Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
Essential oils have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, and anecdotal evidence of their benefits abounds. But more recently, researchers have investigated essential oils more rigorously and found these ancient remedies to be surprisingly effective for certain conditions—so much so that aromatherapy treatments are even showing up in some hospitals. “We use essential oils for reduction of anxiety for both patients and their families, and also as part of our nonpharmacological pain-management strategy,” says Donna Audia, RN, a holistic nurse at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “Pain has physical and emotional components, and the sense of smell has a strong emotional component.”
Getting Started with Essential Oils
To bring these healing therapies home, experiment with the DIY blends here. A couple of quick pointers before you start:
- Store your solutions in dark or tinted glass bottles, if possible, to keep the essential oils at their freshest and most potent (natural light can degrade components).
- If you need to use a plastic bottle (in the shower, for example, with body wash or shampoo containing essential oils), make sure the bottle is BPA free to prevent that toxin from contaminating your blend.
For Nasal and Chest Congestion
Steam a blend of chamomile, eucalyptus, spearmint, and thyme
“Steam inhalation is the best way to break up mucus because it opens nasal passageways, getting debris out of the sinuses and bringing the vapors right into the lungs,” says Laurie Steelsmith, ND, LAc. She suggests adding one drop each of chamomile, eucalyptus, spearmint, and thyme essential oils to four cups boiling water, covering your head with a towel, closing your eyes (to prevent any possible irritation), and deeply breathing the steam for five minutes. Repeat two to three times per day.
See also QUIZ: Find Your Ideal Essential Oil
Inhale lavender oil
Inhaling lavender essential oil for 15 minutes reduces the severity of migraine headaches, finds a placebo-controlled clinical trial published in the journal European Neurology. Make your own headache-helper by mixing 6 drops of lavender essential oil with 1 oz almond oil or other neutral carrier oil. Put a dab under your nose and inhale slowly and deeply.
For Sore Muscles
Roll-on frankincense, helichrysum, and rosemary
Studies have identified an anti-inflammatory effect of frankincense and rosemary essential oils when used topically. Herbalist Mindy Green suggests harnessing that power to relieve muscle pain and inflammation by blending 3 drops each of frankincense, helichrysum (a plant in the sunflower family with anti-spasmodic properties), and rosemary into 1 oz of carrier oil and placing it in a roller bottle. Keep this blend in your yoga bag and apply it to sore muscles after class.
See also 7 Essential Oils Every Yogi Needs
For Stress Relief
Soak in a bergamot bath
A recent study used measurements of salivary cortisol (the stress hormone) to test the efficacy of bergamot on anxiety and stress. The group that inhaled bergamot for 15 minutes showed greater reduction in salivary cortisol than those in the control group. Charlynn Avery, an aromatherapist and national educator for Aura Cacia, recommends inhaling bergamot while you relax in a bath. Mix 18 drops bergamot, ½ tbsp sweet almond oil, and 2 oz sea salt. Add mixture to a full tub.
See also Mood-Boosting Essential Oils
Because essential oils are so potent, you need to be cautious about how you use them. Follow these safety tips:
- Don’t apply them to your skin without first diluting them; risks include an allergic reaction. For the face or neck, the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy recommends a 1 percent dilution (6 drops in 1 oz of carrier oil). For a full-body application, such as a massage oil, use at least a 2.5 percent dilution (15 drops in 1 oz of carrier oil). And for a targeted area, use up to a 10 percent dilution (60 drops in 1 oz of carrier oil).
- Do consult a doc before ingesting essential oils. Drinking them—either neat or mixed into a beverage like water, juice, or tea—often irritates the lining of the esophagus or stomach, causing reflux, heartburn, or even an allergic reaction.
- Don’t apply essential oils directly to the inside of the nose. It can irritate nasal passages.
- Do use soap and water to remove essential oil from the skin. If you use too much oil or have a reaction, wiping it off with a wet towel will only spread the oil.
- Do use caution with pets. Avoid essential oils around cats, who don’t have the enzymes to metabolize them, putting them at risk of toxicity. With dogs, test an oil by letting your pooch sniff it from a foot away—if he turns away from the smell, test other oils until you find one he won’t reject. Avoid adding oil to his fur.