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The Benefits of Using Essential Oils, According to the Latest Research

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Once confined to yoga classes and massages, essential oils have offi­cially entered the mainstream. Made up of superconcentrated aromatic compounds that have been distilled and extracted from plants, the oils surged in popularity when scientists dis­covered they have compelling and wide­ranging effects on our health, thanks to substances known as odorants. (See: What Are Essential Oils and Are They Legit?)

“More than 50 odorants from essential oils have recently been identified and shown to do things like improve sleep, reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and even accel­erate skin regeneration,” says Hanns Hatt, Ph.D., a professor in the department of cell physiology at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, who is pioneering much of the recent research on odorants. Powerful essential oils are catching on, and they’re popping up all over—in beauty prod­ucts, drinks, deodorants, and cleaning solutions. Here’s your guide to everything essential oil.

How Essential Oils Work

Essential oils can be applied to the skin, inhaled, or ingested in drinks like tea. The odorants in them are distributed throughout your bloodstream, Hatt says. From there, his research shows, they attach to and activate your olfactory receptors and branch out to your skin, heart, kidneys, intestines, and lungs. Depending on the type you use, essen­tial oils can do things like help ease a migraine headache, boost skin­cell turnover to promote wound healing, and make you feel more alert.

Some essential oils have even been shown to reduce bacteria and viruses. Thymol, an odorant in thyme essential oil with antibacterial proper­ties, is used in many disinfectants and household cleaners. As you remove germs from your surfaces, thymol is released into the air, where it may sup­ port the respiratory system, says Cher Kaufmann, a certified aromatherapist and the author of Nature’s Essential Oils. (Here are three genius ways to clean your home using essential oils.)

How to Buy *Good* Essential Oils

You can purchase products with essential oils in them, like skin creams and cleaning solutions. You can also buy the oils pure to use in a diffuser or add to unscented lotions. But beware: Some compa­nies put synthetic fragrances in their oils, which may not have therapeutic qualities, Kaufmann says.

To ensure you’re getting a pure product, look for the plant’s Latin name on the bottle, an indicator that it’s the real thing, she says. The bottle should be dark-colored glass, which prevents light exposure and doesn’t degrade like plastic. Before you buy, Kaufmann says, check the company’s website to make sure it does gas chromatography–mass spectronomy (GC-MS) testing for quality assurance.

How to Use Them Correctly

These oils need to be used in measured dosages. Overdoing them is a common mistake, and high concentrations—the amount you’d get if you let a diffuser run all day, for example—will overload the body’s sensory systems and overstimulate the trigeminal nerve in your brain, leading to headaches, nausea, and dizziness, Hatt says. To use the oils safely, run diffusers for no more than 30 minutes at a time, then take a break for an hour or two, Kaufmann says. Or look for a model with an interval mode, like Stadler Form LEA ($50, bloomingdales.com), which disperses oil for 10 minutes and then shuts off for 20 minutes. Run it for an hour or two, then take an equal amount of time off. (These essential oil diffusers double as tasteful decor.)

If you’re applying an oil topically, always dilute it to avoid skin irritation. If you have sensitive skin, start with a 1 percent concentration, which is the equivalent of seven to nine drops of essential oil blended with an ounce of a neutral oil like jojoba, argan, or grapeseed. Dilutions of 2 to 3 percent (12 to 27 drops of essential oil to one ounce of neutral oil) are safe for general use, Kaufmann says. But always try a small, diluted amount of the oil on your forearm before using it all over, and switch oils every two to four weeks so you don’t become overly sensitized to one. Finally, check the bottle for additional cautions. Many citrus oils, for instance, can increase your reactivity to UV light. (Related: How Trying Essential Oils Helped Me Finally Chill the Eff Out)

Ingesting essential oils is much trickier and should be done only with the guidance of a certified aromatherapist or aromatic medicine practitioner, Kaufmann says.

The Essential Essential Oils

These five oils have scientifically proven perks. (And here are 10 more essential oils you've probably never heard of.)

  • Thyme: It can disinfect surfaces and support respiratory health too.
  • Peppermint: Ingesting the oil may help relax the airways, boosting alertness and strength. (Be sure to consult an expert first.)
  • Lavender: It’s widely known as a sleep aid. But sniffng it can also reduce the severity of a migraine, research shows.
  • Bergamot: Just a whiff can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol within 15 minutes, reports Complementary Medicine Research.
  • Chamomile: When applied topically, this is a powerful anti-inflammatory. It also can improve sleep. (Here are more essential oils that help with anxiety and stress.)
 

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