Guide to essential oils

Essential oils are composed of very small molecules that your body absorbs through the skin or nose.  Research reveals that essential oils can kill bacteria on the skin’s surface by penetrating the bacterium’s cell wall and when absorbed into the skin have a number of properties. Our guide will tell you all you need to know about essential oils.

The distillation of fragrant oils derived from the bark, roots, stems, flowers or seeds of a plant creates essential oils. The name ‘essential’ comes from the fact that the oil contains the ‘essence’ of the plant’s characteristic fragrance and may bear the healing or therapeutic benefits of the plants.

Essential oil contains volatile chemical compounds and are also known as volatile oils, ethereal oils, aetherolea or simply as the oil of the plant from which they were extracted – for example, oil of clove.

Please note that, however you use your oils, try a patch test first and do consult a specialist in essential oils – they are very potent compounds and overdose or incorrect use can be harmful.

History of essential oils

There is evidence that essential oils were used for centuries in different cultures – for religious, healing and culinary uses and in beauty routines. The earliest evidence of human knowledge of the healing properties of plants was found in Lascaux in the Dordogne in France where cave paintings, dating from 18,000 BCE indicate that medicinal plants were used in everyday life.

The Egyptians used aromatic extracts as early as 4,500 BCE – and the most famous of their herbal preparations, ‘Kyphi’ was a mixture of 16 ingredients that could be used as incense, perfume or medicine.  The Egyptians used balsams, perfumed oils, scented barks, resins, spices, and aromatic vinegars. There is also evidence that ashes and smoke from aniseed, cedar, onion, garlic, grapes, and watermelon were used but priests were the only people allowed to use aromatic oils as they were necessary to be ‘at one’ with the Gods. Specific fragrances were dedicated to each deity and their statues were anointed with oils by their followers. There are at least 180 references to aromatic oils in the Bible and 33 essential oils or aromatic oil-producing plants are mentioned including Cypress, Sandalwood, Cedarwood, Hyssop, Myrtle and, of course, the Frankincense and Myrrh gifted to Jesus by the Three Kings. The Egyptians didn’t distil their own oils – many were imported from China.

How essential oils work

Essential oils are composed of very small molecules that your body absorbs through the skin or nose. Research reveals that essential oils can kill bacteria on the skin’s surface by penetrating the bacterium’s cell wall and when absorbed into the skin have a number of properties.

1) Using essential oils: Aromatically

Using essential oils aromatically means breathing in essential oils. You can diffuse the essential oils into the air, adding drops of the oil to pillowcases, sheets or using them in humidifiers, natural room deodorisers or treating the oils as perfumes or fragrances. Aromatic use of essential oils is the easiest and safest method for people who are new to essential oil use.  Too much exposure, in short time periods, can upset the body, cause headaches or other undesirable reactions. A diffuser can create a calming ‘cloud’ in your room and some induce sleep with a series of soft colours. Take a look at:

  • The Victsing Aromatherapy Essential Oil Diffuser (Amazon UK)  £25.99

  • The Tisserand Aromatherapy Aroma Spa Diffuser (  £30.00

  • The AromaWorks Electric Diffuser (Amazon UK) £33.93

  • This Works Scent Well Portable Diffuser (John Lewis) £44.00

  • The Ellia Ultrasonic Diffuser (ebay) £29.95 plus postage

  • Neom Organics Wellbeing Pod Diffuser (John Lewis) £72.00

Essential oils that may be diffused without risk too children or pets include:

  • cedarwood

  • fir

  • grapefruit

  • lavender

  • lemon

  • spearmint

  • tangerine

Essential oils that should be diffused with caution because they irritate the mucous membrane include:

  • bay

  • cinnamon bark or leaf

  • clove bud or leaf

  • lemongrass

  • peppermint

  • thyme


2) Using essential oils: Application to the skin

Usually the essential oil is applied to the areas of the skin in need of improvement or help. Small amounts of oil may be applied to the wrists, palms or the back of the ears. Other areas include:

  • Temples/neck/forehead

  • Face

  • Base of the skull

  • The chest

  • The abdomen

  • The roof of the mouth

  • Soles of the feet

A woman in a silk robe applying essential oils.

To reduce tension, the oil should be placed on the neck, temples or forehead. Essential oils for improving breathing patterns or reducing sensitivity would be the chest or soles of the feet. Patch tests should be carried out by taking two drops of essential oils and applying them to a small spot on your forearm, cover with gauze, leave for 24 hours to see if any allergic reactions occur.

Aromatherapy massage involves massage using essential oils in a carrier solution. All applications of essential oils should be under supervision of a qualified specialist.

Can I use Essential Oils ‘Neat’ on my skin?

A few essential oils – including lavender and tea tree – may be used neat to treat insect bites or tension headaches. Many, however, are too strong to be put straight onto the skin and need to be diluted with a carrier oil such as Avocado, Almond, Jojoba, Grape Seed, Coconut or Sunflower.

Essential Oils that MUST be diluted include:

  • bay

  • cinnamon bark or leaf

  • clove bud

  • citronella

  • cumin

  • lemongrass

  • lemon verbena

  • oregano

  • thyme

How do I dilute Essential Oils?

It’s important to take care when diluting essential oils – for most oils, the general rule is 1 drop of essential oil to one teaspoon of carrier oil but do seek confirmation for the particular oils you intend to use.

Creating an Essential Oil Compress:

  1. Compresses relieve pain, inflammation and swelling. Boost these effects by adding your chosen essential oil to the fabric.

  2. Fill a sink or bowl with water. Use cold water to soothe inflammation or hot water to ease pain

  3. Add diluted essential oil to the water

  4. Submerge a small towel until it is completely wet

  5. Wring out the excess water and apply towel to affected area

  6. Leave for about 15 minutes

  7. Reapply as needed throughout the day

  8. If you used a warm compress, rewarm in the microwave but make sure you don’t overheat the towel and cause burns

Adding essential oils to your bath

  • Add 10 to 12 drops of essential oil to an ounce of carrier oil. Add that to the water as it flows from the tap and allow the water to disperse before getting into the bath.

  • Add to the ambience by lighting a scented candle and listening to soothing music.

Bath tub with books and a cup of tea
Stone bathtub

3) Using essential oils: Internal use of essential oils

Essential oils may be used in cooking, mixed in drinks or swallowed in capsule form. When used internally, just a few drops of essential oil at one time should be enough. Too much can be harmful. Any internal use of essential oils should be under the supervision of a medical or holistic specialist. Some essential oils like wintergreen should never be ingested.

Tips for Cooking with Essential Oils

  • Make sure your essential oils are ‘food grade’  - if the word ‘edible’ is not evident on the bottle, don’t use it in a recipe or to take internally.    

  • Use pure, organic essential oils with a good brand

  • Add one drop at a time to avoid overpowering the food

Cooking oil being applied to a salad on a blue plate

The most commonly used essential oils in cooking are:

  • Garlic oil: to flavour garlic-based dishes

  • Lemon essential oil: in sauces or sherbets

  • Bergamot essential oil: in yoghurt or on fish

  • Basil essential oil: on a pizza

  • Cinnamon essential oil: in gingerbread

  • Coriander essential oil: in Asian dishes

  • Grapefruit essential oil: in cakes, biscuits and icing

  • Peppermint essential oil: in cocktails, desserts and chocolate dishes

Using therapeutic essential oils

Make sure you choose only high-grade oils for maximum effect. Pure oils do not contain additives or synthetic oils and the high quality oils are those which have been changed least by the extraction process that is, have been produced by distillation or cold mechanical press methods.

Essential oils older adults

  • As we age, we need a weaker dilution of essential oils – and it’s important to check for any underlying health conditions before using any oils.

  • As a general principle, if you’re an older adult, you should be sure that the essential oils you choose are most advantageous to the conditions you want to cure.  

  • Its really important that the essential oils are ‘consumed’ in a safe manner – applying to the skin should be done carefully and it is important that you don’t overdose with essential oils. This can be physically upsetting and cause harm.

Essential oils to help muscle soreness

There are a number of essential oils that you can use to ease muscle pain, tension and swelling:

  • Peppermint oil – this contains menthol which has a cooling effect on sore and aching muscles.  It also has analgesic, antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties.

