Walk around your local health food store and you are sure to find a selection of essential oils, such as lavender, peppermint, eucalyptus, and grapefruit. Besides smelling nice, essential oils have a myriad of personal and health uses; you can use them to freshen a room, clear a headache, unclog your sinuses, and improve your depression. Essential oils have been used for throughout history as medicine, flavorings and perfume, but… what are they?
According to the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, “essential oils are highly concentrated aromatic extracts which are distilled from a variety of aromatic plant material including grasses, leaves, flowers, needles & twigs, peel of fruit, wood and roots”. These extracts are distilled using steam, water, or are cold-pressed, and are highly concentrated. They are not oils in the sense of corn or olive oil, however; they tend to be lighter than water, and a little essential oil goes a long, long way, so they should be used sparingly.
For example, three to five drops of eucalyptus essential oil in a bowl of steaming water is all it takes to penetrate a stuffy head. Just inhale the steam slowly, and keep your eyes closed over the bowl. Because essential oils are so concentrated, they can be irritating to mucous membranes, the eyes, and occasionally the skin. With few exceptions, essential oils should never be used “neat” (undiluted) on the skin, or ingested internally (just because they are natural, doesn’t mean they aren’t harmful if not used properly).
Don’t be fooled by synthetic oils, which are frequently used in aromatherapy products in body lotions and perfumes - those scents are created using chemicals instead of being distilled from plants and other organic materials, and are considered “fragrance oils.” “Therapeutic grade” essential oils are the real deal, and the only ones that should be used in aromatherapy.