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The Science Behind Essential Oils and Aromatherapy

Disclaimer - The information provided in this blog, including any linked materials herein, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for professional advice. For accurate and personalized recommendations, please consult with your specialists.

In the field of alternative medicine, essential oils have been celebrated for centuries, not only for their aromatic properties but also for their potential health benefits. Essential oils, derived from the aromatic essences of plants, have been used for centuries across various cultures for their medicinal and therapeutic benefits. Today, they are gaining increasing recognition in the scientific community for their potential in clinical and holistic health practices.

As the popularity of essential oils continues to surge, understanding the science behind how these potent plant extracts work is essential for both aromatherapy enthusiasts and skeptics alike.

This article delves into the scientific foundations of essential oils and aromatherapy, exploring how these oils interact with the body and mind.

What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are highly concentrated plant extracts derived through steam distillation, cold pressing, or resin tapping from the flowers, leaves, stems, roots, or fruits of plants. Each oil contains the essence of the plant's fragrance, the aromatic compounds that give each plant its distinctive aroma and therapeutic properties. 

Now, let's know the science behind essential oils, and how essential oils work to offer you various benefits. 

Understanding Essential Oils: Extraction and Composition

Essential oils are concentrated plant extracts obtained primarily through steam distillation, cold pressing, or solvent extraction. These methods carefully extract the volatile aromatic compounds from the plant material, which are responsible for the plant’s fragrance and therapeutic properties.

1. Steam Distillation

This is the most common method used to extract essential oils. In this process, steam is passed through plant material, vaporizing the volatile compounds. The steam and the aromatic compounds are then condensed back into a liquid, where they are separated, leaving behind the pure essential oil.

2. Cold Pressing

Typically used for citrus oils like lemon and orange, this method involves mechanically pressing the fruit peel to release the essential oils. It's a physical process that doesn't involve heat, which helps preserve the integrity and potent aroma of the oil.

3. Solvent Extraction

Used for delicate plant materials that might be damaged by the high heat of steam distillation, this method uses solvents to extract the essential oils. The solution is then filtered, and the solvent is evaporated, leaving behind the absolute oil.

The Basis of Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy involves the use of these aromatic oils to stimulate the senses and offer various health benefits. The practice is based on the principle that the fragrance from essential oils is inhaled or applied to the skin to affect the emotional and physical well-being of individuals.

1. Olfactory System and Essential Oils

One of the primary modes through which aromatherapy operates is the olfactory system, the body's sense of smell. Olfactory bulb is part of the limbic brain. When you inhale the aroma from essential oils, scent molecules enter the nostrils and are absorbed by the receptors in the nose. These receptors send chemical messages along the olfactory nerve to the olfactory bulb in the brain, which then forwards the data to different parts of the brain, including the limbic system.

2. Limbic System: The Emotional Brain

The limbic system, often referred to as the "emotional brain," plays a crucial role in controlling mood, memory, behavior, and emotions. It's where the scent processed by the olfactory bulb links to emotions and memories. This connection explains why certain smells can trigger memories or feelings and how essential oils can influence emotions through aromatherapy. For example, the calming scent of lavender oil can help reduce stress and anxiety, while the invigorating aroma of peppermint oil may enhance alertness and cognitive performance.

3. Physiological Effects

Beyond their impact on the limbic system, essential oils can also produce direct physiological effects. This occurs when oils are absorbed into the bloodstream via inhalation or through the skin during topical application. For instance, eucalyptus oil is widely used for its respiratory benefits, particularly its ability to help clear nasal congestion and relieve respiratory conditions. When inhaled, the molecules of eucalyptus oil interact with mucous membranes, reducing mucus and relaxing respiratory muscles.

Topical Application and Absorption

When applied to the skin, essential oils are absorbed through the pores and hair follicles from where they enter the bloodstream. Before topical application, essential oils should be diluted with a carrier oil, such as jojoba or coconut oil, to minimize any potential skin irritation. Once in the system, these oils can exert localized and systemic effects, such as anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial actions, which are beneficial in treating various skin conditions and infections.

