From purchasing to putting them on your skin, you're likely making some major (and possibly dangerous) mistakes while using essential oils.

By Renee Cherry
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Essential oils are nothing new, but they've recently sparked an obsession that shows no signs of slowing. You've probably heard about them through friends, read about celebrities who swear by them, or noticed a number of recent studies suggesting their benefits are legit. But getting in on the action can be somewhat complicated since there is an overwhelming number of options—as well as risks involved with using them. Simply put: It's not in your best interest to just buy a random oil and wing it. Here, three things you should keep in mind when learning how to use essential oils.

Step #1: Buying a Quality Essential Oil

There are occasions when it pays to be thrifty, but buying essential oils isn't one of them. How do you find the best essential oil brand? Buying from an essential oil brand that's upfront about how they make the oils will ensure that you end up with one that's potent and uncontaminated—and that likely won't be the cheapest option. Even if a bottle says "100-percent pure," you should still double-check the ingredients list to make sure that there aren't fragrances or perfumes added to the oil. That said, some oils have been found to contain components not listed on their ingredient lists (essential oils fall into a "gray area" of regulation by the FDA), so it's also important to do your research and make sure you're buying from a reputable essential oil company.

Take a look at the company's website. It's a good sign if they've had third-party testing conducted with their oils, says Serena Goldstein, N.D., a naturopathic doctor in New York City. "Some companies do have studies on their products, but with third-party (versus in-house) there's no one biased who can skew the studies in a more favorable way."

Ariana Lutzi, N.D., a nutrition consultant for BUBS Naturals, recommends buying from a smaller essential oil company when possible. With larger companies, oils are often stored in a warehouse, so there's a higher chance that the oil is already at its peak by the time it gets to you. "I know the difference between when I'm in a rut and just have to buy something at Whole Foods versus getting it from a smaller company," she says. "I notice a difference in the quality of the oil, by smell, and even the therapeutic effect is a little off."

Other signs to look out for? The plant's botanical name should be on the bottle (ex: lavender is lavandula angustifolia or officinalis), and its country of origin should be readily accessible, says Lutzi. (An oil's purity and intended use can vary from country to country.) It should come in a tinted bottle (not clear glass) to protect the oil from sunlight, extending its shelf life. (Here are the best essential oil brands you can buy on Amazon.)

Step #2: How to Use Essential Oils Properly

You might know the benefits of a given oil, but how do you use essential oils, exactly? Essential oils might be natural, but they're also strong, so using them the wrong way can be risky. They're a common irritant and can even react with certain drugs when consumed, says Goldstein. Essential oils are potentially toxic to a fetus, so avoid essential oils while pregnant or speak with a doc first.

You should also think twice if you have a pet since essential oils can be toxic to animals. They can cause unsteadiness, depression, or low body temperature in dogs and cats who come in contact with them, or vomiting, diarrhea, or depression in dogs and cats who ingest them, according to the ASPCA. In general, diffusers are okay to use if you have pets, but you should avoid essential oils altogether if you own a bird or another pet with breathing issues, according to the organization. (Related: How to Get Rid of Cellulite Using Essential Oils)

Essential oil diffusers: If you have zero clue how to use essential oils, diffusers are a good starting point, and a better option than sniffing them straight from the bottle in general, says Goldstein. Adding a few drops to a steamer or pot of boiling water is another more potent option. (Check out these diffusers that double as tasteful decor.)

Cooking with or ingesting essential oils: When it comes to cooking with or ingesting essential oils, avoid anything that's not labeled as safe for consumption. And even if it does have the all-clear, there may be risks involved. "I've actually read from my colleagues that ingesting some essential oils can cause distress over the long term because they are so potent," says Goldstein. If you want to try cooking with essential oils, Lutzi suggests topping bread with coconut oil, butter, or ghee and honey infused with lemon, lavender, rose, or orange essential oil.

Using essential oils for skin: When using oils on your skin, start out slow, since they can cause irritation or even burns. Always start with a patch test to see how your skin reacts to a particular oil, says Lutzi. And you should *never* apply an essential oil directly to your skin; always dilute it first with a carrier oil (such as coconut, almond, or avocado oil). As a rule of thumb, you want 2 percent dilution: 12 drops of essential oil per 1 fluid ounce of carrier oil or lotion, says Lutzi. Finally, some oils are photosensitized, meaning they'll cause burns when exposed to sunlight (!!). Double-check that an oil isn't photosensitive if you plan on applying it before heading outside.

Step #3: Choosing the Right Essential Oil for Your Needs

Now comes the fun part: selecting an oil based on what you're trying to achieve. Lavender is one of the best gateway oils, according to Goldstein, since it has few associated side effects. You can dilute it with water an alcohol into a DIY linen mist to promote sleep. Here are a few more standouts:

  • For relaxation: Vetiver is commonly used to promote rest and relaxation. Sandalwood, frankincense, and myrrh will also help you reach a calm and cool state. “These essential oils help relax your breathing and mind,” says Hope Gillerman, an aromatic healer and the author of Essential Oils Every Day.
  • For pain relief: Arnica oil is often used to relieve muscle aches and soreness. Studies suggest it may help speed up bruise healing and reduce pain.
  • For energy: One study found that peppermint oil may enhance memory and increase alertness.
  • For anxiety: In one study, lemongrass lowered levels of anxiety and tension. (Here: more essential oils for anxiety.)
  • For stress: Ylang-ylang has been linked to lowered cortisol and blood pressure levels.
  • For seasonal allergies: Eucalyptus oil is associated with reduced congestion. (That's why Vicks contains eucalyptus.)
  • For cleaning: Tea tree oil is a star in DIY cleaning products because of its antimicrobial properties. (Try one of these three genius ways to clean your home using essential oils.)
  • For motivation: Refreshing hits of fir, rosemary, and eucalyptus can not only help motivate you, but also keep you focused on a goal, says Gillerman. Losing steam? Turn to geranium, cedarwood, and lemon to battle burnout.
  • To feel adventurous: Citrus, like lime, bergamot, and grapefruit, will inspire you to leave your comfort zone. “These zingy scents help us feel open to new possibilities,” says Gillerman. It’s the same mental trigger as a glass of fresh OJ in the a.m.
  • To win someone over: Scent is a key element when it comes to making a first impression. “Opt for inviting, familiar fragrances that most people are drawn to,” says Gillerman. Think rose, ylang-ylang, and sweet orange.

To read up on how to use a particular essential oil, you can consult the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy's list of most commonly used essential oils.