How to Use Essential Oils with Four Applications Methods
Learning how to use essential oils does NOT have to be overwhelming. This handy little guide has been created to demystify the ways in which to use essential oils.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: None of the health topics presented on Sustainable Baby Steps have been evaluated or approved by the FDA. They should not replace personal judgment nor medical treatment when indicated, nor are they intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Always talk to your naturopathic physician about the use of these or any other complimentary modalities. Reading this website denotes your understanding and agreement to our full disclaimer.
What you'll find is as many different opinions on essential oils as you'll find ways to use them. You'll also find lots of differing benefits, properties or oils, and experiences within the field of essential oils. This is partially because of the differences between different oils (different brands or varieties come with different precautions and even properties), and partially because of a divide in philosophies and training. There are the uber-conservative users and the uber-liberal users, each with their own ideas of what's safe and necessary, and as with most things, the truth is found more towards the middle.
It's important to understand that each oil can NOT be used in the same way! Do your research carefully on each oil, use your judgement, and start small.
In this article I want to describe to you the four basic applications of essential oil uses and a few very simple guidelines that can make your incorporation of these incredible oils easy and safe.
Whether you're new to essential oils or not, this Application Guide will hopefully help you learn some new ways to incorporate the oils into your life to support the health and wellness of your entire home in safe and effective ways.
Again, learning how to use essential oils does NOT have to be overwhelming. It just takes a little knowledge, the desire to learn as you go and some guidelines.
First, those guidelines on how to use essential oils:
- Personal judgment first. Your judgment (and your nose) is usually one of the best guides to learning how to use essential oils. Trust yourself and your medical practitioner. You know more than you think you do about what's right and wrong for your body, and with very little trial and error you'll get better at discerning between your intuition, your needs, and everything else.
- Safe doesn't mean foolproof. Even drinking water used the wrong way can be harmful. And the oils we use and recommend are very potent. Know your body, your sensitivities, the properties, and the precautions of each oil you're about to use, and ease yourself in to what you use by diluting, patch testing, and starting with smaller amounts and more conservative uses, especially if your immune system or health is compromised. (NOTE: The guidelines below are generally for healthy adults. Anyone else should seek medical advice first.)
- Follow precautions wisely. The techniques and recommendations on essential oil uses below are there to both give you knowledge on the precautions necessary to use these oils wisely, as well as inspiration on ways you may try. Learning the art of how to use essential oils takes time and common sense, but can be implemented easily when done so wisely. Again, start conservatively, use less first, and don't overdo it.
Four Applications (and Dozens of Ideas) for Using Essential Oils
Essential oils are generally used in four ways:
- Externally (i.e. around the home)
Below I've used a simple symbol for each to recognize quickly how to use essential oils (except for "external").
- The green symbol means "generally safe to use without dilution as directed".
- The orange symbol means "generally safe to use with moderate dilution or precautions".
- The red symbol means "generally safe to use with heavier dilution or precautions, but consult your naturopathic physician if pregnant or ill, or for children or elderly".
You'll see each of those as I go through each application of how to use essential oils below.
Important: Not every oil can be used in each way!
Some oils, such as lemon or peppermint, have many more application methods. But then there are oils like wintergreen (including blends containing wintergreen), which is mostly a topical oil. Taking this one internally has the potential to make you very sick. It's important to research each oil to know which application is indicated for it. You can do that with the essential oil list here and other books and resources.
It's also urgent that I let you know that the recommendations for usage are based only on very high quality essential oils. The research done on these highly pure and potent oils vary greatly from research done on cheaper brands. Even many so-called high-quality brands surprisingly often have contaminants or fillers which would affect not only the properties of the oils, but also the ways in which it would be safe to use them.
So it's important to research individual oils to know which application is indicated for it, and also to know your brand of oils and the uses your company recommends. If they don't stand behind certain uses of their oils, especially internally, don't use them in that way! Please do your own research before deciding which essential oils to invest in, or you may contact me for recommendations at the email at the bottom of this article.
Below I'll go through each application, give you the guidelines and offer some inspiration on how to use essential oils in four main applications.
