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You’ve probably heard plenty about essential oils over the last few years. These intensely aromatic, highly concentrated, organic liquid compounds are derived primarily through the steam distillation of various plant parts, such as leaves, flowers, resins, roots, berries, and wood. They’re also derived by cold-pressing citrus peels. Essential oils give plants their distinctive smells and tastes, and they play a vital role in plant biochemistry, attracting pollinators, and helping plants maintain their health.
These botanical jewels offer myriad benefits for humans as well. Often sought by those who desire natural, safe alternatives to the synthetic chemicals that have invaded our lives and homes, essential oils have become incredibly popular, and their applications more widespread than ever. When used properly, top-quality, superior-grade oils can elevate and sustain the health of your mind, body, and spirit.
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As with any new health practice, continuous use of essential oils is best approached with research and care. While these natural extracts are generally safe, some people will be more sensitive to their properties than others. Because of this, and due to their concentrated nature, properly dilute essential oils prior to application unless otherwise instructed. Before using an unfamiliar oil topically, always perform a skin-patch test. Dilute one drop in 1/2 teaspoon of a carrier oil, and apply to a spot of skin, such as your wrist, to make sure you don’t have a reaction over the course of the day. Finally, while some essential oils are promoted as safe to ingest, research on the safety and efficacy of ingesting oils is ongoing, therefore seek guidance from a natural health professional.
All-Purpose Essential Oil Options
I’ve been regularly working with essential oils since the late 1980s, long before they were the “trendy new kids” on the natural-medicine block. So for this article, I’ve chosen a core group that I consider to be the most versatile and useful for treating common health concerns and supporting overall wellness. These particular aromatics have potent therapeutic properties and are known to safely and effectively address a wide range of physical and emotional issues. Additionally, none are derived from endangered plants, and the majority are inexpensive. My hope is that you’ll find endless uses for this fragrant pharmacy.
German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita; M. chamomilla)
Semiviscous, with a sweet, warm, herbaceous, almost tobacco-like aroma, this essential oil contains chamazulene and bisabolol, chemical constituents known for calming inflammation and soothing skin irritation. Chamazulene, which is produced during distillation, gives the oil an unusual inky-blue color (azul means “blue” in Spanish). German chamomile improves conditions exhibiting heat, including gout or strained muscles, tendons, or ligaments. Possessing remarkable antihistamine properties, it’s recommended to those suffering from dermatitis and other skin conditions. It’s also effective in formulas to treat menstrual cramps and PMS symptoms; in fact, its genus name, Matricaria, refers to its role as a gynecological herb.
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Contraindications: May cause dermatitis in some individuals. Avoid in cases of extremely low blood pressure or if taking sedatives. Not for use alongside certain drugs, including some anti-arrhythmic, antipsychotic, antidepressant, and analgesic medications, as well as those containing estrogen or serotonin.
Roman Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile; Anthemis nobilis)
Roman chamomile’s essential oil shares many of the German variety’s properties and applications. However, Roman chamomile contains less chamazulene than German chamomile and smells intensely sweet, floral, and apple-like. This gentle oil is safe even for infants. I often use it singularly or in combination with lavender, cardamom, or frankincense in formulas designed for massage and bathing to calm irritability and induce sound sleep, as well as in topical blends to ease painful teething, earache, and colic.
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Because of its cooling, deeply relaxing nature, Roman chamomile is a good choice for addressing hot flashes, stress-induced skin conditions, and tension or migraine headaches. Bouts of sciatica, neuralgia, lower back pain, spasmodic muscle cramps, and menstrual cramps respond favorably as well. Regarding psychological benefits, Roman chamomile eases irritability, nervous tension, and the emotional swings of PMS and menopause.
Contraindications: May cause dermatitis in some individuals.
Clove Bud (Syzygium aromaticum; Eugenia caryophyllata)
Clove essential oil should always be used in moderation and highly diluted because of its hot, potentially irritating nature. However, when used correctly, this familiar, spicy-sweet aromatic offers a host of remedial properties, most because of its primary constituent, eugenol.
The stimulating heat and analgesic qualities of clove essential oil comfort while invigorating sluggish circulation, making it beneficial for those suffering from chronically cold extremities or bruised tissue. It delivers welcome relief from stiff, achy muscles and arthritic joints. It also boosts the effectiveness of other essential oils in blends designed to combat bacterial, viral, and fungal infections.