  • Helichrysum oil relieves muscle spasms, inflammation and pain

  • Marjoram oil relieves muscle spasms and tension and is known for its ability to ease pain and inflammation

  • Eucalyptus oil has a cooling effect on muscles and reduces pain and inflammation

  • Chamomile oils can help with pain and inflammation, soothe muscle tension and reduce spasms

  • Rosemary eases pain and inflammation

  • Yarrow oil reduces pain and inflammation

Essential oils to reduce stress and nervous tension

The theory is that essential oils work by stimulating smell receptors in the nose and send messages to your nervous system. They are also thought to have a subtle effect on the body’s chemical and energy systems.

  • Valerian oil promotes sleep and calms nerves and can have a mild sedative effect on the body.   It can be added to a diffuser.

  • Lavender oil calms anxiety by affecting the part of the brain that controls emotions.  Lavender can be used in the bath – combine two or three drops of oil with a teaspoon of carrier oil and add to the flowing tap water.

  • Jasmine oil can promote a sense of well-being and romance and calms the nervous system without causing sleepiness

  • Sweet basil oil helps relieve anxiety and can be added to a room diffuser

  • Bergamot oil relieves anxiety and improves mood – and can be added to a cotton wool ball or handkerchief and inhaled when necessary to relieve anxiety

How to ease dry, cracked skin with essential oils

Essential oils are absorbed into the skin bai the hair follicle. All have anti-bacterial properties and some are anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory. They also contain antioxidants which help prevent cell damage caused by oxidation and protect against the build-up of toxic waste in skin cells helping reduce the signs of ageing.

  • Chamomile oil helps to soothe dry skin – particularly ‘winter skin’

  • Frankincense oil soothes dry skin, assists skin cell regeneration and vitality and heals irritation

  • Geranium oil has astringent-like qualities that tone and firm the skin and anti-inflammatory properties that minimise red, dry, irritated skin.

  • Ylang Ylang oil helps balance the oils in the skin and calms any irritation

  • Jasmine oil is packed with antibacterial and anti-viral properties which make it excellent for soothing dry, irritated skin.

  • Patchouli oil is a natural anti-inflammatory which heals cracked skin – use it for chapped hands, scarred skin and rough patches

Essential oils to soothe sore and tired feet

Our feet are the most abused part of our bodies. They become sore and tired after walking too far, when we have plantar fasciitis, arthritis, gout, strains and sprains, blisters, corns and calluses and oedema. The most effective essential oils are:

  • Eucalyptus oil which has anti-inflammatory property. Add 3-4 drops into a carrier such as coconut oil and massage into the feet

  • Peppermint oil is perfect for feet that are tired.  Prepare a scrub with ½ cup of brown sugar, ½ cup of carrier oil (almond oil is perfect) and 10 drops of peppermint essential oil. Mix the ingredients and scrub on your feet for 10 minutes and rinse off. Always wash your hands afterwards.

  • Lavender oil has anti-inflammatory properties and is good for joint and muscle pain. Prepare a soak by mixing ¼ cup Epsom salts with 1 teaspoon of jojoba oil and 4 drops of lavender essential oil. Place the mixture in a basin of warm water and make sure it’s well mixed before soaking feet for 15 minutes or until water cools. Dry the feet well and rinse hands.

  • Sweet Marjoram oil has calming and comforting properties and improves circulation. Prepare a foot gel with ¼ cup of Aloe Vera gel and mix with 10-12 drops of Sweet Marjoram oil and apply to your feet as needed.

Essential oils to help sleep and reduce insomnia

Essential oils will fill your bedroom with a pleasant scent which improves your sleeping environment.  Use essential oils every night and your mind will gradually associate falling asleep with a specific fragrance. You may need to experiment to find which is the best oil to improve your sleep patterns.  Add a few drops of essential oil to a nightly bath, spray a blend on your bedding or use a diffuser in the bedroom. 

  •  Lavender is one of the most popular essential oils for improving sleep

  • Valerian oil has been used to aid sleep since the 17th century.  

  • Roman chamomile relieves symptoms of insomnia

  • Rose oils are used for stress relief and insomnia

  • Jasmine oil has a sedative effect and reduces depression

  • Cedarwood oil has natural sedative effects

  • Peppermint clears ‘clogged senses’ and can be used to relieve snoring problems – use a steam inhalation before going to bed.

Relief for symptoms of arthritis using essential oils

Inhale the scent of the essential oil or apply the diluted oil directly to the affected area to help with arthritis pain. Good carrier oils for dilution include coconut, jojoba and olive. One ounce of carrier oil for every 10-12 drops of essential oil. Do consult your doctor or aromatherapy specialist before administering self-treatment.

