An Essential Oils Guide: Which Ones Help?
Even though the essential oils market will exceed 13 billion USD by 2024 due to an increasing population of people that want to take a more natural route and avoid the side effects of pharmaceuticals, there is still a lot of misinformation about what essential oils are and how consumers should use them safely.
But essential oils all around us — they are in every single plant and are the botanical compounds that extractors remove from plants through steam, water distillation, or cold pressing. The oil that results from this process is the pure, highly concentrated essence of the plant, which is responsible for the plant’s fragrance and, often, its medicinal properties.
How exactly are essential oils extracted?
There are various distillation methods that extractors use to remove essential oils from plants. But there are four main types of distillation processes that are the most popular:
- Water Distillation: This method allows the plant and the water to come into contact. However, water distillation is most often used with flowers, such as roses, because steam can cause the flowers to clump up, rendering the process nearly ineffective.
- Water and Steam Distillation: With this process, the plant is placed in a still on a grate above water and exposed to indirect steam.Water and steam distillation are commonly used with herbs and leaves.
- Steam Distillation: In general, this method is the most common way to extract essential oils. For this process, steam is injected directly into the still at higher pressures and temperatures than the other methods.
- Percolation or Hydro-diffusion: This is a newer type of distillation, and it’s most useful for extracting the oils from woody or tough plant material like fennel. Percolation or hydro-diffusion also have shorter distillation times.
Now, while there are multiple distillation methods for extractors to use, they will follow a similar process for each process. A few steps might differ based on the specific method — but the differences will mainly relate to whether the extractor uses water, steam, percolation, or hydro-diffusion.
However, regardless of the method, during the distillation process, extractors will place the plant on a grid inside a still, which they will quickly seal. Depending on which distillation method extractors utilize, steam or water will slowly remove the volatile components, which will then rise upward as a vapor and seep into a condenser.
The condenser will return the vapor to a liquid form by cooling it, then that liquid will be collected below the condenser. However, because water and oil don’t mix, the essential oil will float to the surface of the water for extractors to collect. But some oils like clove essential oil are actually heavier than water and, rather than float atop water, they will sink to the bottom.
What’s the relationship between essential oils and terpenes?
There’s little information on essential oils, but the content that is available typically confuses the relationship between terpenes and essential oils. It’s easy to confuse these two compounds as they’re both mentioned in the same articles, but essential oils and terpenes are not exactly the same.
In fact, terpenes are secondary metabolites produced by plants, meaning they do not play a role in photosynthesis, growth, or reproduction of the plant. However, they still serve an important function: terpenes make up every essential oil and provide its taste and fragance. Scientists have identified over 200 different terpenes, and each one affects the body in different ways. A few examples include:
While all of these terpenes are known to be in certain plants, most of them are also in hemp. Linalool, for example, a terpene known for its stress-reducing properties, is found in lavender, making the plant a popular choice for companies and extractors. However, there are trace amounts of linalool in hemp as well — and after reviewing a terpene profile, one would discover that b-caryophyllene, humulene, and pinene are also in hemp.
Why are certain essential oils unsafe for consumers?
There are an abundant number of essential oils that are safe for consumers to ingest internally: frankincense, lavender, black pepper (in small quantities), grapefruit, lemon, lime, and orange. However, that doesn’t mean every essential oil is safe to consume. In fact, there are various reasons why certain essential oils are not safe for consumers.
- Poor quality
When choosing an essential oil to take internally, consumers should be very selective about the brands they purchase. They should ensure that the oil comes from a manufacturer that sells pure, organic products that don’t include harmful chemicals or preservatives.
For example, some of the cost-effective essential oils in Walmart might seem like a great deal, but the oil is rarely pure — it’s usually cut with chemicals that no one should put anywhere near their mouth, let alone in the rest of their body.
Companies like Young Living or Doterra, however, are safe bets for consumers because they specialize in formulating essential oils. These companies clearly state whether an oil is safe for internal use, which takes the guesswork out of the equation and makes their products easier for consumers to trust.
- Toxic terpenes
Not all terpenes are safe for human consumption, so it’s important for consumers to pay attention to which essential oils they want to ingest. Just because the oil is natural, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily safe to ingest.
Arnica is a great example. It is an amazing topical that penetrates deep into the muscles and fibers of the body, making it a viable choice for those with muscle pain, joint pain, or arthritis. However, if someone decided to take it internally, they would die because arnica is toxic.
Some essential oils are only safe to use if extractors provide them in a vaporized form. When an extractor dilutes an essential oil in the air through water, it loses its toxicity and becomes much safer to use.