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Traditionally, powerful clove oil has been used to ease toothache by temporarily numbing the nerve and causing loss of sensation. Its antiseptic and deodorizing properties make it a useful additive to homemade toothpastes, tooth powders, and gargles. Additionally, when applied topically in a massage blend or compress, it helps to relieve gas, cramps, and spasms in the intestines; eases nausea; and aids digestion in general.
Contraindications: Potentially irritating to the skin and mucous membranes, and may cause dermatitis. Repeated topical application with minimal dilution can result in extreme contact sensitization. For inhalation, use it highly diluted and blended with lighter essential oils. Avoid if pregnant or breastfeeding.
Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus)
This popular oil has a somewhat harsh, medicinal, and camphorous aroma. It contains high levels of eucalyptol, or 1,8-cineole, which makes it one of nature’s most powerful antibiotics, fungicides, and anti-viral oils. As such, it’s an excellent choice to relieve or prevent respiratory and throat infections; heal wounds and sores; and eradicate athlete’s foot, nail fungus, ringworm, lice, and scabies. Eucalyptus is a decongestant and mucolytic, which is why it’s added to many commercial vapor rubs and cough suppressants. It’s often in remedial mouthwashes, too.
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Eucalyptus essential oil is cool upon inhalation, but warming for the skin, making it effective in liniments used to ease the pain of achy or stiff muscles, stressed tendons and ligaments, sciatica, and arthritic joints. Like clove, it gets sluggish circulation moving.
Contraindications: In cases of sensitive or fragile skin, use with care. Avoid if pregnant or breastfeeding, and don’t use on or near the faces of children under 10.
Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens; P. x asperum)
The predominant chemical constituents in geranium essential oil are citronellol and geraniol, which contribute to its many remedial properties and grassy, rosy, lemony aroma. These two constituents are also major players in natural insect repellents. With regard to psychological benefits, “balancing” is the best way to describe this oil; it’s uplifting, grounding, and centering, yet not sedating. The aroma is useful for treating nervous tension, anxiety, and restlessness, and is a wonderful choice for women moving through a symptomatic menopause.
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Geranium oil helps tone and tighten the skin and astringes excess moisture, making it useful against weeping eczema, psoriasis, edema, and hemorrhoids. Considered a “beautifying oil,” it benefits all skin types and scalp health by balancing sebum production. With parasiticidal properties, it’s also helpful in blends formulated to combat nail fungus, athlete’s foot, ringworm, and lice. For those with impaired circulation or vascular disorders, geranium oil is recommended as a gentle circulatory stimulant, mild anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial.
Contraindications: May cause contact dermatitis in hypersensitive individuals.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Lavender is my favorite essential oil; it’s so safe and gentle that it may be used neat if applied to small areas of the skin, and it has a soft, floral aroma. Antibacterial lavender has a significant amount of the monoterpene alcohol constituent linalool, and is remarkably calming and soothing. It’s considered a superb sedative, anti-inflammatory, and wound healer. Personally, I use it for treating minor-to-moderate burns, cuts and scrapes, insect bites and stings, rashes, muscle aches, muscle cramps and spasms, respiratory congestion, bruises, tension headaches, cold and flu symptoms, anxiety, and insomnia. If you can afford only one oil, make it lavender. It lends aid and comfort to practically every physical and emotional ailment — a medicine cabinet unto itself.
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Contraindications: Avoid in cases of extremely low blood pressure. There’s ongoing research into lavender oil as a potential endocrine disrupter.
Lemon (Citrus limon)
Delightfully bright, refreshing, and invigorating, lemon promotes a sunny disposition and relieves mental fatigue. Because of its inherent astringent action, it’s a common ingredient in natural formulas used to treat edema and cellulite, as well as oily and acne-prone skin. The oil is rich in the monoterpene constituent d-limonene, and has traditionally been used for its potent antibacterial and antiviral properties. It may help prevent or combat infections resulting from colds and flu, plus it aids in healing all manner of skin ailments. This essential oil is also valued for its cleansing and purifying effect, as a tonic for the circulatory system, and for the feeling of cheerfulness and well-being its aroma instills.
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Contraindications: A potential skin irritant, it may cause photosensitivity in skin exposed to sunlight or tanning beds for up to 12 hours after use.
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)
With its ultra-fresh, clean, and sometimes grassy aroma, the sharp pop of peppermint essential oil is unmistakable. Its most abundant chemical constituent is menthol, which provides its familiar scent and noticeable cooling sensation when inhaled or applied to the skin.
