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Whether you have an itchy rash, acute inflammation from a sprained ankle, a bad cut, or an upset stomach, there’s usually some sort of medicine you can take. From ibuprofen to acetaminophen, Benadryl to Pepto Bismol, pharmacies are stocked with countless drugs to combat our varies aches and pains. But, if you’re concerned about flooding your body with the chemicals found in medicines, there may be more natural salves to soothe what ails you—essential oils.
Botanicals have been used for their healing properties for thousands of years, and essential oils continue to gain popularity in mainstream culture for their health benefits. These botanical extracts are versatile, natural, and quite effective—if you know which ones to use and how to use them. However, since the range of conditions and options for oils seems nearly endless, it’s difficult to know where to start. We reached out to two wellness experts to help us learn about some of the best essential oils to use for common conditions like inflammation, rashes, acne, pain, and wounds.
Looking for an all-natural salve? Read on for expert advice on the best essential oils for inflammation, acne, pain, dry skin, digestive issues, rashes, and more.
Meet the Expert
- Jenelle Kim, DACM, LAc, is a Doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine and is nationally board-certified in Herbology, Oriental Medicine, and Acupuncture. She is the founder and leader formulator for JBK Wellness Labs.
- Eden Gilliam is a certified esthetician with over 10 years of experience, and the founder of Eve Milan NY.
- Alison Angold is a certified aromatherapist with over 25 years of experience working with aromatherapy and essential oils.
How Do Essential Oils Work?
What exactly are essential oils? According to Gilliam, “Essential oils are super-concentrated plant extracts that can be antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, anti-histamine, and help with everything from pain to aiding with sleep and mental clarity.” Kim says that the specific way an essential oil will influence your body once absorbed depends on the particular essential oil. “There are over 90 varieties that each benefit the body in a unique way,” she explains. With that said, there are two primary routes of administration—inhalation and topical application—and regardless of the specific type of essential oil you’re using, your body will absorb the molecules in the same general way for each respective type.
“When inhaled, essential oil molecules travel through our airways and enter our bloodstream, [where they are] carried to every molecule in the body. It is also believed that essential oil molecules have a direct route to our brain, specifically the amygdala—the emotional center—through the olfactory nerve, which aids in our sense of smell,” explains Kim. “When applied topically, essential oil molecules are absorbed through the skin, having a slower delivery to the whole body, but a more concentrated delivery to the skin, joints, and muscles in that area.”
Our experts share that many essentially oils can help reduce inflammation and swelling. Some of Kim’s favorite essential oils for general inflammation are thyme, clove, rose, ginger, and eucalyptus. Gilliam says that eucalyptus is beneficial because it’s calming topically and aromatically, making it a potent anti-inflammatory. “Arnica would be at the top of my list, too, as it has an amazing calming effect and is great for bruises as well as inflammation. And clary sage is excellent for inflammation as well,” she says.
Kim notes that you can further customize your treatment, saying, “There are also certain essential oils that provide beneficial inflammation relief to specific areas of the body. [For example]! lavender, lemon, and grapefruit all help reduce inflammation in the nasal passages and airways, alleviating some of the stuffiness felt from allergies or a cold.”
Once you pick the essential oils you want to use, it’s time to properly put them to use. Kim has some advice: “A few drops of an essential oil can be diluted in a lotion or oil and applied directly to the body for a concentrated form of relief to a specific area of the body, or a few drops can be added to a diffuser or diluted in water and sprayed into the air, so the essential oils can provide inflammation relief by being inhaled and circulating the body.”
Before applying essential oils to your skin, always dilute them first to avoid irritation. Try mixing them with a carrier oil like jojoba or sweet almond oil, which helps them work better, as carrier oils facilitate better absorption so that the essential oil won't evaporate.
There is a wide range of digestive issues, so Kim says the most beneficial essential oils to use depend on the specific symptoms the person is experiencing. "Two of my favorite essential oils for overall digestive wellness are peppermint and ginger, which both provide nausea relief and help settle an unwell stomach," shares Kim. "Other oils, such as tea tree oil, which has antimicrobial properties, can also help balance gut health and regulate digestion." Angold says that chamomile, lemongrass, bergamot, and lemon oils help ease indigestion and aid digestion. "These oils are all anti-spasmodic, which means they can calm the muscles along the digestive tract, aiding digestion," she explains. "In addition to this, lemon and mandarin oils reduce the amount of stomach acid being produced in the case of indigestion."
Pre-made blends sometimes work well because they are curated to include the key essential oils beneficial for a particular body system or malady. In many of the best gut health blends, you’ll find ginger, peppermint, chamomile, and sometimes fennel oils.
