During a time when our stress levels are running at an all-time high, even wellness skeptics may be willing to anoint their pulse points with a head-clearing essential oil. After all, the herbal healing treatment, which dates back thousands of years and has recently been lauded by everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow and Miranda Kerr to NBA All Stars, can have serious mind-body benefits: “The olfactory senses connect very early in brain wiring to emotional centers, so the distance from when a scent hits the nose to when it hits an emotion is very short,” explains Leslie B. Vosshall, Ph.D., a molecular neurobiologist at the Rockefeller University, in Vogue’s June 2019 issue.
“Breathing in the essential-oil vapor instantly changes our brain patterns and can help us feel calmer and more grounded,” emphasizes Hope Gillerman, an aromatherapist and author of Essential Oils Every Day: Rituals and Remedies for Healing, Happiness, and Beauty. “They are not a cure” and cannot replace medication, she notes; however, they are one valuable “pathway into taking good care of ourselves.” And don’t we all need to do more of that?
Below, everything you need to know about the best essential oils to buy—and how, when, and where to use them.
What Are Essential Oils Good For?
“Essential oils are a natural, holistic way to address so many of the wellness issues that stem from the stress in our lives,” Gillerman says, adding that their benefits range from improving sleep and easing tension to providing a boost of energy during a midday slump. “Distinct from medications, they are not a cure, but a pathway into taking good care of ourselves.”
How to Use Essential Oils
“Smelling essential oils by mindfully inhaling is the quickest way to change your state of mind and stress level,” says Gillerman, who recommends setting an intention before placing a drop of essential oil into the center of both palms. Next, rub your hands together and lift them up to your face, slowly inhaling through your nose. Other options, she notes, include applying an essential oil topically “to cocoon yourself in the aroma” (for example, peppermint dotted on the temples can help to alleviate headaches); placing a few drops of a relaxing blend in a bath; or scenting an entire space with the help of an essential oil diffuser.
What to Know Before Buying Essential Oils
In such a crowded market, it can be difficult to know which essential oils to invest in—which is why Gillerman stresses the importance of purchasing essential oils that come directly from an aromatherapist or are certified organic. “Don’t look for a bargain, look for quality,” she says, noting that many essential oils are “adulterated, diluted, or overly processed,” which can “degrade the efficacy and irritate the skin and breathing passages.” She also advises against amassing an overflowing collection. Instead, start with the essentials: a cleansing citrus; a mood-enhancing flower, such as lavender; a relaxing resin or root (think frankincense, cedarwood, or vetiver); and a stimulating scent, like basil, or rosemary.
New York City dermatologist Michele Green, M.D., advises people to patch test an essential oil first to ensure it won’t irritate the skin or cause an allergic reaction if you plan to apply it topically to the face. “To do a patch test, mix the essential oil with the carrier oil you will be using in the same concentration that you plan to apply. Place a small amount of your mixed oil on the inner arm and cover with a Band-Aid. Observe the area after approximately 48 hours.” She says that if there’s no irritation, the oil should be safe for you to use elsewhere on the body.
Blends May Be Best
“Blends of two to five essential oils are more powerful than a single oil,” Gillerman says, explaining that the oils work in tandem to better target specific health and wellness issues. And what can be an overpowering scent on its own can be balanced when mixed with other oils. To wit, “ylang ylang by itself has a heavy, almost medicinal sweetness that many say they don’t like. But when combined with other essential oils, the sweetness softens into a warm, slightly fruity aroma that makes this oil a joyous component of any ‘happiness blend.’”
The Best Essential Oils for Every Issue
To ease anxiety, look for oils that contain vetiver, neroli, clary sage, and geranium, among others. Start with Vitruvi’s 100% pure Geranium oil for a soothing floral fragrance, or DoTerra’s Serenity Blend that’s formulated to calm the mind and soothe the senses. For on-the-go relief, reach for the Aromatherapy Associates De-Stress Mind Roller Ball, which can help clear your head and put you at peace.
For sleep and relaxation
Oils with lavender, chamomile, and rose will help to promote relaxation and healthy sleep. Apply Tata Harper’s Bedtime Treatment to your palms and pulse points to stimulate feelings of tranquility. Likewise, both Campo and Helias’ sleep blends contain lavender and Roman chamomile to promote a good night’s sleep.
For mental focus
“Peppermint essential oil has been shown in studies to improve energy and concentration. The peppermint scent is stimulating and invigorating, making it the perfect essential oil for feeling focused and alert,” explains Green—which is why she recommends the Public Goods Peppermint Essential Oil. Otherwise, look to rosemary or vibrant scents to give you the boost you need to check items off your to-do list. Vitruvi’s Boost or Saje’s Brainstorm oil blends should do the trick.
Feeling low on energy? Look for oils that feature eucalyptus, peppermint, rosemary, cypress, and cardamom. In fact, De Mamiel’s Altitude Oil and L’Occitane’s Aromachologie Revitalizing blend together these very oils to energize you in an instant.
For a mood boost
“At Peace is an essential oil blend that contains lime, grapefruit, sandalwood, and ylang-ylang oils,” says Green, who recommends it. “The scent of this essential oil is refreshing, citrusy, and somewhat sweet, helping to simultaneously boost mood and provide a relaxing effect.” Furthermore, look to bergamot, jasmine, neroli, and lemon, too, to brighten your day—scents you’ll be delighted to smell through Cap Beauty’s Anointing Oil or options by Aveda and Plant Therapy.
For sore muscles
Are aching muscles negatively affecting your day? Add essential oils with vetiver, peppermint, helichrysum, and pine to your routine. Gillerman’ s Tension Remedy helps relieve headaches and shoulder pains, while True Botanicals’ Muscle Release can be rolled onto your body’s sore spots to release tension and relax hurting muscles.