What Are Essential Oils? Usage, Benefits and Side Effects

by Elvia Zetticci

Essential oils are concentrated extracts of various plants that is one of the most important aspects of aromatherapy. Essentials oils are largely used in natural and alternative health practices, such as aromatherapy and naturopathy. However, some of the health claims associated with these oils are controversial.

In this article, learn more about the uses, benefits, and potential side effects of essential oils.

What are Essential Oils?

what are essential oils

Extracted from the plants, the essential oils are compounds.  The unique essence given to each essential oil is because of the distinctive aromatic compounds. Several chemical and mechanical methods are used to obtain the essential oils, some of the methods include distillation and cold pressing. After the extraction of pungent chemicals, they are mixed with career oil for the production of the final product that is useable. The methods by which the essential oils are produced hold a lot of significance as the essential oils produced through chemical processes do not fulfill the standards of effective essential oils.

How do Essential Oils Work?

As mentioned above, aromatherapy uses several kinds of essential oils, in aromatherapy these essential oils are inhaled using numerous strategies. In this process of inhaling, it is made sure that the essential oils do not get swallowed or sipped.

The scented chemicals that are present in the essential oils have the proficiency to interact with the body in various ways. If the oils are applied to the skin then they will get absorbed, whereas depending upon the method of application of the oils, the absorption can be enhanced. For example, if the oil is heated a little before application then the absorption will be improved.

Inhaling the scents of the oils can have various psychological effects as the aromas stimulate various areas of the limbic system. This has an impact on the emotions and behaviors of a person. Not only this, it also positively impacts the sense of smell and long-term memory.

This fact can be proved with a generally accepted notion of associating memories with perfumes. It happens because our brain tends to remember the aroma it sensed at different parts of life. As the essential oils also control some physiological functions it can be claimed that the essential oils affect the body; physically as well as emotionally. However, this has yet to get confirmed through research and study.

Popular Types of Essentials Oils

More than 90 types of essential oils have been produced yet and each of these essential oils has a very distinctive aroma and health benefits.

The ten most important essential oils are listed below

Peppermint: It helps in the boosting of energy and it also aids digestion.

Lavender: It aids in lessening stress.

Sandalwood: It sharpens the focus and also helps to soothe the nerves.

Bergamot: It also decreases stress and modifies various skin conditions including eczema.

Rose: It helps to lighten up the mood and also ameliorates the anxiety.

Chamomile: It is used for relaxation purposes and it also helps in enhancing the mood.

Ylang-Ylang: It is used to promote relaxation, kill bacteria, lower blood pressure and it helps in several skin conditions.

Tea Tree: It stimulates immunity and also fights infections.

Jasmine: It helps to deal with depression, libido. It also helps with childbirth.

Lemon: It aids in digestion, headaches, mood, and much more.

Health Benefits of Essentials Oils

Although essential oils ads are widely used still people are unaware of the ability of essential oils to treat health conditions.

Here is a list of a few health ailments in which essential oils can be effectively used.

Essential Oils for Stress and Anxiety

The use of therapy is a common method to relieve stress and anxiety. According to an estimate, almost 43% people rely on therapy to cure their anxiety.

Many studies have proved that the aroma of the essential oils is very beneficial to treat stress and anxiety. That’s why the essential oils have a major role in aromatherapy.

Many claims about the relieving abilities of aromatic compounds are unsettled because of researcher’s biases towards different sorts of aromas and scents present in aromatic compounds.

The essential oils not only help in therapies but can also be used during massage as they relieve the anxiety. However, many claims have been made in favor of inefficiency of aromatherapy to cure anxiety. A review of more than 200 hundred studies have proved that aromatherapy is not effective in the treatment of stress. 

Essentials Oils for Headache & Migraine

The dabbing of peppermint oil and the mixture of ethanol on the forehead and temples of people relieve their headaches, according to a research that was carried out in 90s. The lavender oil can also be used for the same purposes. The mixture of chamomile and sesame oil when applied to the temples also treat headaches. This practice was common in traditional Persia for curing headaches.

