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What are Essential Oils?

Last Updated on 16/05/2024 by Liz @ HealthTenfold

What are essential oils?

Many plants contain highly concentrated and potent chemical compounds. They can be found in the roots, flowers, bark, or seeds. When these natural compounds are extracted from the plants, we get essential oils. Essential oils capture the ‘essence’, flavour or the scent of the plant. 

Essential oils are extracted through distillation using water and/or steam or by a mechanical process such as cold pressing. 

Most common essential oils

Some types of most common essential oils include:

How Are Essential Oils Used?

Essential oils can be administered in three different ways. They include: aromatically, topically, and internally. 

Aromatic Administration of Essential Oils

Essential oils are popularly used in aromatherapy. Once inhaled, the scent causes a calming effect. You can enjoy their aromatic benefits by adding a few drops to a cotton ball and within a few minutes, the pleasant smell will reach your senses. 

You can also use an essential oil diffuser, a gadget that disperses the aroma. The different brands come with instructions on the ratios of oil and water that you need to use so make sure you read and follow them to the letter. 

Another way you can enjoy the scents is by putting a few drops of the essential oil into your palms and cupping them to your nose and mouth. You then inhale long and deep to get the full blast of the scent. 

What is lavender oil good for

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Topical Administration of Essential Oils

Essential oils are also applied on the skin at various points of the body. The chemical compounds are absorbed into the body after application. They can be applied to your whole body or specific parts such as the top and soles of your feet, crown of your head, behind the ears, on the neck and temples. However, the application of essential oils makes the skin particularly photosensitive so avoid basking in the sun after application. 

Internal Administration of Essential Oils

Some essential oils can be ingested in order to acquire their benefits. These are made specifically to be ingested so not all essential oils can be ingested. You can add them to your drinking water or include them in your recipes as you cook. They add delectable flavors and scents to your favorite foods! 

Best Uses of Essential Oils

Essential oils have been used for centuries and are still used in modern times for:

  • Boosting emotional health through aromatherapy 
  • Personal Hygiene, e.g. when applied on feet they can reduce odors  
  • Food preparation e.g. basil is added onto food to add extra flavor
  • Beauty treatments e.g. bergamot is used in skin routines 
  • Religious practices e.g. myrrh is burnt as incense because of its aromatic scent 
  • Boosting immunity e.g. tea tree oil helps in fighting infections 
  • Household cleaning e.g. lemon mixed with cleaning detergents is especially effective in removing stains
  • Regulation of weight e.g. grapefruit activates enzymes that help in breaking down body fat
  • Boosting healthy sleeping habits e.g. smelling lavender oil helps improve sleep
  • Repelling insects e.g. peppermint and citronella repel mosquitoes

Benefits of Essential Oils

Essential oils offer a natural and non-toxic alternative to synthetic solutions when dealing with health issues. What’s more, they don’t cause harmful side effects as is often the case with synthetic drugs. Depending on the essential oil and the method of administration, essential oils offer various benefits to your health. Unlike synthetic drugs that the body may get used to, essential oils retain their potency with repeated use hence they never lose their effectiveness.

These essential oils have been used to treat certain health problems:

Stress and Anxiety

Alongside psychotherapy, essential oils are used in aromatherapy to treat stress and anxiety. This is because the scents stimulate the limbic system which plays a role in regulating emotions and behaviours. Massage using essential oils is also used to relieve stress. 

Treatment of Headaches and Migraines

Applying peppermint, chamomile, and lavender oil on the temples and forehead is used to reduce headaches and migraines. Peppermint contains menthol which relaxes muscles and reduces pain. 

Reducing Inflammations

Essential oils like eucalyptus have a cooling effect that alleviates pain and reduces inflammation. Oregano and thyme are used in treating inflammatory conditions like colitis.

Antibiotic and Antimicrobial

Essential oils like peppermint and tea tree oil have been noted for their antibiotic effects in treating bacterial infections. Furthermore, unlike synthetic antibiotics that destroy both helpful and harmful bacteria, essential oils only destroy harmful ones. 

Aids in Digestion

Some essential oils like lemon and peppermint help promote digestion. They have antispasmodic properties that loosen muscles in the digestive tract. They also loosen the bowels and get rid of constipation.

Note: Before using essential oils for medical purposes, please seek the advice of a qualified practitioner first. 

How to Choose Quality Essential Oils

The quality of essential oils is affected by a number of factors:

  • Part of the plant used
  • The botanical origin of the oil
  • The climatic conditions where the plant was grown
  • The technique of extraction
  • The length and method it was stored
  • The season of harvest

If any of these factors are not carefully considered, it compromises the quality of the essential oil. 