For Dry Skin
Gilliam likes to use rosehip essential oil for dry skin mixed in a hydrating carrier oil like avocado oil. “It’s rich in antioxidants and can help repair the skin barrier and aid in preventing water loss that causes dry skin,” she explains. Kim says that tea tree oil, lavender, and frankincense are some of the most moisturizing essential oils. “I also like using geranium and ylang ylang essential oils when creating skincare products for dry skin because they help lock in moisture,” she notes. Her go-to product recommendation has an apropos name: Good Essential’s Essential Balm. It has all the key essential oils she recommends blended with organic coconut oil, cocoa butter, and shea butter. The result? A soothing balm that hydrates, nourishes, and protects your skin. Plus, it’s free of parabens, alcohol, preservatives, and fragrances.
For Wound Healing
"Lavender oil is the most common essential oil chosen for wound healing because it contains antimicrobial properties and is known to help reduce scarring,” says Kim. In fact, research has found that lavender essential oil is lethal to disease-causing strains in the skin and that it helps accelerate the closure of open wounds so that they heal at a rapid rate. “Frankincense and tea tree oil are also great options known to speed healing time,” Kim adds. “Rosehip oil is also great because it’s rich in fatty acids and it has antioxidant and reparative properties,” adds Gilliam. Plant Guru’s Essential Oils First Aid Kit includes these most effective wound-healing oils.
When dealing with any sort of wound, Kim shares an important precaution prior to applying any sort of essential oil: “You should always consult a doctor before applying anything to an open wound to ensure it is safe for you and that you don’t need additional medical attention.”
“Tea tree oil is the most well-known essential oil for treating spots and acne. It is antiseptic, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory, which makes it ideal to calm and soothe irritated, spotty skin, while also treating the infection causing the acne," explains Angold. "Tree tree oil is one of only two oils that can be used 'neat' on the skin (without a carrier oil); however, this should be done only in small amounts and directly onto a spot, not on the whole face." While tea tree oil is the usually the go-to choice for acne, there are other options as well. "Oregano and sage are also heavy hitters when it comes to breakouts, and they are so potent you only need a tiny, tiny bit,” explains Gilliam. Kim also recommends thyme, cinnamon, rose, oregano, and rosemary, which are all known to have antibacterial properties that are powerful against acne-causing agents. “I also like to use sweet orange oil, lemon, and grapefruit because they are also microbial, as well as lavender, which is soothing for inflamed skin,” says Kim. Gilliam has a less widely-used oil in her acne-combating arsenal as well: parsley oil.
For Skin Barrier Support
"Some oils have the ability to regenerate the cells in the skin, which means that they will bring fresh, more hydrated cells to the skin's surface more readily," explains Angold. For example, dry, sensitive, scaly skin can be made smoother and stronger with flaxseed oil. It's rich in fatty acids that help repair the skin's natural barrier and actually boost hydration levels. Like flaxseed oil, rose oil is barrier-repairing for rough, sensitive, disrupted skin.
Kim shares a few options when it comes to treating eczema: “Essential oils such as tea tree oil, lavender oil, and eucalyptus oil are known to reduce skin inflammation and provide relief to even the most sensitive skin, making them common choices for helping soothe and calm eczema.”
Gilliam has personal experience using essential oils for eczema because when her daughter was a baby she suffered from the itchy rash on her cheeks. “I mixed together shea butter with rosehip oil, ylang ylang essential oil, and helichrysum essential oil and it did wonders for her. Within two weeks, it was gone.” Sounds like a valuable elixir.
The essential oil that will work best for treating a rash depends on the cause of the rash you have. According to Kim, natural antihistamines such as lavender are great for calming rashes caused by allergic reactions, and chamomile oil naturally reduces itchiness, so it is a good essential oil for rashes as well. Gilliam agrees that lavender is a good way to go. "Lavender would be one of my go-to oils here because it’s so calming and soothing, and [it] is one of the only essential oil that you can use ‘neat’ on the skin, which means undiluted,” she explains. “So that would be my primary oil, but I would still mix it in something soothing for the skin.” Angold also suggests marjoram, noting, "Marjoram can also be useful as it restricts the flow of blood to an area so can cool the area and reduce itching."
For Pain Relief
Again, the specific essential oils that will be most helpful for combating your pain depend on where you’re experiencing pain and what is causing it, but our experts shared a few general suggestions. According to Kim, “Eucalyptus, peppermint, lavender, and rosemary oil all help alleviate pain and discomfort.” And Gilliam says, “Clove is amazing for pain relief and frankincense has a sedative effect that makes it a wonderful option as well.” The Rapid Relief Synergy Blend from Plant Therapy is a cocktail of some of the best heavy hitters in the pain relief sphere, has a pleasant aroma, and increases circulation and warmth to the area of pain.
Koca Kutlu, A., C., Ceçen, D., Gülsen Gürgen, S., Sayin, O., & Cetin, F. (2013, February 15). A comparison study of growth factor expression following treatment with transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, saline solution, povidone-iodine, and lavender oil in wounds healing. Evidence-Based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine.