Essential oils are marvellous little bottles of sweet-smelling loveliness. But what can you actually do with them? Plenty! In fact, with just a few key oils, you can take care of many minor complaints and ailments. Find out how to use essential oils for basic first aid.
NOTE: This content is for general information purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified medical professional.
The word aromatherapy was coined in the 1920s by a French chemist who noticed that many of the essential oils he was using to make perfumes had antiseptic properties. When he suffered a bad burn to his hand in the lab, he used lavender oil to treat it with great success. Curious to find out more, he conducted research into the medicinal properties of essential oils – and aromatherapy was born.
As holistic therapies go, aromatherapy is relatively young, but the principles on which it’s based go back thousands of years. For millennia, plants were medicine – many civilisations cultivated a thorough knowledge of the healing powers of plants, and the healer was an important member of the community.
What are essential oils?
They’re basically concentrated versions of natural plant oils. They are extracted from a plant or flower through a process of distillation, where the application of heat causes the plant’s cells to break down and release the essence in vapour form. The vapour is cooled and becomes a liquid, which is the essential oil.
Although we’re lucky enough to have access to modern medicinal drugs, it’s interesting to note that plants were crucial in the development of many of the medicines we now take for granted. Plant compounds were an important source of the chemicals used in the formulation of many drugs. Nowadays most are made in a lab, but for some drugs, plants are still crucially important – around 10% of the drugs that the WHO considers essential for health are still exclusively of plant origin.
How essential oils work
Essential oils are absorbed by the skin or inhaled. From there, they enter the bloodstream and affect the body (and mind) in different ways, depending on the particular qualities of the oil, or combination of oils, used.
The unique mix of chemical compounds in each essential oil gives it certain medicinal properties. Essential oils can be anti-viral, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, antibiotic, analgesic (painkilling), immuno-stimulant (stimulates the immune system), expectorant, the list goes on. In these days of superbugs and antibiotic resistance, essential oils can play an important role in helping to reduce the need for antibiotics.
Methods of Use
So, now that you know about the merits of essential oils, here’s a quick how-to guide that’ll take you through how to use them, the best oils to keep at home, and treatment methods for specific ailments or injuries.
Diluted in a Base Oil
With the exception of a few specific cases, essential oils should not be used neat on the skin. One of the best ways to apply them is to dilute them in a base or carrier oil, like grapeseed or sweet almond oil. Add up to five drops of essential oil to 10mls of your base oil, and apply to the skin. You can mix two or three oils in a blend depending on what you want to use it for, but always keep the total number of drops used to five or less. It’s a good idea to include an essential oil with a scent you like, as well as choosing some for their medicinal properties. Oil blends will keep for six to eight weeks, if stored in a cool dry place.
Hot / Cold Compress
This method is used to relieve pain and reduce inflammation. A hot compress can help relieve chronic pain like backache or arthritis; they’re also good for earache or toothache. Cold compresses are used for first aid injuries such as sprains. To make a compress, add four or five drops of essential oil to a bowl of water. The oil will float on top of the water, so in order to ‘pick up’ as much of it as possible, fold a towel or cloth and dip it into the top of the bowl, before gently wringing out the excess water. Place the cloth onto the affected area and repeat the process when the cloth has reached body temperature. The water should be as hot or cold as possible – you can add ice cubes to the water for a cold compress. The compress should be replaced a number of times. This treatment can be carried out several times a day or as required until inflammation has reduced or pain has been relieved.
Diffuser / Oil Burner
The simplest way to use essential oils. Add four or five drops to some water in your oil burner, or you can invest in a diffuser for better, more consistent results. Be careful not to overuse oils when using this method – it’s easy to think there’s not enough oil in the burner because you’ve become accustomed to the smell, so leave the room and re-enter to check. Also it’s not advisable to keep topping up the oil burner for hours on end, take a break after a couple of hours.
A very effective way of using oils as it combines the healing properties of the essential oils with the relaxation of a bath. Do not add the essential oils to the bath until it has been filled up. The oils should be diluted in a carrier before adding to the bath – you can use your base oil for this but this can make the bath slippy, so a teaspoon of full-fat milk makes a good alternative. Use about six drops of oil, you can use two or three different oils to combine the effects. The heat of the water aids the skin’s absorption of the oils, plus you will inhale them. Fifteen to twenty minutes in the bath is enough time to benefit, although there’s no harm in staying in a little longer. Avoid using bubble baths or other products in the bath to ensure you get the full effects of the essential oils.
