13 Things You Need to Know About Essential Oils Before Working With Them

Do you want to start using essential oils for their amazing benefits?

Or have you already started using them and realized you might not know as much as you thought?

Whether you’re new to essential oils or not, we need to know how to properly and safely work with them.

I had been working on and off with essential oils for years. I thought I knew everything I needed to know. Boy, was I wrong. I started Aromatherapy training in 2021, and there was a lot I didn’t know and hadn’t come across in my Google searches.

Don’t worry, I’ve compiled a list for you! It contains all the foundational information one should know. Even if you’ve been working with them a while, you might find something you didn’t know before. (I’ve also included some personal stories of my MAJOR mistakes with essential oils. I give you permission to laugh at my idiocracy).

1. What Are They?

Essential oils are made from plants. Most are steam distilled, but citrus oils are cold-pressed. Different parts of the plant are used for a particular type of essential oil. To create an essential oil, the leaves, flowers, or bark of plants can all be used.

The scent and property can change depending on the part of the plant the oil is made from. For example, cinnamon bark is a strong irritant and should never be applied topically, even if it is diluted. On the other hand, Cinnamon leaf is usually safe to apply in a carrier oil.

They are extremely concentrated plant extracts. It takes about 242,000 rose petals to make approximately 5 mL of rose oil and about 63 pounds of melissa (lemon balm) to create a 5ml essential oil. 15ml is the typical bottle size you find essential oils in.

2. Fake? Real? Synthetic?

Know what you’re buying or using.

A 100% pure essential oil can also be labeled therapeutic, clinical, and food grade. They’re all the same thing.

Sometimes, cheaper oils and synthetics are added to genuine oils for various reasons. These adulterated or synthetic oils can still have the same scent and taste, such as with menthol derived from mint. Menthol that’s used in food, gum, and toothpaste is usually synthetic.

Synthetics are generally cheaper to make. It protects against bad harvests, political conflicts, etc. (not necessarily a bad thing). So this synthetic is “nature identical” in the main compounds. It’s a synthetic copy of the natural ingredients found in nature. But these synthetic oils don’t have the same properties as essential oils. That means they won’t have the physio-chemical benefits most people are looking for (such as the calm in lavender). 

If you’re unsure if your oil is pure, place a few drops in a clear glass of water. Pure essential oils will sit at the top. If the oil separates, usually sinking to the ground, or separates at the top, that indicates a carrier oil or another ingredient has been added.

Know the Latin name of the plant. Look at the ingredients. Lavandula angustifolia is referred to as “true lavender.” The most commonly known therapeutic use is its calming and anti-inflammatory effects. Lavandin Lavandula intermedia, on the other hand, can have up to 40% of the constituent (chemical component) camphor, which has a stimulating effect. Each has its therapeutic uses, but they are not interchangeable if you want that desired effect. If you just care about the scent… then switching them out is not a problem.

If oil is cheap… there’s usually a reason why. That may indicate it was diluted or not sourced from the correct plant or part of the plant.

3. How Should We Store Them?

In general, a properly sealed, dark glass container will keep an essential oil potent for 2 years. After that, it may start oxidizing and lose some of its potency.

Keep bottles out of reach of children and away from varnished surfaces as they may dissolve the coating. They are highly flammable.

4. How Do They Work?

There are 3 methods of absorption or different ways we can use essential oils:

Inhalation

Odor molecules travel into the nose and bind to an olfactory receptor cell. Once this binding takes place, a chemical cascade happens. The olfactory receptor cells send signals to the olfactory bulb (at the tip of the frontal lobe). From here, information is sent to regions of the limbic system (sometimes called the caveman part of our brain). This system controls sleep, sex drive, hunger, thirst, and smell. It’s also connected to the areas of the brain that control heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, stress levels, and hormone balance. Information is also sent to the primary olfactory cortex, which happens to be located near the gustatory cortex (involved in taste).

Topical

Essential oil molecules can pass through the skin and into the capillaries, and to our bloodstream. Absorption can also occur through hair follicles and sweat ducts. The rate of absorption varies on many factors. 

