Do certain aromas have a positive effect on your moods? They certainly do for me, and I’ve been getting a lot of use out of my essential oils lately! For me, a eucalyptus oil mist sprayed into a hot shower eases congestion, along with mellowing out anxious feelings. A whiff of lemon oil perks me up, while lavender pillow sprays help me settle into sleep.
“I love essential oils,” says my friend Tracy, 51, a freelance writer in New York. She keeps a roll-on chakra-balancing aromatherapy oil blend called Expressive Throat on her desk and says, “I wave it in front of my nose to help me relax and focus while I’m working.”
Essential oils are a popular way to help some people decompress and relax and for good reason. “Essential oils are nature's way of balancing our mind and body,” believes certified aromatherapist Valencia McClure. “They are pivotal in supporting our emotional well-being in relaxing, focusing, concentration, energy, anxiety to supporting our immune system, respiratory health and more.”
What are essential oils?
Fruits, leaves, roots, seeds, flower petals and other parts of a plant are extracted and distilled into a concentrated oil. Essential oils are known to stimulate smell receptors in the brain and, in turn, send signals to the nervous system. In fact, many of us may have been introduced to essential oils as children. I remember the eye-watering aroma of Vicks VapoRub that my mother rubbed on my chest when I was stuffed up from a cold. The Mayo Clinic writes, “The strong menthol odor of VapoRub may trick your brain, so you feel like you’re breathing through an unclogged nose.”  Well, it worked for me. Another ingredient in that greasy salve was eucalyptus oil — my go-to shower mist — and it’s often used in spa steam rooms for its respiratory benefits.
Though well-respected for millennia as traditional remedies, essential oils are not medical cures. Take any claims to the contrary with several grains of salt. There are few scientific studies on the actual physical health benefits of essential oils, but some that have been in traditional use for years, such as lavender, have been found to have calming, antianxiety properties, and others like tea tree oil have antibacterial and antifungal properties.
If you’re intrigued enough to add essential oils to your self-care regimen, first consider your purpose for using an essential oil. Next research the specific oil and its potential benefits.
McClure recommends using three to four essential oils in the beginning to become comfortable with their use, aroma and how they make you feel.
- For energy, check out lemon oil, which McClure says is also good for purifying purposes.
- For tranquility and peaceful sleep, lavender has calming properties.
- Want to feel more optimistic and in a state of well-being? Frankincense is an “excellent oil for promoting a positive outlook and great for meditation,” says McClure.
- If you’re feeling agitated or excitable, clary sage, McClure adds, is a perfect oil for balancing emotions.
How to buy essential oils
- Buy 100 percent pure organic oils from a reputable supplier. To check for quality, look into how the essential oil source is grown, i.e., organic (grown in a controlled environment) or wild-crafted (grown in the wild). Both are free of pesticides and chemicals. Check labels for how the oil was extracted, which will depend on the plant. Steam distillation is the most common method and cold pressing is better for fruit/citrus oils.
- Pure essential oil will have only one ingredient. If there are more, it’s probably “essence oil,” blended with a carrier oil or a fragrance oil, a blend that could also contain synthetic substances.
- Essential oil should be packaged in a tightly sealed, dark (amber) glass bottle as light and heat can damage the oil. If it’s in plastic, that’s a telltale sign that it’s not pure essential oil.
- Take the whiff test if you can to see if you like the scent, or check online for customer reviews from several sources.
A few drops of practical advice
If you have existing medical conditions, consult with a health care professional. Some oils need to be avoided for those with hypertension, asthma and other conditions. Some oils should not be used on children or pregnant women. Essential oils are not a substitute for medical care.
Prior to using an oil, do a patch test on your skin for sensitivity and allergic reactions. Those who are allergic to ragweed could be sensitive to chamomile oil.
Essential oils used topically need to be mixed with carrier oils before they can be applied to the skin, if you are not allergic. Carrier oils are used to dilute the potency of essential oils and increase absorption into the skin, as well as protect the skin from irritation. Common carrier oils are coconut, jojoba, avocado, sweet almond, olive and sunflower. If you have a nut allergy, avoid nut or kernel oils as carriers.
Carefully read labels and follow usage directions. Also note that certain oils, such as citrus oils, can cause photosensitivity when exposed to sunlight, when UV rays react with certain substances in the oil. Avoid direct sunlight on the areas where you’ve applied the oil for 12-18 hours, or don’t use it on your skin if you’ll be in the sun.
Don’t ingest essential oils. The research on the safety and efficacy of this method is even more limited. Some oils could be toxic and even deadly.
The oils don’t need to come in contact with your body to offer benefits. Using a diffuser to scent my home (my preferred method) is an easy way to create an aromatic and emotionally healing environment.