Everything you need to know to get started with essential oils

Introduction: Aromatherapy is a form of complementary medicine based on the therapeutic use of herbs — a practice that combines ancient roots with the fruits of modern research. The principal tool of aromatherapy is essential oils.These are not really “oils” at all, but rather highly concentrated plant essences distilled to maximize aromatic properties. Hundreds of pounds of plant material may go into a small bottle of essential oil.

While they are a natural product, these oils are very concentrated, and we need to take care when using them. This handout should give you all the information you need to use essential oils safely and effectively for yourself and your family in everyday use. If you use these oils as part of a professional practice — for example, as a massage practitioner or counsellor — please consider pursuing certification, if you have not already done so.

Safety notes: We would like to emphasize three important rules for using essential oils safely:

  1. Never use essential oils directly on the skin. Always dilute them with a carrier oil.
  2. Never use essential oils internally unless under the direction of a medical professional.
  3. Extra precautions need to be taken when using the oils with people who have certain medical conditions, pregnant or nursing women, and infants and young children.

Using the oils with a diffuser: A diffuser is a safe and effective tool designed for use with essential oils. It’s a quick way to distribute scent throughout your environment, which can be enjoyed by more than one person at a time. Following is a run-down of various types of diffusers and other delivery mechanisms. You don’t need to keep the diffuser running for a long period of time; ten minutes at a time is plenty.

Nebulizing diffusers and cold air mist diffusers: These high-end diffusers are the best choices for therapeutic use of oils. They’re somewhat expensive, but do the best job because they distribute scent throughout your space efficiently and without heating the oil. Heat can burn off some of the chemical constituents of the oil.

Mechanical diffusers come in many styles. The inexpensive ones we sell at Mimosa use electricity to heat up a small patch of felt, which you sprinkle with oil before turning the machine on. These little machines can distribute scent throughout a single room for a few hours, and are safe to leave on overnight. To conserve the felt patches, you can designate one for each oil you use, and keep it in a marked plastic baggie. Diffusers use heat to release scent into the air.

An oil burner uses a small candle (tealight) as its heat source. The candle heats an attached dish, in which a few drops of oil are diluted in water. When using a burner, it’s very important to make sure to add water to the dish as the contents evaporate; if the candle is left burning beneath a dry dish, the glass dish can crack. Also, as with any open flame, you should never leave the burner unattended while its candle is lit. Oil burners are great for scenting one room for a short time while, but a tealight can only burn for a few hours. When you leave the room, it’s fine to snuff the candle and relight it later. These are great for scenting a room, but are not the first choice for therapeutic use of oils.

Essential Oil Mists: In these, essential oils are diluted in water and sprayed into the air. While this is not a long-lasting way to use the oils, it’s a great way to purify your environment, or to blend several oils for a specific intention. We sell ready-mixed sprays at Mimosa which are formulated for particular intentions, and also as smudging and yoga mat cleansing sprays.

You can also make your own mists by diluting essential oils in water in a small mister bottle. Mimosa’s recipe consists of about 10-15 drops of essential oil, mixed into an ounce of water with a tablespoon of vodka as a preservative for the water.

If you live somewhere where you can’t burn sage or incense, or someone in the household is sensitive to smoke, this can be a great way to purify your home environment. Sprays are also great for the office, when you don’t want anyone to know what you’re up to!

Nasal Inhalers: These are small tools you can carry along when you want to take a little oil along with you, or for personal use. Despite the name, you should never insert the inhaler into your nostril; instead, use it under the nose.

Pendants: An essential oil pendant contains a small piece of cloth which you soak with essential oil before wearing. This is a great way to carry the scent with you. You can also put a little oil (preferably diluted) in a small bottle to carry or wear on a cord.

Other Fun and Safe Ways to Use Essential Oils:

  • Put a few drops into the bathtub.
  • Add a few drops into natural cleaning products. Grapefruit oil is great for this!
  • Add a few drops to unscented soap, lotion or hand cream. Be sure to mix thoroughly before applying to skin.
  • Soak a little oil into a piece of felt, and use it to scent a drawer or closet.
  • Use small amounts for candle-making or other crafts. (It’s fun to be creative — this year I misted my Christmas cards with a little peppermint!)
However you use essential oils, remember, “Less is best.” A tiny bit of these concentrated oils goes a very long way.

