What are Essential Oils?

Words by Phoebe McRae

what are essential oils used for

Essential oils seem to be everywhere these days. And it’s easy to see why. Touted as a quick fix for acne, a remedy for migraine pain, and a solution to indigestion, the benefits are seemingly endless.

But as someone who has had difficulty falling asleep for the last 30 years (yes really), it’s their potential to improve sleep quality and reduce stress that has piqued my interest.

So on behalf of night owls everywhere, I've consulted certified aromatherapist and founder of Thara Sacra, Tara Gangadharan, and Dr Daniel Boyer, practising doctor of medicine with a focus on medical research at the Farr Institute, to find out what all the fuss is about.

types of essential oils


As Gangadharan explains, “Essential oils are the result of extracting a plant’s essence through various methods like distillation (steam or water) or expression (cold pressed or grated—like zesting a citrus fruit).” These highly concentrated, powerful plant extracts are believed to offer various health benefits and are commonly used in alternative medicine, like aromatherapy, via inhalation, topical application and baths.


Essential oils are used for all sorts of reasons. According to Dr Boyner, most use them in order to reduce inflammation, reduce stress and anxiety, reduce headaches and migraines, and improve sleep and insomnia.

However, “benefits that are associated with essential oils are controversial,” he warns. Why, we hear you ask? "There are no solid pieces of evidence supporting their claimed potential health benefits and effectiveness that meet typical standards of most scientific studies," explains Dr Boyner. But that isn't necessarily to say that they won’t work for you.

how to use essential oils safely


For those of us wanting to use essential oils to aid sleep, the good news is that scientific research for this does exist and indicates that lavender oil can improve not only sleep quality but sleep duration.

This is largely due to the presence of linalool and linalyl acetate, which have known sedative effects. As Gangadharan advises, “If you are struggling with sleep due to anxiety or thoughts swirling around in your head, the right aroma can help shift your emotional response, helping to ease you into a more relaxed state.”


It’s safe to say that lavender oil is the most popular essential oil for relaxation. “Lavender is a commonly used essential oil for aiding in relaxation due to its calming and soothing aroma,” explains Gangadharan. It also contains anxiolytic properties, says Dr Boyner, which have been known to reduce anxiety.

However, it’s worth noting that there is no guarantee that lavender oil will work for you — the best thing to do is experiment with a few different oils and see how your body and mind respond.


Well there you have it: if you've been curious about essential oils and why they've ignited such a frenzy in the wellbeing world, you know have some information to help judge whether these extracts might be something you'd like to try. Whether like me, you're looking for a natural sleep aid, or are seeking some of their other alleged benefits, there is a plethora of oils and blends to try.

One thing to remember while trying essential oils, is that there is currently not enough solid evidence to backup many of the health benefits you may hear about through the grapevine. However, you may still find through your own experiential evidence that some things just work for you and that is as good as evidence comes.