When applied sensibly and appropriately, essential oils are highly beneficial.
Essential oils support the immune system (for example, they are 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).
The heat and pressure applied during steam distillation also 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, for 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, thus, ultimately rendered the unique product of extraction. They are highly concentrated isolates (50 to 100 times more concentrated in the bottle than when present in the 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. They do not dissolve or disperse in water; their molecules will cluster together and float on the surface of water, or will sink if they are denser and heavier than water (for example, vetiver, and myrrh).
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 carefully blended with essential oils, creating a very effective skincare synergy – 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 and the barrier substance prevents their rapid evaporation.
When prescribed by a pharmacist or herbalist for internal ingestion, essential oils are applied in small controlled amounts, and are 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 they are 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 within the body, and with other chemicals, such as 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. They may be added to creams and lotions for their skincare qualities.
Essential oils may also aid the digestive system (for example, to alleviate indigestion, or symptoms of IBS) and menstrual pain, when applied topically; for example, applying a compress, or essential oil-infused cream, lotion, or vegetable oil to the mid to lower back and / or abdomen.
Essential oils are also effectively applied, in dilution and in 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.
The following essential oils are collectively referred to as Serenity essential oils. This group of oils complement each others qualities well and provide a range of valuable qualities. They are safe (when handled appropriately), very effective, and provide all that you need to create your own basic remedies. They provide an ideal ‘starting kit’ and effective ‘tool box’ – a useful and valuable platform on which to continue to build your essential oil repertoire.
You will find much more information about the therapeutic qualities and appropriate use and application of essential oils (including those featured below and many more), in my books, Essential Oils for Mindfulness and Meditation, and Essential Oils for the Whole Body, published by Inner Traditions Bear & Co. (Healing Arts Press) and available to purchase from most online and high street book outlets.
Book on an essential oil training workshop or course here (training is delivered in person and not online)