Determining whether an essential oil is safe will boil down to its terpene profile and the quality of the product. While the U.S. market for essential oils is growing, it’s still vital that consumers to do thorough research before putting anything into their bodies.
How to distinguish high-quality essential oils from other options
Discerning whether an essential oil is safe to consume is crucial, but it’s also just as important to distinguish high-quality products from inferior options. There are a few steps consumers should take to do this. However, the first, and maybe the most important one, is to make sure the farm has certifications in place. Consumers need to see that farmers are utilizing sustainable organic practices.
Not all farmers can afford to get certified, but that doesn’t mean their product is lower quality. As long as they can show that their plant material is completely organic — and they have their plants tested to prove there is no residual pesticides or herbicides — their essential oils are more than likely high-quality.
Now, the next two steps are quite straightforward. After looking for a farmer’s certifications, the consumer should research who is performing the extraction and what type of extraction that person is using. Then, the consumer should check whether the finished product contains any solvents or cutting agents. Cutting agents like ethanol, for example, dilute essential oils, making them more cost-effective for manufacturers. But consumers should avoid products that contain solvents or cutting agents because they are toxic and unsafe.
The safest ways to use essential oils
Once consumers have ascertained that the essential oil they want to ingest is safe and the company they’re purchasing from is credible and trustworthy, the next step is to figure out the best way to take it.
Dilute, dilute, dilute!
One should never put essential oils directly under the tongue. Essential oils are highly concentrated and can sometimes burn the mucous membrane. In fact, essential oils also burn the skin if applied topically, but a simple way to avoid this is to dilute the essential oil in a carrier oil. Examples of carrier oils include olive oil, almond oil, jojoba oil, and coconut oil
To prevent an essential oil from coming into contact with the mucous membrane, some consumers prefer to put the essential oil in capsules. For example, if someone is trying to get rid of an infection with oregano essential oil, that person can put two to three drops into a capsule and swallow the capsule.
Combine with carrier oil
Consumers might wonder if they should just mix their essential oils with other oils, rather than a liquid like tea or water. One might argue that having two drops of lavender essential oil in hot water is the same as drinking a cup of lavender tea.
While it’s true that lavender is a great volatile oil if it’s added to water, all that concentrated lavender will float to the surface of the water, making it difficult to consume the oil. In fact, a lot of the lavender would simply stay in the cup.
But if consumers mix an essential oil with another oil, they can effectively combine them and experience the oil’s effects. This fact is why CBD hemp extracts with essential oils work really well.
Consumers just have to focus on the way they’re using the essential oil. Their method will determine how the essential oil works, which is really important to consider if consumers are using it as a remedy.
Best essential oils for headaches and migraines
For people who frequently experience headaches and migraines, popping multiple pills (sometimes daily) might lose its appeal. Consumers might also be wary of ingesting pills because most individuals that suffer from migraines are prescribed addictive opioids.
A group of researchers looked at 2,900 Americans who visited the doctor for migraines and found that 15 percent were prescribed potent opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone. But natural remedies, like certain essential oils, might also provide relief from headaches and migraines.
- Why it helps: With regards to alternative medicine, peppermint is a popular headache-reliever. The oil can open up capillaries and the nasal passages, allowing for better blood and air flow into the brain, which relieves the pain associated with headaches.
However, more research needs to be done to see if peppermint is a viable remedy for headaches and migraines. So far, only one study has shown that a topical with just six percent of menthol—the active ingredient in peppermint oil—reduced the headache after a few hours.
- How to take: An academic review on essential oils states that applying peppermint oil to the temples and forehead can provide relief from tension headaches. Thus, consumers should apply peppermint topically.
- Why it helps: More research is needed on yarrow, but the plant does contain pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties, which may help those who experience migraines.
- How to take: Individuals should ingest yarrow through a capsule as it is the safest consumption method for this particular essential oil.
Best essential oils for skin conditions
Essential oils can be a great option for skin conditions. Some can reduce inflammation and irritation, while others work to improve skin elasticity. No matter the skin type, there is an essential oil that could work for it.
- Why it helps: Chamomile has anti-bacterial, anti-irritant, and anti-inflammatory properties. One of its compounds, alpha-bisabolol, also reportedly lessens the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. In addition, some consumers have found that chamomile speeds up the skin’s healing process.
- How to use: Consumers can enjoy chamomile in multiple ways. They can ingest it internally as chamomile is very calming to the central nervous system, or consumers can apply the essential oil topically in a carrier oil. People can even include a drop of chamomile in their water, but drinking a cup of chamomile tea may be more effective.