Using Essential Oils on Skin:
When using an essential oil on your body, you should first combine it with a carrier oil. Not only does promote safety and give better skin coverage, it actually helps the skin to absorb the essential oil. Thus carrier oils increase safety, effectiveness, and economy of use.

Many common oils make excellent carriers — from kitchen oils, such as olive, sunflower or grapeseed oil to the sweet almond oil often sold for this purpose. A good ratio for adults is about 15 to 30 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier oil. An ounce is an amount roughly equivalent to the size of a shot glass. (If you’re too young to know how big that is, you should be doing this under adult supervision anyway!) Test your blend on a small patch of skin, to test for sensitivity, before trying it on a larger area.

We need to dilute the oils more when using them with children; see the separate section below for more information.

Once you have blended your essential oil and the carrier oil, they can be stored in an amber glass bottle in the refrigerator for up to six months, and used as massage oil or personal scent. Essential oils can also be blended at this same approximate ratio into unscented soaps, lotions, etc. However, they should never be used in any product that will come in direct contact with the eyes.

Undiluted essential oils should never be used directly on the skin. There are several reasons for this:

  • Some undiluted essential oils can burn the skin, causing contact dermatitis, accelerating sunburn, and/or causing more serious reactions.
  • Undiluted essential oils can cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.
  • They can be drying to the skin.
  • Placing undiluted essential oils directly on the skin is simply not an effective way to use them, since they will evaporate quite rapidly.
  • Essential oils can interact with medications, herbs, and homeopathics

Using oils internally: We do not recommend using any essential oil internally without the guidance of a medical professional. Without proper guidance, even essences derived from food plants are not safe. There are many reasons for this:

  • Highly concentrated plant essences may burn the mouth, throat or other parts of the digestive system.
  • They present a high risk of overdose.
  • Internal use of oils can cause nausea, vomiting, and/or liver damage.
  • Ingestion is not an effective way to use the oils. Food can interfere with absorption, and digestive chemicals can break down the oils before they have a chance to do any good.

Storing essential oils: Essential oils should be stored in tightly sealed containers, away from sunlight and heat. If possible keep them in the refrigerator. It’s best to use dark-colored glass containers to store oils or anything you make from them, to protect the contents from light. When stored properly, essential oils can retain their potency for up to five years. (Exceptions are citruses and tea tree, which should be used within two years.) As long as the oil still smells strong, it should be fine to use.

Using aromatherapy with infants and children: Essential oils can help children under age twelve in many ways, but we must take care when using them. All essential oils and mixtures made from them should be kept out of reach of small children, and used only with adult supervision.

It’s generally safe to use a diffuser in a room when children are present, as long as the diffuser is out of their reach and the smell doesn’t bother them. Obviously, we need to take special care when using tealights or scented candles.

For topical use with infants, safe oils are lavender, chamomile and rose. Use a ratio of one to two drops per ounce of carrier oil.

For topical use with children ages one through twelve, safe oils are lavender, chamomile, rose, neroli, orange and tea tree. Use a ratio of two to four drops per ounce of carrier oil.

Other oils may not be safe for use with young children. Please consult with a certified aromatherapist if you are interested in using other oils besides the ones mentioned above. One special caution: Never use eucalyptus or peppermint on infants.

Using aromatherapy during pregnancy: It’s best to avoid using essential oils during the first trimester of pregnancy. The body is very sensitive at that stage, sometimes in unpredictable ways. Besides, many women find any strong smell unpleasant during this time.

Oils that are safe to use during the second and third trimesters are cardamom, chamomile, frankincense, geranium, ginger, neroli, patchouli, petitgrain, rosewood, rose, and sandalwood.

After the baby is born, you may carefully re-include other oils, but be patient. Keep in mind that our senses of smell and taste are closely linked, so that even a scent on the air could cause a baby to sense something “off” about breastmilk or formula. Great caution must be used with topical application with infants. Neonatal skin does not mature until 3 months of age, so for beginning essential oils users, it would be best to wait to use oils topically until baby is at least 3 months old.

