Ultimate Guide to Essential Oils

Essential oils are oils extracted from various plants. They contain compounds which are present in the plants but in a highly concentrated form. For example, herbs like basil and rosemary contain compounds that are very good for us. We flavor our foods with them for their taste but also because they are good for us.

Lavender Oil

They contain vitamins, minerals and other compounds that help us stay healthy. Essential oils made from these herbs contain those same healthy elements.

However, because they are so concentrated, we get the same benefits from 1 or 2 drops, as opposed to several tablespoons of plant material.

How Essential Oils are Produced

Essential oils are produced in a few different ways. The method of extraction depends on the plant and also what the oil will be used for.

Steam distillation of essential oils

Steam distillation is most commonly used to get essential oils from herbaceous plants like herbs and mints. It is also often used to get the essential oil from citrus sources and wood sources like rosewood.

Some types of oil, like copaiba balsam and Frankincense, are steam distilled from tree resin. During the steam distillation process, the plant essences are turned into vapor then the oil condenses and is collected as the vapor evaporates.

Agricultural water savings

There are also distillation processes known as water distillation, hydro diffusion, combination water/steam distillation, fractional distillation, cohobation and rectification.

Citrus essential oils are often cold pressed or expressed from the rind/peel of the fruits, although not always. Petitgrain, for instance, is steam distilled from the leaves and twigs of the Citrus aurantium tree. Machine abrasion, écuelle à piquer and sponge expression are forms of expression or cold pressed extraction.

Discovery Channel video on how lavender essential oil is produced:

Some oils, like jasmine, are steam distilled or solvent extracted from something called an “absolute,” which is an even more concentrated form of the oil. The absolute, a waxy substance also known as “concrete,” is extracted from the flowers with solvents.

Cedar oil in a bottle, cedar cone, three homemade soap, cedar nuts on the background of wooden boards

They are much too fragile to be processed with regular steam distillation or expression. Solvents used in this process are usually either ethanol, hexane, petroleum ether or methanol.

Jasmine oil producers get several “grades” of oil using this process which are used for a variety of purposes, like perfumery and regular essential oil.

Essential Oil Categorization

Essential oils are categorized in a variety of ways. Knowing which part of a plant is used to make an essential oil and how its aroma is categorized can help you understand its fragrance and how best to use it.

Plant Parts Used:
  • Bark oils made from the bark of trees like rosewood, cassia and cinnamon can be a bit more expensive.
  • Berry oils like juniper berry  and May Chang or Litsea cubeba are made from the berries of the plants and sometimes the twigs and leaves. Oils like juniper berry, which are made with only the berries, rather than leaves, twigs and berries, are generally higher quality. Black pepper and allspice essential oils are berry oils.
  • Citrus oils are most often made from the rind or peel of the fruits, although not always. Bergamot , orange, grapefruit, tangerine  and yuzu are citrus oils made from the fruit rinds.
  • Flowering herb essential oil is usually distilled from the flowering tops of the plants. Clary sage, lavender, peppermint, rosemary  and thyme oils are all in this group.
  • Flower only essential oils tend to be more expensive because they are more difficult to make. Chamomile, helichrysum, jasmine and ylang ylang  are made from the flowers. Neroli oil is a citrus oil that is made from orange blossoms.
  • Grass essential oils are made from the grass blades or leaves. Citronella, lemongrass and palmarosa are essential oils made from grass-type plants.
  • Leaf essential oils are often fairly inexpensive. The distillation process is less expensive and the leaves are a constantly self-renewing resource. Geranium, patchouli, tea tree and violet oils are made with the leaves of the plant. There is a cinnamon essential oil that is made from the leaves of the tree, too.
  • Moss or lichen can be used to make essential oil. Oakmoss absolute is commonly used to infuse perfumes with an earthy fragrance and it is an effective fixative used to stabilize scents.
  • Needles from the trees are used to make cypress, fir, pine and spruce essential oils.
  • Resin or gum from certain trees is used to make essential oils. Frankincense, Peru balsam and myrrh  are all oils made from steam distillation of the resin or gum of the tree.
  • Roots are used to make essential oils from angelica root, ginger root, spikenard and vetiver.
  • Seeds can be steam distilled or cold pressed to make essential oils like carrot seed, coffee bean, coriander, cardamom, cucumber seed, dill and fennel.
Fragrance Categories

Essential oils are categorized for perfumery by fragrance note and aroma family.

  • Essential oils are categorized as “Top,” “Middle,” or “Bottom” note. Top note essential oil fragrances dissipate more quickly. Middle note fragrances linger a bit longer and bottom notes last the longest.
  • Aroma family categories describe the fragrance. The most common aroma family categories are Citrus, Floral, Herbaceous, Camphoraceous, Minty, Oriental, Resinous, Spicy, Earthy or Woody.