- Why it helps: Lavender has soothing and anti-inflammatory properties that help rejuvenate the skin, making it a popular option for various skin conditions. Lavender is an excellent option for burn care — and cosmetic brands use it in a variety of sensitive skin formulations because of lavender’s dominant terpene: linalool.
Lavender oil is also great at killing bacteria, which makes it useful for those who are struggling with acne breakouts and want to unclog pores.
- How to use: Consumers should properly dilute lavender in a carrier oil and use it topically.
- Why it helps: Rose essential oil is particularly helpful for aging skin because it is anti-inflammatory and a potent antioxidant. Its properties help increase elasticity and renew skin cells — and its antioxidant characteristics, in particular, protect the skin from free radicals, which cause aging. This essential oil can also reduce redness and puffiness in the skin because of its anti-inflammatory properties.
- How to use: Rose oil can be inhaled or applied topically. To inhale, sprinkle a couple of drops into a cloth or use a diffuser or vaporizer. However, when applying rose essential oil to the skin, consumers must combine it with a carrier oil and use it in tiny quantities.
- Why it helps:Neroli is a popular choice for those looking to improve their skin elasticity and plump the skin. Because it can regenerate and renew skin cells, neroli essential oil will not only help consumers who are seeking youthful skin, but it will also work for those with scars and stretch marks.
Another great characteristic of neroli essential oil is its ability to maintain the correct balance of oils on the skin. This balance makes it a suitable option for various skin types. Even those with sensitive skin can benefit from neroli oil because it is a calming oil.
- How to use: Consumers should use neroli essential oil topically in a carrier oil or as an inhalation. When used topically, neroli should help reduce skin irritation. However, when inhaled, neroli should lower stress levels and improve consumers’ mood.
Best essential oils for depression
While essential oils are not a substitute for proper treatment for depression, some oils can help manage the condition and can even reduce the amount of medication needed.
- Why it helps: Lavender is touted for its calming, relaxing, and uplifting properties. It’s, therefore, a potential option for consumers who are looking for an essential oil to relieve tension and create a soothing atmosphere.
- How to use: Consumers should continue to use lavender topically and dilute it in a carrier oil.
- Sweet Wild Orange (and other citrus)
- Why they help: Consumers can use sweet wild orange essential oil, and other citrus oils, to enhance their mood and relax. Generally, citrus essential oils are invigorating, energizing, mood-enhancing, and help lessen fatigue. In fact, a study found that citrus aromas could restore homeostasis after periods of stress — and this information is why essential oil blends that target mood improvement feature higher levels of citrus oils.
The study also found that using citrus essential oils to stimulate the olfactory (smell) system can reduce the number of medication that patients with depression have to take. According to the researchers, citrus essential oils have an effective method for normalizing hormones and balancing the immune system, and its properties are actually more effective than antidepressants.
- How to use: Consumers can safely use sweet wild orange essential oil, and other citrus essential oils, using all three methods of consumption: inhalation, topically, or internally.
It’s important to note that when used topically, citrus essential oils can cause photosensitivity because of the acids it contains. This side-effect means it’s essential for consumers to purchase skin care products that utilize citrus appropriately and safely for the health of consumers’ skin.
For example, at nighttime, consumers might use toners with lemon essential oil to close their pores and kill bacteria. For a specific reason like that, it is fine to use, especially if consumers are using the lemon essential oil once a day.
But buying an entire skincare range like serums, lotions, and creams might not be a good idea because of the potential for photosensitivity. People that utilize medication that cause photosensitivity (such as certain antibiotics, antifungals, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and more) should probably steer clear of citrus essential oils altogether to limit the danger of hypersensitivity to the sun and other light.
Be responsible and reap the benefits
Like anything in life, it is vital that consumers are responsible and do their due diligence before introducing essential oils into their skincare or healthcare regimen.
When searching for an essential oil, the consumer must ensure they are purchasing a product from a farmer whose plants are grown using sustainable, organic practices. Essential oils should be 100 percent pure, and consumers should avoid companies that add solvents and cutting agents such as ethanol.
Only when a consumer has thoroughly researched and vetted their chosen essential oil should they decide to purchase it. When used properly and sensibly, essential oils can be very beneficial, but it’s important to find the right one.
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(Disclaimer: This article is not meant to diagnose any conditions or prescribe remedies. The content is solely presenting research to inform consumers about the various essential oils on the market.)