease cold and flu symptoms
  • Boost the immune system
  • Balance hormones
  • Improve digestion
  • Alleviate muscle cramping and spasming
  • Rejuvenate and nourish skin
  • Purify infections
  • Clean and disinfect spaces and surfaces

How to Use Essential Oils

how to use essential oils
Essential Oils are Versatile and Can Be used Many Ways!

There are a myriad of ways to use essential oils to take advantage of their benefits. However, it is essential to get to know each oil you want to use, first, in case they have any safety precautions. We’ll get into more about essential oil safety in a bit.

Here are some of our favorite ways to use essential oils:

  • Topical application – usually diluted in a carrier oil
  • Aromatherapy inhaler
  • Diffuser
  • DIY cleaning products
  • Homemade liquid and bar soaps
  • Handmade beeswax candles
  • Bath salts and scrubs

Because of the potency of essential oils, it doesn’t take much to get the job done. Below are some common considerations to keep in mind when using essential oils with their various methods of use.

In a topically applied blend using a carrier oil, we recommend either a 1%, 2%, or 3% dilution:

  • 1% dilution: 5-6 total drops of essential oil in each ounce of carrier oil or cream. This dilution is ideal for children, the elderly, chronically ill persons, and pregnant women.
  • 2% dilution: 10-12 total drops of essential oil in each ounce of carrier oil or cream. This dilution is used for the average adult and daily or long-term use of the product.
  • 3% dilution: 15-18 total drops of essential oil in each ounce of carrier oil or cream. This dilution is used for specific illnesses or acute injury. Blends made at this dilution may be used for a week or two, for an acute situation.

In an Inhaler:

  • Place 15-18 drops of essential oil(s) on a smaller cotton wick.
  • Place 18-21 drops of essential oil(s) on a larger cotton wick.

In a Bath Blend:

  • Bath salts: Mix the essential oil(s) into a bath salt. Add 8-10 drops of essential oil to each ounce of salt. Use 1 Tablespoon of that blended salt in a full bath.
  • Milk: Add 3-4 total drops of essential oil to a cup of milk. Add the milk to your full bath.
  • Jojoba oil or other liquid carriers: Add 3-4 drops of essential oil to 1 tablespoon of jojoba oil and add to your full bath.

In an Essential Oil Diffuser:

  • Add 4-6 drops of essential oil(s) in a small diffuser along with the necessary amount of water required by your diffuser (Most diffusers will have a fill line indicating the appropriate amount of water that is required).
  • Add 8-10 drops of essential oil(s) in a large diffuser along with the necessary amount of water required by your diffuser.

Essential Oil Blends

One of the most enjoyable parts of aromatherapy is crafting your blends. It is a lot of fun making all-natural DIY products, and oftentimes the process is easier than one would expect. It can take some practice to get just right, though, so as you learn, don’t get frustrated. It can take years of practice and experience before becoming a true “potions master.”

As you get further in your studies and exploration of essential oils, you will discover that a whole other world exists within the synergy of blending essential oils. Combining just the right oils in just the right amounts can create blends that are truly magical. And who doesn’t love the idea of being able to craft your own plant-based medicine and remedies?

Blending takes practice and patience. To help make it as fun as possible, here are a few of our blending tips to get you started:

  1. Make sure all the ingredients and tools you will need are laid out and ready before you start. Here are some examples of what you might need:
    • All of the essential oils and carriers that you want to use.
    • Container(s) for the finished blend – Glass or PET plastic bottles or jars, tins, etc. TIP: Use dark-tinted glass for straight essential oil blends. For blends using carriers, you can use PET plastic or tins. Do not store straight essential oils in anything other than glass, as the oils can corrode through other materials after time. However, oils that have been diluted in carriers are fine in PET plastic containers or tins.
    • Glass dish for mixing blend.
    • Glass stir rods.
    • Towels or paper towels.
    • Notebook and pen.
    • Label(s).
    • Double boiler or Pyrex/Glass measuring cup and pot with water for melting any carriers.
    • A heat source for melting any butters, beeswax, etc. – either a stove top or hot plate.
    • Scale for measuring ingredients, if needed.
  2. When creating your essential oil blends, add one drop of oil at a time, then mix and smell before adding more. Write down what you add so you will have the recipe if you want to make it again!
  3. If blending from a recipe, you can add all drops of each oil at once, but be sure to follow the recipe, as even a slight deviation can change the final product considerably. Although, there’s nothing wrong with a little experimentation once you’re comfortable enough!
  4. Do not leave your essential oils exposed to air or heat any longer than necessary, as exposure to air and heat can cause oils to degrade faster. More on that in our shelf life section!
  5. If blending for aroma, be sure to include an oil from each type of fragrance note: Top note, middle note, and base note. This will create a balanced aroma. To find out more about the different fragrance notes, check out our Aromas page.
  6. Choose your blending space wisely. Don’t blend in an area where an accidental splatter or missed drop could cause oil spots or stains. Also, keep everything out of reach of children and pets!
  7. Have fun and don’t hesitate to get creative! Just make sure you read up on any safety precautions that the oils may have.

