20 Most Popular Aromatherapy Oils (And When to Use Them)
Aromatherapy oils are a hot-ticket item these days. People use them for everything from promoting relaxation to helping their teenager’s room smell less like sweaty gym socks. Whatever the reason you consider using them, there is no shortage of oils from which to choose. In fact, the long list of choices can seem overwhelming, especially for aromatherapy newbies. To help you out, I have prepared a list of my top 20 aromatherapy oils and some tips for when to them.
What is aromatherapy?
Before we dive into my list, some of you may be wondering what aromatherapy is and why so many people are into it. The simple explanation of aromatherapy is that it is the art of using essential oils for emotional and physical healing. Poor lifestyle choices and environmental contaminants can disrupt the body’s natural balance. Using the proper essential oils can help restore that balance. That is the premise behind aromatherapy.
Think of it as a form of therapy. As more and more people seek natural alternatives to over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications, a growing number of them turn to aromatherapy. I use it to help control pain from a chronic condition and to relieve my anxiety.
The name (aroma-therapy) implies that essential oils must be inhaled. This is not the case. Many people find it most convenient to diffuse essential oils and inhale them. However, you can mix them into pure pharmaceutical grade almond oil or shea butter, and apply them directly to your skin.
Hold up, now! What are essential oils?
Essential oils are the “ingredients” of aromatherapy. They come from compounds extracted from plants known to support health and well-being. Inhaling the aromatic fumes of essential oils stimulates the limbic system. That is the part of your brain responsible for your behaviors, emotions, long-term memory, and your sense of smell.
The limbic system also plays a huge part in forming memories, which helps explain why inhaling some essential oils can trigger our memories or emotions. Say you have fond memories of baking cookies with your grandma. Her favorite recipe was lemon shortbreads. Every time you smell lemons, you are transported back to a happy time when you baked those cookies together.
How long have people used popular aromatherapy oils?
Essential oil aromatherapy may seem like it is suddenly new and exciting, but the practice has existed for more than 6,000 years. Ancient Egyptian healers placed small herbal cones under a patient’s headdress. As the cones melted, the essential oils were absorbed into the patient’s scalp. In pre-Columbian Mexico, the sick visited healing huts with hot, indoor water pools. Healers placed medicinal flowers, leaves, and herbs on rocks throughout the pools. As the steam penetrated the plants, vapors were released into the air in a form of aromatherapy.
Following the science on aromatherapy
More recently, French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse discovered the healing powers of lavender oil. In 1910, his hand was badly burned in a lab accident, and he applied lavender oil to the injured areas of his skin. What he discovered was the oil helped his burns heal quickly and without scarring. It was quite the happy accident – one that prompted Gattefosse to devote the remainder of his career to investigating the chemical properties of essential oils.
Gattefosse was not the last scientist to study essential oils. Several studies demonstrate the science behind essential oils and their plant-based compounds. Johns Hopkins researchers discovered essential oils from garlic and herbs kill persistent Lyme disease bacteria. Other researchers linked lavender with improved sleep and peppermint with migraine pain relief. These are just a few of the evidence-based research studies proving the effectiveness of aromatherapy.
Top picks for best aromatherapy essential oils
As promised, here are my top 20 picks for aromatherapy. Please remember that young children can have adverse reactions to essential oils. Johns Hopkins University has compiled a list of do’s and don’ts when using aromatherapy with youngsters, to help ensure their safety. People with severe asthma and chronic lung disease should avoid aromatherapy, as it can aggravate symptoms. My last word of warning is for pregnant women to avoid basil, marjoram, sage, and large amounts of peppermint essential oils. For everyone else, here are some of the best essential oils to try in your next aromatherapy session.
- Basil enhances mental ability. It can ease depression and improve your memory.
- Bergamot smells amazing and helps cool down your metabolism. Its anti-inflammatory properties and anti-oxidative mechanisms make it a smart choice for improving mood and protecting against cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
- Chamomile is another natural anti-inflammatory. It calms inflamed skin and offers relief for burns and insect bites. Chamomile also promotes relaxation.
- Clary sage contains sclareol, which pre-and post-menopausal women may find helpful. Sclareol mimics the effects of estrogen on the female body, which can help reduce some of the more unpleasant symptoms (can anyone say hot flashes?) associated with the “change of life.”
- Eucalyptus is an effective essential oil for treating nasal and sinus congestion. It is one of my go-to essential oils when my allergies act up or I have a common cold. It also is an effective insect repellent and the only natural option recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Frankincense is an excellent oil for relief of arthritis pain thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties. This is true for both rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis.
- Ginger is my go-to for digestive issues. The older I get, the more foods my digestive tract dislikes. From heartburn and upset stomach to constipation, adding this essential oil to your oily toolkit is a must.
- Grapefruit has more than one practical application. It can help improve circulation and activates your metabolism to encourage weight loss.
- Jasmine is a natural antiseptic because of its antimicrobial properties. It is effective at staving off several oral microorganisms, including thrush. (Dilute 5 drops in a cup of water and use like a mouthwash but do not swallow.)
- Lavender is a powerful pain reliever due to its analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. I can attest to this personally. As someone who lives with a chronic health condition that causes systemic pain issues, I regularly turn to lavender essential oil for relief.
- Lemon is a natural sedative. If your anxiety has gotten the best of you and is causing sleeplessness, lemon can help slow your racing mind so you can fall asleep faster.
- Marjoram relieves arthritis pain and can help relax muscle spasms and tension.
- Neroli is another great stress-reliever with anti-inflammatory properties. It helps the brain release serotonin, which promotes feelings of happiness and relaxation. It also contributes to the reduction of cortisol – the “stress” hormone.
- Orange essential oil is a natural antimicrobial and antioxidant. Excellent for treating skin wounds. The sweet scent of orange oil also supports the reduction of anxiety and depression.
- Patchouli does not just smell nice. It is amazing at soothing certain skin conditions like acne, dermatitis, and dry, cracked skin because of its antifungal and antibacterial properties.
- Peppermint soothes achy muscles with its natural analgesic, antispasmodic, and anti-inflammatory properties. Research finds, for example, that patients get more pain relief from massage with peppermint oil than from massage alone.
- Rose oil is a natural solution for easing hormone headaches. Menopausal women rely on it for pain relief and supporting balanced hormone levels.
- Sandalwood helps promote sexuality. It is a natural aphrodisiac that also keeps fear and anxiety in check.
- Tea tree oil, also known as melaleuca, has antifungal and antibacterial properties, making it an ideal alternative treatment for many skin conditions, particularly eczema.
- Vanilla creates a calming environment, making it ideal for treating everything from insomnia to anxiety.
Using aromatherapy safely
Before you start using aromatherapy yourself, I highly recommend getting a few books about essential oils. The best resources include extensive background on the science behind aromatherapy, coupled with some pointers for using essential oils safely. Here are two of my favorites:
- “Evidence-Based Essential Oil Therapy: The Ultimate Guide to the Therapeutic and Clinical Application of Essential Oils,” by Dr. Scott A. Johnson.
- “Encyclopedia of Essential Oil: The Complete Guide to The Use of Aromatic Oils in Aromatherapy, Herbalism, Health and Well-Being,” by Julia Lawless.
If you are nervous about mixing essential oils safely, you can choose pre-blended aromatherapy inhalers. Among some of the best is AromaWorks Aromatherapy Pocket Inhalers. Choose the right mix for your needs. They are convenient for use anywhere since you can easily tuck them into a pocket or purse.
Breathe deep and good luck on your aromatherapy journey. Happy oiling, everyone!
Shari Berg is a researcher, frequent blogger, feature writer, and author of Wars End with Me.