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Due to the overwhelming amount of essential oils out there, finding the right one for you—whether it's to relieve a headache or hydrate your skin—can feel super intimidating. But the truth is that essential oils are actually pretty accessible, and if you educate yourself enough, they’re also easy to navigate.
Meet the Expert
A form of alternative medicine, essential oils are commonly used in aromatherapy, a holistic healing treatment that utilizes plant extracts to promote overall wellbeing. "Used effectively, essential oils are your go-to stress reducer," says Hope Gillerman, holistic healer and owner of H.Gillerman Organics. "We have all had the experience of an illness or skin issue exacerbated, if not caused, by stress."
Gillerman explains that as they calm us, they can also help soothe pain and muscles spasms; resolve injuries, headaches, and sleep issues; support our immune system; help us maintain glowing skin; change our brain chemistry to help us focus, and refresh our space with sensual aromas. Lovely, isn’t it? Well, good news: You can practice aromatherapy pretty much anywhere you’d like, including from the comfort of your own bed.
What to Look for in an Essential Oil
Target Your Concern
Essential oils are great for treating acne, scalp irritation, anxiety, headaches, and more. If you don't know which one to start with, take the time to assess what problems you want to address. According to Gillerman, tea tree oil can be an effective spot treatment for acne thanks to its antimicrobial properties, whereas peppermint is great for sore muscles. You don't have to pick just one either, there are many different essential oil blends that can tackle multiple concerns at once.
One of the reasons that essential oils have become so popular is that they can be used in numerous ways. So make sure to consider how the essential oil can be applied. Most can be added to your baths, skincare products, or placed in a diffuser. How you want to apply your essential oil will largely depend on what you're using it for.
With that said, be sure to always pay attention to any diluting instructions. "Any essential oil applied to the skin or in the bath must be diluted from 2 to 5% (approximately 8-20 drops per tablespoon) to avoid possible irritation," says Gillerman. "For the face, 1% diluting is recommended (approximately 4 drops per tablespoon)."
Furthermore, Gillerman recommends diluting a massage blend with a gel to provide the quickest absorption, and for body care, dilute in a natural, unscented body cream. For a highly emollient body care product, use olive oil or jojoba oil, or other fatty oils. According to Gillerman, fatty oils protect the skin from dehydrating and contain essential fatty acids our body needs.
And for skincare? "Dilute in a gel, cream, or fatty oil like hemp seed, argan, and marula oil," she says. "Pomegranate and rosehip seed oil are premiere examples of fatty oils loaded with antioxidants."
Read on to find our picks of the best essential oils that you’ll want to introduce into your Sunday self-care routine.
Best for Meditation: Aura Cacia Lavender Essential Oil
Say the words “essential oil” and the first one you may think of is lavender. It evokes the very essence that is aromatherapy—calming, comforting, subtle, yet very effective at transporting you to your happy place. It’s a great addition to your yoga or meditation sessions, as it can further deepen your mindfulness in the moment. Or if you’re feeling more stationary, add a few drops to a warm bath for the best relaxation money can buy.
Best for Hair Growth: Briogeo B. Well Organic + Cold-Pressed 100% Castor Oil
When we think of castor oil, we might think of it as a beauty ingredient from our grandmother’s generation. It’s been around for quite some time, though lately has been replaced with far more luxurious and pricier oils. Despite this, castor oil can still be an affordable option when it comes to helping promote hair growth. Because it's antibacterial and antifungal, it can help with scalp conditions like folliculitis and dandruff. To use, simply dispense a small amount and massage it onto your scalp and through your hair. Less is definitely more in this case. For your brow hairs, place a little product onto a mascara wand and comb through.
Best for Sleep: Rocky Mountain Oils Tranquility Essential Oil Blend
One of the best times to apply an essential oil is right before bed. This super-calming blend of orange, patchouli, blue tansy, and lavender feels like a warm hug. Not only does it immediately relax your mind at first whiff, but you’ll also find your body melting right into bed (as it should). "For regulating your mood or preparing for sleep, deeply inhale from an eco-silk cloth or an organic cotton ball for 10 to 15 minutes," says Gillerman. "This mindful, aromatic breathing practice is more effective than putting the oil on your pillow."
Best for Anxiety: DoTerra Cedarwood Essential Oil
Lose yourself in this warm, woodsy scent that promotes relaxation, even in the most chaotic of times. Considered the “grounding” essential oil, cedarwood has the ability to bring you back down to earth, and a successful way to do that is through active inhalation. According to Gillerman, active inhalation sends messages to your central nervous system to improve your emotional state (read: lessens anxiety) and helps to reverse your stress responses, like elevated cortisol.
After a challenging day, you can also diffuse this scent throughout your home for a soothing zen experience or add a drop or two to your facial toner for added skin-clarifying benefits.
