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The Ultimate Essential Oils Guide: Therapeutic Uses, Recipes & Safety

Essential oils displayed with flowers and plants with small dark amber bottles in the foreground

By Steven Peters — When you consider sinking your hard earned money into picking up a quality essential oil to lift your mood that will also give yourself other positive therapeutic effects, you, of course, want something that is safe and to know exactly what’s in the bottle.

Unfortunately, you have no idea what you’re buying if you blindly trust a seller or company that claims their essential oil is “Therapeutic Grade”, “100% Pure Grade”, “100% Pure Pharmaceutical Therapeutic Grade”, “Grade A”, or any other official-sounding adjective that describes them because, in fact, you could be buying snake oil, as laying claims like that have no legal justification.

And here’s the kicker — any company that claims that their essential oils are a particular grade, this may come as a shock, but there is no city, state or federal regulatory agencies that evaluate, tests, certifies or grades any essential oils on the market. It is an unregulated and unlicensed field both for the practice of aromatherapy as well as the manufacture of essential oils, resins, and other aromatherapy products.

It is purely voluntary that companies, suppliers or vendors test their own products by third party laboratories, and there still is no guarantee that what you just bought isn’t diluted, contaminated, fractionated, or worse, contain toxic chemicals in them from mishandling, unless you know about the company, where the products are sourced and how they’re tested and manufactured first before you buy any essential oil from them.

Certain companies have coined these terms to make it seem as though they have better oils than other companies. This is simply not true. Companies that use such phrases as “Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade”, sometimes are using registered trademark phrases.

The reason companies can claim that “no other company can say that they have Certified Pure Therapeutic Grade oils”, is because their company has trademarked the words, and no other company can legally use that particular phrase/words, not because there is any difference or superiority of their oils.

There are some companies that may use these terms that are not necessarily trying to be deceptive, however, many companies very often do so to increase their sales. This is why it’s imperative to know the company background and where the oils are sourced, how they’re stored, the date of harvest, how they’re handled, bottled and packaged, as well as having a batch number and data sheet with test results that detail the oil’s constituent profile. Otherwise, you have no idea what you’re getting.

In fact, high-quality pure essential oils do have therapeutic properties that have positive effects on specific parts of the body, which are pointed out below. But knowing how to navigate your way through all the hype that can be found online, and to know which companies are credible that actually do sell high-quality essential oils, is something we cannot overstate the importance of knowing prior to buying any essential oil.

We researched countless credible sources online and found companies and organizations that are the leaders in essential oils and aromatherapy practices (which are cited at the end of the article) to bring you comprehensive information with this, our Essential Oils Guide: Therapeutic Uses, Recipes & Safety.

A Brief History of Essential Oils

Intriguing myths and folklore are associated with aromatherapy and essential oils. The use of essential oils for therapeutic, spiritual, hygienic and ritualistic purposes goes back to a number of ancient civilizations including the Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans who used them in cosmetics, perfumes, and drugs.

Essential oils, or aromatic oils as they were once called, have been used by many cultures around the world for centuries. Their uses varied between cultures from religious purposes to healing the sick. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when essential oils gained notoriety as effective healing agents, but eventually the knowledge of essential oils spread around the globe.

The earliest evidence of human knowledge of the healing properties of plants was found in Lascaux, located in the Dordogne region in France. There, cave paintings suggest the use of medicinal plants in everyday life that have been carbon dated as far back as 18,000 B.C.E.

Sorting Out the Good From the Not So Good

If you don’t know anything about the company or the essential oil they’re selling, it’s impossible to know if they are pure, refined or distilled, from low-quality harvests, or if they’ve been sitting in their stockroom on a store rack for a long period of time, stored in such a way that harms the oils by heat or moisture, not processed correctly, or the oils may be inadvertently blended with harmful chemicals during bottling.

This is why it’s essential that essential oils, from seed to store are processed in such a way as to safeguard the quality that ends up either on you and eventually in you, or in your home through aromatherapy diffusers.