The fragrance note and family are not always perfectly clear cut. For example, an essential oil can be categorized as “Middle to Bottom Note,” meaning it can linger a bit longer than your standard “Middle Note” oil.

The aroma family can be a combination of scents, like Herbaceous/Earthy/Spicy or Herbaceous/Floral.

How Essential Oils are Used

Essential oils are used in aromatherapy, applied topically or ingested. Aromatherapy is the most common way to use essential oils.

Almost all of them can be added to a diffuser, although there are a few that are rarely used this way because people usually don’t like how they smell. With most oils, it is okay to add 4 to 5 drops to the diffuser, but this varies.

You need to do a bit of research on your oils to find out how many drops should be used. When using a diffuser, you really should only run it for up to 60 minutes at a time. Some diffusers have an “intermittent” setting, which means the vapors are released intermittently.

They can be left running for longer periods because they aren’t putting out a constant stream of the oil’s medicinal properties. Remember, you are diffusing medicinal properties into the air, not just air freshener.

Nearly all essential oils can be used topically after diluting them in a carrier oil. Many essential oils can be ingested. However, it is rarely recommended because they are extremely strong and people take too much. They are also not often processed for internal use and could contain impurities that you really wouldn’t want to ingest.

Coconut carrier oil

If you do want to ingest an essential oil, purchase one that is sold as “food grade.” There is very rarely any need to ingest an essential oil, though. Their medicinal properties and benefits are readily absorbed into the body through the sinuses, throat and lungs in aromatherapy and through the skin when applied topically.

Essential oils are also used to clean, well, just about anything. They can be used to clean and disinfect hard surfaces in the home, laundry, furniture, clothing, shoes and pretty much anything else you can think of.

Cleaning with essential oils

They can be used to clean your body and wash your hair, too. Many essential oils are recommended for skin and hair health. They can be used by simply adding a few drops to a body wash or shampoo.

How to make 7 DIY home cleaning products with essential oils:

Selecting Essential Oils

As with any popular commodity, there are many essential oils from which to choose and sellers from which to buy. As you are shopping, keep in mind that there are bad, mediocre and excellent, high-quality oils on the market.

Pinching pennies

In general, the old adage “you get what you pay for” applies. Cheaper oils may have been on the shelves for a long time and could have lost some of their efficacy. They may smell a bit “off.” Cheaper oils could also just be from a low-quality batch sold by the producer at a cut rate.

Some sellers will mix an essential oil with a carrier oil then sell it as a pure essential oil. They may be okay to use, but you will have to use more in order to achieve the desired results and they might not have the beautiful, rich, true aroma that a good quality oil does.

Important Note: Whatever you choose for an oil, make sure that the oils you purchase are high quality. Remember, you’re breathing this oil into your lungs so essential oil quality is a terrible place to cut corners.

Check the botanical name of the plant used to make the essential oil to make sure you are getting what you want. There are quite a few oils that are made from different but similar plants and sold under the same name. For instance, Chamomile can be Roman Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) or German Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla).

They are very similar but have some slight differences. There are different types of lavender, too, but this has more to do with where the lavender was grown and at what elevation. It makes a difference in the strength and fragrance of the oil. You may have to try a couple different types to decide which you prefer.

Organic is always better, though the benefit can be very minor. When an essential oil is produced, you get whatever is in the plant part that is being distilled or cold pressed.

Where to buy essential oils

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If the plants have been sprayed with pesticides, there will likely be pesticide residue in the oil. There are many essential oil companies out there that use strictly organic-grown ingredients.

That said, you typically only use a few drops of essential oil applied to larger quantities of carrier oil and pesticides are likely present in trace amounts to begin with. The pesticide residue in your diffuser would thus be infintessimally small, so use your own judgment depending on how you use the oils and the cost differential.

Carrier Oils

The carrier oil you use can be as important as the type of essential oil you use. They all have some therapeutic benefits of their own. For example, jojoba (pronounced ho-ho-ba) helps regulate the skin’s production of sebum, the oily residue that causes acne. It will keep the skin from producing too much sebum and supply more where needed, like on more mature skin that no longer produces enough sebum naturally.

Argan oil is a bit lighter than jojoba and has some great therapeutic benefits for skin, too. It contains Vitamins A and E, curbs the excessive production of sebum and acts as a great conditioner for hair and nails. Coconut oil is loaded with beneficial properties. It has lots of uses on its own, too, from face wash to toothpaste.

