What Are Essential Oils?

by Amanda Hearn · 16 comments

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What are essential oils, really? A look into essential oils and what they really are — beyond the hype and “magical cures.”You’ve heard the term. You may even be rolling your eyes (because I’m 95% sure you know at least one person who is selling them and is annoying as hell — am I right?). I don’t blame you. I don’t like being pushed a product with an ulterior motive either. I mean, all products make someone money, but sometimes the MLM (multi-level marketing) crowd can come on a bit too…… enthusiastic. Yeah, that’s the word we’ll use.

So full disclosure here, before I dig myself into a grave. I do use an MLM company. I like their products. I won’t try to sell you on them. I’ll probably throw a link in here somewhere so that you can explore IF you want to, but this post is not about me and it’s not about that company.

Period.

It’s about essential oils and what they really are — beyond the hype and “magic cures.”

So what are essential oils?

Put simply, essential oils are a liquid derived from plants. Generally this liquid is obtained via a distillation process from leaves, flowers, rinds, roots, etc.

Essential oils are not actually oils in the way that we are most familiar. It’s not like olive oil or other seed oils that we might use in the kitchen. They actually get the name from long ago when they were considered oils because of the way they floated on water. (Oil & water don’t mix, right?) They were believed to be the fifth element — quintessential oil — or the life force and spirit of plants, alongside air, water, fire, & earth.

Essential oils are often called the “life blood” of plants. They are an essential part of their ability to survive in a world of ever-changing conditions. They can help plants by attracting insects for pollination, by way of deterring smells, or even helping fight against bacterias and funguses that threaten the plant’s survival.

Basically, they are bit like the plant’s immune system.

How and why are essential oils used?

Essential oils have been used for years, and there are many historical references of their use. Before modern day medicines (many of which are derived from plants, and some of which laboratory created synthetics) herbs, tinctures, and essential oils were used to treat ailments. While medicine is not a perfect science — now or then — there is certainly value in learning from what works.

Essential oils (EOs) can have amazing effects on the body when used to maintain wellness. Unlike a host of modern day supplements and body wellness products, EOs are more easily absorbed by the body than products that use petrolatum and other byproducts from industry processes.

You’ve heard it before, but your skin really is your largest organ — and despite it’s ability to protect you from objects and it’s highly absorptive. Medicines (whether modern or traditional) can be absorbed through the skin, and ingredients in the products that we use (for body care, cleaning, etc.) What you put on your skin matters.

EOs (like modern supplements & medicine) can be used topically, aromatically, or internally. (Warning, lots of opinions coming in this next tidbit) I am personally most comfortable with topical and aromatic use, except in the case of oils that have already been blended properly into a supplement. I have reservations about the use of oils used by filling a capsule, in water, etc. Not that I think it cannot be done safely (or that I have never done it), but EOs are very potent, and I believe that they require a level of respect, care, and knowledge when used internally.

I don’t go around recommending ingestion outside of formulated supplements with ingredients to help disperse and balance the oils. Let’s put it that way.

Why would I want to consider essential oils?

EOs can support a range of bodily systems, like healthy skin, hair, muscles, bones, and even our emotional state. They can also be used to support healthy immune, respiratory, digestive, cardiovascular, hormonal, and nervous systems. Remember, that there are many different kind of plants (an estimated 400,000 species!), each with it’s own needs for survival and each with a contribution to make to the world around it. Not all plants or oils are the same, which is why it’s important to do your research and figure out what might help you achieve whatever goal you have. Don’t take my word for it, and don’t take your best friend’s neighbor’s uncle’s word for it. Essential oils can help support your health, but herbs and EOs need to be taken seriously before use.

I have seen the results in my experiences with my own health and with my family, but that doesn’t mean I have it 100% right and it doesn’t mean that your body will metabolize the oils I use in the same way. Listen to your intuition and listen to your body. I’m happy to offer what information I have and find, but I encourage you to look beyond this post if you have an interest in oils or herb.

The Herbalist Journal is one great resource, as is Wellness Mama. I’m sure there are many more. In your search, look for resources that don’t send up alarmist red flags, and that don’t make wild claims. EOs can be amazing, but random people claiming that they can cure “Insert Deadly Disease Here” with 2 drops of anything is dangerous and you probably don’t want to get any of your information from them. Listen to your intuition.

Can you tell me about labeling?

One of the things you’ll likely here associated with EO companies of any kind is about the use of terms like “therapeutic grade”. The thing is, there are no labeling standards. So while these names do mean something to each company, they do not mean the same thing across companies — because there is no universal standard.