High-quality essential oils should come in dark colored glass bottles. Be cautious of merchants that offer oils in plastic or clear glass bottles, that’s because many undiluted essential oils can melt plastic over time or leech toxic plastic by-products into the oil, and clear glass bottles offer no protection from sunlight which can lessen their therapeutic potency and can degrade the scent and quality of the oil.

Companies or merchants who may offer a large amount of oil in aluminum bottles are adequate if the container is lined inside.

Tips for Savvy Shoppers on What to Lookout For

Refrain from purchasing oils that are packaged in containers that incorporate rubberized dropper on the inside top of the bottle. After some time, undiluted essential oils are strong enough that they can break down the dropper and the oil can become contaminated.

It’s a good practice to send a supplier or seller an email and simply ask anything you feel you need answers to so you know how fast they respond to your question(s), as well as seeing how informed and helpful they may be. This will give you some insight on how a particular seller does business.

Search out and ask merchants for test results for their oils. A reputable seller/supplier will give point-by-point test results about their oils and will be knowledgeable and transparent about their practices, and their company and products they sell.

It’s also important to see how long they’ve been in business, and if they have any consumer complaints with the Better Business Bureau or another consumer-related review websites.

It’s best to find an online or small local retailer who specializes in essential oils as their oils are least likely to remain on the store shelves or be mishandled as opposed to large retailers.

Large retailers like Whole Foods and alike, too often the bottles will have dust on the top cap of the bottle which is one of a few indicators that they’ve been sitting there for a prolonged period of time and are not as fresh as possible.

Avoid purchasing oils from retailers/providers that don’t give the oil’s a botanical (Latin name), where the herb/flower originated and the technique for extraction. This lets you know how informed, or uninformed for that matter, they are about the oils they sell.

Organic essential oils are typically superior to non-organic oils and are grown in compliance with organic farming practices and the suppliers are usually more careful in sourcing their oils for therapeutic quality and aroma. But of course, you’re going to pay a higher price for organic oils.

If you’re trying to decide on a seller or merchant to pick up some essential oil, there’s nothing wrong with asking for samples to discover if this is a supplier/seller that you‘d like to buy from without wasting your money on a large order which you may not be satisfied with.

There are some legitimate vendors who may want to charge a small fee for supplying samples, so don’t let that stop you from getting a sample from these sellers/suppliers.

While thinking about a buying essential oil from a vendor at an outdoor or indoor event like street fairs, farmer’s markets, craft shows, festivals, ask the seller for information about their business and where it’s physically located. Ethical and knowledgeable vendors are typically open and honest and answer any questions about their products and generally, appreciate any questions you may ask.

Be careful with phrases which include “fragrance oil,” or “perfume oil”, as what they are selling is not a pure essential oil.

How Essential Oils are Extracted

The different methods of extraction are:

  • Steam Distillation: The most common process of extracting an essential oil is by distillation, a process that isolates the aromatic, volatile element of the plant with steam.
  • Cold Pressed: Expression, or cold pressing, is used primarily for citrus fruits like orange and lemon, where the essential oil is obtained in tiny pockets in the peel or rind. Oils extracted by cold pressing are the most volatile of essential oils and can evaporate quickly when exposed to air.
  • CO2 Extraction: The CO2 extraction method yields a greater number of aromatic compounds than any other distillation process. In certain conditions at a low-temperature Carbon Dioxide or CO2 can be pressurized to become a liquid.
  • Solvent Extraction (only used for absolutes): Flowers too delicate to be processed with heat are soaked in a solvent, usually hexane that extracts the volatile elements. The solvent is then evaporated leaving only the most fragrant constituents behind. This process produces what is called an “absolute”.

Essential Oils When Using on Skin

Essential oils are volatile, meaning that they evaporate very quickly. When you dilute essential oils, the evaporation process is much slower because they are diluted in non-volatile substances.

Carrier oils such as almond oil, avocado oil, etc., carry the essential oil into the skin using less of the essential oil. Additionally, the therapeutic benefits of a carrier oil often increase the therapeutic benefits of the essential oil.

Some essential oils shouldn’t be used on the skin directly because it may be an irritant.