How to Use Essential Oils Aromatically
The aromatic application is the most widely known and used. Most of us understand that essential oils smell good and can be used as deodorizer or to freshen up the home.
But there is more to aromatic applications than just smelling good.
In the same way that harmful compounds, such as chemical cleaners or gases can be absorbed into our blood stream through inhalation, so can the positive properties of essential oils. Essential oils are also processed by the olfactory bulb and the limbic system, the same system that processes thoughts, memories, and emotions, which can help us feel calm, encouraged, and so on.
Aromatic application can:
- Be nurturing to the respiratory system, including the sinuses.
- Have a supportive affect on moods, the hormonal system, tension, etc.
- Increase indoor air quality or help protect against environmental threats.
- And the positive compounds and their properties, once within our blood stream, can encourage our immune system response or promote well-being in a multitude of ways.
This is because the "aroma" you breathe is actually a fine mist or vapor of the oil, containing all the same properties of the oil itself. And it is due to the fact that the olfactory system is closely connected to the limbic system of the brain that essential oils have such a positive affect on the physical and psychological systems of the body.
Here's how to use essential oils with aromatic applications:
- Diffusing: A good diffuser should use cool or room temperature air or ultrasonic vibrations to diffuse the oil into the air, which help the oil molecules remain air-bound for several more hours and do not affect the structure of the oil through heat, which can diminish the quality of the oil.
- Direct Inhalation: Directly inhaling the oil can be done by holding the bottle of essential oil a few inches from the nose and breathing in the aroma, or by adding a drop the the hands and cupping them over the mouth and nose. (For example, using this technique can be used with grounding or calming oils.) It is important to note that constantly opening and closing your bottle does exposure it to air and increase the oxidation rate, so diffusing is not only better for your bottle of oil, but you would likely use less throughout the day too. Some oils, such as Oregano or Cinnamon, should also be diluted before direct inhalation.
- Indirect Inhalation: Adding a drop to a handkerchief, cotton ball, small square of fabric, shirt collar, hair, pillow case, etc can all be beneficial. (Try this with Vetiver when you want to promote deeper sleep!)
- Hot Water Vapor/Steam Tent: Heat a pot of water (not boiling), add 1-3 drops of essential oil, place a towel over your head while leaning over the water, and inhale the steam. (For example, try this with Eucalyptus for respiratory health.)
- Humidifier: Just like a diffuser, cool air humidifiers are best. Be aware that essential oils can damage plastic components over time, so choosing one made for essential oils is best. (Try a purifying oil to clean the air.)
- Fan, Vent, Etc: Just like with the indirect inhalation, you can add the oil to cloth and place it in a vent or even in front of a fan. (A good use for this is Peppermint or Ginger in the car to calm motion sickness.)
- Perfume or Cologne Smells good and is safer and healthier for your body (unlike normal chemical-based perfumes or antiperspirants). For perfume or cologne, add a 1 drop or a small dab to the wrists, behind the ears, or add 10 drops to 1-3 tsp of distilled water or alcohol to mist on the body or clothing.
- Natural Room Deodorizer: Instead of harsh chemicals to cover up odors you can add essential oils to your odor removing efforts. For instance, you can create a room deodorizer by mixing a half cup of alcohol (such as vodka) with a half cup of distilled water, and 20-40 drops of your favorite essential oils in a decorative jar. Then add 10 or so bamboo skewers (like the ones you use for kebobs) to the mixture so that they are sticking out of the bottle. They will soak up the aroma and spread it throughout a bathroom easily. You can also create a spray.
Even though learning how to use essential oils aromatically is probably the easiest and safest, it's still important to know your body, and pay attention to how it responds to the oils. Aromatic is still a potent use of essential oils. Too much can overwhelm your system, give you a headache, or even cause a reaction if you're sensitive or allergic to the oil.
How to Use Essential Oils Topically
Learning how to use essential oils topically is a little more delicate, but still fairly simple. Please remember that although most essential oils can be used topically, HOW they are used will vary from oil to oil. Some come with precautions for dilution or frequency, but even those that don't can still affect some skin types, causing itchiness or a rash if not used with mindfulness.
