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There’s arguably no category of products with a longer list of purported benefits than essential oils. “Essential oils are the most potent form of plant medicine,” explains Adora Winquist, an energy healer and aromatherapy expert. “They are the volatile, concentrated extracts of plants produced via steam distillation.” Their strong smells make them key for aromatherapy, a method of using scent to achieve well-being, be that in the form of reducing stress or improving mental clarity.
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“Inhalation is the most immediate way to experience the effects and benefits of essential oils. With inhalation, the molecules travel through the olfactory system to the brain, specifically the limbic system and the amygdala, which regulate mood, memory, and emotion,” Winquist points out. They can also be used topically (though most often they need to be diluted with what are known as "carrier oils"—plain oils such as coconut or olive). “Essential oils, in either their single note form or skillfully blended, can offer the user ways to relax, energize, and even address pain. Additionally, they assist with maintaining vibrant skin, supporting healthy immunity, as well as balancing our emotions and mood,” says Winquist. In short, no matter what you’re trying to achieve, there’s probably an essential oil for that.
Ahead, find some of the best essential oils that target a variety of concerns.
Best Calming: DoTerra Cedarwood Essential Oil
Smell is pleasant but not overpowering
On the more expensive side
The nutty, woody, slightly sweet scent of cedarwood is known to help promote relaxation; similarly, it’s considered a grounding scent. Try diffusing it during particularly stressful days to reap the continuous benefits. It’s also an essential oil that can be used topically (when diluted with a carrier oil). It may have anti-inflammatory properties, and one small case study found that it was helpful for controlling acne.
Size: 0.5 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for a Busy Day: Essential Wholesale & Labs Lemon Essential Oil
Comes in a wide array of sizes
No real topical benefits
When life hands you lemons…reach for lemon essential oil. According to Winquist, it’s good for supporting focus, clarity, and concentration. “Lemon clears mental fogginess and helps lift heavy emotions with its bright, fresh aroma, she adds.” In other words, it’s perfect for diffusing or keeping on hand during super-busy work days when you want to be extra-focused and productive.
Size: .25 fl. oz, 1 fl. oz, 2 fl. oz, 4 fl. oz, 8 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Bedtime: Aura Cacia Lavender Essential Oil
Lavender is probably the most well-known, popular essential oil, lauded for being comforting, calming, and relaxing—all things you want pre-bedtime. Simply breathing it in as you start to wind down for the night can help; Winquist suggests applying one drop (diluted with a carrier oil) into your palms and breathing in for 30 seconds. (FYI, this technique applies to pretty much any essential oil.) You can also incorporate it into your nighttime bath. Combine seven to 10 drops with a carrier oil, and add that into the tub.
Size: .5 fl.oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Desert Essence Eco-Harvest Tea Tree Oil
Can be irritating for some
Along with the salicylic acids and benzoyl peroxides of the world, tea tree oil is also a well-known acne fighter. Credit the essential oil’s natural antibacterial properties, which help to target the bacteria associated with acne, as well as the fact that it’s anti-inflammatory. It’s why you’ll find it in many skin-clearing products; if you want to use it straight-up, just make sure to dilute it. You can mix a few drops with distilled water to create a DIY spot treatment.
Size: .5 fl.oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best if You’re Stressed: Oshadhi Carrot Seed Organic Essential Oil
Expensive shipping (this is a UK brand)
According to Winquist, carrot seed oil is good for helping to support an overworked body and mind. “This is an excellent oil to support and strengthen the adrenal system for both chronic and acute stress,” she explains. In other words, this is one pick that can more than likely benefit all of us.
Size: 0.10 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Post-Workout: Saje Peppermint Halo Cooling & Soothing Oil Blend
Easy to use roll-on format
Just a few dabs of this essential oil blend deliver an instantly cooling, soothing, and refreshing sensation, which is why it’s one of our favorites to grab after an intense sweat sesh. (Fun fact: This was actually the first product the brand created, back in 1992.) A combo of peppermint, rosemary, and lavender oils is what make it feel oh-so nice and give it its herbaceous, zippy scent.
Size: .34 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Skin Issues: Doterra Oregano Essential Oil
If you’re anything like us, you probably associate oregano more with an Italian seasoning blend than an essential oil, but it’s actually a choice option for topical use. It contains two skin-loving compounds: carvacrol, an anti-inflammatory antioxidant, as well as antifungal thymol. For that reason, it’s a good choice for all kinds of skin irritations (including even things such as athlete’s foot). The one caveat: It’s an especially potent essential oil, so make sure to dilute it and use just a drop or two.
Size: .5 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Meditation: Fragrant Earth Sandalwood Essential Oil
Can aid migraines
Works well in diffusers
Relieves muscle tension
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 provide 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."
Scent: Sweet Floral and Minty | Size: 0.50 ounces
Best for a Racing Mind: Essential Wholesale & Labs Patchouli
Comes in a variety of sizes
No real topical benefits
“Patchouli, with its earthy, deep aroma, quells anxiousness and enhances relaxation. It is grounding and balancing and calms an overactive mind,” says Winquist. Reap its aromatherapeutic benefits any time you feel like your thoughts are whizzing out of control, and you want to be able to take a moment to slow them down.
Size: .25 fl. oz, 1 fl. oz, 2 fl. oz, 4 fl. oz, 8 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Healthy Hair: Briogeo B. Well Organic + Cold-Pressed 100% Castor Oil
Treats scalp conditions
Promotes hair growth
Cold-pressed to retain fullest quality
Castor oil is not technically an essential oil, it’s a carrier oil. It’s been around for quite some time, though lately it has been replaced with far more luxurious and pricier oils. Still, castor oil can still be an affordable option when it comes to helping to 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.
Size: 1.5 fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best for Anti-Aging: Drunk Elephant Virgin Marula Luxury Facial Oil
Reduces wrinkles, fine lines, and dullness
Protects against environmental damage and free radicals
Gentle enough for all skin types
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.
Size: 1fl. oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
The right essential oil can do everything, from helping you relax before bedtime to giving you more focus during a busy day, to even improving skin issues. The DoTerra Cedarwood Essential Oil and Aura Cacia Lavender Essential Oil are two of our top picks for promoting relaxation and calm. For topical use, consider the Doterra Oregano Essential Oil; just make sure to dilute it prior to application.
Meet the Expert
Adora Winquist is an energy healer, a pioneer in the field of aromatherapy, and a co-author of Detox Nourish Activate: Plant & Vibrational Medicine.
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 or 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.
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 to 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 bodies need.
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."
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 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 over-exposure.
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.
Why Trust Byrdie
Byrdie contributor Melanie Rud has over a decade of experience in the beauty industry, writing for some of the biggest magazines and websites out there. She has written about essential oils fairly extensively, and she likes using them regularly as part of her overall holistic approach to health and well-being.
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