When applied sensibly and appropriately, essential oils are highly beneficial.
Essential oils support the immune system (for example, they are anti-viral and anti-microbial). They are skin healing and rejuvenating. They are adaptogenic, protective, and restorative.
Essential oils directly influence the Limbic System (the instinctive and emotional centre within the brain) and indirectly influence the pituitary gland and frontal lobe through connection via the hypothalamus, in a way that affects mood and emotion, memory and concentration, alertness and attitude, and other physiological, hormonal and neural responses. These responses are instigated via olfactory receptors found, not only in the nasal cavities, but also in other tissues and organs throughout the body, via neural signals and through molecular interaction and mechanisms when essential oil molecules are absorbed into the body’s circulatory system via alveoli in the lungs and dermal application.
What is an essential oil?
Essential oils comprise of a highly concentrated mixture of various (more or less) volatile organic chemical components or compounds (terpenes and terpenoids) extracted from certain plants or their parts (such as, leaves, fruits, flowers, bark, resin, sawdust, roots and so on).
While essential oils demonstrate some of the qualities exhibited by the plant, the process of extraction alters their chemical profile. For example, many of the oils non-distillable, non-volatile and hydrophilic (water loving) components are either left behind in the plant material, or bond with water molecules or oxygen molecules in the atmosphere during the process of extraction or separation (steam or water distillation, or in the case of fruit rinds, expression – crushing).
Also, the heat and pressure applied during steam distillation influences the chemical presentation of the resultant essential oil; molecules transform during this process, sometimes creating components that are not present within the plant. Matricin, one example, a colourless sesquiterpene found in chamomile, wormwood and yarrow, is biosynthesised during distillation to form the blue-violet compound chamazulene, which does not exist in the plant.
Essential oils when removed from the plant are ultimately rendered the unique product of extraction. They are highly concentrated isolates (50 to 100 times more concentrated in a bottle than when present in a plant), for example:
It takes 35 pounds of lavender flowers to produce just 15ml of essential oil (or approximately 300 drops), and 2,500 to 4,000 kg of rose petals to produce just 1 kg of rose essence. Just one drop of essential oil is equivalent to 15-40 cups of medicinal tea or up to 10 teaspoons of tincture (Krumbeck 2014).
Essential oils mainly comprise of hydrophobic / lipophilic (water hating / fat loving) compounds. While some water compatible components bond with oxygen molecules, essential oils mainly do not dissolve or disperse in water; their molecules will cluster together and float on the surface of water, or will sink if denser and heavier than water (for example, vetiver and myrrh tend to sink when dropped into water).
While they are oil-like in their behaviour (i.e. they do not mix with water), they are not ‘greasy’ or ‘oily’ like fat or vegetable oils (which are also known as ‘fixed oil’s); therefore, they are not lubricant and are, in fact, extremely drying and potentially irritant to the skin, even in small quantity. This is why essential oils are always blended in an emollient substance, such as a vegetable oil, ointment, cream or lotion, when applied to the body (emollients can also add their own unique skin supporting qualities when considerately blended with essential oils to create very effective skincare synergies – see here for blending information)
Essential oil molecules more readily leave, or partition, from a water based medium (for example, lotions, creams and gels) to bond with lipids in the skin, rather than from an oily medium or ointment. However, vegetable oils and ointments create a barrier that prevents or significantly decreases water evaporation from skin, which increases opportunity for essential oil molecules to penetrate; essential oil molecules must be in direct contact with skin to be absorbed.
When prescribed by a medical doctor, pharmacist or herbalist for internal ingestion, essential oils are applied in small controlled amounts, contained in a dispersant emollient and/or within a ‘safe to swallow’ gel-like – preferably vegetable – capsule (composed of hypromellose, a polymer formulated from plant cellulose); the animal version (gelatine) is derived from skin or bone collagen (not suitable for vegans or vegetarians). Essential oils are not recommended for internal ingestion unless prescribed and/or administered by a professional healthcare practitioner, herbalist, pharmacist, or chemist with appropriate knowledge of the chemical constituents of essential oils and how these interact with bodily enzymes and chemicals, and other prescribed chemicals found in medications.
Employing their antimicrobial, skin and underling soft tissue healing qualities, essential oils may be safely** and effectively applied topically to skin in appropriate dilution in vegetable oil* or vegetable wax* (for example, jojoba), gels (such as aloe vera gel, or gels made from pectin or cellulose gum, among others, and distilled water), ointment* and compresses to treat local conditions, such as eczema, sprains, insect bites, to aid repair of damaged skin tissue, improve the appearance of scars, and to combat minor infections. Essential oils are added to creams and lotions for their cleansing, toning and other skincare qualities.
Essential oils may also be applied topically (as a compress or essential oil-infused cream, lotion or vegetable oil) to mid or lower back and abdomen, to aid the digestive system; for example, to alleviate indigestion, symptoms of IBS, or to ease menstrual pain.
Essential oils are also effectively applied, in dilution and small quantity (one to four drops of essential oil) via inhalation using, for example, a room diffuser, drops on a tissue or cotton pad, aroma sticks (specially designed nasal inhalers), ‘therapeutic perfumes’ (for example, diluted in vegetable oil and dispensed using roller bottle), and steam inhalation; respectively applied as an ambient room scent, or to relieve the symptoms of a cold or sore throat, or for their psycho-emotional benefits (uplifting, calming, energising), and so on.
*The antiseptic action of phenols (components found in clove, cinnamon, basil, and thyme, for example – note that phenol rich essential oils tend to be skin irritants) are possibly negated by fatty or oily mediums (Bensouilah and Buck 2006).
**Always check the qualities and safety information of an essential oil before applying it.
Ensure your essential oils are derived from a sustainable source (especially, spikenard and frankincense, also rosewood and sandalwood). If you cannot find a sustainable source you may substitute spikenard with vetivert or valerian, and frankincense with patchouli or myrrh (see my book Healing with Essential Oils for more information about this).
The fifteen essential oils featured below are collectively referred to as Serenity essential oils. This group of oils complement each others properties well and provide a range of valuable qualities that will enable you to create basic remedies; they are safe (when handled appropriately) and very effective. They provide an ideal ‘starting kit’ and an effective ‘tool box’ – a useful and valuable platform on which to continue to build your essential oil repertoire.
You will find in-depth information about the therapeutic qualities and appropriate use and application of a wide range of essential oils (including those featured below), in my books, Healing with Essential Oils, Essential Oils for the Whole Body, and Essential Oils for Mindfulness and Meditation, published by Inner Traditions Bear & Co. (Healing Arts Press) and available to purchase from most online and high street book outlets, including Barnes and Nobel.
Book on an essential oil training workshop or course here (training is delivered in person and not online)