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Peppermint helps open respiratory channels, making it excellent to treat sinus and lung congestion. It’s one of my favorite remedies for bad breath, indigestion, motion sickness, nausea, and lethargy. Its astringent, analgesic, and antispasmodic properties deliver rapid comfort when treating headaches and migraines, cramped muscles, stressed ligaments and tendons, rheumatoid arthritis, and swollen legs and feet. Energizing peppermint also serves as an effective circulatory and cognitive stimulant. Additionally, it offers antimicrobial properties, is a valuable insect and vermin repellent, and is a parasiticide.
Contraindications: Avoid if pregnant or breastfeeding. Don’t use on or near the faces of babies or young children.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Rosemary essential oil has a strong, sharp, camphor-like scent and woody-balsamic undertones. Its warming, analgesic, circulatory-stimulating actions help treat cold hands and feet, arthritis, and rheumatism. Stiff or inflamed muscles, sprains, and strains respond quickly to rosemary, making it a classic ingredient in post-workout blends. In my reflexology practice, rosemary is one of the primary essential oils I use to aid in lymphatic drainage, as it relieves fatigue, achiness, and a general sense of heaviness.
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Rosemary essential oil is a strong antibacterial with an affinity for the respiratory system; a superb aid to wound repair; an effective deodorizing agent; a traditional hair and scalp oil; and a valuable insect repellent and parasiticide. As a cognitive stimulant, rosemary counters mental fatigue, lack of focus, and lethargy.
It’s customary to find bottles of rosemary essential oil labeled simply “R. officinalis,” but there are also several chemotypes available, which vary in chemical composition. I often prefer R. officinalis ct. cineole in blends to ease headaches, help heal respiratory infections, or rid the lungs of mucus. It also works wonders when I need an energizing and circulation-stimulating effect. R. officinalis ct. verbenone has a milder, lemony aroma, and I find it less stimulating but amazingly gentle. I use it to rejuvenate the skin (all skin types), as a powerful antiseptic, and for its ability to thin mucus.
Contraindications: R. officinalis and R. officinalis ct. cineole may cause dermatitis in those with sensitive skin. Avoid use on children under the age of 10. Avoid all varieties of rosemary when pregnant.
Tea Tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)
Did you know that tea tree essential oil was in military first-aid kits during World War II? With a scent that’s strong and medicinal, it’s unique in that its immune-stimulant activity is highly effective against viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Like lavender, it’s one of few oils that may be used neat, so it’s a convenient spot treatment for herpes lesions, acne blemishes, insect bites, warts, corns, athlete’s foot, wounds, boils, skin ulcers, and burns. Tea tree is cooling and gentle on the skin, and amazingly effective against a wide range of ailments, especially infections of the skin, respiratory tract, and mouth. It also combats lice, scabies, and ringworm.
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Contraindications: Potentially sensitizing in some individuals. There’s ongoing research into tea tree oil as a potential endocrine disrupter.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
Thyme essential oil is one of the most anti-infective essential oils. Thyme is an ideal choice to treat respiratory, mouth, and skin infections. A warming circulatory stimulant, effective antifungal, and analgesic, it’s also deodorizing, a valuable insect repellent, and physically and mentally fortifying. I primarily use thyme essential oil in topical blends to prevent or combat cold and flu symptoms, and in muscle and joint comfort balms. I also use it in air purification spritzers.
T. vulgaris, often referred to as “common” or “red” thyme, has a medicinal, somewhat spicy, and slightly sweet scent. With high levels of the constituent thymol — especially in the chemotype T. vulgaris ct. thymol — it can be irritating if not properly diluted. Thymol helps relieve lung congestion and is effective against gingivitis and bad breath, which is why you’ll find it in some commercial mouthwashes.
T. vulgaris ct. linalool, commonly known as “sweet” or “mild” thyme, has a softer aroma. When I need thyme’s remedial power yet desire a gentler, less irritating effect, this is the variety I choose.
Contraindications: T. vulgaris and T. vulgaris ct. thymol are dermal and mucus membrane irritants and should be used in moderation and highly diluted. Avoid if pregnant or breastfeeding. Topical application is best avoided if you’re using anticoagulants, following major surgery, or if you suffer from peptic ulcer, hemophilia, or another bleeding disorder.
Using therapeutic essential oils in conjunction with wholesome lifestyle habits and other plant-derived supplements is one of the best ways to improve and enhance your environment, as well as your own personal immunity. Source these natural healers sustainably, use them in moderation, and explore all that the aromatic realm has to offer. After all, after reading this list, don’t you want to stock up?
Stephanie Tourles is a certified aromatherapist, licensed esthetician, product formulator, and author of more than 12 books on healthy living. Learn more at Stephanie Tourles.