Essentials Oils for Sleep & Insomnia

The aromatic compounds present in lavender oil helps a lot to improve the sleep quality of patients who have heart diseases as well as women after childbirth.  Extensive research has been done to study the effects of essential oils on sleep and the majority of the research proved that the oils help in enhancing the quality of sleep.

Essential Oils for Reducing Inflammation

According to some test-tube studies, essential oils have anti-inflammatory effects due to which they can used to fight inflammatory conditions. A study on mouse proved that ingesting the combination of two essentials; thyme and oregano, plays a role in the remission of colitis.

As these tests are not performed on humans in a large number therefore the effectiveness of these oils is unknown.

Essential Oils As Antibiotic and Antimicrobial

Recently, a lot of research is being carried out for searching the compounds that can help to treat bacterial infections. Several test-tube studies have done research on the essential oils including peppermint and tea tree oil to study their efficiency for antimicrobial effects. The results were very positive. These tests still do not explain the effects of these oil inside the human body so it is still not sure that whether these essential oils can treat bacterial infections or not.

Other Uses of Essential Oils

Essential oils are not only used in aromatherapy, they have various other uses as well. Due to the aroma present in these compounds, they are used to freshen up homes and laundry. Many natural products use essential oils to make their products scented. The essential oils can also be used as an alternative for man-made mosquito repellents. The perceptions regarding the capability of essential oils to protect from mosquitos are mixed. According to the studies, the compounds present in some essential oils including citronella help to repel some mosquitos for 2 hours. If citronella is mixed with vanillin before applying then the lasting time increases from 2 to 3 hours.

Due to some distinctive properties of essential oils, they can be very effectively used in the industries for elongating the shelf life of packed foods.

How to Choose the Right Essential Oils

The claim made by some companies that the oil manufactured by them is “pure” cannot be believed as true because the terms like “pure” and “medical grade” are not universally defined. As the industry manufacturing the essential oils is unregulated so the quality of oils vary greatly.

Following tips can help to select the right essential oil

Purity: Make sure that the oil only contains the compounds of an aromatic plant without the addition of any synthetic oils. Pure oils do not have synthetic oils in them.

Quality: The quality of an essential oil is least effected by the processes of extraction. It must be kept under consideration that the essential oil has only passed through chemical-free methods of extraction; distillation and cold pressing.

Reputation: In few cases, the reputation really matters for example in the case of buying the essential oils, one must consider the opinions of common people.

Safety and Side Effects of Essential Oils

Some people assume that if any product is natural then it is automatically safe whereas it is not true.

All the products made from plants and herbs have various bioactive compounds which can be very harmful for the health, therefore essential oils can also be harmful for human body.

The negative effect of the oils can be controlled by applying them with a base oil, this practice makes the essential oil safe. The pregnant women, children, and pets, if using aromatic compounds then they must be given proper care and attention.

Some common side effects caused by the essential oils are as follows

    • Rashes
    • Asthma Attacks
    • Headaches
    • Allergic Reactions

Normally essential oils can only cause rashes in humans but they can also be the cause of some serious reactions. In fact the use of essential oils led to a case of death as well.

Not all essential oils can have side effects, some essential oils known for causing side effects in humans include lavender, tea tree, peppermint, and ylang-ylang.

Some oils can cause skin irritation because of high concentration of phenols, such as cinnamon. That’s why such oils must always be used with a base oil. The presence of citrus fruits in the essential oils make skin very sensitive to sunlight and burns can occur.

Swallowing the essential oils is very harmful as it can lead to death. It has been advised that the pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid the essential oils.


Essential oils are not harmful if they are mixed with a base oil before applying on the skin. They must not be swallowed.

The evidence supporting the effectiveness of the essential oils is often exaggerated.

The essential oils can be used for treating minor health problems, it is harmless.

In case of having any serious health condition, the essential oils must not be used without proper consultation with a doctor.


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