Basics of Essential Oils Part 2: Topical

Essential oils are aromatic chemical compounds that are extracted from different parts of plants and trees, from the flowers, leaves, stems, barks, seeds and roots. We know that essential oils are absorbed into the body aromatically through the olfactory system. From the nasal cavity, the aromatic compounds in essential oils are carried to the brain and different parts of the body. But are essential oils also absorbed into the body topically, via the skin?

Essential oils are chemicals, yes. But it’s important to understand that everything in nature is made of chemicals. There are good and bad chemicals. Some chemicals harm us, impede growth, destroy cells and ruin our health, such as Sodium Laurel Sulphates (SLSs), often found in cheap cleaning products, soaps and shampoos. And then there are good chemicals, such as essential oils. They do not cause us harm when used in the correct way, and they can even heal us.

Most essential oils are extracted by steam distillation or cold pressing. This should be done in sterile conditions. In addition, essential oils should always be tested for purity and potency.

Grades of essential oils

Essential oils come in differing grades of purity, potency and integrity. These grades determine the quality and nature of the oils you buy, whether they are undiluted and unadulterated (purity), concentrated (potency) or derived from a single plant source (integrity).

The cut above the rest in quality are those essential oils that are certified organic. In Australia, this organic certification is granted, for instance, by Australian Certified Organic (ACO). In the United States, the certification is given by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

When an essential oil is granted the status of certified organic, it is not only guaranteed to be free of bad chemicals. The certified organic label stands for an holistic system of handling plants, soil and environment. (Source:

The higher grades of essential oils are 100% pure and potent and tested for consistency from batch to batch. Like most things you buy, you get what you pay for. If a product claims 100% purity and potency and is much cheaper than others on the market, you need to ask why and find out more before you buy.

Reputable manufacturers will provide specifications for their essential oils. A certificate of analysis will inform you of the plant source and origin, the extraction method, the testing methods and results, as well as details of the appearance of the oil, density and certification (if organic).

Also, a good rule of thumb is, if it smells ‘pure’ and is effective in healing your ailment, then it is most likely a high or good quality product. If it smells artificially ‘chemical’, or is incredibly cheap—which often amounts to the same thing—it is probably diluted with a vegetable oil or adulterated, and you need to beware.

Are essential oils absorbed topically?

Human skin has a low-medium permeability, however many people believe that absorption of essential oils into the body can occur via the skin. The topical application of essential oils does indeed penetrate the skin and provide relief for localised pain and in some cases more severe pain.

During massage, for example, the increased movement promotes circulation and increases body heat, which improves absorption of the essential oils into the skin. This is invaluable in treating muscle stiffness, joint pain and poor circulation. As well, essential oils have a potent effect on the emotional centres of the brain. They help ease breathing by vapour inhalation, relaxing the body and mind, and acting as a respiratory tract antiseptic.

Because of their anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal or antiseptic properties, essential oils also provide added relief from all kinds of physical and mental symptoms.

The topical use of essential oils is effective in relieving skin conditions, muscle aches and pains, headaches and sleeplessness. The combination of aromatic and topical application of essential oils is an even greater therapeutic regime. When we use essential oils topically, the aromatic healing properties are also at work in our minds and bodies.

Our bodies are an integrated system—when one part is not working properly, our whole body suffers. Hence, it makes sense that the topical use of essential oils is only part of the picture.

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