  • Turmeric essential oil

  • Ginger essential oil

  • Basil essential oil

For osteo-arthritis:

  • Lavender oil

  • Lemon oil

  • Eucalyptus oil

  • Marjoram oil

  • Rosemary oil

  • Tea tree oil

  • Thyme linalol oil

  • Coconut oil

Relieving symptoms of the common cold using essential oils

Essential oils may be rubbed on the body, inhaled with steam, diffused into the air or used on a cloth as a compress. Avoid using essential oils in this way if you have asthma as they can trigger an attack.

  • Eucalyptus oil: Rub diluted oil on the chest as a decongestant or inhale it to clear stuffiness

  • Lavender oil: Inhale in steam to clear and soothe nasal passages

  • Lemon oil: Use in a diffuser to clear and soothe nasal passages

  • Cedar oil: Inhale in steam to clear and soothe nasal passage

  • Menthol oil: Use in a diffuser to relieve nasal congestion and inhibit infection

The best essential oils for mature adults:

If you only want to buy a small selection of oils, the following are the most useful for mature adults.

  • Lavender essential oils: help improve sleep quality, calm the emotions and serve as antidepressants. Lavender is best applied to the skin or via inhalation. If you have a spouse or relative suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, insomnia, anxiety or an emotional state, including bereavement, lavender essential oils can be helpful.

  • Peppermint essential oils: help calm nerves, improve concentration and memory functions. These can be beneficial for anyone dealing with health issues including depression, anxiety and dementia. Peppermint essential oils are best applied via inhalation – and an essential oil diffuser that does not use water will allow you to ingest essential oils without upsetting your body by taking too much at once.

  • Rosemary essential oils: help with memory and carrying out daily tasks. Rosemary essential oils are believed to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s Disease and improve the recollection of past memories. This particular essential oil is best applied to the skin or via indirect inhalation.

There are over 90 commonly used therapeutic oils:

  • Peppermint: Boosts energy and aids digestion

  • Lavender: relives stress

  • Sandalwood: calms nerves and helps you focus

  • Bergamot: reduces stress and helps some skin conditions

  • Rose: improves mood and reduces anxiety

  • Chamomile: improves mood and relaxation

  • Ylang Ylang: for headaches, nausea and to improve skin conditions

  • Tea tree: boosts immunity and fights infection

  • Jasmine: to help depression, childbirth and libido

  • Lemon: to help digestion, mood, headaches and more

Other Uses For Essential Oils

  • Scenting the home

  • Freshening up laundry

  • Environmentally-friendly insect repellent – Citronella repels mosquitos

  • In home made soaps, shampoos and cosmetics

  • In room diffusers

  • In the bath

  • On pillows or sheets

A woman carrying three folded knit jumpers.
Reed diffusers on a windowsill.

Safety considerations

  • Some essential oils like lemon, orange and lime can make the skin photosensitive so using them before going out in the sun can cause burns

  • Older people have thinner skins and may need to have skin applications diluted with more carrier oil than recommended

  • Some essential oils are poisonous if absorbed directly through the skin

  • Follow appropriate dilution guidelines

  • Use in a well-ventilated area

  • Diffuse 30-60 minutes on and then 30-60 minutes off. Some diffusers do this automatically

  • Some essential oils absorbed into the skin can react with medications

  • Some essential oils – for example, nutmeg – can cause a rash or burn if applied to the skin and hallucinations if ingested

  • Keep essential oils away from open flames

  • Always wash your hands after using essential oils

Essential oils being poured

Examples of essential oils that are dangerous when misused:

  • Wintergreen creates a feeling of warmth but oil of wintergreen is very dangerous even if a tiny amount is swallowed. Drinking it from a bottle is deadly.

  • Nutmeg oil is used in food but if misused can cause hallucinations and coma

  • Sage oil is a scent, seasoning and remedy but swallowing a tiny amount can cause seizures in children

  • Camphor is an effective moth repellent but is extremely dangerous if swallowed causing seizures. Repeated preparations of camphor applied to children’s skin causes camphor poisoning.

  • Peppermint oil is very effect but choose the correct species of mint – some types are poisonous for example, pennyroyal oil is poisonous for the liver.

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