The History and How of Essential Oils

Posted by Eliza Talvola on

There’s no way you’ve made it into 2020 and haven’t heard of essential oils – they’re everywhere! Essential oils, the compounds or “essences” extracted from plants, have been around for thousands of years.

In ancient times, certain plants were thought to have healing powers and were used for embalming and religious ceremonies. Today, essential oils are making (another) comeback in aromatherapy and as a practical replacement for the many harmful chemicals and fragrances found in household products. So what’s the big deal? How can they be used? Do they have any proven benefits or are they just fancy perfumes?


Where did they come from?

According to Google Trends, there was a spike in searches for essential oil in 2014 that grew steadily until 2018. However, if we go back before a time with Google, 5,520 years to be exact, we see that ancient Egyptians were using essential oil in many of the same ways as they are used today. Even before then, in as early as 7,000 BC, bottles used to store perfumes and cosmetics have been found. Recently, as the naturalist and herbalist movements have grown, so has the resurgence of essential oil. 


Essential oils are made by isolating a plant’s unique aromatic compounds, leaving a pure and potent “essence” or fragrance of that particular plant. In Egyptian times, this was done by hand using animal fats, but today steam distillation is the most common method used. Common essential oils include peppermint, rosemary, eucalyptus, lavender, orange, lemon, cinnamon, and tea tree to name a few. Due to the potency of these oils, they’ll need to be combined with a neutral carrier oil, such as coconut, jojoba, or olive oil before they come in contact with your skin.


How do they work?

The most common use of essential oil is aromatherapy. Inhaling their aromas can stimulate areas of your limbic system, the area of your brain that’s responsible for your sense of smell, long-term memory, emotions, breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. When applied topically, minute traces of the oil are absorbed by and interact with the body. The composition of each essential oil is different, but many people use essential oils because they believe they can help manage anxietystressheadaches, and inflammation. Many oils have antibacterial and antifungal properties.


While early studies are promising, there is still debate on whether or not enough high quality scientific studies have been done to prove the holistic health benefits of essential oils. Additionally, due to the connection between scent, memory, and emotion, some people believe that the purported calming effects of essential oils are actually linked to previous memories of the scent rather than to the essential oil itself. Many of the tall health claims essential oil companies make have also lacked scientific backing. With that said, 5,500 years of use have shown that they are here to stay! When used appropriately with a doctor’s approval, many essential oils are thought to be safe and are commonly used in spas and hospitals alongside other methods of treatment.


How can I use them?

Given that you do not have any allergies and are applying in safe amounts, 100% pure essential oils have mild side effects and can take the place of other harmful ingredients and fragrances found in home and body products. Simply put, essential oils are so “big” right now because they are incredibly versatile! There is no shortage of DIY recipes using essential oils online, and everyone seems to have a favorite use for them. They can be used to freshen up a room, mask odors, replace artificial fragrances in cleaning supplies, add a soothing scent to your bath water, or to make your own face masks, all while reaping the benefits of aromatherapy. That’s just the short list!


The Dos and Don’ts of Essential Oils

  • Before you use any essential oil, do a patch test (with a carrier oil) on a small area of the body. First dilute the essential oil with carrier oil in a 1:5 ratio. Then apply to a wrist, cover with a Band-Aid, and check the spot after 24 hours. If there is any irritation at all, do not use that essential oil. To avoid further chemical reactions and potential harm, avoid “fragrance” oils or oils with additives.
  • Do consult your doctor. If you have a specific ailment that you want to use essential oils for, make sure you do thorough research, starting with your doctor. Essential oils cannot cure your ailment, but they may help to manage some of the side effects. Make sure to utilize your doctor as a form of research so that they can take your medical history into account before you start applying/diffusing a specific oil.
  • Do not use fragrance oils. Selecting the right oil will make a world of a difference. Try to use organic, pure oils rather than anything that contains artificial fragrances that could further aggravate your condition.
  • Do not get in contact with sensitive areas like the eyes, skin around the eyes, inner ears, etc. as it can cause irritation.
  • Do not share essential oils with your dogs. While some essential oils are safer for dogs than others, some — including cinnamon, citrus, pennyroyal, peppermint, pine, sweet birch, tea tree (melaleuca), wintergreen, and ylang ylang — can be toxic. Avoid using essential oils for dogs, both orally and topically, unless you consult your veterinarian.
  • Do not consume essential oils by mouth. Ingesting essential oils can be extremely dangerous and in some cases fatal.

Like all things in life, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The biggest “don’t” of essential oils is to go full steam ahead and use them as a replacement for treatment for medical conditions. If you’re interested in using essential oils as a natural remedy for a health issue of any sort, run it by your doctor first so you can find the most effective treatment together. If you’re just looking to relax and enjoy some of your favorite scents throughout the day, ditch chemical-laden products, grab a little bottle of your favorite essential oil, and get busy relaxing!




MEET THE AUTHOR /  ELIZA TALVOLA is a writer from Pittsburgh, PA who considers herself to be a conscious consumer and traveler, slow fashion advocate, and devoted foodie. She is a firm believer in creative reuse and putting people over profits, and is a long time lavender enthusiast. Her favorite product: Lavender Hand Sanitizer Spray

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