What ARE Essential Oils? History, Science, and Benefits

I used to think essential oils were just another health trend destined for the compost pile.

In fact, they’ve stood the test of time for thousands of years already–and hold up to the scrutiny of modern science, too.

<< Storytime! >> I first learned about essential oils when my daughter caught pneumonia as a toddler. She’d already had a documented adverse reaction to her immunizations as a baby, and was small and thin for her age.

We went through months of doctors telling me that she just needed allergy medicine…until they finally did a chest x-ray and changed their diagnosis!

After that, I decided that it was time to learn more about natural remedies.

I wanted to take more responsibility for staying healthy, from my family’s nutrition to our lifestyle and habits.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, after all.

That’s also when I started learning more about vegetarian nutrition (instead of just ethics). I bought books on herbalism and homeopathy, and started looking into more natural ways of living.

“Okay – so what exactly are essential oils?”

In short, essential oils are the aromatic compounds that are present in many plants. When you run your hands over a rosemary bush, or peel an orange, you’re inhaling the scent of those plants via the essential oils they contain!

Those scents play major roles in the natural world, including plant and insect relationships, and more.

New research shows that flowers can “hear” bees buzzing when they’re nearby, and they can make their nectar smell sweeter in response! Other plants, like marigolds and citronella, naturally repel bothersome pests with their strong odors.

We can put these scents to work for us as well, either in our gardens or on our skin!

Essential oils can be found in many different plant parts, from the flower petals and stems, to the bark and leaves. Sandalwood essential oil is distilled using the bark of the tree, while Lemon essential oil comes from the peels of the fruit. Some essential oils come from the leaves, flower petals, and even resins of their mother plant.

“How are essential oils obtained?”

Generally speaking, essential oils are distilled using two main methods: Steam distillation and expression. If you’re imagining an old-fashioned copper still used to brew alcohol, you’re not far off here!

Distilling essential oils correctly is as much an art form as a scientific process. This requires precision as well as skill, patience, and intimate knowledge of the plant material. Expression is the method used for obtaining citrus oils, which are too delicate for even low-heat steam distillation.

The exact process differs for each specific plant, since some essential oils are extracted from the leaves, flowers, bark, and so on.

“Do essential oils contain VOCs? (Those are bad, right?)”

Essential oils may also be referred to as VOCs, or Volatile Organic Compounds. Ideally, they are pure, and therefore, will consist only of VOCs with no fillers or adulterants.

If essential oils (like any VOCs) are left exposed to light, air, and/or heat, they are delicate and will evaporate. However, VOCs also include things like toxic paint fumes, so all VOCs are NOT good for you to inhale!

However, if you’ve heard that essential oils are bad for you because they contain VOCs, I’m sorry but you’ve been misled. Nearly ANYTHING that our olfactory system can perceive as a smell contains VOCs–either beneficial or otherwise!

“Have essential oils really been used since ancient times?”

It’s surprising to think about, but we’ve been using “essential oils” for a wide variety of uses, from medicinal to spiritual, since the times of ancient Egypt, if not before.

Our ancestors just didn’t have access to savvy techniques like steam distillation and bottling processes back then, so people used the whole plant!

The ancient Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, and Chinese used plants for all sorts of things: Medicines, vinegars, ointments, spices, food preparation, perfumes, skin treatments, cleansing, purification, and incense, just to name a few.

There’s evidence that aromatic plants were used to help combat the spread of the Bubonic plague in Europe.

In the Christian Bible and the Vedic texts of ancient India, ‘anointing with oils’ was mentioned frequently in conjunction with the treatment of the ill, in religious ceremonies, and meditative practice.

A French chemist named Rene Gattefosse was the first person to coin the term “aromatherapy” in the 1800s. He worked with various plant compounds and their profound effects on the body.

“How do essential oils work, and what are the benefits of using them?”

As science continues to expand, it’s validating longstanding traditional uses for many natural remedies. With today’s technology, we can isolate the most potent parts of the plants, and use them in a plethora of targeted solutions.

One of the major drawbacks of modern medicine is that it seeks to treat symptoms in isolation, instead of the whole person. If you have a headache, modern medicine tells you to take a “headache pill”. This may “work”, but it does not take into account any potentially related issues you might be experiencing at the same time.

There’s an abundance of reasons why your head could hurt, and simply taking a pill to remove the symptom of your aching head won’t do anything positive for your other body systems.

Everything is interconnected. Why not address your body as a whole, instead of a jumble of disconnected parts?

There are three general ways of using essential oils: Aromatically, topically, and internally.

– Aromatic use, such as in an ultrasonic diffuser, is by far the most common method.

There are hundreds of oil combinations that can be enjoyed aromatically, even if you’re sniffing essential oils straight from the bottle!

It’s important to note that dispersing essential oils into the air with heat, as with tea lights or electric warmers, is not recommended for therapeutic use.

This is because the heat causes molecules within the essential oil to evaporate at different rates over time, due to their different densities. That’s why an essential oil will not smell the same when it’s warmed or burned, as it does directly from the bottle!

– Topical use is also favored by many because it’s so simple to use.

Many oils can and should be diluted with a carrier oil when used topically. This is especially important when using “hot” oils such as oregano, thyme, and cinnamon bark.

Even one drop of essential oil is very, very potent, and can evaporate off the surface of the skin very quickly. Using a carrier oil like fractionated coconut oil, olive oil, or jojoba oil tends to help it penetrate more deeply, and is more gentle on the skin.

Many essential oils can be purchased in pre-diluted rollerball blends that can be carried in a pocket or purse, ready to apply with a quick swipe.

– Internal use of essential oils is something that’s still being researched, and it has been shown to be beneficial in certain circumstances.

It’s very important to understand that the purity and quality of essential oils greatly impact their safety as well as how effective they are. Essential oils can be found in the bloodstream as soon as 20 seconds after aromatic or topical use.

They are metabolized very quickly, yet they are able to reach many systems throughout the entire body, no matter how they’re used.

This link explains more about the bioavailability of essential oils when used aromatically, topically, and internally. It includes several research studies.

This article by Dr. Marissa Heisel gives a comprehensive and well-researched perspective on the topic! Personally, I would never recommend ingesting any amount of essential oil unless it was from doTERRA.

“Why are you promoting these oils?”

I’ll be honest. You’ve probably read my stories about how I joined a “big name” oil company and then left. I felt utterly disillusioned and was unsure what to do for many months.

At one point, I didn’t think that buying ANY essential oils was a good idea–but I’ve changed my mind.

My concerns about sustainability and environmental impact are being beautifully and comprehensively addressed by doTERRA! I’m impressed with their ethics and commitment to a future where everyone wins–and that includes ME! 

Click here to read my seven other reasons why doTERRA is the perfect company to join! 

doTERRA is really a wellness company disguised as an essential oil company–and that’s what I love about them!

Now you know a lot more about what essential oils are, where they came from, and how to use them!


If you’re ready to join this movement, I’d love to welcome you to my team.

See this month’s special here!