essential oil drop falling from leaf into bottle

Essential oils: A guide

Share this story now

Essential oils are popular — really popular. With claims as a natural remedy to boost immunity, improve mood, and treat common ailments such as congestion, sore muscles, and headaches, it’s no wonder these fragrant, little bottles have become a popular wellness trend. If you’re thinking about trying essential oils, let’s walk through the basics and gain an understanding of their possible role in your wellness journey.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils are aromatic, concentrated plant extracts that are obtained through steam distillation. The two most common methods of use are aromatic and topical. You are probably most familiar with the aromatic use, the inhaling of essential oils. Many people use a device known as a diffuser, which disperses aromatic molecules into the air (at home, in the office, etc.) allowing them to be inhaled.

The practice of applying directly to the skin (topically) is a simple process of adding drops of essential oil(s) to your choice of carrier oil (for example, coconut oil or extra virgin olive oil) and then rubbing into the skin. There is a lot of information available regarding carrier oils and diluting guidelines; be sure to do your homework before you begin.

What are essential oils used for?

Once you start researching essential oils, you will quickly realize not only is there a TON of information available, but it’s contradictory at times. So what’s true?

Khadija Kabani, DO, family medicine physician on the medical staff at Methodist Charlton Medical Center, recommends using essential oils to help treat these conditions:

  • Mood (stress relief, relaxation, anxiety)
  • Sleep and fatigue
  • Upper respiratory infection symptoms
  • Muscle soreness

There may be debate about how effective essential oils are at treating these issues, but most doctors and alternative medicine experts agree that there is evidence supporting the role smells play in influencing a person’s mood.

“The connection between the brain and the body is strong,” Dr. Kabani says. “The brain can play an important role in balancing symptoms and side effects, such as stress, pain, and nausea. Essential oils in aromatherapy are thought to work by stimulating smell receptors in the nose, which sends a message to the limbic system — the part of our brain that controls emotions.”

Popular oils

While some people will have specific conditions that they are attempting to remedy with oils, others may simply be looking to add essential oils to their overall wellness routine. Take a look at these popular oils as a good place to start:

Lavender: Associated with lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and skin temperature — all needed ingredients for a good night’s sleep. Additionally, believed to reduce feelings of anxiety and stress.

Peppermint: Most commonly used as a dietary supplement for irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive problems. Also thought to help with headaches.

Tea tree: Known for its therapeutic effects on skin, hair, and nails due to its antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. Often used to remedy skin infections (acne), nail fungus, and hair lice.

Eucalyptus: Believed to be one of the most effective oils against a range of respiratory conditions.

Lemon: A versatile oil that can be used to relieve nausea and boost oral health and energy. Also widely used in home cleaning and purification products.

These are just five of the most common oils used today. There are dozens of others, and each has its own unique properties and intended uses. It’s important to research every oil you might be considering.

Essential oils and traditional medicine

Like most healthcare providers, Dr. Kabani sees the role of essential oils in health and wellness expanding quickly. Diffusers are popping up in hospital labor and delivery rooms; Dr. Kabani herself uses one in her office for patients needing osteopathic manipulation treatments. “I start a diffuser in the room to help relax the patient and their muscles,” she explains.

She doesn’t recommend using oils as the primary medical treatment because of the lack of reliable evidence that they can treat and cure diseases. But she fully supports using them as augmenters to traditional medicine. For example, if a patient has bacterial pneumonia, the appropriate antibiotic should be prescribed, and the patient may also benefit from eucalyptus or peppermint steam for congestion symptoms.

What are the risks of essential oils?

For the most part, experts agree that essential oils are safe when used in aromatherapy and as topical remedies but they should not be taken orally. Dr. Kabani is quick to point out that “natural” doesn’t mean “risk-free.”

Be mindful to not overdo it, and be cautious about what you read on the internet. Always speak with your doctor before you begin any sort of therapeutic practice. Keeping them in the loop can help prevent serious side effects.


Find a doctor to discuss which essential oils might benefit your health.