Essential oils 101: The aromatherapy basics you need to know
You take your vitamin C on the regular, have switched to a sulphate-free shampoo and you’re all about reef-safe sunscreen this summer — so keeping things on the more natural side is totally your bag. If you’re interested in taking things further and exploring the world of essential oils, there are a few things you need to school up on before you start. Read on for our beginner’s guide to all things essential oils and aromatherapy.
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How are essential oils made?
They are concentrated essences of medicinal plants with therapeutic properties. The essential oil is extracted from flowers, leaves, stems, roots, bark or seeds by steam or water distillation.
What is a carrier oil?
“Carriers are there for the dilution of an essential oil,” explains Bo Hendgen, founder of Muriwai-based therapeutic plant oils company Absolute Essential, who’s been in the business for more than 35 years. “If you’ve got an essential oil like peppermint and take the lid off, it will be empty in three weeks’ time — it’s a liquid, it evaporates. If you were to do the same with a carrier oil like almond oil, it will oxidise with air and go rancid.”
Popular carrier oils include jojoba oil, almond oil and aloe vera gel. You can create your own moisturisers, massage oils and oil blends by mixing drops of essential oils into carrier oils, which can then be applied to the skin at a lower concentration than a pure essential oil.
What essential oils suit beginners?
If you like the scent of a particular essential oil, that’s a great place to start! When it comes to essential oils with really practical benefits around the home, there are a few worth adding to your kit early on. Lavender is wonderful for burns and scrapes and can be applied directly to the skin to help kickstart the healing process.
“Put a drop on an ice cube and rub it on the burn. It doesn’t cause skin to blister and it will take the sting out,” says Bo. Putting a few drops of lemon oil on a dish cloth is a great way to keep flies and ants off your kitchen benchtops — plus it’s a great natural disinfectant. Peppermint oil is good for headaches and topical pain relief.
Can they be toxic?
Essential oils are highly concentrated. For pregnant women, babies, pets and people with sensitivities, exposure to certain oils can be dangerous. Bo has a Mother & Child logo which she uses on products that have been tested to be safe for pregnancy and babies. These products are also safer to use around pets and those with weaker immune systems.
If you’re using essential oils at home, always check that other people in the house are okay with it and make sure your pets can easily leave the room. And if you have health concerns, consult your doctor before using, or seek advice from a qualified expert in the field of therapeutic plant oils.
What about essential oil blends?
Blends are great for beginners because they take the guesswork out of which oils to use and when, plus you know they’ve been blended by professionals. Blends are made from a number of complementary oils and are a great way to support your body through ill health and imbalances in a natural way. At Absolute Essential, Bo makes blends for sleep support, to relieve headaches, as relaxation aids and energy boosters. “Smell is the only medicine that can be applied directly to the brain,” says Bo.
Can you really cook with them?
Yes, you can — but not with all oils, so it pays to do your research before you begin experimenting. Go for organically certified oils, so you know they don’t contain any synthetic ingredients. “The second thing is to look at oils which we have in foods anyway, such as peppermint, chamomile and citrus,” says Bo. “And it’s really efficient using oregano and thyme, in fact, I use hardly any dried herbs. You can put them on pizza and it’s a really nice flavour. You just have to learn how to cook with them, because they’re so intense.”
Do you have any tips to share about using essential oils? We’d love you to tell us in the comments below!