Essential Oils 101
Essential oils are becoming increasingly popular with stores like Whole Foods, Urban Outfitters, and even TJ Maxx selling different oils. Maybe you’ve tried a few oils, or just have heard about them, but would like to learn more about them before investing in some. Maybe you’ve never ever heard about them at all. I had the opportunity to attend a free class on essential oils this week at Nashville Center for Alternative Therapy, and wanted to share the information I learned.
I want to preface this article by saying that there are NO affiliate links for oils in this article; I have included a few for products I use with my oils, but the actual oils themselves are not affiliate links. This is not a sponsored post. I’ve done a lot of research for this article and any recommendations on products or brands are simply what I believe in after having completed my research. Essential oils are somewhat controversial, and I don’t want any brand sponsorship or affiliate links to taint your opinion of the information presented.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils come from plants and are used for many different purposes. They can come from the rind, bark, leaves, flower, or seeds of the plant. To get the oil, the plant is steam-distilled and the oil gets pressed out. It separates from the water and the oil that is left is highly concentrated. This is an essential oil.
How long have people been using essential oils?
Essential oils have been around for a LONG time. They often used to be called aromatic oils, and have been used by many cultures throughout the world. There is evidence of use of essential oils in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, India, and in medieval Europe. The method they used to extract oils was likely different than how it is processed now, so the oils used may not have been exactly what we would call essential oils today, but the concept is the same.
How do I use them?
There are three ways you can use an essential oil – aromatically, topically, and internally. To use aromatically, most people use a diffuser. A diffuser turns the oil into a mist and spreads it in the air, much like a humidifier. In fact, most diffusers require water, which you then put a few drops of oil into. When you inhale the essential oil particles, they hit your olfactory nerve, which sends signals to the brain. Different scents send different signals. For example, the scent of lavender sends a signal that relaxes and calms you down, while peppermint helps to invigorate and wake you up.
When used topically, essential oils can help with rashes, burns, cuts/scrapes, scars, and muscle/joint pain. Some oils can irritate skin, so make sure you’re using an oil that can be applied topically. If you have sensitive skin, or want to use an oil on a child, you’ll need to dilute the oil into another non-essential oil (see next section). Some people apply essential oils directly over the spine, usually when sick, so the essential oil will hopefully get absorbed into the spinal fluid where it can travel throughout the body. This is a controversial practice though, and really should only be done by a professional.
The last way to use essential oils is internally, and like applying oils to the spine, this is a very controversial subject. Two of the major essential oil companies, Young Living and doTERRA, frequently recommend internal use of oils. These are both multi-level marketing companies, which I tend to distrust in general, and I definitely have some issues with things I’ve read about both companies, which I’ll also talk about more in the next section.
If you decide you want to try using an oil internally, there are a few steps you should take. First, make sure the oil is even safe to use internally. Some are NOT, no matter the brand or quality. Second, make sure you’re using a high-quality brand that has no chemical additives. This can be hard to figure out, and at the end of the post, I’ll talk about a brand that, through my research, I believe can be trusted. Third, you want to dilute the heck out of it. Essential oils are VERY potent. If you really want to take something internally, put one drop, maybe two at the absolute maximum, in a whole glass of water. I would definitely recommend consulting a professional before ingesting any essential oil.
Also, many oils are highly anti-bacterial, which can be great, but if you’re regularly ingesting them, they will kill all the bacteria in your system, not just the bad guys. Bacteria in your body isn’t always bad, and in fact, having a lot of good gut bacteria is super healthy! You want that bacteria to stick around.
Are essential oils safe?
With proper use, yes! Some oils are very strong and need to be diluted. In fact, some people recommend diluting ALL essential oils. To dilute, you can mix the essential oil in what’s called a carrier oil. A carrier oil can be just about any oil that isn’t an essential oil. Fractionated coconut oil is a favorite for many people because it doesn’t have much of a scent and it doesn’t stain fabric. Any high quality oil will do though. How much you dilute it will depend on the oil and the person it’s being used on. For example, you’ll want to dilute an oil down a lot more for a child than you would need to for an adult. If you’re unsure, look up recommendations for the specific oil you’re using. Many brands of oils have dilution instructions on their website.
Something to be wary of with essential oils is the lack of regulation. Since the FDA doesn’t regulate supplements, claims can be made and things can be added that aren’t pure. Technically, the contents of a bottle of 100% pure essential oil only needs to actually contain 5% of the essential oil. The rest could be chemical garbage, but since the 5% that is actually an essential oil is itself 100% pure, they can put it on the label. This makes it tricky to figure out.
