If essential oils seem fussy or girly—so much that you’ve dismissed them as a viable health and wellness alternatives, let alone try any—this comprehensive guide is for you.
We took a look at some of the most commonly used essential oils and highlighted their health benefits and applications. You’ll be surprised to find these potent preventative and curative elixirs are, well, essential for treating everything from common irritations (colds, muscle aches, and stress) to heavyweight conditions (like heart disease and cancer).
The use of oils falls within the purview of aromatherapy, defined as "the science of utilizing naturally extracted aromatic essences from plants to balance, harmonize and promote the health of body, mind and spirit… to unify physiological, psychological and spiritual processes to enhance an individual’s innate healing process,” according to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy. There’s a variety of ways to reap the benefits of these essential oils, but be cautious: All 100-percent pure essential oils are incredibly concentrated, so you never want to ingest the oil (unless your healthcare provider recommends you do so).
To orally consume any essential oil, you need to dilute it. This helps protect against internal blisters, boils, rashes, and chemical burns, and ensures a slower release into your bloodstream. You can take gelatin or enteric-coated gelatin capsules (the oil isn’t released until it reaches your small intestine), which usually have a 20/80 ratio: Twenty percent of the capsule is essential oil, and the remaining 80 percent is a carrier oil (vegetable oil, for example). You can also dilute an essential oil with hot water and honey (mix one or two drops of essential oil with one teaspoon of honey and a cup of hot water), or purchase teas that contain dried leaves from which the essential oil is extracted (chamomile or lavender). Speak to a medical practitioner who specializes in aromatherapy to make sure ingestion is safe, if there’s any chance of the oil reacting to a medication you’re on, and what dose is right for you.
To inhale an essential oil, you can utilize steam baths, a vaporizer, or humidifier. You can add two to four drops (some oils are more potent than others) and inhale the vapors to dispel headaches, insomnia, depression, and a slew of other conditions. Again, speak to a medical practitioner; some essential oils are irritating to people’s lungs and eyes when inhaled.
To apply to your skin, use a diluted blend of oils. You want one to two drops of the essential oil per tablespoon of the base or carrier oil, which can be almond oil, olive oil, jojoboa oil, etc. Take care to avoid contact with your eyes and mouth if you’re applying to your face. If you’re massaging sore muscles every day, use a one percent solution (roughly diluted as one drop of essential oil in one teaspoon of carrier oil). If you’re massaging them occasionally, use a three to five percent solution (three to five drops per one teaspoon of carrier oil).
Aroma: Chamomile has two common varieties, German and Roman. German chamomile is sweet, yet straw-like, while Roman oil has an almost apple-like scent.
Applications and Health Benefits: One of the most ancient medicinal herbs, chamomile is a powerful essential oil thanks, in part, to its flavonoids. Roman chamomile oil is more calming, while German chamomile is a more powerful antinflammatory agent. The oil, which is extracted from chamomile flowers, can be used in a variety of ways to take advantage of its health benefits, according to research from the Molecular Medicine Reports.
Chamomile oil is used in teas to reduce inflammation in your throat and mouth, and relive anxiety and depression.
Chamomile oil is sometimes mixed with other herbs and taken by mouth to help treat liver and gallbladder disease, gallstones, chronic heartburn, loss of appetite, digestive disturbances, and certain types of constipation. It can lower blood pressure, reduce your risk of heart disease, maintain liver health, and aid in digestion.
Chamomile oil is applied directly to the skin to relieve pain and swelling, used in ointments, creams, and gels to ease sore gums, skin irritations, wounds, burns, bruises, eczema, frostbite, and hemorrhoids. It acts as an antiseptic and antibiotic.
Chamomile oil is added to steam baths and inhaled to treat sinus inflammation, hay fever, sore throat, earaches, and muscle spasms. Either applied to the skin or used in a bath (though the water will dilute its potency), chamomile is excellent for reducing pain in your muscles and joints.
Aroma: Eucalyptus essential oil is used medicinally, cosmetically (perfumery), and industrially, but all have the same clean, fresh scent.
Uses and Health Benefits: According to the University if Maryland Medical Center’s Alternative Medicine Guide, eucalyptus' uses go far beyond koala fodder. Eucalyptus oil is extracted from the leaves and branches from the top of the plant. Because of the flavonoids (plant-based antioxidants), oils, and tannins (polyphenols that help prevent disease), eucalyptus has been used as an antiseptic since the 19th century. Note: Eucalyptus oil is used in lozenges, cough syrups, vapor rubs, ointments, and more, but orally ingesting the oil can be dangerous and shouldn’t be done unless your doctor tells you to.