Best for Dry Skin: The Ordinary 100% Organic Cold-Pressed Rose Hip Seed Oil
The scent of this 100% rosehip seed oil is divine, but its hydrating benefits are even better. High in omega fatty acids, this unrefined oil helps to reduce the signs of aging, moisturizes the skin, and calms irritation and inflammation. Slather all over the face and neck for baby-soft, glowing skin.
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Desert Essence Eco-Harvest Tea Tree Oil
It’s happened to the best of us: You wake up one morning, fully ready to take on the day, and then you discover a pesky zit. That's where tea tree oil, a natural antiseptic, can come in. It’s antibacterial, making it ideal for eliminating blemishes, but also for speeding up skin’s healing (which can be slowed down by bacteria). Mix equal parts tea tree oil with distilled water for a DIY spot treatment. If you have other areas of concern, like your back or legs, add a few drops to the bath for a head-to-toe treatment.
Best for Sensitive Skin: Acure Seriously Soothing Blue Tansy Night Oil
This nighttime oil is super affordable, but that's only one of its perks. Made with blue tansy and rose, this rich oil is gentle enough to use on the fussiest skin types. To get some serious hydration, massage onto the face as the last step in your skincare routine before bed. While you’re sleeping, let argan oil and vitamin E replenish and balance your skin. When you wake, admire your gorgeous, bright complexion.
Best for Anti-Aging: Drunk Elephant Virgin Marula Luxury Facial Oil
This Drunk Elephant oil is made of 100% marula oil, and it promises to protect against all kinds of skin stressors, like environmental damage and free radicals. While it’s shielding skin, marula oil also helps reduce the look of wrinkles, fine lines, and dullness. The texture isn’t slippery (read: not greasy), so it glides nicely over the skin and is almost immediately absorbed. Users love that although the formula is gentle enough for all skin types, it’s powerful enough to tighten the look of pores and leave behind a healthy, youthful glow.
Best for Headaches: Rocky Mountain Oils Migraine Support Essential Oil
All it takes is a swipe of this essential oil blend for headache or migraine relief. It's mixed with basil, lavender, and peppermint and promises to provides a peaceful reprieve from the pain. Apply to the temples and behind the ears if you’re experiencing head pain, and sweep over any other areas where you feel sore or achy. "When rubbed into your muscles, you will gradually feel the tension and pain melt away," says Gillerman. "Simultaneously, the essential oil vapors and the scent which are evaporating off your skin travel into your brain and your lungs. This triple effect of inhalation, scent, and relaxation can motivate you to heal faster."
Best for a Cold: Young Living Thieves Essential Oil
There’s a reason moms stock up on this essential oil during the cold and flu season. It’s effective not only in neutralizing and purifying the air when diffused, but the blend claims to be antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-infectious, making it the ultimate trifecta to use when you’re dealing with a cold. Dilute with a carrier oil, and massage onto your feet (take it a step further and wear socks overnight) and your chest, diffuse into the air, or add one or two drops to water and take a swig.
Best for Sore Muscles: Plant Therapy Peppermint Essential Oil
Whether it was a successful gym session or a windy, uphill hike, your muscles have gone through the wringer, and you're feeling it a day or two later. If you decide that a massage is in your best interest (let’s be real: it always is), Gillerman recommends peppermint oil for an accelerated effect. "[It] should be worked into the muscles with a little heat or friction (rubbing or massage)," she says. "This treatment synergy will work best for pain, tension, and recovery from an injury."
Can you overuse essential oils?
Yes, it's possible to overuse and be overexposed to essential oils. Potential side effects include asthma, headaches, contact dermatitis, and more. Make sure you follow the bottle's instructions and make sure you are applying/using the essential oil correctly and safely.
What essential oils should you avoid?
While essential oils are generally safe, some essentials should be used with caution (or not at all) around pets and children. For example, tea tree oil and eucalyptus oils are known to be dangerous to children and animals. Make sure you keep your essential oils locked away in a safe place that's out of reach, and if you do plan to use them in a diffuser, check with your vet or pediatrician first.
Can you mix essential oils?
One of the best things about essential oils is how customizable they are. You can mix different ones to create a treatment that best suits your needs. However, it's best to exercise some caution when doing so. Mixing the wrong essential oils can result in bad odors and can even lead to overexposure.
Are essential oils safe to use during pregnancy?
Research shows that aromatherapy with essential oils can help reduce anxiety and pain during labor. However, the use of essential oils should be administered with caution during pregnancy. Common oils that can be used if properly diluted include chamomile, lavender, rose, and sandalwood.
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Syden Abrenica is an NYC-based creative with experience writing and editing in the beauty, fashion, and lifestyle space for national magazines such as Family Circle, Good Housekeeping, Health, All You, and Harper's Bazaar. She holds a BA in English and Journalism from Montclair State University.