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A Beginner's Guide to Essential Oils

Updated on December 8, 2016
Jayne Lancer profile image

After almost 20 years in the beauty business, Jayne knows that cosmetics alone won't make us look good; it must come from the inside, too.

A guide to start your journey into the fascinating world of essential oils. Discover recipes to relieve common ailments, enrich food, expel tobacco smells and repel insects. Find out, too, how to choose essential oils, and what 'therapeutic grade' oils are.

What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are derived from flowers, fruits, roots, leaves and bark. Plants produce scent to attract pollinating insects and protect themselves from bacteria and mycosis.

Non-Therapeutic Uses for Essential Oils

Essential oils have been valued for their healing benefits since the 12th century, when Arab traders brought them to the cloisters of Spain and southern France. It wasn't long, however, before the church realized that mood and atmosphere could be manipulated by aroma, and thus implemented them into worship. Today, the oils are a vital component of processed foods and cosmetics to make them more appealing to consumers.

Apple blossom: the oils of some plants are bound to an enzyme that causes them to oxidize at the moment of extraction
Apple blossom: the oils of some plants are bound to an enzyme that causes them to oxidize at the moment of extraction

'Quality' Essential Oils

Only natural, organic oils extracted by steam distillation or pressing are considered 'quality' and 'high quality' essential oils, the latter being of therapeutic grade.

But the oils of some plants are bound to an enzyme that causes them to oxidize at the moment of extraction, rendering them useless. This means their aroma can only be synthetically reproduced. Examples of synthetic oils are apple, apple blossom, lilac, linden, honeysuckle, lotus, magnolia, lily of the valley, almond blossom, passion flower, peach and violet. Although high-end perfumes contain synthetic oils, it does not mean they are 'quality' oils, and they are not suitable for aromatherapy.

Lavender growing in the Haute Provence of France
Lavender growing in the Haute Provence of France

Therapeutic Grade Essential Oils

The most effective oils in aromatherapy are produced from plants grown in regions where climate and soil composition allow them to flourish notably well. Examples are: lavender from the Haute Provence of France; orange blossom from Morocco and the coast of Sicily; rose from Bulgaria, Morocco and Turkey; sandelwood from Mysore; and cedar from the Lebanon and the Atlas Mountains.

Therefore, although there is, for instance, such a thing as essential oil of cedar from Virginia, it contains only 40 healing substances, whereas cedar oil from the Atlas Mountains contains 160. Because the therapeutic value of the latter is greater, it is labeled a 'high quality' or 'therapeutic grade' essential oil, and cedar from Virginia merely a 'quality' oil.

Be careful: all fragrances can be synthetically manufactured and sold cheaply as 'essential oil'. To be certain that you're getting a safe, therapeutic grade product, always buy at a pharmacy.

To be certain that you're getting a quality product, always buy at a pharmacy
To be certain that you're getting a quality product, always buy at a pharmacy


Aromatherapy obviously works through the sense of smell, but also through the skin.

Through the Sense of Smell

Aroma stimulates the release of neurochemicals that determine mood. The effect can be relaxing, exciting or seductive—i.e. balm and lavender slow brain activity affecting relaxation and calm, whereas citrus oils have the opposite effect.

The best way to apply aromatherapy through the sense of smell is with a ‘diffuser’, also called an ‘oil burner’.

An aromatherapy diffuser works by heating a mixture of water and essential oils to release aroma through vapor. Depending on the size of the diffuser's bowl, 5—15 drops of essential oil are usually sufficient. Never use a diffuser without water, especially as it can cause the bowl to crack depending on material.

Mix essential oil with a carrier oil
Mix essential oil with a carrier oil


The molecules of essential oils are small enough to penetrate skin and reach underlying tissue, glands, muscles, organs and the circulatory system. Applied through bathing or massage, healing benefits are noticeable within minutes.

Just mix a few drops of essential oil with a cup of milk and add to bathwater.

For massage, mix essential oil with a carrier oil, honey, or a fatty food like heavy cream, sour cream or mashed avocado. The highest recommended concentration is three percent essential oil.

Take Care with Essential Oils

  • Because essential oils can cause irritations, never apply them to skin without diluting with water or adding to a carrier. Lavender, mint, rose and balm are the only exceptions, but be careful on sensitive skin.
  • Store essential oils in dark bottles and keep away from direct sunlight. Never leave bottles open for longer than necessary.
  • Mixing oils can shorten their life by up to three months, therefore, mix only small amounts when making massage oils etc.
  • Essential oils last on average about six months to a year. They don't actually 'go bad' or turn rancid, but they do oxidize over time, which impairs their therapeutic efficacy. An essential oil has expired if it alters its fragrance, turns cloudy, and/or thickens in consistency.