Topical application of essential oils is a popular method for using essential oils due to its numerous benefits. However, certain precautions must be taken to ensure safety and effectiveness. Before widespread application, it’s advisable to conduct a patch test on a small area of skin, such as the forearm, to check for any adverse reactions. Applying essential oil to warm, moist skin can enhance absorption, with many finding that application to the tops of the feet yields the best results.

While many therapeutic-grade essential oils are safe for topical use, always adhere to the instructions on the label and familiarize yourself with the recommended dilution ratios. To minimize skin sensitivity, it is prudent to dilute essential oils in a carrier oil, such as fractionated coconut oil, before application. Consulting with a healthcare professional prior to use can provide additional assurance of safety.

Essential oils are highly concentrated and can be irritating to the skin and other sensitive areas if not used properly. To mitigate this risk, essential oils are typically diluted with a carrier oil. However, certain essential oils can be applied "neat", directly on the skin without a carrier oil, though this should be done with caution.

While the ingestion of essential oils is considered safe under the guidance of a qualified aromatherapist or medical doctor, it remains a contentious topic. If you choose to ingest essential oils, ensure it is under professional supervision to avoid potential health risks. Remember, some essential oils can increase skin sensitivity, particularly when exposed to sunlight, so it's important to take these factors into consideration when using essential oils topically. Always perform a patch test on a small section of your skin before proceeding with full application to avoid adverse effects.

Essential Oil Inhalation

When essential oils are inhaled, they prompt a rapid response from the central nervous system within just four seconds. This process begins as the volatile compounds of the oil are absorbed through the nasal mucosa, proceed through a gas exchange in the lungs, and then travel along the olfactory pathway. This pathway influences various brain functions including memory, emotions, and visceral activities, eventually reaching the brain stem, hypothalamus, and neuronal system.

The subjective experience of inhaling essential oils can vary significantly depending on the activities individuals engage in while exposed to the aromas. For example, tests have shown that individuals who perform mental tasks, physical exercises, or listen to ambient sounds may perceive the scent of essential oils like cypress more favorably immediately after these activities, compared to the scent of orange.

Furthermore, the inhalation of essential oils not only impacts subjective impressions but also brings about changes in human consciousness. This is assessed using sensory evaluation tests developed in experimental and mathematical psychology. These tests help to identify how a person's perception of an essential oil's fragrance alters due to their subjective expectations, which in turn can influence their performance in various tasks. This underscores the significant role that personal expectations and sensory experiences play in shaping our responses to the fragrances of essential oils, ultimately affecting behavior and perception.

Benefits of Using Essential Oils

Essential oils are highly concentrated plant extracts that have been used for centuries due to their diverse healing properties. Derived from flowers, leaves, roots, and other parts of plants, essential oils are employed in various practices such as aromatherapy, massage, and skincare, thanks to their potent therapeutic qualities. Following are some of the key benefits of essential oils: 

Therapeutic Properties

  1. Antimicrobial and Antiseptic: Many essential oils have strong antimicrobial properties, making them effective in treating infections and preventing the growth of bacteria and fungi. Tea tree oil, for example, is renowned for its ability to combat bacterial and fungal skin conditions.

  2. Anti-inflammatory: Essential oils like frankincense and peppermint essential oil are known for their anti-inflammatory properties, which make them beneficial in treating conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and other inflammatory disorders.

  3. Analgesic: Some essential oils function as natural pain relievers. For instance, peppermint oil is commonly used to alleviate headaches and muscle pains due to its cooling and soothing effects.

Aromatherapeutic Benefits

  1. Stress Relief and Relaxation: The use of essential oils in aromatherapy is well-documented for its effectiveness in reducing stress and enhancing relaxation. Lavender oil, for example, is extensively used in diffusers or applied topically to calm the mind and relieve stress.

  2. Mood Enhancement: Oils like orange and ylang ylang can elevate mood and improve emotional well-being by impacting the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain.

  3. Cognitive Function: Essential oils such as rosemary are believed to stimulate cognitive functions, improving concentration and memory during tasks.

