Aromatherapy 101: What are Essential Oils?


Essential oils from plants are used in aromatherapy to help support mind, body, and spirit. Each plant used to create the oil has a unique chemical profile that affects how the oil from that particular plant will smell and impact the body. These oils are very concentrated. A great example is lavender because it takes approximately 220 pounds of lavender flowers to make up just one pound of oil.

essential oil in bottle laying on top of rosemary branches

Rosemary essential oil helps promote cognition and support digestion and cardiovascular health.

Use of aromatherapy dates back to Egyptian times when the first distillation machine was created to extract oils from specific natural substances. The Egyptians then used these special oils to embalm the dead. We’ve come a long way since then! Today, essential oils have a wide variety of uses by the living. And the scientific research proving the positive health-supporting effects of aromatherapy is impressive.

There have been many randomized double-blind controlled trials featuring the successful use of essential oils for everything from fatigue (1) to premenstrual syndrome (2) to migraines (3). Essential oils can support brain and mental health on a variety of levels as well. And aromatherapy can play a significant role in easing anxiety. In fact, there are double-blind controlled trials showing that anxiety is reduced in preoperative patients (4), women going through labor (5), and patients with acute myocardial infarction (6).

Aromatherapy essential oils are used in massage oils or as direct or indirect inhalants. These essential oils can also be put into body care products, as well as household cleaners and air fresheners. While there are hundreds of essential oils used to promote health, there are about a dozen that are at the top of the essential list of aromatherapy oils that are used in clinical practice.

Researchers love lavender

One of the key shining stars in the aromatherapy world is lavender oil. The diverse patient populations that have successfully used lavender oil is worth highlighting. A 2018 randomized controlled trial (7) showed that aromatherapy massage with lavender oil reduced disability incidence among patients with knee osteoarthritis. A 2012 review (8) also made a strong case that lavender oil can support people who have anxiety and depression. A 2017 paper (9) confirmed that lavender (along with oregano, thyme, clove, clary sage, and arborvitae) has antibacterial and antifungal properties showing that these oils are ideal for “decontaminating an indoor environment.”

A 2016 prospective, randomized study (10) showed that lavender aromatherapy helped relieve peripheral venous cannulation pain in patients undergoing surgery. Speaking of pain, a 2016 review (11) and meta-analysis demonstrated that lavender reduced chronic pain in older adults, as well as chronic lower back and neck pain. In addition to pain, a 2013 review (12) paints a clear picture of the diversity of lavender showing it can positively influence mental health, sleep, and cognition. Certainly lavender leads the way when it comes to essential aromatherapy oils. But that’s the just beginning of the aromatherapy story.

person in a sweater holding a bouquet of lavender

Lavender aromatherapy helped relieve peripheral venous cannulation pain in patients undergoing surgery.

Other essential oils

Lavender isn’t the only essential oil in the aromatherapy toolkit. There are many oils that can be used for many purposes in clinical practice. In addition to lavender, a 2015 review (13) highlights the following:

  • Chamomile to support inflammation, muscles spasms, menstrual issues, insomnia, and gastrointestinal issues.
  • Clary sage to support women having uterine issues or muscle cramps.
  • Eucalyptus to support skin issues, muscle and joint aches, and immunity and inflammation.
  • Geranium to support skin issues, stress and anxiety, and pain management.
  • Lemon to support detoxification, immunity, nausea, and pain management.
  • Peppermint which has anti-inflammatory, analgesic, antispasmodic, antimicrobial, carminative, and decongestive properties.
  • Rosemary to help promote cognition and support digestion and cardiovascular health.
  • Tea tree for its antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and immune-supporting effects.
  • Yland Ylang for its mood supporting properties specifically related to self-esteem, euphoria, and calmness.

This review, as well as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (14), and the National Cancer Institute (15) report that aromatherapy and essential oils, in general, have an excellent safety profile.

In addition to the list above, ginger oil has been shown to help ease postoperative nausea (16), as well as exhibit anti-inflammatory properties (17). In addition to its anti-inflammatory properties, a 2013 review (18) explored ginger oil’s antioxidant activity, as well as its positive influence on blood glucose balance.

Bergamot is another powerful essential oil. In a 2017 pilot study (19), a bergamot-infused mental health waiting room significantly improved positive feelings compared to those who did not receive the bergamot fragrance. These results are consistent with a 2013 randomized controlled trial (20) showing that patients in a surgery waiting room that was infused with the scent of bergamot felt calmer compared to the control group who just had water vapor circulated in their room.

Finally, it’s important to mention grapefruit when discussing essential oils. Grapefruit is in the same category as lemon and bergamot. According to a 2018 review (21) involving the entire citrus family of oils, grapefruit has uplifting and revitalizing characteristics and preliminary research shows it may also help support weight loss.

woman getting essential oils on her face

In addition to soothing skin, many of these oils have antimicrobial properties and can be used to help heal wounds, ulcers, and acne.

Meeting dermatology demands

Many essential oils have soothing skin effects and are used often in integrative dermatology. A 2017 review (22) reports, “at least 90 essential oils can be identified as being recommended for dermatological use, with at least 1500 combinations.” The oils highlighted in that review included:

  • Calendula
  • Cinnamon
  • Chamomile
  • Eucalyptus
  • Frankincense
  • Lavender
  • Lemon balm
  • Lemongrass
  • Sandalwood
  • Tea Tree
  • Yarrow

In addition to soothing skin, many of these oils have antimicrobial properties and can be used to help heal wounds, ulcers, and acne.

Immense popularity

There is no doubt that patients are becoming more aware of the power of essential oils and the use of aromatherapy. Perhaps even more exciting than the increased consumer awareness is the growing interest in aromatherapy by researchers from around the world. A 2017 bibliometric analysis (23) of published research from 1995 to 2014 identified 549 original and review articles published in 287 different review journals by 1,888 authors. That’s an incredible amount of research productivity and scientific visibility that integrative health professionals may want to consider.

Using an integrative approach to health and healing involves a consideration of all of the scientifically-valid tools and techniques available. Aromatherapy and essential oils certainly belong in that category. There are numerous high-quality essential oil products for healthcare professionals to choose from to recommend to their patients that can help address a variety of health applications. If you are a patient we highly recommend you seek recommendations from practitioners.