Know your skin type! Do you tend to have sensitive skin? Then always dilute, no matter the oil. Are you not sure? Do a patch test an area of your inner arm first. Start with one diluted drop, then increase an undiluted drop if the oil is generally safe for undiluted use in most people. And always use one oil at a time, so that if you have a negative reaction, you know what you reacted to.
Diluting is very helpful. It doesn't decrease the effectiveness of the oil (if your ratios are accurate), can help you spread the oil over a wider area, and may help to increase absorption by preventing evaporation (thus increasing absorption), as well as decreasing the likelihood of a skin reaction, so unless you have reasons not to, it's a good idea to do so.
All the essential oils I talk about include a simple visual guide to help you know how to use essential oils:
- NEAT - NEAT means you can generally apply the oil in question directly to the skin without any dilution. HOWEVER, it's still a good idea to patch test your own skin first, just in case, or follow sensitivity guidelines above if you know you have sensitive skin. Also, because dilution can't hurt and can help, it's a good idea to do it anyway.
- Sensitive - "Sensitive" means that although some can apply the oil without any dilution, directly to the skin, those with sensitive skin, as well as children and the elderly, should do a patch test or dilute before use. Use a guideline of 1 drop per 1-4 oz of carrier oil, such as coconut oil, or at minimum a 1:3 ratio (1 drop of essential oil to every 3 drops of carrier).
- DILUTE - These oils are very potent. It's important that you dilute these at least 1:3 and more depending on age and skin sensitivity, as they can cause irritation to any skin type when applied directly. If you're pregnant or nursing, use more caution or talk to your naturopathic doctor. I would personally avoid for children, although a high dilution rate may be okay in small amounts for a limited period of time.
Here are some other topical precautions to consider:
- Citrus oils, and a few others, can cause a sensitivity to the sun. It's usually recommended to avoid sunlight for at least 12 hours of applying topically, but Bergamot in particular can cause issues for up to 3 days. We usually will apply these in the evening, or to an area of the body that won't be exposed to the sun, or we avoid topical use altogether.
- Everyone is different and even the most gentle oils can still cause a reaction. If you know you're prone to sensitive skin or skin reactions, always test the oils highly diluted first, then with a lighter dilution, before trying undiluted if it's an oil that is generally recognize as one you can use "neat". Like I said above, dilution never hurts, so if in doubt, dilute.
- Even if you've used an oil before without problems or don't consider yourself to have sensitive skin, you can still develop a reaction to it with excessive use over the same area of the body. Try to mix it up when possible (alternating application locations AND the oils you're using) and dilute as necessary. Again, diluting never hurts. Because you may not know you have a sensitivity, this is why many say you should ALWAYS dilute. You may feel comfortable not diluting some "neat" oils, but when in doubt, dilute.
- It's usually better to "layer" oils than to blend them. What this means is that if you're using 2 or more oils topically, apply one, then wait between 5-30 minutes and apply the other over it (instead of mixing a drop of each in your hand and then rubbing this into the skin). Mixing the oils is as much an art as it is a science, which is why we tend to stick to the blends a company has already created, since we know they are safe and effective.
Here's how to use essential oils in some of the most popular topical applications:
- In a Massage: Massage is one of the most enjoyable ways to use essential oils topically. Massaging the oils into joints, muscles, and tissues is relaxing and beneficial. Always move toward the heart when working on the arms and legs and avoid a heavy hand, or moving over the spine or other sensitive areas, with too much pressure.
- Over the Area of Concern: The next option is to apply the oils to the chest, the abdomen, back of the neck, or directly over the area of concern (diluted as indicated). You can also apply to the energy centers of the body.
