What Are Essential Oils, and How Do They Work?

What Are Essential Oils, and How Do They Work?


Essential oils are the aromatic constituents of a plant that are highly volatile in nature. These constituents in the living plant help the very plant to carry its vital functions like growth, reproduction, pollination, defense mechanism against predators like insects etc. Different plants develop different concentrations of essential oils for their protection. And therefore essential oils are very concentrated & highly therapeutic often termed as the life force of a plant in a bottle.

We have been using these essential oils for thousands of years to add protection to our own body against bacterial, fungal or viral invasion.  

The essential oil can be derived from different parts of the plant like flower, fruit, stem, bark, root etc.  The different parts of the plant produce different healing properties that benefit the different natured human bodies.  For example, the flowers produce essential oil that is sedating and relaxing in nature. The wood, bark and resins produce heating essential oils that have the ability to move the fluid in the body. The leaves produce cooling and healing properties that resemble very closely to our blood- hemoglobin structure.

And the essential oil from the roots provides the earthy and the grounding properties to the body. The fruits provide very widening and stimulating properties.

But going solely by the different parts of a plant’s therapeutic effect on the body would not be a wise decision as the composition of every human body is unique – hot/cold, dry/wet often described in detail as kapha, pitta & vata in ayurveda. For example fennel and carom are both carminative herbs that help treat indigestion but fennel is cool in nature while carom is warm in nature. Hence carom may aggravate the problem in the (hot nature) pitta dominant body.   That’s why it is important to never go merely by what the herbs treat but also take into consideration the different energetic powers of herbs and essential oils like cooling, warming, drying, moisturizing before start making use of them.

Know how to choose the best essential oil for your body or skin –

Every essential oil is good but what suits you is the best for you. Hence, it is important to choose the right essential oil and while choosing always consider these points.

  1. The purpose of the oil
  2. The nature of the oil
  3. The nature or make of the body or say body constitution

Every herb or essential oil is distinct in terms of the energy it contains like warming or cooling, drying or moisturizing, the symptoms it treats and the body on which it is used. Therefore these variables are important to consider in finding the appropriate healing oil for the body.

The purpose of the oil 

The purpose of the oil can be understood in terms of the therapeutic properties oil contains. Here is the list of therapeutic properties with their meaning usually applied to essential oils.

1.       Alterative – Clean purifies and nourishes the overall body system. Promote healthy metabolism and restore normal body functioning. Gradually bring back the lost balance of the body.

2.       Antipyretic – reduce/lower the body temperature. Dispel the heat, fire from the body.

3.       Astringent – contract the tissues and tighten them. In other words, firm the tissues & organs and reduce the discharge and secretions. Astringent helps tighten and tone the loose saggy skin tissues, retain water in pores and provide anti-inflammatory & anti microbial effect locally. 

4.       Antispasmodic – relieves muscles spasm both voluntary and involuntary.

5.       Carminative – relieves stomach and intestine gas & pain. Ease nausea, vomiting, colic and help relax the stomach.

6.       Diaphoretic – induce sweating or say promote perspiration which helps eliminate toxins through skin. This reduces fever and cools the body.  Alongside this makes the skin mantle acidic thereby benefits the skin.

7.       Diuretic – Promote active functioning of kidney and bladder. Increase the flow and rate of urination which help remove toxins, salt and excess of water from the body.

8.       Emetic – Induces vomiting, used in cases of poisoning and alcoholism.

9.       Emmenagogue – promote and normalize menstruation.

10.   Emollient – Smoothes softens and protects the skin by forming a layer/film. This prevents the water loss from epidermis that is the outer layer of the skin. Thus helpful in treating skin disorders.

11.   Expectorant – Help ease respiratory tract by promoting discharge of phlegm and mucus from throat and lungs.

12.   Laxative – softens the stools and promotes bowel movement. Ease constipation.

13.   Nervine – Strengthens nervous system functioning either through stimulants or through sedatives.

14.   Rejuvenative – Repair and heal the body. Prevent decay. Makes you feel energetic, fresh and lively.

15.   Sedative – Calms and tranquilizes the mind or the body or its organ.

16.   Stimulant – Increases and strengthens the body stamina, its functioning. Increases the internal heat and releases the chill from the body. 

17.   Nutritive Tonic – Nourishes the body and improves the overall weight and density

18.   Vulnerary – promotes healing of wounds and cuts and promotes cell growth.

Every essential oil contains a unique profile of therapeutic properties. Read in detail about the therapeutic properties of the different essential oils available at SNAANA.

Nature/Energy of the oil –

Apart from the therapeutic property, it is important to know the nature & the kind of energy the herb or the essential oil contains. Herbs and essential oils can be divided into two major categories like

1.       Heating/ cooling oils – The essential oils act on the body as per the energy they contain. For example a drop of clove oil when rubbed on the skin or consumed by adding to food will add heat to the body while a drop of peppermint when rubbed or consumed will add coolness to the body. And herbs or essential oils that are neutral in energy will balance the body like lavender.

