Holistic medicine has long touted the healing effects of essential oils for everything from digestion to mental well-being. Aromatherapy is a useful tool implemented by acupuncturists and massage therapists around the world. While essentials are strongly associated with inhalation, after all the fragrant quality gives us the term aromatherapy, volatile oils also have qualities for healthy and helpful topical use.
The most common methods for utilizing essential oils topically are:
- Wound care and skin treatment
- Infusion of massage oils
- Absorption of oils placed in baths
For Your Skin
Tea tree and lavender oils are good direct topicals for skin issues. Tea tree, also called Melaleuca, has both anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties. It is mild enough for topical use but should never be ingested. Melaleuca is toxic when taken orally (although not lethal when treated).
As more people develop antibiotic allergies and bacteria become resistant to medicines, alternative methods for wound care are necessary. Studies show tea tree oil to be effective against a variety of bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant MRSA. This is a breakthrough for people with compromised immune systems including cancer patients.
Lavender is also gentle enough for use to disinfect minor abrasions or burns, and keep cuts clean. Its fragrance induces relaxation too, so lavender is one of the most common essential oils found throughout the practice of aromatherapy.
Using Oils in Massage
Massage is probably high on your list for uses of essential oils, but what you may not know about is the detailed attention paid to crafting a nice massage oil. Essential oils are highly concentrated. Whether the oil was harvested by distillation or expression, the tiny bottle in your hand is meant to be diluted before use – but more on that later.
The most common topical oils used in massage therapy sooth and relax muscles. Some popular essences include:
- Lavender – Once again this popular oil is back! Lavender helps relax both the mind and muscles with a mild, pleasant scent that blends well with other oils.
- Geranium – This oil revitalizes tissue and promotes peaceful sleep.
- Hinoki – Derived from timber, this oil has a stronger scent linked with calming nerves and settling agitation.
- Angelica – German in origin, angelica is the “oil of angels” and has overall soothing effects.
- Coriander – Want more than healthy skin? This cilantro-based essence also improves digestive and circulatory health.
No time for a full massage? Using diluted oils for spot treatment still helps. Rubbing a small amount of oil on your temples, feet, and wrists are easily accessible and can be applied wherever you are.
Take a Bath
Baths are a great way to use essential oils and usually associated with inhalation instead of a topical application. Bath salts may disperse the oil in the water but adding essentials to the hot water right before getting into the tub exposes your skin immediately and allows for absorption. To better mix the oil, add a base such as baking soda or Epson salt with the oil.
Carrier Oils and Dilutions
If oil is “neat,” that means it is in pure form and lacks dilution. The purpose of dilution is two-fold. It reduces the chances for a negative reaction and allows the spreading of the oil over a larger portion of skin, increasing absorption.
Dilution requires another liquid substance, and another non-volatile oil is deal. Some recommend vegetable oil for homemade mixtures, but there are better carrier oils that have their helpful properties like moisturization. Some common carrier oils include:
- Almond Oil – This inexpensive oil is packed with absorbable nutrients like vitamins A, B, and E.
- Jojoba Oil – This gentle oil has little to no fragrance and can last a long time in proper storage.
- Coconut Oil – With its healthful properties, coconut oil is a scent that blends well with other essentials and will not clog your pores.
- Grapeseed Oil – Loaded with antioxidants, grapeseed oil’s antiseptic properties also make it beneficial for mild acne. Be sure to steer clear of culinary grade grapeseed as the purpose is completely different!
- Argan Oil – The nutty odor varies depending on the season when the oil is harvested, but its propensity to help skin stay soft and keep its elasticity (wrinkle fighting!) makes it an excellent carrier.
- Rosehip Oil – A skin care favorite, rosehip has a distinct smell you will probably recognize from other facial products. The fatty acids in this oil are linked to cellular regeneration.
Carrier oils only keep for about a year, and that is when refrigerated. Pay attention to the consistency of the oil and its odor as they will both indicate when oil has turned sour.
Remember from basic chemistry that oil and water do not mix. Therefore water is not a viable carrier solution for topical use. But how do you know how low to go? The rule of thumb for dilutions is about one drop of oil per teaspoon of carrier oil. This yields a 1% diluted solution. Let’s put that in context for you:
- 1% dilution is recommended for young children, for use when you are sick and the elderly
- 2% mixtures are good for general applications like a massage for healthy adults
- 3% is only for short-term use in small areas, like during spot applications for wounds
For children under two, dilute it even more. Recommendations range from a 0.25 – 0.5% solution for use on little ones.
Aromatherapy has very few risks associated, so low that FDA regulation of the field mostly applies to how a product is labeled. Even though problems are rare, knowing about allergies or sensitivities before applying essential oils to the skin is crucial. For instance, nut-based carrier oils could trigger an allergic reaction such as a rash.
Because essentials are highly concentrated, placing pure essence directly on the skin is the most likely to cause a reaction. The most significant concern is if the skin is already damaged or inflamed. Some oils are antiseptics, but require the application of tiny amounts or dilution. Lavender and tea tree oils are two of very few exceptions.