Eucalyptus oil is applied directly to the skin to treat arthritis, sores, and serve as a bug repellent. Because it’s an antiseptic, eucalyptus can protect burns, cuts, and ulcers, promote healing, and help new tissue form. Massaging the oil into your skin can help relieve pain from migraines, sprains, tears, and general aches and pains. It can even be used in your daily grooming regimen to treat acne, dandruff, and (like aloe) relieve sunburn.
Eucalyptus oil is used in many over-the-counter products like cough and cold medications and products because it’s an excellent expectorant (meaning it helps loosen phlegm) and decongestant. It can help you fight against pretty much any respiratory ailment including allergies, flu, throat infections, asthma, and more. It’s also found in antiseptic mouthwashes (like Listerine) to kill bacteria that causes bad breath, and it can help prevent plaque and gingivitis.
Eucalyptus oil is added to steam baths, a vaporizer, or humidifier and inhaled to relieve congestion in the nose and chest, and treat bronchitis. Eucalyptus oil helps stimulate red blood cell functioning, so it increases your oxygen supply throughout the body. The refreshing smell has even been said to have a stimulating effect on the mind, aiding concentration and relieving mental exhaustion.
Aroma: Ginger alone is pungent, so the oil has much of the same warm, spicy, woody scent.
Application and Health Benefits: Ginger is one of the most commonly consumed condiments in the world (it’s been around since the 13th century), but its incredibly pharmacological and physiological benefits are often overlooked, according to cross-sectional research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The essential oil comes from distilling fresh ginger root, and is very popular in aromatherapy. Note: If you have sensitive skin, only apply ginger oil on a small patch of skin to test for any adverse reactions; it might also be phototoxic, so avoid applying to skin that will be exposed to the sun within 24 hours after use.
Ginger oil is added to teas or orally ingested to promote digestion, help treat food poisoning and intestinal infections, and relieve indigestion and gas. It’s been found to prevent seasickness, alleviate nausea and vomiting, as well as amp your protection against cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Ginger oil is applied directly to the skin with other carrier oils to relieve backaches, arthritis, muscle pain, and stimulate your circulatory system.
Ginger oil is added to steam baths, a vaporizer, or humidifier and inhaled to relieve sinus problems, asthma, bronchitis, flu, sore throats, and runny noses—as it’s an effective decongestant. The aroma can also help reenergize and revitalize your mind.
Aroma: You see (well, smell) sandalwood oil often in fragrances because it has a rich, woody, and warm scent. The sweet oil has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years, and served as part of Indian spiritual and religious traditions for many more.
Applications and Health Benefits: The essential oil is derived from the heartwood of the sandalwood tree by steam-distilling its woodchips. There are few reported side effects, but note that sandalwood shouldn’t be ingested. Use it topically and dilute it using other carrier oils.
Sandalwood is applied directly to the skin (often with jojoba oil) to rejuvenate and rehydrate dry, cracking skin (also on the scalp to fight dandruff). It’s effective in repairing damaged cells, eliminating toxins, moisturizing, even giving you a fairer complexion by preventing acne, combating oily skin, black heads, blemishes, and skin irritations. Its natural astringent, antiseptic, and anti-aging properties keep away fungal, bacterial and viral infections, and heal wounds, cuts, sores, scars, pimples, and burns. You’ll be pleased to learn sandalwood is an antispasmodic, so it works against contractions and spasms, relaxing nerves, muscles, and blood vessels. Rub the oil on your stomach to keep your digestive, circulatory, and nervous systems functioning harmoniously, too.
Sandalwood oil is added to steam baths, a vaporizer, or humidifier and inhaled to invoke tranquility, improve memory, stimulate concentration, and eliminate stress. It’s particularly good at treating coughs and chest infections, as well as fighting infections that cause colds and flus.
Aroma: You can probably identify this essential oil by scent alone. Lavender is mildly sweet, floral, and herbal in aroma.
Application and Health Benefits: You see lavender often used in baby shampoos and soaps because the scent is profoundly soothing, calming, and acts like a sedative (for adults and infants alike). The essential oil is extracted from the plant’s fresh flowers and used for a medley of medicinal purposes, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Alternative Medicine Guide. It can be used topically or internally, though you should speak with a knowledgeable provider to find the right dose.
Lavender oil is used in teas to alleviate nervous stomach irritations, restlessness, and insomnia.
Lavender oilis massaged directly to the skin to improve sleep quality, decrease anxiety, put you in a more stable mood, and boost concentration. The essential oil can also treat skin ailments like eczema, acne, and fungal infections. You can find lavender oil in the form of aromatherapy oil, bath gels, extracts, infusions, lotions, and soaps. Note: Never use lavender oil on an open wound.
