Reducing chemical exposure and finding natural complementary tools for health is becoming more important in an increasingly toxic world. Returning back to nature’s abundance and inherent wisdom, essential oils are finding their way into many aspects of daily living. For centuries, they’ve been used for health and vitality. Now, they’re also being used for natural cleaning products and skin-care products, supporting health, boosting immunity and energy levels, improving sleep, aiding with anxiety and stress, and more.

It might be alarming to know that 95 percent of chemicals used in synthetic fragrances are petroleum based. Known to be toxic, these chemicals that are found in most every scented product are linked to cancer, birth defects, hormone disruption, nervous system disorders and allergic reactions. It is also why most indoor environments, including work and home, have much higher levels of pollutants than outdoor environments.

Essential oils have been used for thousands of years across the globe. Ancient Egyptians may be the first culture known to utilize essential oils for religious, cosmetic and medicinal purposes, but other cultures have also used the essences from plants for health and well-being.

What Are They?
Essential oils are highly concentrated essences from various parts of plants, including roots, leaves, bark, flowers and resin. The plants are typically steam distilled, extracting the oil compounds from the water-soluble elements of the plants. These oils are often referred to as volatile aromatics, which simply means that the compounds move quickly through the air and interact with the olfactory senses of the nose. As such, essential oils can stimulate areas of the limbic system in the brain by way of your smell receptors. The limbic system is responsible for behavioral and emotional response, our fight-or-flight nervous systems, as well as playing a role in regulating breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. Depending on the oil used, it can help elicit an uplifting, energizing effect, while others can elicit a calming, relaxing effect.

The potential uses of essential oils are quite extensive, with each oil having unique properties. It is often difficult to do double-blind studies with aromatics; however, there is some encouraging data. Oregano oil, frankincense and tea tree oil have all shown immune-boosting, antibacterial and antifungal properties. Ginger oil has been shown to aid in indigestion, abdominal pain and reduce nausea. Peppermint oil has shown benefits in exercise performance as well as increased brain oxygen concentration. Lavender and sandalwood oil can help improve mood and lessen anxiety. Initial research has shown improvements in cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients using an aromatherapy combination of rosemary and lemon in the morning and lavender and orange in the evening.

There are three main ways to utilize essential oils, those being as an aromatic, topically or internally.

Aromatically, the oils can be worn as a personal fragrance instead of a synthetic perfume. Enjoy them through an oil diffuser, add them to your laundry or use them in household DIY surface cleaners.

Topically, essential oils can be readily absorbed by the skin for targeting specific areas. Because of the concentration, it is often diluted in a carrier oil to help lessen the potential for skin irritation as well as allow for an expanded absorption area. This can be incorporated into massage and massage therapy. As with most any topical product, test a small area of the skin before applying and avoid any open wounds or sensitive areas.

Ingesting essential oils should be done very carefully and under the guidance of a qualified naturopath or herbalist as the concentration of the oil has a systemic effect.

Local Perspective
For Erica Eichlin, owner of Lehigh Valley-based A Wholesome Life, LLC, it was a personal experience that opened her eyes to the benefits of essential oils. “I had not had much exposure nor was I very open to complementary therapies for health and well-being,” she says. “Having suffered from ongoing gastrointestinal issues, my sister gave me a blend of essential oils to try topically. Within five minutes, to my surprise, I felt relief and knew I needed to know more.”

That inquiry led her on her path to the world of essential oils and complementary therapies. Through personal experience and research, it quickly and naturally evolved into wanting to help others as well.

While Eichlin started using essential oils for a health issue, she finds that many start incorporating essential oils by using them as safer alternatives in creating healthy household aromatics as well as nontoxic cleaning and personal-care products. She says, “As they work with the oils and notice their benefits, they expand into utilizing oils to support other aspects of their own health.”

Not All Are Created Equal
Eichlin makes an important note that not all essential oils are created equal. Different soil composition, climate, temperature, regional sourcing, how the plants are harvested and, most importantly, the distillation process will all impact the quality of the oil. Extracting microscopic amounts requires precision as well as a large volume of high-quality raw material. It is why quality essential oils are more costly. To give some perspective, it takes over 100 pounds of rose petals to distill five milliliters of rose oil.

Eichlin stresses the importance of doing your research when purchasing essential oils to ensure that you are getting only essential oil rather than synthetic chemicals and additives. With the growing popularity and demand for essential oils, there are many unethical companies promoting essential oils, which are diluted with synthetics, adulterated and/or unethically sourced material, all of which is counter to the health benefits of true essential oils. Eichlin says, “You may or may not be able to tell just by smell if a product is synthetic, but the health benefits will be absent or you may even get an adverse reaction to the chemicals.” Once you have found a quality source, Eichlin recommends trying single oils to understand how your body reacts to that particular oil, then you can expand to blends if you so choose. Also remember that more does not mean more benefits. In the case of essential oils, less is more, as a drop goes a long way.

If you’re just starting out, Eichlin recommends frankincense, lavender, lemon, copaiba, wild orange, peppermint, tea tree, ginger, grapefruit and eucalyptus.

Reducing exposure to toxic chemicals while receiving supportive health benefits sounds like a win-win with essential oils. Check your sourcing, start simply and slowly and explore what works with you and your body.