I have learnt far more by experimenting and actually using essential oils myself rather than from books, but there is still a lot of important information to know that will help you understand and get more of a feel for how to use them.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are naturally produced by many plants and can be found in their seeds (coriander & fennel), fruits (mandarin & lime), flowers (rose & orange blossom/neroli), leaves (basil & geranium), woods (cedar wood & sandalwood) roots (ginger & angelica) and resin (frankincense & myrrh). The essential oil is extracted from the plant material, usually by a process called ‘Steam Distillation’ which involves passing steam through the plant material to release and capture the essential oil molecules (more intricate details will appear in a future post).
There is another method, mainly used with citrus oils, called ‘expression’, where the oil is literally just pressed from the peel of the fruit. You can actually release the oil yourself if you dig your finger nail into the peel of an orange or lemon, as you pierce the cells you will be able to see and smell the essential oil. Make sure you use an ‘un-waxed’ fruit, the waxed kind have been sealed.
Citrus fruit peel yields a lot of oil compared to other parts of plants, but you can probably still imagine that it would take the peel of many oranges to make a little 10ml bottle of Orange Essential Oil. This should also highlight how concentrated the oil is. Some plants yield a very tiny amount of oil in comparison, for example, roses. It takes around 1200 rose flowers (that’s flowers not petals!) to make just 1ml of rose essential oil, which equals around 40 drops of extremely precious oil! This should go a little way to addressing the high price of rose oil and other delicate floral oils, which generally hold a very small amount of essential oil.
What are the effects of essential oils?
Hopefully, you now have a good sense of the potency of essential oils and perhaps an idea of how powerful their effects can be. You may be aware of how they are widely used to help us relax, and used as ingredients in bath oils or room sprays and that they are found in many beauty products to help improve our skin, but there are many other ways they can help support us both on a physical level and on the way we feel. The fact that they have such strong scents can have very tangible, immediate effects on our bodies and our moods. All essential oils I have come across have anti-microbial properties which make them particularly suitable for using to help treat illness and disease, and can have various effects on all systems in the body from the endocrine to the digestive system.
How do you use essential oils safely?
Realising the potency of essential oils can also highlight why there are some safety precautions to observe and why it’s important to dilute them when using them on your skin. In their neat form, they are way too strong for to use directly on the skin and can cause tingling or burning sensations, and other reactions. Diluting them in a vegetable oil is ideal as they themselves have many nourishing properties that your skin can also benefit from. Generally they are full of vitamins and fatty acids that help keep skin healthy and vital. They also help the essential oils absorb into your skin more easily. Some other modes for diluting essential oils include honey, milk or aloe vera gel -water based products are not appropriate as the essential oils are hydrophobic (water-hating), and will not mix together. You do not need to dilute essential oils when using them in a burner, diffusor or for inhalation (all methods to be covered in future posts). See my earlier blog post: Essential Oils in the Shower for details on using essential oils in a burner.
Various modes of application to the skin include: massage, bath, compresses, skin care preparations such as creams or balms and neat application*. They can also be used by inhalation (using diffusor, burner, steam inhalation or directly from a tissue) and they can also be used internally. The versatility and range of applications of the oils allows for your own personal input that means they can really support you in your life. For example you can chose to give yourself a foot bath each night, (with a mix of peppermint essential oil and olive oil) when you get home from work because you have a job where you’re on your feet all day, and that’s what really supports you; or there may be a certain oil that helps calm your breath when feeling stressed or anxious, (e.g. frankincense, lavender or neroli essential oil) and you keep a little bottle in a your hand bag to dot on a tissue and gently breath in for when you feel to use. This is what i really love about the oils, that you can bring them into your daily, weekly or monthly routine to support you in so many different ways -all shared throughout this blog!
*Note: It is generally accepted that lavender and tea tree essential oils can be used neat on the skin. See my blog post on Lavender, Essential First Aid, for more details on using lavender or tea tree.