How Do Essential Oils Work?

Essential oils enter the body in three ways depending on the oils classification. They can be:

  • Applied to the skin (topical)
  • Inhaled (aromatic)
  • Ingested (dietary supplement)

Be sure to check the essential oils label so you know if the oil is classified as topical/aromatic or dietary supplement.

How does skin application work?

Essential oils can be applied topically to the skin. Common examples include applying a blend that contains wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) and helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum) essential oil to soothe the skin after normal exercise, or applying German Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) essential oil to ease dry skin.

How does this work?

Our skin is somewhat permeable. The active chemicals in essential oils are absorbed by the skin.

Factors That Increase Skin Absorption

Different factors can affect the absorption of essential oils through the skin. If you massage the area first, it will increase circulation to that area, thereby causing an increase in absorption of essential oils. Heat will likewise increase circulation and thus enhance absorption.

Some researchers report that essential oils may be more readily absorbed from skin locations with greater concentrations of sweat glands and hair follicles, such as the head, soles, palms, and armpits (Battaglia, 2003).

How do I inhale essential oils?

Another way that essential oils enter the body is inhalation through the nose or mouth. Common examples include inhaling eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globules, E. radiate, or E. smithii) essential oil to cleanse and freshen the air or inhaling  wintergreen essential oil to provide an overall feeling of energy. (Note: Often, essential oils are put into a diffuser for inhalation.)

The Olfactory System

The olfactory system includes all physical organs or cells relating to, or contributing to, the sense of smell. When we inhale through the nose, airborne molecules interact with the olfactory organs and, almost immediately, the brain.

Molecules inhaled through the nose or mouth are also carried to the lungs and interact with the respiratory system. Thus, inhaled essential oils can support the body through several systems and pathways.

Interaction with the Limbic System (Emotional Brain)

During inhalation, odor molecules travel through the nose and affect the brain through a variety of receptor sites, one of which is the limbic system, which is commonly referred to as the “emotional brain.”

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived.” Helen Keller

Do people ingest essential oils?

Before answering this question, let us just say this is an “extremely” sensitive topic. Some are passionate about their decision. While others are so overly-passionate that they will use scare-tactics to influence you to only do as they deemed right for them. However, they forget that, as with most issues, there are two-sides to everything. When it comes to essential oils, there are actually three philosophies (German, British, and French) about when/how to use them. We feel it is up to the user to carefully research all philosophies and make a decision that he/she feels most comfortable. With that said, let’s move forward with answering this question.

The third way that essential oils enter the body is by ingestion (swallowing). The only essential oils that should ever be ingested are 100% pure, sustainably grown, essential oils labeled specifically as dietary supplements. The only absolutely pure essential oils that we are aware of are Young Living Essential Oils (see Young Living’s Seed to Seal purity promise at Young Living’s Vitality line of oils are labeled for internal use (dietary supplements).

Did you know an essential oil can be labeled as “pure” as long as no less than 5% of it is actually pure? That leaves 95% of the remaining bottle to be whatever (fillers, additives, etc.)! Find a company that guarantees the oil to be 100% pure! Remember, not all oils are okay to ingest, even 100% pure oils. Be sure to ask where your oil came from, where the farm is located, and ask if you can visit the farm. Always follow the instructions on the oil bottles label.

Works Credit:
Parts of this post were adapted from the University of Minnesota’s article and