Your Guide To Therapeutic Essential Oils

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson
Updated February 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Essential oils have become a mainstream practice for overall wellness accepted by a growing number of people. You may have experienced their use during a massage or in the scent of your favorite body scrub. A limited amount of research suggests that some oils can provide benefits to emotional well-being and mental health.

While using essential oils is not a replacement for therapy or other treatments carried out by a professional, they can be a powerful complement to other strategies for supporting overall health. In this essential oil guide, we'll discuss how to safely use essential oils to support your mental well-being without causing harm to yourself or those around you.

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What are essential oils?

Essential oils are highly concentrated plant extracts that are created by pressing or steaming the flowers, bark, fruit, or leaves of a plant. By distilling the compounds derived from various plant sources, you can produce a fragrance. It can take several pounds of a plant to produce enough oils to fill a small bottle. 

What can essential oil and massage oil be used for?

Studies have shown mixed results regarding the effectiveness of essential oils. According to the Cleveland Clinic, there is some proof that essential oil blends may help to improve sleep, reduce anxiety, kill bacteria and fungi, ease headaches, support nervous system function, and help in soothing nausea

A study on the effect of aromatherapy on anxiety revealed that participants who inhaled rose water oil each day for four weeks saw a significant decrease in their anxiety levels. Much of the proof regarding the efficacy of essential oils is anecdotal, however. Many people use oils to promote relaxation in massage therapy, aid sleep, lift their mood, avoid getting sick, or enjoy a refreshing scent.

The body responds to different scents in different ways, and the effects can vary from person to person. Your experience with essential oils will be unique to you. While some may find a particular scent to be relaxing, others may find it stimulating. It's important to experiment and discover which scents work best for your individual needs.

Five things you need to know about therapeutic essential oils and oil blends

There can be a bit of a learning curve when it comes to getting the most out of your essential oil use. By following a basic outline on how essential oils can support your well-being, you can take advantage of the benefits that they offer. If you're thinking about incorporating essential oils into your life, consider the following facts:

1. Use in traditional medicine for centuries

As early as 4500 BC, ancient Egyptians used aromatic oils in their ointments and cosmetics. By 2000 BC, traditional Indian and Chinese medicines included aromatic oils as a common method to enhance the healing process. Oils began to be distilled into concentrated essential oils by the 11th century.

According to the International Federation of Aromatherapists, ancient texts from across the globe describe the use of aromatic oils in making poultices, creating tranquilizers to help people sleep, and allowing people to perfume themselves. As a potent remedy for respiratory tract infections, the use of aromatic plants and essential oils also has a history in ancient Greece.

2. Essential oils should be used with caution

Since essential oils are extremely concentrated forms of plants, it can be important to be cautious of how you use them. Some people may experience irritation or allergic reactions when they're exposed to essential oils.

Essential oils can irritate the skin and mucous membranes, so it's important to dilute them before using. Exposure to direct sunlight after applying certain photosensitive oils can also cause skin irritation and sensitivity.

A few of the oils most likely to cause irritation include oregano oil, jasmine oil, lemongrass oil, and chamomile oil. Ingesting essential oils and applying them directly to your skin is considered unsafe, and if used incorrectly, they can do more harm than good.

Essential oils are typically not recommended for use around pregnant women, especially if they are breastfeeding, as well as children under the age of 3. In addition, most essential oils are toxic to pets. You may need to consider diffusing them in an area away from your pets and keeping your diffuser somewhere high enough that they can't knock it down.

3. Consider the source and consult a qualified aromatherapist

As essential oils have gained popularity, the number of companies selling them has also grown. Not all oils are created equally, and their production is not monitored by any government agency. John Hopkins Medicine suggests a few factors to consider when deciding what company to purchase from:

  • Ensure the company has been around for a few years and has a well-established reputation.
  • Each oil's label should include the Latin name of the plant and where it was grown, as well as information about any added ingredients.
  • Oils should be packaged in dark-colored glass containers to ensure their quality.
  • Bottles should contain one essential oil in its purest form with no added fragrances or chemicals.

There are currently no state licensing requirements regarding aromatherapy, although there are a few industry bodies that aromatherapists may participate in, such as the Aromatherapy Registration Council and the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapists. When you're selecting an aromatherapist to work with, you may ask them questions such as:

  • Can you tell me about your training?
  • What association are you a member of?
  • Have you worked with people who had similar goals as mine before?
  • How long have you been an aromatherapist?
  • What services do you provide?
  • Do you carry insurance for your practice?

How potential aromatherapists answer can tell you more about their professional background and beliefs so you can ensure you're working with someone you trust. 