Different Ways to Use Essential Oils

Essential oils, with their myriad of uses and health benefits, are versatile tools in both aromatherapy and general wellness practices. Understanding the various methods of utilizing these potent oils can help you maximize their efficacy while ensuring safety. Here’s a guide to different ways to incorporate essential oils into your daily routine, enhancing mental, physical, and environmental health.

1. Aromatherapy

Inhalation: The most common method used in aromatherapy involves inhaling the aroma of essential oils. This can be done using diffusers, steam bowls, or simply by adding a few drops of oil like sandalwood or citrusy lemon oil to a cloth or tissue. Inhalation is particularly effective as the molecules are directly absorbed by the olfactory system and transported to the limbic part of the brain, influencing emotions and mood.

2. Topical Application

Direct Skin Application: Essential oils can be applied directly to the skin when diluted with a carrier oil. Oils such as lavender or tea tree can be mixed with carrier oils like coconut or jojoba and applied to a small patch of skin to treat local issues like cuts, burns, or acne. However, since essential oils are potent, they may cause skin irritation or allergic reactions, so it’s crucial to perform a patch test before widespread use.

Massage: Mixing essential oils with carrier oils to create massage oils can profoundly affect mental and physical health. For instance, sandalwood oil used in massage can not only soothe the skin but also help relax the mind.

3. Household Use

Cleaning Products: Essential oils are popular in home care due to their antiseptic and antibacterial properties. Adding oils like lemon or orange oil to homemade cleaning solutions can help disinfect surfaces while leaving a pleasant, citrusy fragrance. They can be used in making sprays for cleaning countertops, refreshing linens, or sanitizing bathrooms.

4. Health and Wellness

Steam Inhalation: For respiratory issues, adding a few drops of eucalyptus or peppermint oil to a bowl of hot water can create therapeutic steam that helps clear nasal passages and relieve sinus pressure.

Bath Additives: Adding essential oils to bathwater can create a relaxing and therapeutic experience. Oils like lavender or ylang-ylang are excellent for easing stress and promoting relaxation before bedtime.

5. Beauty and Skincare

Facial Care: Oils like frankincense or lemon oil can be added to facial creams or toners to enhance their benefits. Frankincense is known for its anti-aging properties, while lemon oil can brighten and clear the skin.

Hair Care: Essential oils like rosemary and peppermint can be added to shampoos or hair masks to stimulate hair growth and improve scalp health.

Safety Tips

Essential oil may cause skin irritation, hence it is important to understand the proper application method before using it. Following are the safety and precaution measures that should be adopted before using essential oils:

  • Dilution: Always dilute essential oils with a carrier oil before topical application. Undiluted essential oil can irritate the skin.
  • Sensitivity Check: Apply the oil on a small patch of skin before using it extensively, especially if used for the first time.
  • Consultation: For those with underlying health conditions or who are pregnant, it’s wise to consult with a healthcare provider before applying them to the skin.

Understanding the science behind aromatherapy and the correct application methods of essential oils ensures their optimal use for health and well-being.

Clinical Evidence and Research

The effectiveness of essential oils has been the subject of numerous scientific studies. Clinical trials have explored their potential in treating conditions like anxiety, depression, nausea, insomnia, and even alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss. For example, lavender essential oil has been studied extensively for its ability to alleviate anxiety and improve sleep quality in various clinical settings.

Essential Oils in Integrative Medicine

As more research highlights the therapeutic potential of essential oils, they are increasingly being integrated into the field of integrative medicine. This approach combines traditional and complementary therapies to optimize health and wellness. Essential oils are used not only for their physiological benefits but also for their ability to enhance mental and emotional health, demonstrating the holistic impact these natural remedies can have on overall well-being.


The science behind essential oils and aromatherapy is as fascinating as it is complex. From the intricate ways in which scent molecules interact with the brain's olfactory systems to influence emotions, to the direct biochemical effects on the body, essential oils offer a profound capacity to heal and rejuvenate. As we continue to uncover more about their mechanisms and benefits, essential oils stand out as a powerful modality in the toolkit of natural health practitioners, blending ancient tradition with modern science to foster an environment of holistic health.

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