Pure essential oils are many times more concentrated than the whole plant, which is why it’s recommended diluting essential oils before applying them to the skin. Dilutions are typically 2% – 10%. For adults, a 2.5% dilution is recommended for most purposes. For children under 12, 1% is generally safe.

Dilutions of essential oils into a carrier oil are typically 2% – 10%. For adults, a 2-3% dilution is recommended for most purposes. For children under 12, 1% is generally safe.

Essential oil dilution chart

Guidelines for Scenting Bulk Bases with Essential Oils

Astringents, Toners & Splashes 0.25% – 0.75%
Bath Salts & Powders 0.25% – 1.0%
Conditioners 0.5% – 2.0%
Jellies 0.25% – 1.0%
Lotions & Crèmes 0.25% – 3.0%
Masques 0.25% – 1.0%
Melt & Pour Lip Balm 0.5% – 1.0%
Melt & Pour Soap 0.5% – 3.0%
Serums 0.25% – 1.0%
Shampoos, Gels, Household & Laundry 0.25% – 1.0%

 

There are many great carrier oils from which to choose. Jojoba, almond, marula, coconut, argan and avocado are all nourishing oils with a good shelf life.

Where to use essential oils

Bath – To soothe sore muscles, for relaxation, emotional calm, and balance. An aromatic bath is a luxurious way to relax, pamper the skin and feel better if unwell or tired. Always mix essential oils with a natural emulsifier such as milk, honey, almond oil, sesame oil, coconut oil or in sea salts before adding them to the bath. A safe dose is 5 – 10 drops of essential oils mixed with 1/2 – 1 cup of salt or emulsifier. Aromatic baths are excellent for supporting all systems of the body and creating a healthy and balanced state.

Steam inhalation – To directly affect the respiratory system in the case of illness prevention or treatment. Steam inhalation delivers essential oils directly to the nasal passages, sinuses, and lungs. Add 1 – 5 drops of essential oil to a pot of hot water. Cover head with a towel and allow steam to circulate inside the towel. This practice is excellent for opening sinuses, easing tension, and invigorating the skin. Eucalyptus and rosemary essential oils are great for facial steams.

Diffuser – Use anytime to scent a room and keep the air fresh. Excellent for busy offices or health care treatment rooms to help prevent the spread of common pathogens.

Oil based blend or lotion – Great for massage, bath oils, and local topical treatments. The choice between an oil base or lotion base is mainly a personal choice. Experience will be your greatest teacher.

Lip Balm – For chapped or dry lips. Great as an everyday lip moisturizer.

Top 15 Essential Oil Origins and Their Therapeutic Benefits

Each and every essential oil that comes from a particular plant species contains compounds with unique healing and therapeutic benefits. Here are some of the most popular essential oils, their origins, and therapeutic benefits.

Clove (Syzygium aromaticum)

Clove bush with flowers

Cloves are the aromatic flower buds of a tree in the family Myrtaceae, Syzygium aromaticum. They are native to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia and are commonly used as a spice. Clove is antibacterial, anti-parasitic and has antioxidant protection. (1)

Cypress (Cupressaceae)

Cypress tree leaves

Cypresses are cone-bearing trees or shrubs with opposite or whorled leaves. Many species have aromatic wood. The oil from this plant improves circulation, reduces varicose veins, lifts confidence and can help heal broken bones. (2)

Eucalyptus (Myrtaceae)

Eucalyptus tree with flowers

Eucalyptus is the tallest known flowering plant on Earth. There are more than 700 species of eucalyptus and most are native to Australia; a very small number are found in adjacent areas of New Guinea and Indonesia. The use of its essential oil improves respiratory issues like bronchitis, sinusitis, allergies, is invigorating and purifies the body. (3)

Frankincense

Frankincense tree resin

Frankincense has been traded on the Arabian Peninsula, in North Africa, and Somalia for more than 5000 years. Frankincense is gathered by slashing the bark, which is called striping, allowing the resin to bleed out and harden, which are called tears. Frankincense builds immunity, reduces inflammation, heals age spots, supports the brain and may help fight cancer.† (4, 5)

Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

Ginger roots with stalks

Ginger was exported to Europe via India in the first century AD as a result of the lucrative spice trade and is widely used as a spice or a Traditional medicine. The characteristic fragrance and flavor of ginger result from volatile oils that compose 1-3% of the weight of fresh gingerGinger reduces inflammation, supports joints, improves digestion and relieves nausea. (6, 7)

Grapefruit (Citrus × paradisi)

Grapefruit tree

The grapefruit is a subtropical citrus tree is a hybrid originating in Barbados as an accidental cross between two introduced species, sweet orange, and pomelo, both of which were introduced from Asia in the seventeenth century. Grapefruit supports metabolism and cellulite reduction. Mix with coconut oil and rub on areas of cellulite or take a few drops internally with water. (8)

Lavender (Lavandula spica)

 Lavender flowers

Lavandula (common name Lavender) is a genus of 47 known species of flowering plants in the mint family, Lamiaceae. It is native to the Old World and is found from Cape Verde and the Canary Islands, Europe across to northern and eastern Africa, the Mediterranean, southwest Asia to southeast India. Lavender helps with relaxation, improves mood and heals burns and cuts. (9)

Lemon (Citrus limon)

Lemon tree with fruit

The lemon is a species of small evergreen tree in the flowering plant family Rutaceae, native to Asia. The tree’s ellipsoidal yellow fruit is used for culinary and non-culinary purposes throughout the world, primarily for its juice and oil, which has both culinary and cleaning uses. Lemon is great to use in homemade cleaning products, improves lymph drainage and cleanses the body. (10)

Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha)

Myrrh tree

Myrrh is a resin, or sap-like substance common in Africa and the Middle East. Myrrh is botanically related to Frankincense and is one of the most widely used essential oils in the world. It’s a natural antiseptic and can prevent or reduce infections, and also supports beautiful skin, reducing stretch marks and stabilizes hormone balance. (11)

Oregano (Origanum vulgare)

Oregano leaves

Oregano is a flowering plant in the mint family and is native to temperate western and southwestern Eurasia and the Mediterranean region. Oregano’s most prominent use is the staple herb eaten in Italian dishes for centuries. Oregano has powerful anti-microbial properties, it can kill fungus and help with the cold virus. (12)

Rose (Rosa)

Red Rose flowers

There are over a hundred species of roses. Most species are native to Asia, with smaller numbers native to Europe, North America, and northwestern Africa. Rosa chinensis has been used in Chinese traditional medicine for centuries. Rose is astounding for reducing skin inflammation and great for creating glowing skin. Add a few drops to your facial moisturizer. (14)

Peppermint (Mentha × piperita)

Peppermint leaves

Peppermint is a hybrid mint, a cross between watermint and spearmint. Indigenous to Europe and the Middle East. Peppermint oil has a high concentration of natural pesticides, mainly pulegone and menthone. Peppermint supports digestion, improves focus, boosts energy, reduces fever, headache and muscle pain relief. (13)

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Rosemary bush with flowers

Rosemary is an aromatic evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean and Asia.  The name “rosemary” derives from the Latin for “dew” (ros) and “sea” (marinus), or “dew of the sea”. Rosemary can naturally thicken hair so it is great to add to homemade shampoos. Also, it improves brain function and memory so it’s great to use when working, reading or studying. (15)

Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)

Tea Tree leaves

The Tea Tree is native to Southeast Queensland and the Northeast coast of New South Wales, Australia. Tea tree oil was first extracted in Australia, and this species remains the most important commercially. Tea Tree is a natural antibacterial, antifungal, reduces odors and can help stimulate the immune system. (16)

Sandalwood (Santalum album)

Sandalwood tree with flowers

Sandalwoods are part of the same botanical family as European mistletoe. Sandalwood oil is extracted from the woods and is the second most expensive wood in the world. Both the wood and the oil produce a distinctive fragrance that has been highly valued for centuries. Sandalwood is a natural aphrodisiac that improves libido and can also improve energy. (17)

