Chances are good that at some point you may have heard about the remarkable things essential oils can do. After all, that's probably why you've come here, right? But, perhaps, you don't really know what an essential oil is, precisely. Don't worry, you are not alone. It is a common question we at Aromatics International hear all the time!

According to the dictionary, an essential oil is "a natural oil typically obtained by distillation and having the characteristic aroma of the plant or another source from which it was extracted". To simplify it even further, an essential oil is a highly concentrated oil extracted from plants. Either way, both definitions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what an essential oil really is. So, let's explore a little deeper.

Nature, the ultimate source: Most plants have their own naturally occurring oils that can be found in their leaves, stems, fruits, fruit peels, 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, the oils can also have profound benefits for humans. Cultures all over the world have been using oils from plants - both in physical applications and in aromatherapy - for medicinal and therapeutic purposes from our earliest known history through today. 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 aromatic oils from their plant parts, with the most common method of extraction being steam distillation. Other common extraction methods include cold-pressing or 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:

When you consider the varying amount of plant material required to produce different essential oils it becomes clear why some essential oils are considered more precious than others. By looking at the numbers above it becomes obvious why rose essential oil costs more to produce than the equivalent volume of orange essential oil. The more botanical material required to produce the essential oil translates to more cost to the consumer. Fortunately, the old adage, "a little goes a long way", proves absolutely true with all essential oils. We are able to get huge benefits from tiny amounts. Just a few drops can fill up a room with its scent for hours. On that note, many people often wonder how smelling an essential oil can improve their quality of life. In the world of aromatherapy, aroma is important, but not the only aspect that makes essential oils so special. Simply put, each oil is comprised of chemical components that are unique to that specific plant. The therapeutic benefits of these components range anywhere from stress and anxiety reduction to cold and flu relief and pain and inflammation reduction. These chemical components also give the essential oils their unique aromas and properties.

FUN FACT: With some plants, two of the same plant (same genus and species) can have different chemical components and aromas depending on geographical location. That means the essential oils derived from rosemary, for example, in one part of the world can have different properties and benefits as that of rosemary from another region. Thyme is another example of a plant that has different chemical types - or chemotypes, as it is called - based on where it is from. Be aware of this when purchasing oils, though, as, with thyme, thyme ct thymol can be irritating on the skin while thyme ct linalool is gentler on the skin. On the flip side, lemon has no chemotypes, so it is the same no matter where it comes from. Cool, huh? While most of us would agree that we enjoy things that smell nice and make us feel good, essential oils do need to be used with caution.

Essential Oil Safety: Because essential oils are extremely concentrated, it is important 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. In fact, it is a very wise practice to dilute, as diluting with a carrier such as jojoba helps prevent sensitivity to an essential oil as well as help with transport of the essential oil. Not to mention you'll get more bang for your buck since you won't go through oil so quickly! 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.

Here are a few tips from us regarding usage for children:

  • Children under 5: It is best to avoid essential oils entirely. Instead, we recommend using hydrosols in place of essential oils, as they are much gentler. If you want to learn about hydrosols, check out our recent blog.
  • Children between the ages of 5 and 10: It is best to use a 1% dilution when applying essential oils topically. We'll get into recommended dilutions in this blog, so keep reading to find out more.
  • While there are some great essential oils to use with children, it is best to stay away from oils containing chemotype 1,8-cineole. This would include oils such as eucalyptus, saro, and ravintsara.The use of harsher oils such as cinnamon, tulsi, and clove bud should be avoided.

Regardless, it is always a good idea to check the safety info on each oil you want to try before using them. A great resource for doing so is the book, The Heart of Aromatherapy, by Andrea Butje. It not only has a wealth of information about essential oils including their safety tips, but it also has numerous recipes for all kinds of blends for a variety of purposes and uses.

How can you safely use essential oils?

Here at Aromatics International, some of our favorite ways to use essential oils are:

  • Topically diluted in a carrier oil
  • In an aromatherapy inhaler
  • In a diffuser
  • In natural cleaning products
Because of the potency of essential oils, it doesn't take much to get the job done. Here are a few dilution guidelines we like to follow when formulating essential oil blends:
  • 1% dilution: 5-6 total drops of essential oil in each ounce of carrier oil or cream. This dilution is ideal for children, older folks, 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 for acute injury. Blends made at this dilution are used for a week or two, for an acute situation.

How much oil should you use for aromatherapy?

Now that you know more about what an essential oil is and just how concentrated it is, you may be wondering how much you should you use in your aromatherapy blend(s). Below are some common considerations to keep in mind when using essential oils with their various methods of use.

In a personal 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.

Considerations When Purchasing Essential Oils:

When researching a company to purchase your essential oils from make sure to ask specific questions such as:

  • Are the oils single origin? You do not want oils that have been mixed together from separate batches to make one large batch.
  • Are the oils organically crafted? This could mean certified organic, organically grown, and/or wild crafted.
  • Are the oils 100% pure? Have they been GC/MS tested? (Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry testing provides a breakdown of the chemical components in oils. This can confirm purity. Some companies provide this information on all their oils either on their website or via request.)
  • Are the plants ethically and sustainably harvested?

Want to learn more?

For more information on essential oils and aromatherapy blending, the Aromahead Institute has a variety of aromatherapy courses to choose from. To get started, their "Introduction to Essential Oil" course is free and contains lots of valuable information! "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.

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August 10, 2020 — Karen Williams