How Do Essential Oils Work?

Essential oils are considered a form of alternative medicine.There’s a lot of information you’re going to find on the Internet, not all of it will be accurate. I would like to concentrate on what the science says, what support can we find in literature on how do essential oils work?

Essential oils or compounds extracted from plants. These compounds have scent. Most essential oils should never be ingested unless they were designed specifically to be used in food. Essential oils are formulated by cold pressing, distillation or chemical processes. The purest essential oils do not use any chemical processes.

There are different methods for using essential oils they can be inhaled, ingested and rubbed on the skin. I’m not an advocate for putting the essential oils directly on the skin.

how do essential oils workHow do essential oils work? -Topical use of essential oil

Battaglia, 2003 reported that essential oils may be more readily absorbed from skin locations with greater concentrations of sweat glands and hair follicles, such as the genitals, head, soles, palms, and armpits

Essential oils should be diluted in a carrier oil. Carrier oils may be something like almond oil, olive oil or jojoba oil. Usually the concentration is less than 1 %. If you’re planning on diluting essential oil and a carrier oil, know that Carrier oils have individual properties as well. Your carrier oil that you choose should have the properties that are beneficial for your needs.

Essential oils may be used for massage, we know that massages can help one relax.

Anti-microbial effects of essential oils

In my post about house cleaning with antimicrobial compounds we saw that antimicrobial compounds can increase antibiotic resistance and is therefore not recommended for regular use. In fact one compound, triclosan, has been banned in antimicrobial hand soaps.

Some studies have show that peppermint and tea tree oil have microbial effects, this is why you will see Tea tree oil in acne products.

I like using essential oils as room sprays, I use only a couple of drops and I do not worry about the harmful effects of volatile organic compounds that are found in many synthetic fragrances. They give the room a nice warm inviting scent.


essential oils for sensitive skin

How essential oils work -Inhalation

The olfactory system

The olfactory system is the smell organ. When we inhale through the nose, airborne molecules interact with the olfactory organs and go to the brain. Molecules inhaled through the nose or mouth are also carried to the lungs and interact with the respiratory system. Thus, inhaled essential oils can affect the body through several systems and pathways.

Limbic system

When you inhale, odor molecules travel through the nose and affect the brain through receptor sites. One of these receptor sites are the limbic system. The limbic system is connected to those parts of the brain that control heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, memory, stress levels, and hormone balance (Higley & Higley, 1998) -Source Unniversity of Minnesota. This relationship helps explain why smells often trigger emotions. We can see how inhalation of essential oils can have some very profound physiological and psychological effects.

We know the sense of smell can stimulate strong memories. We also know that certain smells can affect out feelings. You know what I am talking about. You walk into a room that has a lemon scent and you think clean. You walk into a room that smells like fall and you are thinking warm and cozy.

The limbic system also has an effect on breathing and heart rate. This may be another reason why we feel relaxed when we’re in the room that has pleasant scents. Yes, you can spray a synthetic room fragrance but there are health concerns of synthetic fragrances. You see this here.

According to health line, 43% of people with anxiety and depression seek alternative forms of medicine. There are some studies to support that essential oils may help reduce anxiety as well as depression.

There are small studies that I came across,

Lavender and peppermint have been shown to reduce headaches, although these studies were small.

Lavender is  thought to help with sleep.

Some essential oils of thought to help with inflammation. One animal study showed  oregano helped reduce irritation of the colon. There are no human studies that I know I’ve that’s supported reduction of inflammation with the use of essential oils. These studies would be difficult to perform as there are too many variables.

According to the Unniversity of Minnesota,

Black pepper (Piper nigrum) or ginger (Zinziber officinalis) essential oil  has been used to help reduce arthritis pain and improve flexibility.

German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) essential oil has been used for skin irritation.

essential oil

How do essential oils work? Ingestion

The third way that essential oils enter the body is by ingestion (swallowing).

“The ingestion of essential oils is not common practice in the US. In France, it is more common, but only when specially trained physicians and pharmacists prescribe and dispense them. There are several reasons for caution, including the following:

  • Some essential oils can be toxic to the liver or kidneys when ingested.
  • There could be potential drug interactions. (Tisserand and Balacs, 1995; Schnaubelt, 1999)”

Source -Unniversity of Minnesota

Young Living has a line of essential oils that were formulated for ingestion. These essential oils are in their vitality line.

What to look for when buying an essential oil

You want an essential oil with only aromatic plant compounds, You do not want a essential oil with additives or synthetic compounds. Ensure that the essential oil you are using did not use chemical processing.

A word of caution regarding essential oils

Essential oils like cinnamon can be strong as they contain phenols which can be irritating on the skin. Always dilute them or just diffuse with a couple of drops.

Speak to your physician if you are pregnant. There have are no well designed studies showing that essential oils are safe in pregnancy, especially in the first trimester when the baby is developing.


Pharmazie. 2010 Feb;65(2):102-5. Comparative study on the in vitro human skin permeation of monoterpenes and phenylpropanoids applied in rose oil and in form of neat single compounds. Schmitt S1, Schaefer U, Sporer F, Reichling J.
Rev Neurosci. 2012;23(5-6):481-99. Taste and odor recognition memory: the emotional flavor of life. Miranda MI1.
J Altern Complement Med. 2012 Aug;18(8):798-804. doi: 10.1089/acm.2011.0551. Epub 2012 Jul 31. Effect of sweet orange aroma on experimental anxiety in humans. Goes TC1, Antunes FD, Alves PB, Teixeira-Silva F.
Spread the love