You can use various techniques to test whether an essential oil is good enough:

Gas Chromatography (GC) and Mass Spectrometry (MS)

These two methods analyze the components that make up the oils. GC separates the constituents of the oil according to their molecular volume which supplies the fingerprint of the oil and reveals the presence of any additives in it. However, a GC can only determine the relative quantities of chemical compounds, and is, therefore, not conclusive.

An MS is a device that charges the molecules in the essential oil and measures the positive and negative ion currents, therefore, determining the molecular weight. The results are recorded graphically and are compared to a database with other spectra. This enables the measurement of the presence and quantity of the available chemical constituents. 

The downside of this method is that it’s expensive and requires the technical know-how and experience in pharmacological chemical constituents.

Get Familiar with Latin Names of Essential Oils

If you’re looking for a particular essential oil, find out what its Latin botanical name is. A lot of plant species have very similar Latin names so make sure you have the exact name. The Latin name can be found on the label so check before you purchase. When you buy using the common name, you might end up buying the wrong kind of essential oil. An example is the two types of lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, and  Lavandula intermedia. The former is the true lavender which has sedative effects while the latter has stimulating effects. Confusing the two will prove to be quite a disappointment.

Find a Trusted Supplier

The distillation process is very critical for the quality of essential oils. That is why it is important that you find a supplier who distils their own oil or directly deals with well known and trusted distillers. 

Look for suppliers who offer smaller testing samples so that you can try out their oil before buying larger quantities. 

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Trust Your Nose

If you have been using essential oils for a long time, you may be able to tell the quality of essential oil by its smell, taste, feel, or look of it. If not, you have to start developing your organoleptic skills.

The Price Tag Tells the Story 

If the deal is too good, think twice! If the price of essential oil is too low, that tells you that it may not be from the correct plant or part of the plant, is impure, or is diluted in a base oil. Check for diluents on the label and if it’s not available, you can try some tests. Pour a few drops of water and if the oil turns cloudy and the essential oil has an oily feel and slow evaporation, this shows the presence of a diluent. 

How to Store Essential Oils

Essential oils are expensive so it’s important that you preserve them and get the most out of them. If properly stored, they can last up to a year. The following factors affect the shelf life of your essential oil:

Heat and Light

Essential oils are flammable and can be ignited if the heat they are exposed to is high enough. Avoid storing them above a heat source like the stove which will speed their degradation. Store them in a place with regular room temperature.

When you store essential oils in direct sunlight, they lose their colour and, therefore, their important chemical constituents. Store them on a shelf that is not hit by sunlight at any point of the day. 

Oxygen and Moisture

When essential oils are exposed to oxygen, oxidation occurs and this degrades the oil and it also evaporates. Essential oils that have already been oxidized should not be used for aromatherapy or skin application. They can be used to make cleaning products or can be diffused.

Moisture from the atmosphere can make its way into an essential oil bottle if it’s left open for too long. This affects its purity and quality. To know that essential oil has been infiltrated by moisture, you’ll notice that the oil becomes cloudy and water beads form at the bottom of the bottle. Always put back the lid when you’re not using the oil.

To avoid both oxidation and moisture, make sure your bottle of essential oil is always full. You can do this by transferring a bottle that is half full to a smaller container that will leave no empty space.  


Avoid storing essential oils in clear glass bottles. Use amber and cobalt glass bottles instead. This will reduce their exposure to too much light. 

Never store them in plastic containers because essential oils are corrosive and will eat away at the plastic.

Do Essential Oils Stain?

Pure essential oils with the exception of a few dark-coloured ones do not stain clothes. Since they are volatile, when they land on clothes or linen they easily evaporate. Essential oils with carrier oils, on the other hand, leave greasy stains behind. 

The essential oils that stain due to their natural colouring include blue tansy, German chamomile, jasmine, patchouli, myrrh, tangerine, and vetiver. 

Due to their staining tendencies, avoid using these essential oils in the following ways:

  • Using them in your laundry routine
  • Putting on clothes soon after applying them on your skin. Wait for the skin to absorb them first
  • Take extra care to avoid spilling them on fabrics or clothes
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How to Remove the Stains 

Considering how multipurpose essential oils are, it’s not surprising that they can be used to remove stains caused by the darker essential oils. A combination of lemon and laundry soap can be used to remove stains. 

You can never go wrong by investing in various essential oils. They are worth every single dime!

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