What are Essential Oils?

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Essential oils are concentrated, volatile oils that are extracted from the flowers, leaves, roots, and other parts of plants. They are usually extracted from plants by steam distillation, which involves heating the plant with steam until the oil vaporizes (other extraction methods include water and steam distillation, maceration, expression, solvent extraction, and enfleurage).

How It Works

Rich in a variety of aromatic plant compounds, essential oils are thought to have therapeutic properties when they are absorbed into the body (and eventually, the bloodstream) by inhalation or through direct contact with the skin.

According to proponents, these scent molecules are said to enter the nervous system and influence hormones, metabolism, and emotional and physical wellbeing. 

Types of Essential Oils

There are several hundred essential oils available. Some of the most popular essential oils include: 

Ways to Use Them

The branch of herbal medicine that uses the medicinal properties found in essential oils is called aromatherapy. In aromatherapy, essential oils can be vaporized using a diffuser or steam tent or adding the oil to a warm bath. The vaporized essential oils, when inhaled, are thought to benefit conditions such as stress, headaches, anxiety, pain, mood disorders, jet lag, insomnia or poor sleep, nausea and vomiting, and migraine. 

The oils may also be used on skin during an aromatherapy massage, bath, compress, or spot application and are thought to benefit hair growth, joint or back pain, acne, arthritis, and other conditions.

Essential oils are also found in soap, lotion, bath salts, and candles. 

Buying Essential Oils

The price of pure essential oils varies greatly depending on the availability and amount of the plant required and the growing, harvesting and manufacturing conditions needed to produce the oil. For example, jasmine essential oil is one of the more expensive oils as it requires millions of hand-harvested blossoms to produce one kilogram of jasmine absolute oil.


Related: Tips on Buying Essential Oils


Essential oils should only be used in equipment designed for essential oils and not in a CPAP machine or other breathing device or humidifier. Oil can degrade plastic equipment and there may be health concerns with prolonged exposure to essential oils.

Essential oils can cause toxic reactions if ingested or used internally. Always consult your primary care provider before using any oils internally. Essential oils shouldn't be confused with essential fatty acids, which are edible dietary oils.

Get more tips and precautions when using essential oils.


Buckle J. Aromatherapy: what is it? HerbalGram 2003;57:50-6.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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