What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are basically plant extracts. They're made by steaming or pressing various parts of a plant (flowers, bark, leaves or fruit) to capture the compounds that produce fragrance. It can take several pounds of a plant to produce a single bottle of essential oil. In addition to creating scent, essential oils perform other functions in plants, too. (Aromatherapy: Do Essential Oils Really Work?, Hopkins Medicine)
How do Essential Oils work?
Essential oils are most commonly used in the practice of aromatherapy, in which they are inhaled through various methods.The chemicals in essential oils can interact with your body in several ways. According to Michele Mack, LMT, CPMT, essential oils have psychological (affecting emotion), pharmacological (affecting chemistry) and physiological (affecting bodily function and process) benefits.
When applied to your skin, some plant chemicals are absorbed. Those who use essential oils topically tend to do so for cosmetic purposes or to treat pain. Oils are absorbed via the epidermis (top layer of skin), move from the soft tissue to the bloodstream, are carried to the treatment areas and then metabolized in the liver.
Most essential oil users inhale them to experience their psychological effects, such as stress relief. When inhaled, the molecules are distributed into the respiratory system, but a small amount has been shown to affect our brain. “When it is routed to our brain, we identify the smell and, in some cases, we have an emotional response to that smell,” Mack says. “In animal studies, it has been shown that inhalation has a quicker effect of distributing the sedative properties of certain oils in the body.” Inhaling the aromas from essential oils can stimulate areas of your limbic system, which is a part of your brain that plays a role in emotions, behaviors, sense of smell, and long-term memory. Interestingly, the limbic system is heavily involved in forming memories. This can partly explain why familiar smells can trigger memories or emotions.The limbic system also plays a role in controlling several unconscious physiological functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.
How to find quality Essential Oils
The most important thing to consider when shopping for essential oils is product quality, says Gujral. But figuring out which oils are the best is challenging, since there's no government agency in the U.S. that provides a grading system or certification for essential oils. A big problem? Many companies claim their essential oils are "therapeutic grade," but that's just a marketing term.
"Unfortunately, there are lots of products you might find online or in stores that aren't harvested correctly or may have something in them that isn't listed on the label," warns Gujral.
Here are some tips to help you shop for pure essential oils:
- Look at the label: It should include the Latin name of the plant, information on purity or other ingredients added to it, and the country in which the plant was grown.
- Evaluate the company: Purchase products from a well-known and reputable aromatherapy company that's been around for several years.
- Choose dark-colored, glass containers: Pure essential oils are highly concentrated. They can dissolve plastic bottles over time, tainting the oil. Most companies package essential oils in small brown or blue glass bottles to protect the quality.
- Avoid "fragrance oils": Fragrance or perfume oils are made from essential oils combined with chemicals or entirely from chemicals. They're not suitable for aromatherapy — instead, look for bottles that contain a single essential oil in its purest form (100% essential oil with no other fillers).
- Compare prices: Essential oils range in price, depending on how involved harvesting and production are. Within a line, there should be a wide variety of prices — rose absolute or sandalwood oils will be more expensive, while sweet orange oil will be on the less expensive end. If you find a rock-bottom price for an expensive essential oil, it probably isn't pure.
Essential oils can lift your mood and make you feel good with just a whiff of their fragrance. For some people they may even help alleviate the symptoms of various conditions. For more information on how to incorporate them into a healthy lifestyle, consult an integrative medicine expert. (Aromatherapy: Do Essential Oils Really Work?, Hopkins Medicine)