Essential oils, also called volatile oils, are scented oils extracted from plants. Historically, they’ve been used in medicine, cosmetics, perfumes, food, and, more recently, aromatherapy. Essential oils are “essential” because they contain the “essence” of the plant, meaning the taste or odor.
Not only are essential oils popular, they have legitimate therapeutic use and the science to back it up. Although the exact benefit depends on the oil in question, some have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects. Others can affect cognitive function, mood, and memory. Some can even help alleviate stiff, sore muscles and joints.
Some essential oils can be applied to the skin, others are best taken orally. However–and this is important–do not ingest or topically apply any essential oils unless you are absolutely certain that they can be used this way. Not all essential oils are safe to take internally and some can irritate the skin. Essential oils are a concentrated source of many phytochemicals and some essential oils must be diluted with an unscented “carrier oil” to be used safely on skin.
Health Benefits of Common Oils
One of the primary benefits of essential oils is that, when used properly, they offer many benefits and have few, if any, side effects. Many essential oils are effective against harmful organisms. Some can positively affect your mood and mental state. Some essential oils can even help you reduce a headache or feelings of nausea. Aromatherapy uses essential oils to improve quality of life and reduce unpleasant side effects of aggressive therapies and health conditions. Just be careful not to spill them; some surfaces, like painted wood, may react with essential oils.
Derived from fresh lavender flowers, lavender oil is one of the most well known essential oils. It appears to slow the activity of the central nervous system, improve sleep quality, promote better concentration, and help encourage hair regrowth in those suffering from alopecia areata, a type of hair loss.
Lavender may also help fight anxiety. In one study, encapsulated lavender oil was found to be effective for generalized anxiety disorder, without sedative effects or potential for abuse.
Eucalyptus oil, derived from the leaves of Eucalyptus odorata, a smaller variety of eucalyptus tree, is a powerful biocide. It’s antimicrobial, insecticidal (kills insects), herbicidal, acaricidal (kills ticks and mites), and nematicidal (kills nematodes). It’s especially effective against the bacterial strains Staphylococcus aureus, Haemophilus influenza, Staphylococcus agalactiae, and Streptococcus pneumoniae.
Eucalyptus oil is great for respiratory health. Inhaling eucalyptus steam can help alleviate a cough and congestion. The aroma of the oil acts as an expectorant, helping to loosen phlegm in the nasal passages and lungs.
In one study, researchers found that the combination of eucalyptus oil and peppermint oil boosts cognitive performance. The same study also found the scent of these two essential oils reduce headaches and promote mental and muscular relaxation.
Two bottles of peppermint oil with peppermint leaves around them.
Peppermint oil can help alleviate nausea, headache, upset stomach, gas, indigestion, and anxiety. It works on the digestive system by speeding up the rate of elimination. Peppermint oil calms the involuntary smooth muscle of the stomach, producing an antispasmodic effect, and improves the flow of bile. It can help soothe discomfort associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and studies have shown that encapsulated peppermint oil can reduce IBS symptoms in as many as 80% of people who take it. Peppermint oil is effective because it contains menthol that interferes with the movement of electrolytes across cell membranes, stopping involuntary contractions.
Beyond digestive help, peppermint oil may offer relief for HSV-1 (Herpes simplex) outbreaks by permeating the skin and acting as a virucide directly on the virus. More research is needed, but preliminary results suggest topical application may fight outbreaks.
Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil is another essential oil with strong antimicrobial properties. Also known as melaleuca oil, tea tree oil comes from “tea” or “paperbark” trees. In Australia, it has a long history of use as an antiseptic. Bundjalung aborigines native to Australia inhaled the aroma of crushed leaves to relieve cough and used poultices to help heal wounds.
Today, we know that tea tree oil is antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and antiprotozoal. It fights harmful organisms by damaging cell membranes. Tea tree oil also inhibits the growth and sporulation of yeast and fungus. The oil can be applied topically to cuts to discourage infection.
Like peppermint oil, tea tree oil seems to have an effect on HSV-1. One study revealed that, while topical tea tree oil doesn’t prevent recurrent herpes outbreaks, it may reduce viral load by up to 98.2%.
Jojoba oil is derived from the seeds of the wild jojoba shrub, a small, woody desert plant native to Arizona, California, and northwestern Mexico. Historically, Native Americans used jojoba oil to help wounds heal. Jojoba oil contains unique fatty acids and fatty alcohol esters that are similar, but superior, to those found in sperm whales.
