Step one: Make sure you're using them correctly.

By Tessa Petak
Feb 12, 2021 @ 9:30 am
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To say it's been a stressful past year is quite an understatement. From the pandemic to the election to the insurrection, we could really all use a break.

And since many of our go-to stress-relieving activities are still off the table due to Covid, it makes sense that we're all desperately seeking things that can help us relax at home. According to some, there's one stress-relieving miracle product you need to have in your arsenal: Essential oils.

To figure out where to start, we spoke with essential oil expert Isabel Lazo and integrative medicine specialist Dr. Yufang Lin to find out exactly what essential oils are — and the extent of their effectiveness.

So What Are Essential Oils?

Maybe you're already an avid essential oil user, or maybe you're just considering getting on board the diffuser trend. But do you truly know what an essential oil actually is? "Essential oils are basically the essence of a plant; they're highly concentrated compounds distilled or extracted that contain the plant's unique properties," Lazo tells InStyle.

Lazo says there are a number of different methods to extract the oil from the plant, but the most common is steam distillation, which uses temperature and steam to separate the compounds.

And while essential oils might be trendy now, using plant oils for medicinal purposes has actually been a thing for thousands of years.

How Can You Use Essential Oils for Aromatherapy?

Simply put, aromatherapy, or essential oil therapy, is about using aromatic essential oils to improve your mental or physical health through the sense of smell or skin absorption. While some essential oils can be used for their skin perks (for example, tea tree oil, which can be used to help reduce inflammation and acne), experts say the most powerful use of essential oils is actually improving your mood.

"Scents are one of the fastest ways to impact mood — whether positively or negatively," Dr. Lin says. "Aromatherapy works by activating smell receptors in the nose, which send messages through the nervous system and can activate certain parts of the brain, such as the limbic system, which controls emotions," says Lazo. Each essential oil has its own properties and therefore its own unique range of emotions it can elicit.

There are many ways to practice essential oil aromatherapy — a very popular and effective mode of use is a diffuser, but you can also try candles made with essential oils, room sprays, bath salts, or even apply essential oils to the skin (as long as they're diluted – more on that later!) to wear as a fragrance.

"Using essential oils and aromatherapy can be an enjoyable part of any self-care routine," says Lazo. "Incorporating scents that evoke positive, calming or uplifting emotions can be a natural yet effective way to soothe the body and mind."

However you choose to use them, a little bit goes a long way of this potent plant medicine, Lazo says. "[Essential oils] allow for quick and easy delivery of strong medicine in a very small dose," adds Dr. Lin.

What Benefits Do Essential Oils Have?

So you've decided to diffuse some essential oil, but which ones should you reach for? "The medicinal benefit of essential oil is dependent on the plant it is extracted from," Dr. Lin tells us. For example, "some herbs have been shown to have excellent ability to reduce anxiety and stress response, such as lavender, frankincense, orange, and bergamot," she says, adding that these oils can also potentially help with relaxation and improve sleep. 

When it comes to allergies, essential oils are another popular remedy, but Dr. Lin debunks a common misconception. "There are no essential oils to prevent allergies," she says. But they can be used as a complementary treatment, along with your Zyrtec. "Peppermint, rosemary, eucalyptus, are great at opening up the nasal [passages] and to help with chest congestion." 

And some oils — particularly peppermint, chamomile, lavender, and ginger — can all help if you suffer from headaches or migraines, Dr. Lin says. She cautions that sometimes scents can make the migraine worse, so if you choose to use essential oils for this purpose, proceed with caution and consider checking with your doc first. "If the migraine is not better, worsens, or changes in character, you should seek medical care," she tells us.

And that goes as a general rule for anything you're treating with essential oils. While they have the ability to soothe symptoms, they do not take the place of medical treatment, traditional therapy, and medication. "If the condition is serious, progressing, or worsening despite what you are trying, you should always seek medical evaluation," says Dr. Lin. 

While essential oils are not a cure, here's a list of some common ailments and the essential oils that can reduce or soothe the symptoms, according to Dr. Lin and Lazo.

Depression: rose, sandalwood, ylang-ylang

Anxiety: lavender, frankincense, orange, bergamot

Lack of Energy:  lemon, peppermint, and sweet orange 

Grief: rose, frankincense, sage  

Stress: lavender, chamomile, clary sage 

Fatigue: Peppermint,  eucalyptus, rosemary

Insomnia: bergamot, frankincense, lavender,  neroli, sage   

Headache: Peppermint, chamomile, lavender, ginger 

Can Essential Oils Be Dangerous or Toxic?

The most important thing to know: "Pure essential oils should not be applied topically or administered orally," Lazo says. That's because pure essential oils, meaning they are not diluted, can be extremely potent or even toxic, says Lazo. So first thing's first: You should always read the directions and use the suggested amount of oil — and ratio of oil to water —  to avoid irritation, harm, or toxicity.

Some essential oils — for example, cinnamon, clove, and tea tree and eucalyptus essential oils — can even be fatally toxic to household pets small animals and infants even in small doses, Lazo says, so it's important to be cognizant of what you are diffusing and again, don't go overboard and use more than the directions say.

Dr. Lin also advises against consistent use of the same oils over long periods of time. "As a general rule, I do not recommend anyone to use the same herbs continuously for a long time," she says. "It is best to take a break from herbs — whether using as a supplement or through aromatherapy so the body does not get used to it."

Dr. Lin also adds that, just like any type of treatment or medicine, side effects from essential oil use are very possible. "Essential oil used without dilution can be very irritating to the skin," for example. She adds that oils from the citrus family (orange, lemon, lime, and bergamot) can also cause sensitivity to sunlight, so it's best to avoid using or applying those oils before a day in the sun.

How to Shop for Essential Oils

When purchasing essential oils it's important to pay attention to the quality and grade of the brands you're choosing since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't oversee the purity, quality, and packaging of essential oils.

"When shopping for essential oils, always look for aromatherapy grade and essential oils that are ethically and sustainably sourced," Lazo says. In other words, avoid anything synthetic and choose products made with 100% pure oil, meaning the product is purely made with essential oil and no extra additives. Look for brands that provide transparent information about their products and ingredient sourcing. (You can typically find the grade on the bottle, and avoid products that list terms like "fragrance" or "perfume.")

Lazo recommends Aura Cacia, a brand with quality oils that also practices sustainability and source ingredients from suppliers committed to the fair treatment of workers. Another favorite of hers is Vitruvi's Grove essential oil blend. "[This] oil blend has been a  staple in my house this winter," she says.

Shop now: Aura Cacia essential oils:

Shop now: Vitruvi Essential Oils: