What are essential oils?

Health  |  By

Essential oils are called essential for a reason. Not because they are indispensable…but because they contain the essence of the plants from which they are derived.

The oils are volatile, meaning they evaporate easily, so giving off a characteristic aroma and taste that makes a plant or fruit instantly recognisable.

Essential oils can contain many hundreds of different chemicals – the largest group of which are known as terpenes. The predominant chemical or group of chemicals varies from plant to plant – which is why the aroma and taste vary too. But terpenes such as β-caryophyllene and limonene are common to the essential oils of many plants.

The variation in terpenes and other chemicals also gives essential oils a range of uses and therapeutic effects.

Anti-microbial uses

Many essential oils have some effect against bacteria, viruses and fungi. This has led to research into the use of essential oils such as thyme and pink pepper for preserving foods and reducing bacterial contamination.

Tea-tree oil is widely believed to be useful in treating bacterial and fungal infection – and certainly has effects on these organisms in many laboratory studies. But, more research is needed into how tea-tree oil compares to standard treatments in the treatment of athletes foot, acne, and other skin diseases in clinical practice.

The anti-viral properties of many essential oils have also been assessed during the recent pandemic as disinfecting agents for cleaning surfaces, for nasal sprays and vaporisers…though can only be considered possible adjuncts to standard precautions. However, the strong aroma has made some of them useful in re-training the smell and taste senses when lost after Covid.

Reducing inflammation

Aloe vera, anise star, bergamot, cinnamon leaf, eucalyptus, juniper berry, lavenderthyme, oregano and ylang-ylang have all been associated with reducing inflammation as their constituent terpenes can interact with the body’s inflammatory pathways. Research into the value of essential oils in reducing symptoms in asthma, skin conditions and other diseases is underway but many of these essential oils are now being incorporated into skincare products.

Sleep and relaxation

Lavender is the one we are all familiar with and immediately associate it with sleep. The main terpene found in lavender oil is linalool which interacts with the NMDA receptor in the brain and appears to have relaxation and even anti-depressant effects. It’s also found in ylang-ylang oil.

Flavourings and aromas

Finally, many of the essential oils are put to good use in boosting the taste of the foods and drinks we have, and in adding fresh smells to cleaning products or in candles, diffusers and more.


But, take care. These concentrated oils can cause skin irritation or even be toxic if used inappropriately, so should only be used according to manufacturer’s instructions. What’s more, they can degrade if left sitting around for months, especially if opened, or in sunlight or heat. Degradation can change the oil into something more likely to cause skin problems or other harmful effects so use them wisely to get the best out of these amazing gifts of nature.

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