Unlike other essential oils, jojoba oil is not a volatile oil, but still offers plenty of benefits, primarily to the skin. With respect to wound healing, researchers found that jojoba oil accelerates the closure of wounds at a cellular level. To improve skin appearance and reduce acne, incorporate jojoba oil into your skincare routine. Evidence indicates that clay-jojoba oil facial masks might be an effective remedy for mild acne.
Blue Chamomile Oil
Blue chamomile oil is extracted from German chamomile. The vibrant color of blue chamomile oil is a result of the steam extraction process—the azulene content in the oil darkens to an inky blue, brilliant azure, or deep green. This color fades and turns dark yellow during storage, but, don’t worry, the oil’s benefits don’t fade.
Chamomile has been used therapeutically for thousands of years by Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians to remedy everything from skin conditions and injuries to fever and insomnia. As a traditional medicine, blue chamomile oil may help with eczema, wounds, bruises, burns, canker sores, mastitis, and other conditions.
Chamomile is also appreciated for its anti-inflammatory effects. One study found that chamomile inhibits and prevents a chemical process in the body that incites inflammation. Further, chamomile seems to inhibit the effects of the stomach-ulcer-provoking bacteria Helicobacter pylori.
Chamomile tea can help with insomnia, and inhaling the aroma of chamomile oil produces a mild sedative effect on the brain, which makes you feel sleepy. Like lavender, chamomile oil offers a mild anti-anxiety effect for those who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder.
Rose oil is a floral-scented essential oil derived from the petals of several species of rose. In contrast, rose absolute is not an essential oil because the essence of the rose is extracted using a more intense chemical extraction processes. Like other essential oils, rose oil promotes a calm mood and fights harmful organisms. It contains tocopherol (a vitamin E compound), carotene, and high levels of phenolic compounds. Rose oil can make your skin more permeable so it’s often added to skin care products to improve efficacy.
Oregano oil contains carvacrol, a powerful organic compound with a long list of beneficial properties, including fighting harmful organisms. Carvacrol also supports liver health.
Jasmine oil is derived from jasmine flowers. While many of the essential oils mentioned are sleep aids and relaxants, jasmine oil has a stimulating effect. When applied topically, jasmine oil increases alertness, breathing rate, and vigor. These effects may promote an uplifted mood and better sense of well-being.
Copaiba oil is extracted from the Amazonian plants in the Copaifera genus. Copaiba oil contains copalic acid, which seems to halt the growth of common, but harmful, dental bacteria such as Streptococcus pyogenus, Streptococcus salivarius, and Streptococcus mutagens. Copaiba oil also has strong anti-inflammatory effects. Unlike most essential oils, copaiba oil can be taken orally.
A slice of bergamot orange. The essential oil extracted from bergamot oranges provides many health benefits.
Bergamot oil is known for its calming effects, but it may also encourage a healthy body weight and help with vascular and heart health. Researchers aren’t yet sure how, but bergamot oil encourages normal cholesterol levels and blood sugar.
Neroli oil is derived from the blossom of Citrus aurantium, also known as the bitter orange tree, which is native to tropical and subtropical Asia. The oil goes by many names but is frequently called “orange bitters” and “Seville orange.” It’s known as Neroli because a 17th-century Italian princess, Anne Marie Orsini of Nerola, took a liking to the scent. Neroli oil is commonly added to diet pills due to it’s ability to act as an appetite suppressant. One of the major benefits of Neroli oil is that it helps relieve symptoms associated with menopause and stress. It also boosts the actions of the endocrine system, fights harmful organisms, and soothes irritation.
Lemon Balm Oil
Also called valerian, lemon balm is another essential oil that helps with symptoms of menopause, especially disordered sleep patterns. Lemon balm also seems to sharpen memory and boost problem-solving abilities. Some promising research indicates that it may improve recall for people with Alzheimer’s disease.
A bottle of organic pomegranate oil with pomegranates seeds around it.
Pomegranate oil comes from the many seeds of the pomegranate. It’s exceptionally rich in linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid. Some research suggests pomegranate oil may even delay the development of colon cancer and skin cancer. The oil also enhances the immune system.
Frankincense oil is extracted from Boswellia tree sap and has a long history of therapeutic use. Most interestingly, frankincense promotes normal cell growth.
How to Use Essential Oils
Most essential oils are safe to use, but you have to pay attention to their intended use and stick to those applications. Some oils can only be used aromatically and should not be applied to the skin or taken orally. You may have noticed that many of the oils are effective against harmful organisms. Those effects aren’t always limited to harmful organisms—they might affect gut and skin microbiota, too. Others can kill cells indiscriminately, including normal tissue cells.