Internal

I am not as familiar with this type, so I cannot say much. The way I was taught was to not use them internally unless directed by a qualified practitioner or use a professionally formulated blend labeled for internal use. Some people do use them in cooking. I see some people involved in MLM companies posting recipes on Facebook. I’ve only tried cooking with them once, and it went horribly wrong. 

Years ago, I was cooking and needed a lemon. I didn’t have one. But what I did have was lemongrass essential oil. In my young and naive head, I thought they were similar enough to substitute one for the other with minimal differences. I learned two things that day. One; Obviously, a lemon grows on a tree, and lemongrass is a totally different plant. Therefore they have different tastes and properties (duh!). And two; essential oils are potent. You don’t need much. But what did I do? I used WAY too much, and it was so overpowering that it was inedible. 

Some essential oils should not be ingested and can cause internal damage. Learn from my mistakes!

5. What’s the Dosage?

General guidelines for every 10 drops of essential oil diluted in 1 oz of carrier oil. This dosage is for healthy adults. This should be halved for children and during pregnancy. But always consult with a professional to ensure the oil is safe around children, while pregnant, or if you have a chronic condition. They are very potent. They’re powerful concentrations of plants – less is more.

The only oils typically safe to apply directly on the skin are lavender and tea tree. All others need a carrier oil.

6. How Do We Dilute?

Essential oil molecules will bind to fat. This is why we always dilute in fat. Examples are honey, milk (cow’s, coconut, cashew, etc.), or carrier oils. 

Oils aren’t absorbed into the water, the puddle. So when using them in the bath, mixing in fat gives them something to bind to and can help prevent skin irritations. The general recommendation for adults is 3-8 drops of essential oil in 2 tsp diluent (carrier oil, honey, or milk). 

Do not drop them directly in the water! This was another mistake I made.

This was after the cooking incident because I obviously didn’t learn my lesson. I was achy, so I dropped some oils directly into the bath. One of which was peppermint. I got in, and my skin started feeling weird after a few seconds. Then I was freezing. It was the kind of cold that almost hurt. When you’re chewing mint gum or have a mint in your mouth, and you drink cold water. It was that feeling but multiplied and literally from neck to toes. So I immediately got out, ran to the shower, and tried to wash it off, tried to scrub it off with soap and a loofah, but it made no difference. I think it was absorbed by that point. So I’m feeling miserable and cold, wrapped up in hoodies and socks and blankets until it eventually passes.

A blend you can try for muscle aches is peppermint, lavender, and lemongrass in a diluent of your choice. Mix the essential oils together first, then add the diluent and mix. After it’s all mixed, you can pour it into the bath.

It’ll be discussed in more detail below, but, if it causes mild skin irritation from the bath, stop the use and apply a small amount of vegetable oil or aloe vera to the area.

7. Which Carrier Oil Should You Use?

Choose good carrier oils. Sometimes known as fixed oils or base oils. These oils can also have their own therapeutic properties.

Plant carriers have small molecules that transport essential oils through the bloodstream. Unrefined, cold-pressed vegetable oils are the best. If it’s not, it might be highly refined, possibly petroleum-based. An oil can be bleached, deodorized, and artificially colored in the refining process. The revitalized product may receive synthetic vitamins to replace what was lost in the refining process.

Cold-pressed oils can be kept in the fridge for longer shelf life.

When choosing an oil, think of the goal you have. Suppose you have a thicker oil (castor or avocado oil). In that case, it will sit on the skin longer, which means a slower absorption rate. If you want to apply a topical blend for muscles aches, you want a slow absorption rate. A thinner oil like grapeseed or sunflower is better suited for fast relief and fast absorption.

8. Can They Be Harmful?

There are toxic oils to avoid and oils to avoid with pets, children, and during pregnancy.

Citrus oils are phototoxic, so be careful going out in the sun if you use them topically. Cover your skin or put on sunscreen if you do go outside.

9. Do You Really Need to Spot Test?

Yes! Always spot test on your skin.

Flush with a fatty oil, such as olive oil or sesame, if you get any in your eye. You could also put the oil on a rag and use that to swipe across the area. Water will only spread the oil around.