As with essential oils, organic carrier oils are always better and it’s more important to have organic carrier oils because you use a lot more of the carrier oil than the essential oil.

Also, unrefined is better than refined — usually. Unrefined carrier oils contain more of their natural properties; however, they have a shorter shelf life. Unrefined oil also tends to have a stronger odor than refined oil.

This is something to seriously consider when you are blending essential oils for fragrance. You don’t want to add a lovely citrus/floral blend of essential oils to a carrier oil with a strong, pungent odor, unless you like the pungent odor.

Blending Essential Oils

There are some basic guidelines to follow when blending essential oils, but much of this process is about personal taste and what you want from the oil blend.

For instance, if you want an essential oil blend that smells good and helps relieve the pain and inflammation of your arthritis, you will want to do a bit of research. Pull a list of oils together that are used to treat arthritis then decide which fragrance you prefer. There are many essential oils with similar therapeutic properties. It will really come down to which fragrance makes you happy.

If you want to get serious and put together a balanced fragrance blend, you will sort your list of preferred essential oils according to their fragrance notes and aroma families. You will want one Top Note, one Middle Note and one Base Note essential oil.

The Top Note is the first aroma your olfactory system will pick up when you smell the blend. The Middle Note or “Body” will be the second aroma and will last noticeably longer than the Top Note. The Base Note may be barely perceptible at first, but it will last the longest. It is also referred to as the “Fixative” in a blend.

An essential oil’s “aroma family” will also help you decide which oils to use in your blend. Families can be mixed, according to your personal fragrance preference. For example, you can put together a blend of citrus Top Note, citrus/floral Middle Note and floral Bottom Note, if you like floral/citrus fragrances.

For this particular blend you could use Neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara) for the floral Base Note, May Chang (Litsea cubeba) for your citrus Middle Note and Petitgrain (Citrus aurantium) for the citrus/floral/woody Top Note. T

he result will be an essential oil blend that starts at citrus/floral then gently fades to floral.

This blend would be good for softening skin, reducing inflammation, treating fungal infections, alleviating depression, firming/toning skin and muscle, lowering blood pressure, calming nervousness or anxiety and stopping muscle spasms.

Always use an appropriate carrier oil, based on the blend’s intended use. The best dilution rate in general is 1% to 2%, which is 1 to 2 drops per teaspoon of carrier oil.

When blending multiple essential oils, all of the essential oils in the blend should have a combined total of 2%. So, if you want to put together three different essential oils, use 2 drops of each essential oil with 1 tablespoon (3 teaspoons) of carrier oil.

Some oils can be used at a stronger dilution rate, even up to 25%, but only when truly necessary and for no more than two weeks. A stronger blend may be useful for a sprained ankle or a particularly painful gout or arthritis flare-up.

Keep in mind that most essential oil companies sell blends. Unless you really just want to come up with your own personal fragrance blend, you may want to simply buy a blend that was created by the experts who know what works well together.

Essential Oil Blend Recipes

There are many excellent blend recipes for everything from vapor rubs to treatments for fungal infections or just getting a good, restful night’s sleep. Following are some good essential oil blend recipes:

  • Put some pep in your step with 2 drops each of peppermint EO and lemon EO and 1 drop of Frankincense EO. Add them to your diffuser with 1/4 to 1/2 cup of distilled water and enjoy some stimulating aromatherapy.
  • Beat insomnia by blending together 10 drops of Roman chamomile EO and 5 drops each of bergamot EO and clary sage EO and adding a few drops of the blend to a tissue. Slip the tissue under your pillowcase. If you prefer, add 1 drop each of clary sage and bergamot and 2 drops of Roman chamomile to your diffuser with 1/4 cup of distilled water and run the diffuser for 60 minutes before you go to bed.
  • Reduce the signs of aging by combining 10 drops of frankincense EO, 1 ounce of aloe vera gel, 1 ounce unrefined shea butter, 1 ounce of unrefined coconut oil and 1/2 teaspoon of vitamin E. Store the combined ingredients in a jar and gently dab it around the eyes at night before bed and in the morning when you first get up.

There are many recipes like these that were put together by experts, but you can always have fun coming up with your own. Just be sure to research the oils, make sure they are safe for the purpose of your blend and use quality ingredients.

Essential Oil Safety

Essential oils contain concentrated forms of therapeutic and medicinal elements. In order to use them safely, it is important to keep this in mind at all times.

