How to use essential oils, with advice from aromatherapy experts
We’ve created the ultimate guide to creating an at-home spa with essential oils, exploring what they are and how it works, and have spoken with experts to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about aromatherapy.
In need of some calm and tranquillity? Or wanting to stave off a cold and boost your energy levels? Dedicate some time to the holistic practice of aromatherapy and enjoy the positive benefits to both your physical and mental health.
If you’re new to this therapeutic activity, we’ve got you covered. From defining what exactly it is and how to use essential oils for the best experience to choosing the right ones for you and the brilliant benefits, here at The Recommended, we have done our research, bringing you the ultimate beginner’s guide. We also spoke to several aromatherapy experts to get their top tips and advice.
So what are you waiting for? Read up, be inspired, and find your zen.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are essentially plant extracts in liquid or ‘oil’ form. WebMD explains that they can be ‘made from flower, herb, and tree parts, like bark, roots, peels, and petals. The cells that give a plant its fragrant smell are its "essence." When an essence is extracted from a plant, it becomes an essential oil.’
Founder and CEO of Aroma Energy, Dean Shaw, explains that specific scents and blends of essential oils ‘can have powerful impacts on the body, physically and mentally. Essential oils can be used in multiple ways, including inhaled deeply through the nose, diffused throughout the home (by adding to diffusers, potpourri, for example), diluted and used as a massage oil, or added to baths and showers’ - we’ll explore this further later on in the article.
What is aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy expert and founder of apothecary brand Made By Coopers, Clare White, defines aromatherapy as the ‘years old practice of using plant extracts (in the form of essential oils) to improve health and wellbeing.’ From inhaling to incorporating them into massage, essential oils bring a whole host of benefits to your physical and mental health and wellbeing. More on that below.
How does aromatherapy work?
Aromatherapy expert Dean Shaw explains that ‘our sense of smell is thought to be one of our most powerful senses, given its close association with memory and mood. Our noses (and the scent neurons within them) are linked to the olfactory bulb (the brain’s smell centre). This area of the brain is linked closely to other areas of the brain that affect memory, emotion and mood.
Aromatherapy works by activating certain areas in our olfactory (smell) receptors, which send messages to our brains. Different scents can have different impacts on our minds and body. For example, as Dean Shaw explains, lavender ‘is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties, as well as qualities that make it useful in relieving symptoms of anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Ylang Ylang, on the other hand, is thought to boost mood and alleviate stress.’
How to use essential oils for aromatherapy
Kirsty Wells from Take Five Aromatherapy explains that aromatherapy can be enjoyed in several ways, from adding a few drops of the essential oil into a diffuser and breathing them in to applying it to the skin as a massage oil or used in the bath.
- Using a diffuser: This is the most common way to use essential oils. Simply add a couple of drops to your device, and their scents will fill the environment around you, providing their individual benefits to your atmosphere. Check out our round-up of the best diffusers recommended by aromatherapists.
- Inhaling them: Add a few drops to a bowl of boiling water, cover your head with a towel, and take deep breaths in while inhaling. You can also pop a few drops onto a cloth and take deep breaths.
- Applying to your skin: It’s important to note that you should dilute the essential oils before applying directly to your skin - ‘they may be too strong for your skin and cause some sort of reaction.’ Holland and Barrett suggest blending them with a carrier/base oil first, and ‘once combined, you can apply the essential oils to your face and the rest of your body.’
- Adding to your bath: Mix a few drops into your bath water for a relaxing soak. According to Holland and Barrett, this can ‘help boost their therapeutic qualities because they affect the limbic system or the emotional brain.’
Choosing your essential oils: the most commonly used ones
There are hundreds of essential oils - each with varying scents, properties, and benefits. Here we’ve pulled together some of the most popular ones, including their benefits and where to buy them.
- Lavender: Great for helping promote a good night’s sleep. Award-winning aromatherapy brand Tisserand recommends adding a couple of drops to your diffuser or massaging into the skin to ‘relax the mind and body before bed.’ Try their Lavender essential oil.
- Peppermint: This can help relieve mental fatigue, muscle pain and also reduce congestion. Holland and Barrett suggest adding a few drops into your bath or use with your diffuser to freshen the air. Check out Miaroma’s peppermint pure essential oil.
- Ylang Ylang: A great essential oil to bring a state of calm and relaxation. Either inhale or add to your diffuser - check out Neal’s Yard’s Ylang Ylang essential oil.