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4. Essential oils (e.g., tea tree oil) have various properties that make them effective for different uses

While hundreds of essential oils are available for purchase, a select few have been studied for their benefits. These oils tend to be used more often, particularly for certain physical or mental health concerns. You may recognize some of these more popular essential oils:

  • Lavender: This scent is known for its calming characteristics. Lavender essential oil blends can reduce stress and pain, support relaxation and contribute to improved sleep. This oil is also a great remedy for sensitive skin.
  • Peppermint: Peppermint essential oil may be helpful in treating symptoms of IBS in adults and reducing tension headaches. It has great diuretic and anti inflammatory properties which are supportive if people struggle with water retention. Also, it contains antioxidant properties that safeguard the mucous membrane to help prevent congestion.
  • Citrus: Citrus oils such as lemon and orange are often used to lift the spirit of a space or provide a clean scent to the air.
  • Tea tree: Tea tree oil is known for its antiseptic, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties. Research has shown it to be effective in treating acne, dandruff, lice, and athlete's foot.

Other essential oils you may be familiar with include eucalyptus, clary sage, rosemary, and rose oil. The best essential oils are those that can help provide you with the benefits you're seeking. Therefore, each person may prefer to use a different oil depending on their needs.

5. Apply or use as suggested

Essential oils should have a label on the container that describes how to use them. It can be important to follow these directions closely. The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia recommends a few safe and effective ways to practice aromatherapy:

  • Mix an oil with a tablespoon of milk or baking soda, then add the mixture to your bath of hot water for a relaxing self-care routine.
  • Create personal inhalers using oils, which allow you to remove the top and smell an oil as needed.
  • Combine two ounces of witch hazel with a few drops of essential oil to create household cleaners in the form of an aromatherapy spray.
  • Enjoy an aromatherapy massage by mixing two drops of oil with an ounce of carrier oil. Carrier oils include sweet almond oil, coconut oil, or unscented massage oil.

If you choose to diffuse essential oils, place the diffuser in a well-ventilated area and consider diffusing for a maximum of 30 minutes. If you don't have a diffuser, you can put some on a cotton ball and place it somewhere in the house.

Can essential oils improve my mental health?

Studies regarding the use of essential oils in treating mental health conditions have suggested that the oils can provide tangible benefits when used correctly. Most notably, aromatherapy can help to reduce anxiety in patients undergoing medical care, such as people in intensive care units or those receiving cancer treatment. Aromatherapy is typically most effective when used as a complementary treatment to traditional approaches such as psychotherapy. The potential benefits of essential oils can be highly individual, so it is important to find a blend that works for you.

A systematic review published in 2020 explored the biological activities of essential oils and their potential effects on mental health. The review found that many essential oils have anxiolytic (anti-anxiety), sedative, antidepressant, and neuroprotective properties.

Some popular essential oils for mental health include:

  • Lavender: Lavender is used in many personal care products, such as lotion, soap, and bath bombs. Known for the relaxing effect it has on the body, lavender essential oil can help reduce anxiety and promote better sleep.
  • Cedarwood: With its grounding and anxiolytic properties, cedarwood oil may be helpful for managing symptoms of anxiety and promoting relaxation.
  • Cinnamon bark: This warm and spicy oil contains antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that can support your body's response to stress. It is also said to improve cognitive function and mood.
  • Bergamot: This citrus oil is known for its uplifting properties and can help improve mood, reduce stress and anxiety, and promote better sleep.

Plant-based products, like essential oils, can offer a holistic approach to managing mental health. However, excessive use of essential oils or direct application to the skin can have negative effects. It is important always to dilute essential oils in a carrier oil like grapeseed oil before applying them to the skin. Remember, one drop of essential oil goes a long way, so use them sparingly and as intended.

Alternative forms of mental health care

Some people may be hesitant to seek treatment from a therapist because of the stigma that's often attached to mental health struggles. One way you might circumvent the unease surrounding traditional therapy is to attend online therapy, which can be completed from anywhere that you have an internet connection.

With an online platform like BetterHelp, you can meet with a therapist through video chats, phone calls, or in-app messaging. A therapist can also advise you on effective strategies for improving your mental well-being. If you're interested in the healing properties of essential oils and how you can incorporate them into your life, you can receive guidance and advice from a therapist.

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The efficacy of online therapy for mental health concerns

A 2020 study looked at the impact of online cognitive behavioral therapy in treating people with anxiety, depression, social phobia, and insomnia. Participants who worked with a coach, such as a therapist, saw a 32% improvement in their symptoms. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a therapeutic approach that recognizes the connection between one's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. With CBT, individuals can learn how to identify which of their thoughts are unhelpful and work to create newer, more positive ways of thinking. This improved mindset can allow them to change their unwanted behaviors, thereby reducing the impact of their symptoms on their daily functioning and overall well-being.

Takeaway

Essential oils have gained popularity because of the host of benefits they can provide. By following recommended usage guidelines, essential oils may be able to help relieve feelings of anxiety and stress while also contributing to other physical health benefits. However, it can be important to use discernment in choosing and applying essential oils to ensure your safety and comfort. To further support your mental health, you may consider participating in therapy and working with a professional to gain insight into your concerns. A therapist can also help you determine whether essential oils could be a helpful addition to your daily life or treatment plan. Using a platform such as BetterHelp, you can get matched with a therapist who is ready to support you in reducing unwanted symptoms or simply help you navigate the stresses of life more effectively.

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The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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