So we at SNAANA have simplified the different oils with different energies by listing them clearly under each head. The image represents the essential oil’s energy from cold to hot on the vertical line.

Examples of essential oils that are cool in nature are blue chamomile, geranium, lemongrass, coriander, cumin, dill, peppermint, fennel, jasmine, lavender, lemon balm, lemon, lime, mandarin, neroli, palmarosa, rose, sandalwood, tangerine, tea tree, wintergreen, ylang ylang, brahmi, champa, kehwa, lotus, saffron, st. john’s wort, tuberose etc. 

Examples of essential oils that are hot/heat producing in nature are anise, holy basil, bay, bergamot, black pepper, cajeput, calamus, camphor, caraway, marjoram, cardamom, carrot seeds, cedarwood, cinnamon, clove,  carom (ajwain), cubeb, cassia,  eucalyptus, pine, rosemary, sage, thyme red, turmeric, frankincense, juniper, myrrh, tagetes (marigold),  myrtle, nutmeg, orange, parsley etc. The essential oils that are warm in nature meaning they do not generate as much heat as heating oils does are patchouli, petitgrain, cypress, citronella, clary sage, ginger, grapefruit, oud etc.

And lavender is the essential oil that can be used by everyone in all seasons as it acts as a balancer and helps you bring back to normal functioning.

2.       Moisturizing/Drying Oils – Essential oil can be classified as wet or dry based on their tendency to mix with water. Those essential oils which when put in water disperse in water and become part of it are water loving essential oils also known as wet essential oils. Technically these water loving essential oils are called hydrophilic oils.

While the oils that float forming a ring edge on top of the water or sink to the bottom are fat loving oils, technically known as lipophilic oils. So the essential oils can be arranged as wet or dry oils. For example rose or geranium is wet- hydrophilic oil while orange or pine is dry- lipophilic oil.

 Examples of moisturizing/wet essential oils are anise, camphor, eucalyptus, cardamom, carrot seed, citronella, coriander, fennel, geranium, jasmine, lemon balm, lemongrass, neroli, palmarosa, peppermint, pine, rose, sandalwood, tea tree, thyme red, turmeric, wintergreen, ylang ylang, carom (Ajwain), champa, heena, saffron, st john wort, tagetes (marigold), tuberose etc.

Examples of drying essential oils are bay, black pepper, calamus, caraway, cedarwood, blue chamomile, cypress, frankincense, ginger, grapefruit, lemon, lime, mandarin, myrtle, parsley, rosemary, sage, tangerine etc.

Neutral – The essential oils of holy Basil, cinnamon, clary sage, cumin, dill, lavender, oud are neutral in nature while vetiver is grounding.

Know your body constitution 

It is important to understand our body constitution that is the make of our body to help us choose suitable diet, skin care, lifestyle, climate etc. to keep it healthy. Here in the picture, we bring to you the characteristics of the three doshas vata, pitta and kapha. The better a dosha closely defines you is the dominant constitution of the body.

For example an individual with medium build has acne prone skin, oily scalp, and thin silky hair and does not like the hot climate is most likely a Pitta body. Hence it is important for the person to avoid the element of fire that is heat.  Likewise all that produces heat or say hot natured things should not be preferred like clove essential oils, garam masala etc.

Hence, understand your body, know the need/purpose of the essential oil and finally choose keeping in mind the cold/hot and dry/wet properties of the oil. The three factors when combined help you choose the essential oil for your need that benefits the body or skin.

Book Source Ayurveda & Aromatherapy: The Earth Essential Guide to Ancient Wisdom and Modern Healing

 How to select the pure essential oil   

Essential oils are plant derived light sensitive oils which need proper storage and care. While buying it is important to know the method used to prepare the oil and the botanical name of the herb as well. Steam distillation is one of the best time tested techniques that produces highly therapeutic and nutrient rich oil.

Although the technique produces low yield making the oil expensive as compared to other cost effective techniques now available in the market like solvent extraction or CO2 hyperbaric production etc.

Beware of fragrances often sold in the name of essential oils. These fragrances are chemical composition made in the laboratory to produce a smell similar to the essential oil. There is no essential oil of strawberry, banana, mango, watermelon, kiwi, bubble gum etc.  Perfumes may or may not contain essential oils but certainly contain petroleum products – fragrance and alcohol to make them last long and increase their diffusability in the air.

Essential oils are volatile in nature hence they work good as deodorant only when applied directly on to the skin like armpit and the area is not exposed to air. Essential oils exposure to air evaporates them hence they do not work as long lasting perfumes.  

So while buying pure and healthy essential oils do keep a check on these points –

1.       The essential oil is steam distilled only. Authenticate the brand behind the bottle.

2.       It is edible and not for external use only. (If the herb is edible then the essential oil produced from the edible herb should be edible too.)

3.       It is packed in an amber glass bottle. Clear glass is not the right storage for pure essential oils as these are light sensitive and easily go bad.


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