Shelf Life and Storage

Whether it is months or years, every oil has a shelf life. As oils age, they go through a process called oxidation. Oxidation can cause skin irritation as well as sensitization. This process begins when the oil is distilled; therefore, shelf life is determined by distillation date (year and month) and not when it is purchased. It is important to note that the shelf life of an oil is only an estimate and not a definitive answer. There are factors that can affect an estimated shelf life, such as whether or not the oil is stored properly, as heat and exposure to light can cause oxidation, as well. There are ways to extend the shelf life of oil by adding a substance such as argon gas to the bottle to prevent air from coming in contact with the oil. This is something we do at Aromatics International to store our bulk oils to ensure they stay as fresh as possible!

As an example of how shelf life can differ, Frankincense Boswellia carterii has a shelf life of 3 years. If a batch was distilled in June of 2017, that batch would expire in June 2020. Patchouli Pogostemon cablin, on the other hand, has a shelf life of 20 years. So a batch distilled in November 2016 will not expire (if stored properly) until November 2036. This is all provided the oils are Holistic, of course!

Proper storage is key to getting the best-estimated shelf life out of your oils. Exposure to light, heat, and air can accelerate the oxidation process.

Here are a few simple guidelines for storing your oils properly:

  • Store in a cool and dark location.
  • Keep the bottles tightly closed.
  • If a small amount of oil remains in a large bottle, transfer to a smaller bottle to reduce the risk of oxidation.
  • Store essential oils in dark-colored glass bottles only. Carriers and carrier blends can be stored in PET plastic containers.

If you find that you do have oils that are expired or close to the end of their therapeutic shelf life, don’t throw them away! Expired essential oils make lovely oils for cleaning blends, such as kitchen and bathroom disinfectant sprays, etc. To learn more about shelf life and storage, head on over to our Shelf Life page in our Learn section.

Essential Oil Safety

Because essential oils are extremely concentrated, it is to know how to use them safely. Using some oils at full concentration can lead to adverse reactions such as skin irritation, nausea, headaches, phototoxicity, or sometimes even serious allergic reactions. That doesn’t mean you can’t use any oil straight, though. Some oils can be used directly on the skin, such as using a single drop of lavender oil directly on a bee sting. That’s where familiarizing yourself with your oils comes in handy. But you don’t necessarily have to memorize them all! Keeping a great reference manual on hand— such as Essential Oil Safety, by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young—does the trick, just fine. Another favorite reference that many aromatherapists have in their collection is The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, by Salvatore Battaglia.

Additional caution should be used when using essential oils on children. Children lack the ability to metabolize chemicals as quickly or efficiently as adults. Because essential oils are highly concentrated chemicals, albeit natural, they can cause problems with young children who are still rapidly developing. (Likewise, many oils should not be used while pregnant and breastfeeding, as well!)

Here are a few tips regarding usage for children:

  • Children under 5: It is best to avoid essential oils entirely. It is okay to diffuse kid-friendly Holistic oils at low dilution for short periods of time. If looking for a topical application, we recommend using hydrosols in place of essential oils, as they are much gentler. If you want to learn about hydrosols, check out our blog: "What is a Hydrosol?".
  • Children between the ages of 5 and 10: It is best to use a 1% dilution when applying essential oils topically.
  • While there are some great essential oils to use with children, it is best to stay away from oils containing chemotype 1,8 cineole with children under 10. This would include essential oils such as a Eucalyptus, Saro, Ravintsara, etc. Also, avoid the use of “hot” oils such as Cinnamon, Tulsi, and Clove. With children under 5, avoid Peppermint near their face, to avoid potential breathing issues.