- Lemon: Known as the ‘immunity booster’ - Tisserand suggests adding to your diffuser to ‘help boost the body’s immune system and stimulate the production of white blood cells - thereby increasing your ability to fight off illness.’ Try their Lemon essential oil.
- Bergamot: This essential oil can help with skin conditions with its natural antiseptic and antibacterial properties. Holland and Barrett also recommend it for relieving feelings of anxiety and stress, and regulating mood - try their Bergamot essential oil.
- Tea Tree: With antibacterial properties, tea tree oil is great for fighting off germs and clearing your sinuses. Try The Body Shop’s Tea Tree oil.
- Frankincense: Try Holland and Barrett’s Frankincense oil to help your overall wellbeing. It’s thought to help release tension in the mind and reduce anxieties, bringing a state of calm.
The benefits of aromatherapy
Aromatherapy is a great practice for the mind, body and soul. Aromatherapy expert Kirsty Wells explains that each essential oil ‘contains properties that can help to relax, energise, focus, balance, heal and have an abundance of effects on both our body and our mind.’ Here we pick out some of the top mental and physical benefits:
Certain essential oils, for example, chamomile and lavender, can help give a calming and unwinding effect, boosting feelings of relaxation. They can also work to reduce stress and anxiety and improve the quality of our sleep. Expert Kirsty Wells also explains the power different scents can have on our wellbeing - ‘using a blend of relaxation oils regularly will create a link in our brains with that scent. When we feel stressed, anxious or unbalanced, simply smelling your familiar aromatherapy scents can anchor your mind back to feelings of safety, comfort and relaxation. This works especially well during pregnancy/labour, during times of anxiety or as a sleep aid.’
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Aromatherapy expert Clare White explains the huge variety of physical benefits from aromatherapy, including ‘wound healing, pain relief, headache relief, ability to fight bacteria, virus or fungus, improved respiratory health, digestion, and even to alleviate the side effects of chemo.’
By either inhaling or rubbing into the skin, the essential oils can help soothe and ease certain health conditions due to their powerful properties. WebMD also highlights the impact aromatherapy can have on preventing disease due to the antioxidant properties in essential oils - ‘antioxidants help prevent damage to cells caused by free radicals. This damage can lead to serious diseases such as cancer.’
Expert tips on how to create the best setting for aromatherapy
Want to create your own at-home spa? And ready to unwind in a relaxing environment to boost both your physical and mental state? With these useful tips from our experts, you can easily transform your living space into a calming sanctuary.
Expert Kirsty Wells emphasises the importance of creating the perfect environment for your aromatherapy experience: ‘If you’re aiming for relaxation, aromatherapy can work well in a low-lit environment. Think candles, aromatherapy bath oils or bath salts, fairy lights, a soothing playlist or podcast, comfortable places to rest and try slowing your breathing for a really recharging experience.’ Check out our shopping guide to the best candles for some of our favourite picks.
Expert Clare White suggests starting with an aromatherapy bath to kick-start the ultimate spa night-in. ‘Use Epsom salts and a few drops of essential oil blends (such as Restore, which contains eucalyptus and cedarwood).’ She also recommends turning off the lights and using candles instead for ‘added ambience’ and to help soothe your mind and body. To finish off this bathing ritual, ‘go for a nourishing face and body oil in place of your moisturiser. It's a treat for your skin, and you can really massage it into your body and gently pat it into your face.’
Expert Dean Shaw advises playing music as ‘many prefer ambient music for relaxation, but it's worth investigating things like binaural beats’. He also recommends finding ‘somewhere comfy to sit or lay and choosing a scent that can help you achieve your chosen mood. Spend some time doing deep breathing, focusing on your body and noting the scents.’ And for those with less time - ‘if you find yourself on the go, you could try wearing essential oils on pulse points across your body.’
Want more guidance on wellness and fitness topics? Check out our wellness and fitness sections, with guides including how to create a morning routine to boost your mood, best posture tips and tackling tiredness.
Cordelia Aspinall is a Digital Writer for Immediate Media, working across brands including The Recommended, RadioTimes.com, MadeForMums and BBC Gardeners’ World. She has previously worked and written for digital publications including Condé Nast Traveller, The Evening Standard, Cosmopolitan, and several other lifestyle brands.