How to Find and Use the Right Essential Oils for Every Need


Photo: NikiLitov / Getty Images

Essential oils are nothing new, but they’ve recently sparked an obsession that shows no signs of slowing. You’ve probably heard about them through friends, read about celebrities who swear by them, or noticed a number of recent studies suggesting their benefits are legit. But getting in on the action can be somewhat complicated since there is an overwhelming number of options—as well as risks involved with using them. Simply put: It’s not in your best interest to just buy a random oil and wing it. Here, three things you should keep in mind for a successful essential oil experience.

Step #1: Finding a Quality Essential Oil

There are occasions when it pays to be thrifty, but buying essential oils isn’t one of them. Buying from a source that’s upfront about how they make the oils will ensure that you end up with one that’s potent and uncontaminated—and that likely won’t be the cheapest option. Even if a bottle says “100 percent pure,” you should still double check the ingredients list to make sure that there aren’t fragrances or perfumes added to the oil. That said, some oils have been found to contain components not listed on their ingredient lists (essential oils fall into a “gray area” of regulation by the FDA), so it’s also important to do your research and make sure you’re buying from a reputable company.

Take a look at the company’s website. It’s a good sign if they’ve had third-party testing conducted with their oils, says Serena Goldstein, N.D., a naturopathic doctor in New York City. “Some companies do have studies on their products, but with third-party (versus in-house) there’s no one biased who can skew the studies in a more favorable way.”

Ariana Lutzi, N.D., a nutrition consultant for BUBS Naturals, recommends buying from a smaller company when possible. With larger companies, oils are often stored in a warehouse, so there’s a higher chance that the oil is already at its peak by the time it gets to you. “I know the difference between when I’m in a rut and just have to buy something at Whole Foods versus getting it from a smaller company,” she says. “I notice a difference in the quality of the oil, by smell, and even the therapeutic effect is a little off.”

Other signs to look out for? The plant’s botanical name should be on the bottle (ex: lavender is lavandula angustifolia or officinalis), and its country of origin should be readily accessible, says Lutzi. (An oil’s purity and intended use can vary from country to country.) It should come in a tinted bottle (not clear glass) to protect the oil from sunlight, extending its shelf life. (Here are the best essential oils you can buy on Amazon.)

Step #2: Using Essential Oils Properly

Essential oils might be natural, but they’re also strong, so using them the wrong way can be risky. They’re a common irritant and can even react with certain drugs when consumed, says Goldstein. Essential oils are potentially toxic to a fetus, so avoid essential oils while pregnant or speak with a doc first.

You should also think twice if you have a pet since essential oils can be toxic to animals. They can cause unsteadiness, depression, or low body temperature in dogs and cats who come in contact with them, or vomiting, diarrhea, or depression in dogs and cats who ingest them, according to the ASPCA. In general, diffusers are okay to use if you have pets, but you should avoid essential oils altogether if you own a bird or another pet with breathing issues, according to the organization. (Related: How to Get Rid of Cellulite Using Essential Oils)

Diffusers are a good starting point for essential oil newbies, and a better option than sniffing them straight from the bottle in general, says Goldstein. Adding a few drops to a steamer or pot of boiling water is another more potent option. (Check out these diffusers that double as tasteful decor.)

When it comes to cooking with or ingesting essential oils, avoid anything that’s not labeled as safe for consumption. And even if it does have the all-clear, there may be risks involved. “I’ve actually read from my colleagues that some essential oils, when taken internally, can cause distress over the long term because they are so potent,” says Goldstein. If you want to try cooking with essential oils, Lutzi suggests topping bread with coconut oil, butter, or ghee and honey infused with lemon, lavender, rose, or orange essential oil.

When using oils on your skin, start out slow, since they can cause irritation or even burns. Always start with a patch test to see how your skin reacts to a particular oil, says Lutzi. And you should *never* apply an essential oil directly to your skin; always dilute it first with a carrier oil (such as coconut, almond, or avocado oil). As a rule of thumb, you want 2 percent dilution: 12 drops of essential oil per 1 fluid ounce of carrier oil or lotion, says Lutzi. Finally, some oils are photosensitized, meaning they’ll cause burns when exposed to sunlight (!!). Double-check that an oil isn’t photosensitive if you plan on applying it before heading outside.

Step #3: Choosing the Right Essential Oil for Your Needs

Now comes the fun part: selecting an oil based on what you’re trying to achieve. Lavender is one of the best gateway oils, according to Goldstein, since it has few associated side effects. You can dilute it into a DIY linen mist to promote sleep. Here are a few more standouts:

To read up on a particular oil’s use, you can consult the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy’s list of most commonly used essential oils.

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