As I mentioned, I do buy from an MLM company because I like their products. Companies all provide information about their products, but it’s important to use your head and your instincts to weed through that information to determine what’s not enthusiastic overselling and what is the raw information that you are looking for. Go by results, not hype.

DumbledoreGeeze Louise, I sound like a skeptic! I’m not. Not exactly, but I know money and the reach for power can easily cloak good messages. Just this week I heard a very heartfelt and enlightened quote from a political figure that I never thought I’d hear an intelligent word from — let alone a thoughtful one. Even though I don’t care for this person, I can allow myself not to be shut off to the good things that come from whatever source they come from. And really, that’s often how life is. It’s easy to tune someone out because you feel like they are just always SO wrong. And maybe they are 99% of the time, but if you can be open that 1% might just be what you need to hear, learn, whatever.

“Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, when one only remembers to turn on the light.” – Dumbledore

So this all took a crazy turn, but the point here is that… no, there is no universal standard, and yes some brands have their own brand standards. Lots of companies, of all types, have internal standards that they hold themselves to. The presence or absence of a standard, even a non-universal one is not a bad thing. It doesn’t make it awesome (unless you trust the brand) but it also doesn’t make it a platform to discount the whole industry/company/etc.

Where do I look if I’m interested in essential oils?

There are lots of great companies, and I think it’s important to use one that you trust. Do your research, and keep in mind that some people will write bad things in order to gain your favor. If the article feels angry, alarmist, or offensive, perhaps it’s not the right source of information. I encourage you to read on past my article so that you are comfortable with whatever product you decide to use in your home, on your body, etc. This is the one I use, and you can check out the membership types here if you want.  I am happy to answer questions if you have them, about anything written here, and none of it is contingent on you clicking anything here. I just want to make that crystal clear.

Consider the intended purpose before choosing an oil. Do you intend to use it as a health aide? Some oils are not as potent, or may be blended with carriers already. These may be most suitable for using to scent your home, use in perfumes or cosmetics. If you plan to use them for health purposes or even diffusing for health benefits, you’ll want to find oils that you trust to be as free from any sort of filler as possible. You need to know that what you’re putting onto your skin (or wherever) is #1 not diluted or mixed with other compounds and #2 was distilled properly to give you the best results. One tip I’ve heard to determine if an oil is pure is to place a drop on a coffee filter. If it evaporates and doesn’t leave a ring, it’s pure. If it leaves a ring or greasy residue, it contains a carrier oil.

I’m not an expert, but I do know that there are variations in the distillation process that can lead to different end results (much like when I cook food — if I mess it up, it may be edible but it’s not going to be good!)

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Amanda Hearn

Amanda Hearn

Founder of The Eco-Friendly Family, design geek, serial tanktopist, content creator, mother, coffee addict, & lover of fun. I am also a partner at Green Child Magazine & Put A Cup In It!
Amanda Hearn
Danielle January 18, 2016 at 3:21 pm

I vouch for essential oils. I always use tea tree oil whenever I break out and especially all exposed body parts whenever I jiu jitsu to avoid nasty infections such as ring worm and staff. I’ve been clean and lucky so far

Jessica January 20, 2016 at 1:37 pm

You make some good points above! I agree, people should do their research before indulging in essential oil use. I grew up in a holistic healing household and my mom used oils and natural remedies on us. But by far, my favorite (and most effective) remedies were those taken from whole foods (garlic, onion, citrus fruit, rose petals, etc.). I prefer to use essential oils for aromatherapy and not directly on my body. There are a few standbys that I do feel comfortable using on myself and my children such as lavender and tea tree oil, but I always dilute them and limit their use. It’s important to know not only the potential “health” benefits of oils, but even more so, the dangers, risks, and potential side effects from their use. I hope consumers are as vigilant in researching holistic healing products as they are in choosing the best appliances for their home on Amazon! 😉

Ashley Olazaba January 20, 2016 at 1:49 pm

Thank you for this I have been wondering about all things EO. I would much rather use natural remedies.

Lynn | Adorable Home May 5, 2016 at 8:30 am

I’ve been using EOs for just a year /mostly for homemade face creams and body lotions/ but I have never thought of how important it is to choose the proper brand/seller. I’ll be more careful from now on!

Venessa Solis August 26, 2016 at 2:32 am

Nice Share.

Venessa Solis August 26, 2016 at 2:33 am

Good Post.

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