Since ancient times, essential oils have been used for a variety of purposes ranging from religious practices and food preparation to beauty and medicinal therapies. In the face of modern 20th-century medicine, however, they were cast aside and garnered a more spiritual reputation with little legitimate health credit.
It wasn’t until the early to mid-2000s, as celebrities were touting the benefits of yoga and living a clean, organic lifestyle was presented as the healthiest regimen that the tides turned in favour of essential oils.
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“With things like this, the research always follows the hype, and as more people became interested in essential oils, more researchers worked to back up their claims,” says Kristen Ma, founder of Pure + Simple spa and skincare. “Now they’re legitimate and mainstream.”
But just as common pharmaceutical drugs come with indications for use, essential oils also need to be used properly to avoid a negative reaction.
“You have to be careful with essential oils because they’re very concentrated and can be toxic because of their high doses. If you plan to ingest them, you need to be guided by a health practitioner,” Ma says.
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She advises diluting them in a base oil, like olive or coconut oil, and being mindful to patch test them if you’re applying them directly to your skin, especially your face.
“They’re usually quite safe when used topically, though. And a lot of people include them in home remedy-type preparations.”
She broke down the seven most common essential oils people use, how to use them safely and effectively, and how they work.
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What it’s good for: Uplifting and grounding, clary sage is credited for its mood-boosting abilities, as well as anti-spasmodic qualities, which are good for relaxing muscles.
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How to use it: Dilute a few drops in an olive or coconut base oil and add to a bath.
“Clary sage helps a lot with spasms in the body, so if you have menstrual cramps, general muscle pain or tightness, or tightness in your GI tract, it can help to relax you,” Ma says. “Overall, if you’re feeling stressed, taking a bath with clary sage oil is a good way to unwind.”
What it’s good for: Known for its sedative properties, lavender oil enhances tranquility and calms the mind. Ma points out that it’s also good for curbing nausea, and naturopathic doctors will use it to calm the GI tract to help with conditions like IBS. It can also be used to disinfect wounds, promote regeneration of skin and prevent scarring.
In addition, a small study published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice found that lavender and rose oil were effective in curbing anxiety and depression in women who were suffering from postpartum depression (PPD).
How to use it: To curb nausea, put a few drops of lavender oil on a washcloth and inhale it. To help you sleep, lavender oil can be spritzed onto your pillow or sheets, or you could apply some oil directly to your pulse points. Since it’s one of the only oils that you can safely apply directly to your skin, you can put it on wounds. For women with PPD, Ma suggests pouring some oil into a diffuser.
What it’s good for: Peppermint oil is a very good antiseptic, which Ma says she uses to treat acne. Its soothing and antibacterial properties make it a gentler treatment than anything containing alcohol. In case you were wondering why it’s so often included in products like foot cream, that’s because the antiseptic benefits can help with fungus issues, and its invigorating qualities make it an ideal addition to washing products. Ma cautions that it shouldn’t be used by women who are breastfeeding, however, because it can depress milk production.
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How to use it: Dilute in a base oil and apply it to skin to treat blemishes, or rub into sore muscles to refresh and ease pain.
What it’s good for: Clarifying and antiseptic (it’s in the same family as peppermint), eucalyptus oil is known for clearing sinuses and loosening mucus. It also has cough suppressing qualities and is known to support the immune system.
“As we get into cold and flu season, it’s a good idea to stock some eucalyptus oil in your cupboard,” Ma says.
From an emotional point of view, eucalyptus is credited with clarifying the mind, enhancing focus and concentration, and boosting energy.
How to use it: To clear a stuffy nose or sinuses, add a few drops of eucalyptus oil to a bowl of steaming water, put a towel over your head and breath in the steam for no more than five minutes.
What it’s good for: Primarily used for its anti-fungal and antiseptic properties, tea tree oil is another of the few oils that can be directly applied to the skin. However, Ma cautions, if you have sensitive skin, do a patch test first. She says it’s effective for killing foot fungus as well as treating yeast infections and is a powerful agent in killing microbes on skin.
“You’ll see it used in acne products but my view of treating acne is to support the skin’s immunity so I won’t use tea tree oil. But if a blemish has been picked, I will use it to disinfect the wound.”
How to use it: Ma doesn’t advise applying tea tree oil directly to your face if you have sensitive skin — try a patch on your neck first. Otherwise, it’s safe to apply to an area like your feet without using a base oil.
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What it’s good for: Neroli is what Ma calls a “precious oil” because it’s among the most expensive (rose oil is hands down the most expensive), so even though it’s credited for being antiseptic, it wouldn’t be cost-effective to use it to disinfect a large surface area of skin. In terms of aromatherapeutic properties, it’s good for bringing down stress levels and is effective for treating PMS symptoms like anxiety, swelling and generalized body pain.
How to use it: Sparingly, Ma says, unless you have a lot of money to spend. But always dilute it in a base oil first.
What it’s good for: Calming and anti-inflammatory, geranium oil has a sweet floral scent that also works to uplift. It is also credited as an effective insect repellent.
How to use it: Dilute in a base oil and apply to pulse points or any areas of inflammation. Ma says she likes to mix it with citrus oils to balance out the sweet scent.