- Over the Reflex Points: But probably the best, most effective, and yet gentlest option for how to use essential oils, especially for sensitive skin, children, or elderly, is to apply the oils to the reflex points of the feet, hands, and even ears (still dilute as needed). The feet especially are beneficial because they still quickly the oil into the blood stream, but they are tough enough to make the likelihood of irritation much less if your skin is prone to reactions, and they are easy to cover if you don't like the aroma or if you're applying to a child and don't want them touching it (cover their feet with socks). The reflex points of the hands and feet also correspond to the different areas of the body by way of the nervous system. Learning how to use essential oils is made easier with visual guides to reflexology to understand which reflex points to massage the oil into based on the area of the body you wish to support. Follow these guides below:
Other ideas on how to use essential oils topically:
- Auricular Therapy: Similar to acupuncture, acupressure, or reflexology, auricular therapy stimulates small reflex points on and around the ears by massaging the essential oil into the area. (Try some Lavender to help calm an upset child.)
- Hot or Cold Compresses: Soak a cloth or towel in cool water with drops of your favorite essential oil to place over the area of concern. Or wrap the cloth/towel in a hot water bottle to use as a warm compress. (Oils for muscles and joints and a cool or warm compress on the muscles is amazing.)
- Bathing, Foot Baths, Etc: You can add essential oils to your bathwater, to your bath salts, or to a foot bath to soak in. (Melaleuca in a foot bath helps soothe itchy feet.) When using it in these ways, it's often a good idea to mix with a carrier oil to help disperse the oil and protect your skin from getting multiple drops all in one (potentially very sensitive) area!
- Personal Care: You can use essential oils as a natural deodorant (applied "neat", diluted, or in a homemade deodorant recipe, depending on your needs and the oil in question), as part of a skin care regimen, added to lotion or moisturizers, and so on. (Skin regenerating oils might be a wonderful oil for skin care, from fine lines to irritated skin.)
How to Use Essential Oils Internally
Important: Not all essential oils can be used internally, nor should all people use them in this way. The FDA has listed certain essential oils as "Generally Recognized as Safe" for internal use. But they still come with precautions!
Despite the fact that aromatherapy schools teach the proper internal use of essential oils, there is still a large divide in the essential oil world on how to use essential oils internally - or if you even should. Some say they should not be used internally under any circumstances, some say they can be used internally in all circumstances, and like I said above, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
There are more precautions for learning how to use essential oils internally than any other application. Remember, essential oils are potent...and the more potent they are, the more you should use them wisely and with education. Even though some oils are generally benign (you could zest a lemon and get more oils than you would normally use internally in a day), some require more care. This doesn't mean if you accidentally ingest an oil, that you're going to die. In most cases, you would have to drink a whole bottle (or many bottles) to see any real negative effects. But it is important to keep oils out of the reach of children, especially ones that might smell like food to them. And it's important to know some precautions:
- Less is More: Instead of using multiple drops of an oil internally, such as in a veggie capsule, start off with one to see how it works.
- Increase Frequency Before Drops: Your liver can only tolerate oils in small doses because it breaks them down more slowly. It's a better idea to use one drop 15-90 minutes apart, rather than many drops all at once.
- There's a Time and Place: Not all needs will respond to internal use. And sometimes topically works just as well (such as digestive oils massaged over the belly). I like to save my internal use for when I really feel I need it.
- Limit Your Daily Drops: The maximum consensus is to consume no more than 10-25 drops of all essential oils per day (25 being for oils such as citruses). Kurt Schnaubelt recommends up to 9 drops a day for healthy adults, and only as needed. You might be able to push these limits with citrus oils, but I stick to the lower end should I ever have a need for a stronger oil. And if you really don't NEED it daily, it's better to save it for when you do.
- Certain Oils = More Caution: Oils high in phenols (such as oregano, cinnamon, thyme, etc) are generally more likely to accumulate in the liver. Use these with care. I'd recommend several good reference books, to get familiar with the chemical makeup of oils. For a very general guideline/starting point, the hotter the oil, the more precaution. And if you wouldn't normally eat it, think twice before consuming its oil.
- Dilute: Even if you're putting your oil in a veggie capsule, while it may not always be necessary, but it's still a good idea to dilute with an edible carrier oil, such as raw coconut oil, olive oil, etc. This helps to ensure less potential irritation to any mucous membranes.
- Some People Should Just Avoid It: If you are pregnant, nursing, have a major health concern, a compromised immune system, or liver issues, I would recommend avoiding internal use of most oils until you speak with your naturopathic physician.
