Essential oils are the largely-untapped powerhouses of natural remedies. I say "largely-untapped" because most people just don't know the potential these oils have! If they did, they might stop buying over-the-counter items, from painkillers to sleep aid. They're found in most of our DIY recipies because they're extremely capable of treating almost anything commercial products can.
Here's the skinny on essential oils; they're a few facts you might not have known about them before (and make sure to check out the handy infographic on the bottom of the page for more uses and ideas):
1. Essential oils aren't technically oils; that is, they do not contain the fatty acids that constitute what we would consider actual oil. Instead, they're highly concentrated plant constituents possessing potent medicinal and cosmetic qualities. However, this doesn't lessen their importance. Some consider them "the life force or the soul of the plant."
2. Most essential oils are high in antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties, making them very suitable replacements for cleaners, wound treatment and salves big and small. They also have a small molecular size, which means they are absorbed well by the skin. Adding them to your lotions and salves induces healing, softening, and nourishing. However, if you're worried, they do not accumulate in the body over time - they simply offer up their healing properties and then pass on through.
3. Aromatherapy is a terrific use of essential oils, but take note: fragrance oils and essential oils are far from one and the same. While you're out perusing a selection, if you see the word "fragrance," "fragrance oil" or "perfume" on the label, leave it out of your cart. It's likely synthetic and does not have all the important, natural properties. To test your essential oil to see how "pure" it is, put a single drop of it on a piece of construction paper. If it evaporates quickly and leaves no noticeable ring, it is pure. If you have a ring left, then it is likely diluted by the manufacturer with an oil of some sort (this test will not work for myrrh, patchouli, and absolutes).
4. Why aren't essential oils used more often? It all boils down to one thing: essential oils are all-natural and cannot be patented. This means that you'll never see an essential oil in a pharmaceutical drug. As such, you can expect that the vast majority of mainstream healthcare practitioners will never recommend essential oils as therapeutic alternatives to drugs. More importantly, because essential oils cannot be patented, drug companies will not waste money studying them. This limits our scientific knowledge of essential oils a lot, and the majority of what we know about them are things that have been passed down through thousands of years of personal use and experimentation.
5. Why are essential oils so pricey? It's because enormous amounts of plants are needed to produce essential oils. One of the most extreme cases is the Bulgarian rose, taking 4000 pounds of the plant to produce 1 pound of essential oil. Other plants like lavender only take 100 pounds of plant material to produce a pound of essential oil...and that's the lighter end!
6. As we've stated, essential oils are powerhouses! As such, they need to be treated with care. Most essential oils should never be used undiluted on the skin. Instead, they should be combined with true-blue oils (called carrier oils), waxes, butters, alcohols, or other diluting measures. Because they're so concentrated, if you don't dilute, you may end up with an unfortunate skin reaction, or worse.
7. There are a few essential oils that are generally recognized as safe to use undiluted (with a few exceptions). The only essential oils that are widely acknowledged as safe to use undiluted (sparingly) are lavender, German chamomile, tea tree, sandalwood, and rose geranium.
8. Never use an undiluted essential oil on a baby or child. Children have much thinner, more delicate skin than adults have, and tend to be very sensitive to the potency of essential oils. In fact, even if you do use essential oil in a recipe for children, only use half of the essential oil recommended in the recipe. Being little tykes, that's all their bodies need, anyways.
9. Pro-tip: test if you're sensitive to an essential oil before using it in regular skincare recipes or the like. Combine one drop of essential oil with 1/2 tsp carrier oil (like olive, jojoba, or sweet almond). Rub this on the inside, upper portion of your arm and wait a few hours. If no redness or itching develops, you're most likely not sensitive to that essential oil. Still, keep an eye on your skin and proceed cautiously.
10. Do not take essential oils internally, especially oils like wintergreen and eucalyptus. While some essential oils may be used well-diluted in something like toothpaste with safety (since you're spitting it out), it's generally recognized that there's no need to take essential oils internally. In fact, there are several toxic essential oils that should be avoided even through skin contact. Luckily, these are not common essential oils, and most of them you'll never find in the store.
11. Essential oils will last for at least 5 years (if not 10), so one bottle could literally last you half a decade. Keep this in mind when you're eyeing the price tags on some essential oils. Because they are incredibly concentrated and only a tiny amount is needed in anything you do, you can make them last a very, very long time. The only exception to this rule is citrus oils, which will see a reduction in potency after a year or two.
12. Keep your essential oils in dark glass bottles (which they were probably packaged in) and out of direct sunlight. This will help them stay stronger for longer.
For a great history, as well as uses and tips for essential oils, check out the infographic below: