An essential oil is a plant extract obtained from either a whole, or part of, an aromatic plant – its flowers, fruits, leaves, seeds, roots or bark.
There are two main methods of extracting an essential oil:
With various ways of administering them (topical, inhalation, oral, rectal or vaginal), essential oils can be used both singly or in synergistic combinations. Used appropriately, they can support both physical and mental health (1-2).
Given that it is the quintessence of a plant in its most concentrated form, an essential oil is a natural aid that needs to be used judiciously, especially by more vulnerable individuals (children, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, those with epilepsy ...) (3). If you have any concerns, consult your doctor or pharmacist. Let’s now explore the 7 best essential oils to keep in your medicine cabinet.
Essential oil of ravintsara – literally ‘good leaf’ in Madagascan – is produced by distilling the leaves of the Madagascan camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora).
The African climate gives this laurel-like tree a specific chemical profile (or chemotype) which marks it out from other camphor trees. It is very rich in 1,8-cineole (forming around 65% of its composition) and is free from camphor, a molecule associated with neurotoxic effects.
Extremely gentle, ravintsara oil is particularly good for the respiratory system because of its decongestant properties. It also works more systemically to support the body’s defense mechanisms (4). An invaluable aid to see you through the winter months!
If oregano leaves are the perfect accompaniment to tomatoes, its flowering tops produce an extremely powerful essential oil – or to be more precise, three, depending on the species distilled: compact oregano (Origanum compactum L.), Spanish oregano (Thymus capitatus L.) and green oregano (Origanum vulgare L. var. hirtum).
Though subtly different, all three contain a significant level of carvacrol, a phenol highly active against infection, parasites and fungi (5). With invigorating properties, they offer a substantial boost in cases of intense fatigue. They also help to support gastrointestinal function (6).
However, this Herculean strength comes with a downside: used long term, essential oil of oregano is dermocaustic and toxic for the liver. It should only be used by adults, for short periods and diluted in a plant oil. It is also available in oral form for greater efficacy (in capsules, for example, in Oil of Oregano, standardized to 40% carvacrol).
With analgesic and anaesthetic properties, essential oil of peppermint (Mentha x piperita) acts rather like a blast of cold air: its menthol and menthone content helps to counteract the sensation of pain (7). However, pure essential oil of peppermint should only be used on a tiny area: if you want to use it more extensively, always dilute it in an oily or fatty substance.
It is also popular inhaled or applied to the temples for combatting headaches (8).
In some orally-administered supplements, it is combined with other essential oils to maximise its energising potential. When combined, for example, with Chinese cinnamon, rich in aromatic aldehydes, and lemon zest, a source of monoterpenes, it offers a comprehensive, synergistic effect (this is the blend used in the formulation Organic Defense Mix, which also contains green oregano) (9-10).
It was when explorer James Cook landed on Australia’s shores that he first became acquainted with the plant tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia). Initially attracted by the freshness of its leaves in a tea, he discovered from the local population that tea tree poultices were excellent for preventing secondary wound infections. However, it was only in 1922 that chemist Arthur de Raman provided scientific evidence of its powers.
In aromatherapy, essential oil of tea tree acts as a broad-spectrum booster of the body’s own defenses, preventing foreign invaders from adhering to epithelial tissue (11). In the cosmetics world, many find its purifying properties invaluable for relieving skin problems (12).
Also originating from the land of the kangaroo, eucalyptus comes in different varieties and actually produces three distinct essential oils:
Growing at more than 1000m altitude, true lavender, also known as common or English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) corresponds to the ‘female’ lavender. Its flowering tops produce an essential oil that’s very popular among aromatherapists for its olfactory quality, and for its ease and flexibility of use.
With a high concentration in linalool and linalyl acetate, this Provençal shrub supports relaxation and better sleep quality (15-16). Its oil can be combined with other soothing essential oils (the oral supplement Organic Relaxing Oil Blend, for example, contains a trio of organic zen essential oils – lavender, mandarin zest and caraway).
An extract of Everlasting Flower, which gets its name from its exceptional longevity, essential oil of helichrysum (Helichrysum italicum), sometimes known as Italian strawflower or curry plant, helps with all those minor knocks (bumps and bruises… ) by facilitating their resorption, as well as with improving the appearance of older scars (17). A property which also works at an emotional level as a result of its ability to mitigate psycho-emotional shocks.
Though it offers undeniable benefits, helichrysum contains a significant amount of italidione ketones, accumulation of which causes neurotoxicity. It should therefore only be used for relatively short periods (or if used longer-term, make sure you observe adequate therapeutic windows).
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