Each essential oil on this list will say whether or not it CAN be used internally. What it doesn't say is whether YOUR brand is safe for internal use, and whether it's the right idea for YOU. At the minimum, you should find a "Supplement Facts" on any bottle of essential oil that have internal uses. If you are using an oil this way, read the following possible ways on how to use essential oils internally as inspiration.
- Cooking: Many oils, such as Oregano, can be used in cooking or baking. Usually one drop (or less!) is enough, although certain recipes may call for more. Start small at first. (We made a wonderful butternut squash soup with rosemary essential oil - I added two drops which was perfect for my hubby but a little too strong for my tastes.) Even though something like Oregano is an oil to use internally in moderation, using it in cooking is much safer; you get less than a drop in your meal portion, and some of those properties may be diminished with the heat.
- Drinking: We love to add Peppermint or Lemon to our water to help support digestion or energy, respectively. For single uses you can add one drop to a minimum 4 oz of rice milk, almond milk, water, etc and drink as needed. Remember: Water and oil don't mix. Your oil will float to the top and you can get too much at once that way. Mix careful and avoid mixing hot oils with non-oil based liquids for strong oils that may irritate the skin. (For instance, I'm never going to add undiluted cinnamon to my water.)
- Supplemental: Add a drop to 1 tsp of honey to take as a supplement or you can even purchase empty veggie capsules, and add the oils indicated to take daily. (Don't make these in advance as they can dissolve the capsules.) You can also purchase specially formulated essential oil supplements for supporting digestion, energy, immunity, or to supplement your fatty acids, give your children chewables, and more.
- Vaginal or Rectal Insertion: I would consider these more advanced techniques of how to use essential oils, and one to use more caution with. You do NOT want to find out that you're sensitive to an oil this way! #ouch I would recommend working with an aromatherapist or naturopath before going this route. For a more beginner's route, you can try diluting first and then adding to a bath instead.
Again, know your brand and use careful consideration with internal application.
How To Use Essential Oils Around the Home
Learning how to use essential oils around the home (such as in cleaning) is last and doesn't come with its own little symbol. Below are many ideas to get you started.
- We add 1 drop of melaleuca to the sink when we're washing dishes.
- We also add a few drops of our favorite essential oils to the washing machine, to the wet clothes before they go in the dryer, or misted on fabric before they are dried on a clothes lines. (I would recommend avoiding citruses sprayed directly on clothes before they go out in the sun as this may result in fading.)
- Household essential oil uses include oils like Lemon that will remove many stains, and Lime VERY effectively removes gum, stickers, and other residue from most surfaces.
- Many oils have natural purifying and cleansing properties and can be added to natural household cleaners, such as sprays, carpet deodorizers, furniture polish (lemon specifically for that one), and so on. Try mixing your favorite aroma with baking soda for a carpet powder before vacuuming. Find more recipes for green cleaning here.
- And you can even add oils or oil blends to household paint, craft paint or supplies, children's dough, etc to create a more pleasant aroma. The ratio will vary depending on what you're using it for, anything from 2-3 drops for dough to a whole bottle for a gallon of paint.
- Peppermint or Arborvitae will easily repel ants and many other crawling insects that like to invade the home. Place a few drops on a cotton ball and hide around the entrances of your home, windows, behind the fridge, etc.
- And some insect repelling essential oils are AMAZING for mosquitos, "No See'ums", and other biting insects. They can also be used to repel household insects, too.
IMPORTANT NOTE ON QUALITY
Not all oils are created equal. Because of a lack of industry standards and a lack of regulation on terms such as "natural" or "pure", much of what you find at the drug store is NOT a therapeutic grade of essential oil and may lack real quality or even contain contaminants or adulterants (way more common than you'd think).
A LOT goes into creating a high quality essential oil. A good brand should follow these guidelines:
- Proper plant varieties
- Each plant grown indigenously for the healthiest plant
- Grown without chemical pesticides, herbicides, etc
- Harvested with precise timing to ensure peak properties
- Extracted with proper temp and pressure to preserve oil molecules
- Third-party testing of every batch
- Stand behind the internal use of their oils