It is always good practice to check the safety info for each essential oil, as some essential oils may be contraindicated by certain conditions, such as epilepsy or liver disease, or medications, such as anticoagulants. Always consult with a medical professional if you are undergoing treatments of any kind or are on any medicines or homeopathic remedies.

With proper safety knowledge in your pocket, you can easily and confidently use essential oils safely!

Purity Test

essential oil purity test
GC/MS Testing Ensures the Purity of Each Essential Oil

When purchasing your essential oils, it is crucial to choose ones that are pure. Adulterated or perfume oils do not offer the same therapeutic benefits and may cause allergies, headaches, or chemical sensitivities.

The best way to tell if an essential oil is pure is with GC/MS testing done by a professional laboratory. Gas Chromatography (GC) is a method used to separate the volatile compounds in essential oils into individual components. The components are then charted on a linear graph. Mass Spectrometry (MS) is used to identify the percentages of each component. This testing process may identify if an oil has been adulterated in any way. Additionally, the results of GC/MS testing, often referred to as the GC/MS report can be used to determine the therapeutic benefits and safety concerns of essential oil as those are determined by the chemical components in every essential oil. Yay, science!

Aromatics International has every one of their oils professionally GC/MS tested by a third-party laboratory and post every GC/MS report on the products’ pages in a format that is easy to read and understand.

Other things to consider when choosing your essential oils and carriers include:

  • Are the oils single origin? Avoid oils that have been combined from different countries and distilled at different times. We love working with oils that are from one distiller and one country.
  • Are the oils organically crafted? This could mean certified organic, organically grown, and/or wild crafted. Oils that are not organic could contain harmful chemicals from pesticide spraying, etc.
  • Are the plants ethically and sustainably harvested? This is a major concern, as overharvesting has already put several plants that are highly prized for their essential oils and resins on the endangered species list. Exploitation of local workers and unethical work practices and conditions are other concerns that are often overlooked, but equally important. A few examples of oils that are on our sustainability watch list are spikenard essential oil, rosewood essential oil, and frankincense essential oil.

Ready to Learn More?

Spend some time exploring Aromatics International’s website, and you’ll discover a trove of information to help guide you on your journey. Our Learn section contains more information about what we’ve discussed in this blog as well as topics such as beginner buzz words, aromatic notes, Aromatic International’s trademarked AromaNumber system, the correlation between which plant parts are used to make an essential oil and how they benefit specific areas of the mind, body, and spirit, and more! Additionally, don’t forget to swing over to our Blogs section regularly to read up on subjects ranging from broad, encompassing topics to specific ones, such as highlighting oils.

If you’re ready to take your aromatherapy journey to the next level, there are many schools, both online and in person, available. One of our favorites is the Aromahead Institute. The Aromahead Institute provides a wealth of online classes and webinars regarding every aspect of essential oils and aromatherapy. Founded by the aromatherapy expert, Andrea Butje, the Aromahead Institute’s classes range all the way from their fantastic (and FREE!) Introductory to Essential Oils class to the full Aromatherapy Certification Program so you can become a Certified Aromatherapist! The ACP course does require a tuition fee.

We also recommend Andrea Butje’s book, The Heart of Aromatherapy. This book will not only acquaint you with the stories of some of the most popular essential oils and carriers, but it also contains over 100 fabulous recipes. By the time you read through Andrea’s book, you will feel like you and the essential oils she features are old friends! Her approach to teaching about aromatherapy is so fun, friendly, and one-of-a-kind!

"Feeling educated about essential oils is such an empowering experience because there are so many different oils you can work with. They all offer the nourishment of the plant they are distilled from in a single drop, and education helps you understand which oils to reach for at which times. Nature works holistically… and so do we. When nature touches one area of your life, you can feel it in many others. Essential oils demonstrate this in a big way. I believe that aromatherapy is a gateway into a broader understanding of traditional healing, and a path toward healthy living.”

Andrea Butje, The Heart of Aromatherapy