The best way to apply aromatherapy through the sense of smell is with a ‘diffuser’, also called an ‘oil burner’
The best way to apply aromatherapy through the sense of smell is with a ‘diffuser’, also called an ‘oil burner’

How to Choose Essential Oils

Just as you would when deciding on a perfume, test essential oils first on a strip of blotting paper. Any averse reaction to an oil—whether just not liking the smell to a sensation of nausea—is an indication that it will be of no benefit, even if it is recommended for a particular ailment or condition.

Recipes for Aromatherapy Diffusers

Vaporize essential oil in a diffuser to inspire meditation, relieve colds, aid sleep, induce relaxation and enhance concentration. Diffusers can also be used around the house to expel tobacco odors and repel insects.

If you have an aversion to any of the oils in the following recipes, replace with one of the listed 'alternative oils'.



1 drop Myrtle

1 drop Rose

2 drops Frankincense

2 drops Cedar

Alternative oils: Lavender, Myrrh, Sage, Juniper, Hyssop

Essential oil for meditation
Essential oil for meditation

Create a Relaxed Atmosphere

These are great for the living room.


6 drops Verbena

2 drops Geranium


4 drops Grapefruit

1 drop Rose

3 drops Cedar

Alternative oils: All floral and citrus aromas—e.g. you could replace grapefruit with lemon, or rose with lavender.

Improve Concentration

This one is for the work area or study.


3 drops Hyssop

4 drops Lemon

Alternative oils: All citrus oils, Mint, Rosemary, Swiss (Stone) Pine

Aromatherapy for the bedroom
Aromatherapy for the bedroom

Relieve Insomnia


2 drops Geranium

3 drops Lavender

3 drops Balm

Alternative oils: Roman Chamomile, Mimosa, Neroli, Orange, Rose, Sandalwood, Yarrow, Ylang Ylang


This is another one for the bedroom.


1 drop Jasmin

3 drops Sandalwood

1 drop Vetiver

Alternative oils: Tuberose, Ylang Ylang, Musk Seed

Increase Apetite


4 drops Grapefruit

3 drops Sandalwood

3 drops Vetiver

Alternative oils: All citrus oils, Vanilla, Cinnamon

Relieve colds with essential oils
Relieve colds with essential oils

Relieve Colds


3 drops Eucalyptus

2 drops Swiss (Stone) Pine

5 drops Lemon

Alternative oils: Cajuput, Camphor, Mountain Pine, Lavender, Hyssop

Relieve Digestive Disorders

Try any one of the following: Roman Chamomile, Coriander, Cumin (Jeera), Mint, Cinnamon

Expel Tobacco Odor


2 drops Myrtle

1 drop Neroli

2 drops Swiss (Stone) Pine

Alternative oils: Bay-leaf, Lemon Grass, Sage, Juniper, Hyssop, Lemon

Essential oils to repel insects
Essential oils to repel insects

Repel Insects

Vaporize any one of the following: Eucalyptus, Geranium, Lavender, Clove, Cedar

Culinary Uses for Essential Oil

Use essential oils to turn everyday foods and beverages into luxury commodities.

Here are a few examples of what can be done, but seek expert advice before experimenting beyond the recipes given here: many essential oils are not suitable for consumption. Use synthetic oils under no circumstances and always buy from a pharmacy!

Aromatic Vinegar

Because of its sweet note, this is great to dress bitter tasting lettuces like radicchio, rocket salad and endive.

200 ml (approx. 1 cup) white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
4 drops tarragon essential oil
3 drops melissa (balm) essential oil
2 drops hyssop essential oil

Mix all ingredients, pour into a glass bottle and seal. Allow to mature in a cool, dark place for two weeks.

Aromatic honey: delicious spread on buttered toast or as a sweetener for tea
Aromatic honey: delicious spread on buttered toast or as a sweetener for tea

Aromatic Honey

250 g (approx. 8 oz) clear honey
2 drops mandarin essential oil
1 drop vanilla essential oil

Just mix all ingredients together. It's delicious spread on buttered toast or as a sweetener for tea.

Salad Oils

100ml (approx. 1/2 cup) sesame oil and 4 drops nutmeg essential Oil


100ml olive oil, 6 drops basil essential oil and 10 drops oregano essential oil


100ml hazelnut oil, 5 drops dill essential oil and 3 drops marjory essential oil

Refreshing Summer Drink

1 liter (approx. 2 pints) green tea
1 - 2 tablespoons maple syrup
1/4 liter (approx. 1/2 pint) apple juice
2 drops cinnamon leaf essential oil
3 drops lemon essential oil

Just stir all ingredients into the green tea and refrigerate until cold. Serve with ice and lemon.


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    • kerlund74 profile image

      kerlund74 3 years ago from Sweden

      I find this very interesting, I knew some things about this before, but this is great:)

    • erorantes profile image

      Ana Maria Orantes 3 years ago from Miami Florida

      Miss jayne. Lancer I , like your article on aroma therapy. It is good to know about the oils.