If red blotches or irritation occurs, either too much essential oil was used, not enough diluent was used, or there’s an allergic reaction. If mild irritation occurs, stop the use immediately. Apply a light oil, like grapeseed, or aloe vera gel, to the irritated skin. If a more severe reaction or irritation occurs, seek immediate medical advice.

10. What Is True for All?

Pure essential oils are antioxidants, all essential oils are antibacterial, and all citrus oils are natural degreasers.

11. What Happens If You Use the Same Oil Everyday?

Just like with drugs, we can build up a tolerance to essential oils. If you consistently diffuse orange essential oil, your brain will think that’s your new baseline, your new normal.

Long-term habitual use of an essential oil may cause allergic reactions. This is referred to as sensitization and can manifest as a rash, sneezing, or shortness of breath.

Rotate your regularly used (if you use in a diffuser daily or even in the laundry once a week) oils out every 3-6 months to help avoid sensitization and tolerance.

12. How Do You Blend?

Top notes are the first scent you smell and fades first. They’re uplifting and stimulating. Middle notes are revealed as the top note fades. They impart warmth and fullness. Base notes are what you smell last. It can also help the top and middle notes from evaporating as quickly as they would alone.

Use just a few drops to create your blend. See if you like it. Let it sit for 20 minutes and smell it again, as the scent will likely have changed. Letting it sit allows the chemical constituents to interact and merge.

Using a top, middle, and base note in your blend is considered a whole blend.

You can also blend for chronic conditions using only middle and base notes.

For acute conditions, use top and middle notes only.

There are other ways to blend, but these are the main ways.

Stick to 4-5 oils at most in a blend. Too many can create toxicity.

Always mix essential oils first before adding to carrier oils or anything else to allow them to synergize. If you add them separately, it’s not a big deal. It will just take longer for them to blend together. This does not apply to water. In a diffuser you can just drop the oils directly onto the water as they’ll all puddle together.

13. How Powerful Are the Properties of Essential Oils?

I’ll show you.

Experiments were done to see if fragrance impacted consumers. This article has a lot of fascinating information about these experiments.

It was done in different environments, such as retail, casinos, and restaurants, but I’ll focus on the casino experiment. When they tested various fragrances around the slot machines, they found that “both a refreshing and a soothing fragrance blend with high percentages of natural components, rather than from predominantly synthetic sources, significantly and positively affected coin-in.”

What does that actually mean? Compared to no scent and a synthetic fragrance, when a more natural, essential oil-based fragrance was used, people gambled more, putting more money into the slot machines.

Scents are very powerful, and we hardly ever take notice, except when they’re overwhelmingly good or disgusting. Many studies, some included in this article, have been conducted to study the effects of scents on people’s behaviors, thinking, and mindset.

Scents DO cause physical and psychological changes. The next time you smell some delicious food, notice what happens in your body. Your salivary response. 

Some people even use essential oils to help with trauma therapy. We know smell is linked to our memories. I’m sure we’ve all experienced a time where a scent has triggered a memory or a feeling, good or bad. As stated earlier in this article, scent is linked to our limbic system. The amygdala and hypothalamus are apart of the limbic system. These areas of the brain are known to process and regulate emotions, and involved in the formation of memory.

Is Your Head Ready to Explode Yet?

If you are brand new to essential oils, I just threw a lot of information at you!

It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. The more you work with them the easier it will be. There will come a time when it’s second nature and you won’t have to look back on your notes.

There are many reputable suppliers out there, but I like to use Mountain Rose Herbs.

If you want to dive deeper into your knowledge of essential oils, know that there is a lot of chemistry and botany involved. Salvatore Battaglia has written some excellent books in this area. I’m not going to lie, they’re not cheap. But they are very thorough and you can sometimes find them discounted used.

Essential oils can be very beneficial in our lives and a great resource. But we also need to know how to properly use them.

Now, go out there and start playing with oils!

All content and information on this website are for informational and educational purposes only. The information presented here is not a substitute for any kind of professional advice, and you should not rely solely on this information. Always consult a medical professional or healthcare provider in the area of your particular needs and circumstances prior to making any health, medical, or other related lifestyle, changes, or decisions.

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