Essential Oil Recipes

Essential Oil Recipes Guide

Click to view larger

Safety Concerns

  • Ingestion of essential oils for therapeutic purposes is not recommended by self-prescription due to the highly toxic nature of some essential oils.
  • Essential oils such as thyme, oregano, clove, and cinnamon can irritate the skin—even cause blisters.
  • Essential oils in the citrus family (bergamot, lemon, lime, orange, angelica), as well as cumin, can cause phototoxicity, resulting in a burn when you’re exposed to the sun (or radiation from a sunbed) even briefly.
  • Some essential oils can trigger seizures in people with epilepsy, including eucalyptus, fennel, hyssop, pennyroyal, rosemary, and sage.
  • Peppermint and eucalyptus can interfere with the effectiveness of the cancer drug 5-fluorouracil and potentially other medications.
  • If you are allergic to ragweed, you may be allergic to the essential oil of chamomile, which is in the same botanical family.
  • Keep all essential oils out of reach of children and pets.
  • It’s recommended to stay out of the sun or sun tanning booth for at least twenty-four hours if photosensitizing essential oils were applied to the skin.
  • Avoid prolonged use of the same essential oils.
  • Avoid the use of undiluted essential oils on the skin, unless otherwise indicated.
  • If you suspect any sensitivities to specific essential oils or have known allergies, it may be wise to perform a skin patch test prior to its use.
  • Know the safety data on each essential oil and place into the context of use and knowledge.
  • Use caution when treating a female client who suspects she is pregnant or has been trying to become pregnant.
  • Keep essential oils away from inadvertently entering the eyes.
  • Essential oils should be kept away from direct contact with flames, such as candles, fire, matches, cigarettes, and gas cookers.

Dermal Irritants (Table 1)

Essential Oil Latin Name
Bay Pimento racemosa
Cinnamon bark* or leaf Cinnamomum zeylanicum*
Clove bud Syzygium aromaticum
Citronella Cymbopogon nardus
Cumin Cuminum cyminum
Lemongrass Cymbopogon citratus
Lemon verbena Lippia citriodora
Oregano Origanum vulgare
Tagetes Tagetes minuta
Thyme ct. thymol Thymus vulgaris

*bark is more irritating than leaf

The following oils listed in Table 2 are considered to be dermal sensitizers and are not recommended for use in aromatherapy massage.

Dermal Sensitizers (Table 2)

Essential Oil Latin Name
Cassia Cinnamomum cassia
Cinnamon bark Cinnamomum zeylanicum
Peru balsam Myroxylon pereirae
Verbena absolute Lippia citriodora
Tea absolute Camellia sinensis
Turpentine oil Pinus spp.
Backhousia Backhousia citriodora
Inula Inula graveolens
Oxidized oils from Pinaceae family (e.g., Pinus and Cupressus species) Rutaceae family (e.g., citrus oils)

Photosensitizers (Table 3)

Essential Oil Latin Name
Angelica root Angelica archangelica
Bergamot Citrus bergamia
Cumin Cuminum cyminum
Distilled or expressed grapefruit (low risk) Citrus paradisi
Expressed lemon Citrus limon
Expressed lime Citrus medica
Orange, bitter (expressed) Citrus aurantium
Rue Ruta graveolens

Non-phototoxic citrus oils (Table 4)

Essential Oil Latin Name
Bergamot: Bergapteneless
(FCF: Furanocoumarin Free)
Citrus bergamia
Distilled lemon Citrus limon
Distilled lime Citrus medica
Mandarin – Tangerine Citrus reticulata
Sweet orange Citrus sinensis
Expressed tangerine Citrus reticulata
Yuzu oil (expressed or distilled) Citrus juno

 

A mucous membrane irritant will produce a heating or drying effect on the mucous membranes of the mouth, eyes, nose, and reproductive organs. It is recommended that mucous membrane irritating essential oils not be used in a full body bath unless placed in a dispersant first (e.g., milk, vegetable oil). Table 5 lists some common essential oils considered to be mucous membrane irritants.

Table 5 lists some common essential oils considered to be mucous membrane irritants.

Mucous membrane irritants (Table 5)

Essential Oil Latin Name
Bay Pimento racemosa
Caraway Carum carvi
Cinnamon bark or leaf Cinnamomum zeylanicum
Clove bud or leaf Syzygium aromaticum
Lemongrass Cymbopogon citratus
Peppermint Mentha x piperita
Thyme ct. thymol Thymus vulgaris

Purity is Essential for Potency and Safety

With any essential oil you may be considering buying, it’s imperative that the company you buy from has standards for testing every batch of oil with Mass Spectrometry (MS) and Gas Chromatography (GS) technology, whether through an on-site or third party laboratory, assuring purity and the exact chemistry of each oil.

GC and MS technology is utilized by a very sophisticated device that separates the volatile compounds in essential oils into individual components and produces a linear graph and produces their percentages.

Each batch number should be listed on the essential oil bottle and should match the batch GC/MS report. This process is vital for medicinal blending and for quality assurance.

Below is a sample Gas Chromatography report. Mass Spectrometry test results show similar components and their percentages.

Gas Chromatography (GC) of essential oil sample report

Click on image to view larger

The precise breakdown of the chemical components in individual oils from GC/MS reports are important as the therapeutic benefits and safety issues of essential oils are, in large part, determined by their chemical makeup.

In order for essential oils to have a therapeutic effect, they must be pure plant extracts. Adulterated oils or perfume/fragrance oils will not offer therapeutic effects and may, in fact, cause allergies, headaches and chemical sensitivities.

How to use Essential Oils infographic


Where to Find the Best Source of Essential Oils

There are so many online retailers that sell essential oils that it can be overwhelming to search through the countless number of them to find which has high-quality oils.

One of our favorite suppliers of high-quality essential oils is Plant Therapy, where they are a family-run business.

Plant Therapy’s standards of quality are some of the strictest in the industry. Before they sell an essential oil they do everything possible to establish that it is 100% pure, natural, and of the highest quality, making it appropriate for use in aromatherapy, and even kid-safe.

Plant Therapy works directly with world renowned essential oil expert, Robert Tisserand, and several analytical laboratories.

Before they obtain a sample, they gather every bit of information about the farmer, distiller or supplier. They research their background, reputation, commitment to quality, and commitment to the industry. Once this has been established to their satisfaction, they then move on to the oil.

Their essential oils are first organoleptically (relating to qualities as taste, color, odor, and feel of a substance that stimulates bodily senses) tested by Robert Tisserand before being sent to a third party testing facility. Robert has been evaluating essential oils professionally for over 40 years.

Every bottle of oil from Plant Therapy will have a specific batch code that describes exactly what batch of oil is in the bottle. This information is also directly linked to the testing reports for each batch of oil.

You can see each essential oil’s GC/MS report by going to the essential oil’s product page and clicking on Test Reports.

If you’d like to pick up some high-quality essential oil from Plant Therapy, click here.

Below are other top-rated companies that have very high-quality essential oils.

If you’d like to read a must-have book for beginners and intermediates who are eager to gain a solid understanding of specific essential oils, hydrosols, and carrier oils and learn how to safely incorporate them into daily living, The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapyis one of our top picks.

The book features extensive and easy-to-follow information on:

  • Using essential oils and their therapeutic properties
  • A broad range of conditions and remedies
  • Therapeutic healing for babies and children
  • Skincare, haircare, and body care
  • Essential oils best suited for massage modalities
  • Creating natural home care products

It’s a good choice for those who are seriously interested in learning about aromatherapy, remedies (recipes), tips, cautions and supporting information.

If you’d like to pick up a copy, you can find it on Amazon by clicking here.

We’ve found and gathered our information within this article from a few credible sources after scouring the internet and going through the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy, Aromahead Institute, and AromaWeb, where all three are the top go-to sources for anything else you may want to know about essential oils.

We hope this article has shed some light on what to look for when buying or using essential oils.

If you liked this article, spread the message and feel free to share it, and also let us know what you think in the comments below. We welcome your input!

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