Lavender oil is added to steam baths, a vaporizer, or humidifier and inhaled to slow the nervous system (a.k.a. make you less restless), improve sleep quality, promote relaxation, and reduce agitation. Aromatherapy is particularly good for treating headaches, nervous disorders, and exhaustion, while baths with lavender oil are effective in healing joint and muscle pain.
Aroma: The telltale minty, mentholated smell of peppermint does more than freshen your breath. Peppermint oil has as many health benefits as it does grooming.
Application and Health Benefits: Popularly used as flavoring for gum and toothpaste, peppermint oil is made from the leaves and stems of the peppermint plant. Note: If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease, peppermint oil isn’t for you, as it can worsen your symptoms. There are also possible drug interactions, so speak with your healthcare provider, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Alternative Medicine Guide.
Peppermint oil is used in teas to help thin mucus and alleviate cold and flu symptoms. Menthol (peppermint’s active ingredient) is an effective decongestant and expectorant, and it’s also useful in soothing and calming dry coughs or sore throats. Enteric-coated (this prevents the oil from being released in the stomach, which can cause heartburn) peppermint oil capsules can also treat bloating, gas, and pain due to IBS. Peppermint oil also calms the muscles in your stomach, improves the flow of bile so food passes through your stomach faster, and can ease an upset stomach.
Peppermint is applied directly to the skin (with almond or jojoboa oil) as a tincture, ointment, or part of a cream to reduce headache symptoms, soothe and cool irritated skin caused by poison ivy, poison oak, or hives. Massage a few drops on your chest to clear sinus or lung congestion. And because peppermint oil is an antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, and analgesic (pain reliever), it works wonders for eliminating pain, swelling, and calming the spasms that cause muscle cramps.
Peppermint oil is added to steam baths, a vaporizer, or humidifier and inhaled to provide relief from stress, mental exhaustion, anxiety, and restlessness. It can also improve your mental clarity and raise energy levels (perfect for the midday slump or right before an important meeting).
Aroma: As you may have guessed, lemon essential oil has the same fresh, citrus tang as the fruit.
Applications and Health Benefits: Lemon oil is extracted from the rind of the fruit by cold expression. It blends well with a variety of other essential oils like lavender, rose, sandalwood, peppermint, and tea tree. Note: It only lasts about eight to 10 months, and like some of the other essential oils, it’s phototoxic. Stay out of the sun for 24 hours after applying the essential oil topically (even if it’s been diluted).
Lemon oil is applied directly to the skin with massage oils or diluted in a bath to assist digestive issues and pain due to rheumatism. Use of lemon oil in lotions can help clear congested skin, because its astringent properties are good for treating oily skin conditions. Plus, its antiseptic properties are efficient at treating cuts, minor wounds, and acne.
Lemon oil is added to steam baths, a vaporizer, or humidifier and inhaled to treat colds, flu, sinus irritations. It’s a popular oil in aromatherapy because it can help lift your spirits, ease depression, stress, and fatigue. Lemon oil can also clear your mind, and improve concentration and decision making.
Lemon oil is diluted in warm water to serve as a mouthwash or gargle to heal mouth ulcers, added to hot water and honey to soothe sore throats, and ingested in capsules to support your body’s immune system. It helps to stimulate white blood cells and improves circulation, increasing your ability to fight off disease.
Aroma: Patchouli is one of the stronger scented essential oils on this list; your taste will determine whether you can handle its deep, musky, earthy aroma.
Application and Health Benefits: The essential oil is extracted from the leaves of the patchouli plant.
Patchouli oil is applied directly to the skin to alleviate eczema, inflammation, cracked skin, and acne. It’s a popular anti-aging ingredient because it has strong cell rejuvenating properties that help fade scars, too. Use patchouli oil to treat athlete’s foot, excessive oiliness or dandruff in your hair—it’s an anti-fungal. Massage with patchouli oil can boost circulation, effectively increasing the oxygenation of your organs and cells. Your immune system and energy levels will get a good kick, too.
Patchouli oil is added to steam baths, a vaporizer, or humidifier and inhaled to reduce anxiety and tension, ease insomnia, and uplift your spirits. It’s also been hailed as an aphrodisiac and thought to treat impotency and loss of libido in men.
Patchouli oil is taken in a capsule to increase the frequency of urination to help remove toxins from the body, excess water, unnecessary salt, and uric acid, which can reduce your risk of developing kidney stones.