Making Sense Out of Scents: What You Need to Know About Essential Oils

Written by Teresa Bergen

What you need to know about Essential Oils and Aromatherapy

One of Yumei Silva’s clients had such frequent and severe anxiety attacks that she struggled to complete routine tasks. So Silva, a certified aromatherapist in Henrico, Va., prepared an inhaler filled with essential oils. The next time her client had an anxiety attack in the grocery store, aromatherapy saved the day.

“In normal circumstances, she would just drop her shopping cart and leave,” Silva says. “But in that instance, she took out the inhaler, took a few sniffs, and she was able to continue her shopping. It’s awesome for her. It had never happened.”

Aromatherapy, which uses concentrated plant essences in the form of essential oils for healing, is not yet thoroughly researched or understood by medical science. People inhale the oils through a diffuser or inhaler, apply them to the skin or, in some cases, take them internally. They’re also used in personal hygiene and cleaning products. According to the Mayo Clinic, studies show that aromatherapy might help relieve anxiety and depression and improve sleep quality and the quality of life in general. Small studies focused on lavender oil suggest aromatherapy could help reduce certain types of pain and improve the quality of life for people with dementia.

However, while essential oils can be immensely beneficial, they’re not all without risks. Some research suggests that some oils could negatively disrupt hormones. So like with anything, it’s wise to do your research and find out which oils are right for you — and which should be avoided.


How Does Aromatherapy Work?

As the name implies, the sense of smell is an important part of aromatherapy. But the exact mechanism has not been firmly determined. One theory is that olfactory receptors in your nose communicate with parts of your brain that connect with memories and emotions. Inhaling the molecules of essential oils could affect parts of your brain influencing mental, emotional and/or physical health.

“Essential oils are volatile constituents,” Silva explains. “So they go into your limbic system very quickly through your olfactory. We inhale the essential oils. The volatile constituents go directly to your brain, bypassing the blood/brain barrier, so they affect your emotions very quickly.”

Many aromatherapy treatments are applied topically so the oils are absorbed through the skin. Because oils are highly concentrated plant essences, as a general rule they should be used diluted in a “carrier” oil — such as almond or coconut oil — or in lotion, ointment, balm or bath oil, according to “Essential Oils” by Neal’s Yard Remedies. Exceptions include rose, jasmine, lavender and ylang ylang, which make lovely perfume, and tea tree, used to treat stings, bites and cuts.


Oils For Beginners

In her aromatherapy practice, Silva specializes in treating emotional issues, skin conditions and respiratory problems. She also teaches a class for people who want to learn how to use essential oils, and recommends five basic essential oils for beginners: lavender, tea tree, sweet orange, eucalyptus globulus and cedar wood.

“The reason I recommend these five essential oils is because they’re inexpensive, easy to find, and less likely to be adulterated,” she says.

These five oils can be combined to treat a variety of ailments, including cuts, burns and insect bites. “If you mix lavender, sweet orange and cedar wood, this blend can decrease your anxiety and depression,” she says. Sinus trouble or chest congestion? Silva recommends mixing tea tree, lavender and eucalyptus oils into unscented lotion and applying it to your chest, or making an aromatherapy inhaler.



Since essential oils come from plants, they’re natural. But this doesn’t mean risk-free. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, most topical and inhaled essential oils are generally considered safe. However, don’t take oils by mouth unless you’re working with a trained professional.

Some oils, such as cinnamon, may irritate your skin. Silva says she recommends beginners use sweet orange over other citrus oils, because some, like lemon or grapefruit oil, may provoke a toxic skin reaction in the sun. Oils may interact with prescription drugs, so talk to your doctor about any aromatherapy you’re incorporating into your healthcare. Crooked companies sometimes adulterate oils, Silva says, so it’s wise to know where your oils are coming from. Silva checks out a company’s GC/MS (gas chromatography/mass spectrometry — techniques that analyze what’s in the oils) reports before buying. Less science-minded customers can choose oils certified organic by the USDA.

Some essential oils are contraindicated for certain people and pets, meaning they shouldn’t be used. Using essential oils during pregnancy is controversial because of the possibility of oil crossing into the placenta. Until more studies are done, the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) advises not to use wormwood, rue, oak moss, lavandula stoechas, camphor, parsley seed, sage or hyssop oil during pregnancy. Also be careful of your dog’s sensitive nose. What smells good to humans can be overwhelming — at least 10,000 times stronger — for our canine companions. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals warns against using strong concentrations of oil around dogs, and advises keeping diffusers away from pet birds, animals that groom themselves, or any pet with respiratory issues.

Endocrine Disruptors?

Furthermore, there’s also been evidence that some oils could contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals that interfere with hormones. A 2007 study conducted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) found a link between topically used lavender and tea tree oil and abnormal breast growth in young boys. The study was hotly contested by the essential oil industry, but a new NIEHS report — based on new research — isolated eight specific chemical elements found in many essential oils and found them to be potential endocrine disruptors.

“Our society deems essential oils as safe,” says J. Tyler Ramsey, who led the investigation by the NIEHS, which presented the new research at the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in March. “However, they possess a diverse amount of chemicals and should be used with caution.”

Many people experience terrific results from aromatherapy. But it’s best to follow experienced guidance either through reliable books and research, by consulting an aromatherapist certified by the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy or checking with your doctor.


5 Easy Ways to Fill Your Life with Scents 

Make your car smell better: Instead of hanging a little tree from your rearview mirror, put a couple of drops of your favorite essential oil on a cotton ball and tuck it near your dash.

Scent your house: A few drops of cinnamon or clove oil in a saucepan simmering on the stove adds a homey gingerbread smell to your kitchen.

In a mister: Mix water and three or four drops of oil in a spray bottle for an inexpensive air freshener.

In the bathroom: Sprinkle a few drops of lavender oil inside your toilet paper tube. Every time somebody uses the toilet paper, the scent wafts into the air.

Make silk flowers realistic: Rub rose oil into a silk rose and suddenly it seems a lot less fake.

About the author

Teresa Bergen

Teresa Bergen is a Portland, Oregon-based freelance writer and web content developer who specializes in health, fitness and travel. Her articles appear on/in, Spirituality & Health, India Currents, Whole Life Times Magazine, Pique, Yogi Times, the South China Morning Post, and many other print and online publications. She’s the author of Vegetarian Asia Travel Guide and Meditations for Gym Yogis and writes a blog called Veg Travel and Fitness. She’s also the vegetarian/vegan editor of Real Food Traveler. In addition to writing, Teresa is a yoga teacher and ACE-certified personal trainer and health coach.

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