What Are Essential Oils? Here's What You Need to Know

Reduce stress, soothe yourself to sleep and decrease headaches with the right scent.

One of the best things about walking into a spa is the smell. The aroma is so calming, you can feel yourself relax on the spot. Why? Thank the relaxing properties of certain scents for your simmer-down response. Likewise, have you ever felt particularly perky after smelling peppermint or citrus? That's scent at work.

Though there are many types of essential oils, some are more widely known and used. Others? You've likely never heard of before. Common oils include lavender, sage, rosemary and tea tree oil. Less commonly known may be arborvitae, copaiba and helichrysum oils.

What Are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are compounds extracted from plants through a process of distillation. These oils have become popular in the holistic wellness industry for their specific health benefits and healing properties. "I often recommend essential oils in my telehealth functional medicine clinic because they have been shown to support multiple areas of your health," says functional medicine practitioner Will Cole, D.C., who is based in Monroeville, Pennsylvania.

a photo of an essential oil tincture with a lavender fig
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The Benefits of Essential Oils

There are a handful of essential oils that stand out and are most recognized and touted for their benefits. Many essential oil benefits are anecdotal, and there's limited research to support their claims on humans (much of the research has been done on animals). However, essential oils may be beneficial for more than just relaxation and stress relief.

May Support Immune Health

"Some essential oils have been shown to help stimulate certain parts of the immune system, increase the activity of specific immune cells, and interfere with pathways associated with inflammation," says Cole. Higher levels of inflammation can stymie the immune system. Plus, "Reduced inflammation also helps to promote gut health," says Cole. He recommends using eucalyptus, lavender, clove and tea tree oils, all of which may have anti-inflammatory properties.

May Aid in Wound Healing

Certain essential oils have anti-inflammatory or antimicrobial properties. "Using essential oils while a wound is healing may help minimize any scarring, especially when you use helichrysum, lavender and tea tree oil," says Cole. One 2020 review in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine concluded that lavender essential oil was effective in promoting wound healing and reducing pain. Some research, the authors describe, mixed lavender oil into aloe vera to treat minor skin tears and cracks.

May Alleviate Stress and Headaches

Essential oils are great pain relievers for treating headaches and migraines and tend to have stress-fighting and anti-anxiety benefits. "Try peppermint oil, as it contains menthol, which can help relax muscles and ease pain," Cole suggests. A 2019 study in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine found that using a drop of peppermint essential oil in the nose decreased the number of migraines in 40% of patients (similar to intranasal lidocaine, a pain-relieving medication), which was better than a placebo group, of which just 5% reported relief.

May Help Relieve Digestive Distress

"Interestingly enough, the brain and GI system are intimately connected, so just inhaling essential oils may help provide comfort to the gut," says Cole. Do not ingest essential oils; they are not safe to consume.

One notable essential oil for nausea and digestion is ginger. "Ginger essential oil stimulates the digestive system, which increases gastric activity, helping to prevent and alleviate constipation," says Cole. "Clove has also traditionally been used to ease digestive upset, relieve stomachaches and calm indigestion caused by acid reflux," Cole adds.

How to Apply Them to Your Skin

One of the best and easiest ways to use essential oils is by applying them topically to the skin. "If I'm struggling with a headache or an upset stomach, I'll mix my essential oil with carrier oil and apply directly to my head, back of neck or stomach," Cole adds.

First, mix the essential oil with a carrier oil to dilute it. Good options for carrier oils include coconut, jojoba or almond oil. Essential oil itself is potent, and it might cause irritation if applied directly on your skin.

When diluting your essential oil, don't use water. "Essential oils easily mix with these carrier oils, whereas they don't mix with water, so for topical purposes, it's imperative to use a carrier oil," says Cole.

The right ratio of essential oil to carrier oil depends on the strength desired. For example, per 2 fluid ounces of carrier oil, you'll add anywhere from 12 to 60 drops of essential oils, according to NOW's guide to diluting essential oils.

How to Diffuse Essential Oils

Another way to use essential oils is to diffuse them throughout a room with a diffuser. You can use three to five drops of essential oil per 100 milliliters of water. "If I'm looking to support my immune system and fight off colds in the winter, I like to diffuse my essential oils, so I am constantly breathing them in and getting that support throughout the day," says Cole.

The 5 Best Essential Oils to Get Started With

With the many essential oil options, it can be tough to know which ones to buy first. Here's a handy guide.


One of the most popular and versatile essential oils in aromatherapy, lavender oil can help promote relaxation and better sleep, as well as calm anxiety. Combine lavender oil with a carrier oil to massage into your skin, add to a bath or put a few drops onto a cloth and inhale the aroma, recommends Cole. Keep the essential oil by your bed so it's accessible whenever you're struggling to fall asleep and need a quick dose of relaxation without having to get out of bed. Or keep a lavender hand cream bedside to hydrate dry hands while helping soothe you to sleep.


Because of its invigorating aroma, yet cooling sensation from menthol, peppermint oil has been used to help ease digestive discomfort, such as upset stomach, and to alleviate head pain and aches. "It can be diluted and applied topically for relief from headache, muscle aches, joint pain and itching, or you can add it to a diffuser to reduce stress and pain and to improve mental function," says Cole. Plus, peppermint is refreshing and stimulating. Research in the American Journal of Plant Sciences in 2019 found that the scent of peppermint can boost memory, attention and alertness. Talk about minty jolt!


According to Cole, "As an antioxidant, oregano oil protects against free-radical damage and oxidative stress, and its antimicrobial properties may also help heal fungal infections and treat wounds." You can apply it topically when diluted, or diffuse it, if you like the smell.


This essential oil has anti-inflammatory properties, which may help with joint pain and reduce inflammation levels in the body. In a 2023 randomized controlled trial in BMC Research Notes, topically applying a frankincense extract helped to decrease the severity of pain and improved daily function in people with osteoarthritis better than a placebo.

Tea Tree

Tea tree has antibacterial, anti-fungal and antimicrobial properties that can be used in a variety of ways, says Cole, from cleaning to treating itchy bug bites or clearing congestion. Add tea tree oil to your shampoo to fight dandruff and to get rid of product buildup on your scalp.

The Bottom Line

Essential oils are not a cure-all by any means, but they can be used to support your health in various ways. For the safest use, never ingest essential oils or apply them directly on your skin. Dilute first with a carrier oil or add to a diffuser to make your room smell nice. Now that's relaxing, isn't it?

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