Avoid the following oils during any stage of pregnancy: aniseed, basil, birch, camphor, cinnamon, hyssop, mugwort, parsley seed and leaf, pennyroyal, sage, tansy, tarragon, thuja, wintergreen, and wormwood.

Using oils with people who have other conditions or sensitivities:
Special care should be taken using essential oils with people or pets who have serious health issues, including asthma, epilepsy, seizure disorders, high blood pressure, or certain mental disorders. If these conditions are present, or if you have any question about using oils with an individual experiencing any kind of health challenge, consult your physician.

Essential oils are a complementary therapy to be used in conjunction with regular medical care. Aromatherapy does not replace proper medical care. When in doubt, always seek the advice of your doctor.

We would like to thank Christina Wilke-Burbach, PhD, RMT for her help in preparing this article. Christina is a  offers in-depth aromatherapy courses at Mimosa and other venues. You can find out more about these courses on her website, mindsoulandself.com. While Christina was a great help in preparing this article  MImosa is solely responsible for all content.


Essential Oil Correspondences

Balsam Fir rejuvenate body & mind, respiratory, muscle aches, pain
Basil refreshing, restore mental alertness, fatigue, muscle aches
Bergamot uplifting, confidence, enhance mood, skin problems, balance, stress, depression, mental health, emotional control
Cedarwood relaxing, massage, oily skin
Clary Sage menopause, menstrual issues including PMS, relaxing, stress, depression
Clove stimulation, revitalizing, immune enhancement, pain relief
Copaiba recovering from injury or irritation, digestion, inflammation
Cypress security, stability, comfort during winter, skin problems, transitions
Dill revitalizing, balance
Eucalyptus cooling, refreshing, energizing, respiratory support, exercise, sore muscles, communication, assertiveness, standing up for oneself
Fennel circulation, glands, respiration, digestion, well-being during menstrual cycle, energy, vitality, balance
Frankincense meditation, elevating the mind, spiritual connection, centering, comfort, mental focus, overcoming despair, stress, aging skin
Geranium revitalizing, releasing negativity, nervous system support, balance
Grapefruit energy, uplifting, weight management, detoxification, reducing excess water retention
Jasmine relaxation, self-confidence, romance, balancing female energies, lunar connection, positive experience with the night, relationships, sexuality & sensuality. Jasmine is a potent aphrodisiac.
Juniper detox, cleansing, purification, urinary support
Lavender adaptogen (adapting to stress or imbalance), relaxation, sleep, energy, beauty, cuts & burns, healing, protection, purification, seeing the whole picture
Lemon purification, fasting, vitality, nervous system
Lemongrass stimulating, mental clarity, balance, rejuvenation
Melrose skin health, cuts, burns & rashes
Myrrh meditation, purification, uplifting, regulating emotions
Orange calming, peace, happiness
Oregano immune & respiratory support, electrical alignment of body
Palo Santo spiritual development, purification, cleansing, release of negative energy
Patchouli happy house, releasing negative emotions, general health, digestive system, connection to Mother Earth, trust, protection
Peppermint supports digestion, respiratory system & liver, concentration, mental sharpness, clarity, dieting
Pine energy, muscles & joints, exercise
Rosemary mental alertness, energy, memory
Sage strengthen senses, support metabolism, respiratory, reproductive & nervous systems, coping with despair, mental fatigue, cleanse & purify the home, release negativity
Spearmint open & release mental blockages, balance, well-being
Spruce relaxes mind & body
Tangerine uplift the spirit, security, occasional nervous irritability (moodiness), calming
Tarragon digestive support
Thyme immune system
Valerian calming, grounding, emotional balance, restoring nervous system
Vetiver grounding, recovering from emotional trauma, good behavior in children, calming, stability, stress
Wintergreen soothing, headaches, exercise, enhance children’s moods. (Caution, should never be used with anyone on a blood thinner or daily aspirin therapy.)
Ylang Ylang love & romance, releasing anger, relaxation, beauty, sensuality, balancing male & female (yin & yang), awakening kundalini