Essential oils: a beginner's guide

Posted by
Elizabeth Bennett
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An aromatherapy expert on how to navigate the confusing world of essential oils. 

Essential oils are an ingredient we hear about again and again yet it’s a topic that still feels shrouded in mystery. In fact, understanding how, why and when to use these natural oils can be a total minefield. 

However, it pays off to swot up on the subject as when used correctly they have the power to be genuinely life changing. Not just for your skin or body, but for your mind and wellbeing too. Even better, to reap their therapeutic benefits you don’t need to spend a day at a spa or make time for a massage. Thanks to advances in formulations and developments in technology, essential oil rituals can be simply and speedily built into your day. 

To answer all our essential oil related queries we quizzed Anne Murray, Aromatherapy Expert for Aromatherapy Associates

What is an essential oil? 

An essential oil is a highly aromatic, volatile plant extract. Essential oils can be sourced from a wide range of plant materials, such as flowers, leaves, roots, woods, resins, buds and berries. They are highly concentrated, and it can take many kilos of plant material to make a single millilitre of essential oil. For example, 20 kilos of rose petals are needed to produce just one drop of precious rose essential oil.

How do I identify a good quality essential oil? 

If you’re buying pure essential oils, shop at a dedicated Aromatherapy supplier. An easy way to identify a good supplier is seeing if the products vary widely in price. For example, rose oil should cost many times more than lemon, due to its low yield as mentioned before.

Always ensure those highly prized and costly oils such as rose, jasmine or neroli are not being sold already diluted in vegetable carrier oil - unless that’s what your after.

Look for oils packed in dark glass bottles; don’t buy oils in plastic containers, as essential oils can dissolve certain plastics, leading to contamination. For the same reason it’s better to avoid dropper bottles with soft plastic bulbs.

Beware of oils sold as ‘nature identical’, or ‘fragrance’ and ‘perfume’ oils, as these are often synthetic. Some companies use terms such as ‘therapeutic’ or ‘aromatherapy’ grade – you should know that these are purely marketing terms, as there is no regulatory body that certifies essential oil quality in the UK.

A good supplier will list the Latin botanical name of the plant species used to obtain the oil, along with the country of origin and method of extraction.

As you become more familiar with essential oils your sense of smell will develop, and you may be able to distinguish better quality oils through their aromas. Until then, it’s always a good idea to speak with the supplier and find out their background and history before ordering. In the UK the Soil Association certifies organically grown essential oils, and the Aromatherapy Trade Council is a self-regulating body that represents responsible suppliers of essential oils. 

How do you store pure essential oils?

Once you’ve bought your oils, store them in a cool, dark place and use them within the specified dates. Old, oxidised essential oils can be more likely to cause skin reactions.

How are essential oils used in aromatherapy? 

In Aromatherapy essential oils are usually used in a dilute form, as most of them are too powerful to use in their concentrated state. For Aromatherapy body or facial massage they are diluted by blending them into one or more vegetable carrier oils. They can be incorporated into creams, gels and lotions for body and skin care, although the formulations should be specially created to ensure the essential oils remain active. They can also be used in blends to vaporise for room fragrancing, or incorporated into aromatherapy-friendly formulations for body washes, shampoo, soaps, candles and other products.

Christin Hume

How can you incorporate essential oil based rituals into your day?

A morning Aromatherapy shower is a fabulous way to wake up your mind and body, and takes no longer than a non-fragrant one. You can inhale protective oils from a tissue on your morning commute to prevent picking up bugs. At stressful times, take a few moments to breathe in a drop of frankincense to calm and centre you, consciously letting your shoulders drop and your belly soften with each breath. Light a beautifully fragrant Aromatherapy candle to signal ’me time’ at home; take in the moment and the feelings of gratitude for some restful time after a busy day. Soak in a soothing bath before bed to relax your body and mind, ready for a good night’s sleep. 

What are the best essential oils for different moods? 


Lavender is probably the best known essential oil for relaxation, and blends well with floral oils like ylangylang and petitgrain for gentle relaxation. For muscular relaxation, pair with warming ginger.


We need to bring out the seriously effective oils for insomnia. The spicy tropical grass vetivert is renowned for helping to switch off a busy mind, and makes a great mix with sandalwood and camomile.

Immune system

Tea tree is a superbly effective antibacterial and antiviral oil, but the aroma is not everyone’s choice. With careful blending you can ‘hide’ it using eucalyptus, peppermint, all of which can benefit the immune system. Some of these oils are quite potent, so perhaps better inhaled or vaporised than used directly on the skin unless professionally formulated.


Citrus oils are great to bring vitality. Team them with stimulating rosemary to awaken the body and mind.


Juniper berry aids detoxification through its diuretic effects, while pine cleanses the sinuses.


Geranium is a great balancer of the mind and emotions, and works well with frankincense to bring a sense of harmony.

Kelly Sikkema 

How are essential oils used in skincare? 

Essential oils really help to regulate the skin’s functions, so can work for all skin types. The simplest way to use them is in a face oil that can be massaged gently into the skin once a day. Choose a vegetable carrier that suits your skin type and enjoy the gorgeous fragrance as the oils treat your skin.

What essential oils should be used in skincare? 

Classic oils for the skin include lavender to heal, ylang ylang to balance sebum, geranium to gently stimulate, chamomile to soothe and calm, and rose, which suits every skin as it balances the circulation, creating a natural glow.

What skin types should avoid essential oils?

Most skin types respond well to essential oils, and it is very rare to see reactions when good quality oils are used at the correct dilution, but those with highly reactive skins should always carry out patch test before using them.

See our favourite essential oil based products below…

Aromatherapy Associates Deep Relax Bath & Shower Oil

Harnessing the power of vetivert, camomile and sandalwood, wallowing in a tub of this heavenly scented oil will relax every muscle, and instantly calm a frazzled mind.


Therapie Slumber Pillow Spray

A dreamy concoction of lavender, hemp and chamomile, this pillow spray will lull you into a deep and peaceful sleep.


Neal’s Yard Geranium & Orange Shower Gel

This uplifting blend of geranium and orange is the shower equivalent of a double espresso.


Scentered Focus Balm 

Pop this blend of peppermint, rosemary leaf, clary sage on your desk and inhale when the 4pm slump hits.


Aurelia Firm & Replenish Body Serum

Uplifting mandarin, invigorating lemongrass and grounding cedarwood all work to balance the mind while the comforting shea and cocoa butters replenish skin.


BYBI Supercharge Serum

A potent glow-giving and hydration-boosting serum that contains 15 all-natural seed and essential oils.


Main image: Katherine Hanlon