They are like the active ingredients in cough syrup or anti-fungal cream that must be diluted properly before use. Following are some basic precautions that should be exercised with all essential oils:

  • Always research your essential oils for safety and use recommendations. Some oils are highly sedative or can cause sensitivity to sunlight and may have other side effects. If the experts say an oil is sedative, you should treat it just like you would a cough syrup that makes you drowsy.
  • Be especially cautious if you are pregnant or breastfeeding a baby. Many oils are probably safe but, because there hasn’t been enough testing done to be sure, it is best to avoid them during this time.
  • Be careful using essential oils on young children and the elderly. Here, again, many are probably safe but, without clinical research, it is best to avoid them. If you do find an essential oil that is safe for children and the elderly, adhere to the dilution rate and usage recommendations.
  • Always do a skin test before using a new essential oil, even if you have no reason to think it would cause a reaction. Apply a 1% to 2% strength oil to your arm or leg and wait at least a few hours to make sure you don’t have a reaction before applying it to larger areas.
  • Never ingest an essential oil unless it is recommended and is a food-grade oil.
  • Consult your physician before using essential oils if you are being treated for an ailment or are on medications. This is especially important if you are on medication for high blood pressure, diabetes or have liver or kidney problems. The medicinal properties of essential oils can change the efficacy of your medications or put undue strain on an already compromised liver or kidneys.
  • Do not get essential oils in your eyes, nose or genitals where your mucus membranes will be exposed. At the very least, they will cause uncomfortable dryness. They can also do serious damage, though, especially to the eyes.
  • A 1% to 2% dilution strength with most essential oils is safe to use every day. If you need something a bit stronger, for instance if you pulled a muscle or have gout, make the blend stronger gradually. As soon as you hit a dilution rate that works for you, stop there. Never use a stronger rate than 25% and do not use it for more than two weeks at a time. If it doesn’t give you relief, you need to explore different treatment options.
  • Store essential oils safely out of the reach of children and pets. If your child drinks any essential oil, have him/her drink whole or 2% milk and contact poison control. If your pet ingests the oil, contact a veterinarian immediately.
  • Essential oils are flammable. Keep them away from open flames.

Essential Oils that Irritate Skin

Essential oils that have been known to cause skin irritation should be used cautiously and only at a very low dilution rate.

Following are oils that should be used with caution due to their ability to cause skin irritation:

  • Bay (Pimento racemose)

  • Cinnamon bark or leaf (Cinnamomum zeylanicum) *leaf is milder than bark*

  • Clove bud (Syzygium aromaticum)

  • Citronella (Cymbopogon nardus)

  • Cumin (Cuminum cyminum)

  • Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus)

  • Lemon verbena (Lippia citriodora)

  • Oregano (Origanum vulgare)

  • Tagetes (Tagetes minuta)

  • Thyme w/thymol (Thymus vulgaris)

Following are essential oils that can cause sensitivity over a period of time:

  • Cassia (Cinnamomum cassia)

  • Cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum zeylanicum)

  • Peru balsam (Myroxylon pereirae)

  • Verbena absolute (Lippia citriodora)

  • Tea absolute (Camellia sinensis)

  • Turpentine oil (Pinus spp.)

  • Backhousia (Backhousia citriodora)

  • Inula (Inula graveolens)

  • Citrus, Cupressus and Pinus oils that have oxidized.

Lemon essential oil

Essential oils that are phototoxic or photosensitizers can be used but do not expose yourself to sunlight for at least six hours after applying the oil to your skin.

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy(NAHA) says, “… stay out of the sun or sun tanning booth for at least twenty-four hours after treatment … .” You could experience skin irritation, rash, blisters or even a total loss of skin pigmentation.

Following are oils that are phototoxic:

  • Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)

  • Cumin (Cuminum cyminum)

  • Grapefruit, both cold pressed/expressed and distilled (Citrus paradise)

  • Lemon — cold pressed/expressed (Citrus limon)

  • Lime — cold pressed/expressed (Citrus medica)

  • Orange, bitter — cold pressed/expressed (Citrus aurantium)

  • Rue (Ruta graveolens)

Citrus oils that are NOT phototoxic:

  • Bergamot – FCF or with Bergaptenes removed (Citrus bergamia)

  • Lemon – distilled (Citrus limon)

  • Lime – distilled (Citrus medica)

  • Mandarin/Tangerine (Citrus reticulata)

  • Sweet orange (Citrus sinensis)

  • Yuzu — cold pressed/expressed and distilled (Citrus juno)

Be as cautious with essential oils as you would with prescription and over-the-counter medications. They are wonderful, natural solutions to many health issues but, just like any medication, they must be used responsibly.

List of Essential Oils & Their Properties

Below is our master list of all the essential oils that most people would ever use. You can use the selection toggle below to quickly jump to any given oil because the list is long. For each oil you’ll see the basic info, properties and links to more information.


Ultimate Guide to Essential Oils


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