As I mentioned in the previous section, two of the biggest essential oil companies are Young Living and doTERRA. Both of these companies make claims to the purity of their oils. Young Living calls their oils “Young Living Therapeutic Grade” while doTERRA uses the term “Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade.” This sounds great, right? Well, it would if the companies themselves weren’t the ones who trademarked those terms. Now, I’m not trying to bash either of these companies, and I have friends who use both and love them and are very healthy individuals. I just think it’s a little fishy that they use a quality grade that they themselves invented. I’m not a huge fan of misleading marketing. I’m not saying that their oils are NOT high quality, I’m sure they’re great. I just personally have an ethical issue on the marketing here.
What can essential oils do?
A lot of things! There are hundreds of different oils, and all of them do slightly different things. Many oils are antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-fungal. Some are anti-inflammatory, others are analgesics. Some oils help open up airways, making them great for allergies, asthma, and upper respiratory infections. Others can be calming and soothing.
What are some popular oils I should start with?
The four most popular oils are probably lavender, melaleuca (tea tree), peppermint, and lemon. Lavender is very relaxing and calming, which makes it great for stress relief and insomnia. It also helps with rashes, bug bites, and burns. Melaleuca, or tea tree oil, is great for skin and can help with dandruff, acne, rashes, fungi, and cuts/scrapes. It’s antibacterial, anti fungal, and antiviral, so it can be great in a homemade cleaning product (like the one I talked about in Rec This Week 9!) Peppermint oil is strong, and works great for opening up the sinuses. It also helps wake you up, and is good for headaches, joint pain, digestion, cramps, and fevers. Lemon essential oil is also antibacterial, and is great for detox and cleaning.
Where can I buy oils?
I personally probably wouldn’t buy from Young Living or doTERRA for the reasons I mentioned earlier. However, as I said earlier, I have friends who use both and love them. Both companies definitely have amazing educational resources. In fact, the class I went to this week was taught by a doTERRA representative, and it was GREAT. She never once pressured us to buy anything, and it was extremely informational. If you’re curious about some of the different brands, Whole New Mom has a great 7-part series on essential oil companies. I highly recommend reading all of them. She put a lot of time (10 months!), research, and money (from buying and testing many different brands of oils) into those posts and they are really well done.
Based on my research, the two companies that I think are the best to go with are Native American Nutritionals and Mountain Rose Herbs. Both of these companies are very open about where their oils come from and the quality of them. They seek out the certifications they can get despite being in a field that is mostly unregulated. They both have excellent business practices. In particular, as of right now, I would pick Native American Nutritionals over Mountain Rose Herbs. The main reason is that NAN has free shipping and MRH has pretty high shipping rates. However, MRH’s prices seem a bit lower overall. Another reason for favoring NAN is their owner, Paul Dean. Dean has done many interviews and is extremely knowledgeable. He has been using essential oils for 30 years and his passion on the subject is obvious. This interview in particular is very informative.
I haven’t actually tried Native American Nutritionals’ oils yet, but I’ve ordered a few and will write an update after I’ve used them for a while.
UPDATE (7/28/15): The oils I ordered from Native American Nutritionals arrived today! Except for one, which was accidentally switched out for a different product. I had ordered the 10ml roll-on of their Immune Strength blend, but received the 10ml roll-on of their Aligning blend. I called customer service, got right through to them, and a replacement of Immune Strength is on the way. Plus I get to keep the Aligning so I think it works out well for me! The customer service representative I spoke to was extremely friendly and helpful. So A+ for NAN’s customer service as well! Very please with my experience so far. I’ll update in a week after I’ve used the oils some.
UPDATE (5/23/16): Before I ever wrote this article, Native American Nutritionals merged with Rocky Mountain Oils, but still ran their own operation. Recently, they’ve completely merged and are now solely under Rocky Mountain Oils name and branding. I still use these oils and haven’t noticed any difference in quality. Still highly recommend them! My favorite blend recently has been the Lymph Detox. It really helps get fluids moving when you have swollen lymph nodes from sickness!
This post is really long, but there’s a LOT of information out there, and this really is just scratching the surface. Each individual oil will have it’s own info, so make sure you do your research before using it!
Do you use essential oils in your day-to-day life? Let us know in the comments!