An excellent method if you’re treating a cold, cough or sore throat. Add three or four drops of oil to a bowl of steaming water, cover yourself with a towel, and breathe the aromatic steam for three to five minutes. Steam inhalations are generally not recommended for people suffering with asthma, hay fever or other allergies.
Which Oils Should I Keep in My First Aid Kit?
Essential oils can be expensive and will only keep for a year or two. Because you use a tiny quantity at a time, you may not want to invest in buying lots of them. For the purposes of treating common complaints, there are a few versatile oils that will be useful to keep at home.
Of course you can add to your collection as you become more familiar with the oils. Some of the citrus varieties like mandarin or grapefruit really do smell good enough to eat! These will make your home smell great when used in an oil burner or diffuser, or add a nice depth to your oil blends.
Care must be taken when using essential oils. Since they’re powerfully concentrated, only small amounts are required; in fact, they can even be harmful in large doses. If you’re pregnant, taking medication for a pre-existing condition, or want to use essential oils on children, it’s vital to consult a registered aromatherapist. Best practice dictates that you should alternate the oils you use to avoid over-use of one particular oil – so if you’re using an oil for more than a week, change it to a suitable substitute oil.
It’s a good idea to buy essential oils from a wholesale supplier rather than a chemist. You can buy online from most wholesalers and they generally offer a better range of oils, cheaper prices, and often, higher quality products. Wholesalers will also have empty glass jars and bottles of various sizes for sale – these are great for mixing blends, especially the 10ml size. You should store your oils in a cool dark place to keep them for as long as possible.
So which oils should you keep in your first aid kit? Here’s the ‘essential’ essential oils:
- Tea Tree – is effective against bacteria, fungi and viruses. An excellent antiseptic. It also stimulates the body’s immune system.
- Lavender – a very versatile oil, analgesic (good for sharp piercing pain), antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, decongestant, promotes healing, good for muscular pain, especially good for burns. A very soothing oil, can aid sleeping and promote relaxation.
- Camomile – anti inflammatory (German Camomile in particular has excellent anti-inflammatory properties, although it is a little more expensive). Analgesic (good for dull aches and pains). Very soothing and calming, excellent in the bath when blended with another oil. A good substitute for lavender if using for longer than a week.
- Eucalyptus – decongestant (excellent for clearing nasal congestion), expectorant, powerful action against viruses and bacteria, can be used to relieve pain of rheumatism or muscular aches.
- Manuka – distilled from the same plant that produces manuka honey, another wonderfully versatile oil. Like tea-tree, it’s effective against bacteria, fungi and viruses, and is a good oil to alternate with tea-tree if using for a week or more. It’s an excellent decongestant, great for coughs, colds and congestion. It also has antihistamine properties, making it good to dab neat on insect bites or stings. This is one of the more expensive oils, but definitely worth the money.
- Ravensara – an excellent anti-viral oil, particularly effective against flus and colds when used at the first signs of infection. Also stimulates the immune system. A good expectorant.
- Rosemary – excellent antiseptic action, stimulating and clears the head (avoid using before sleep), good painkiller especially for tired, stiff, overworked muscles as well as rheumatic or arthritic pain.
- Other oils you can experiment with that won’t cost the earth and will add depth to your blends include bergamot, grapefruit, marjoram, clary sage, benzoin or geranium.
How to Treat Common Complaints With Essential Oils
Colds and Flu
Essential oils are a great aid in relieving the symptoms of colds or flu – of course if you suspect flu you should see a doctor but once you have done so, the oils can help to relieve symptoms and speed recovery. It is important to note that if you have come down with a dose of some sort, it is a sign that your immune system is weakened or under stress and you need to get as much rest as you can.
Which oils: manuka, ravensara, eucalyptus and lavender
How to use: make a blend with 2 drops manuka, 2 drops ravensara and 1 drop lavender in 10mls carrier oil to apply to the chest and upper back several times a day. Eucalyptus in a diffuser or oil burner will relieve congestion and protect others from catching your dose, if combined with tea-tree or ravensara this effect is intensified.
Which oils: lavender or tea-tree
How to use: can be applied neat to minor burns, the sooner the better. If applied quickly enough after the damage is done, it can even prevent blistering. Larger burns should of course be seen by a medical professional, and you should never treat a burn that blisters straightaway, breaks the skin or appears charred without medical advice.
Cuts and Grazes
Which oils: any of the oils in your first aid kit will help as all oils have antiseptic properties to some degree, but tea tree or manuka would be first choice.
How to use: add three or four drops to a bowl of warm water and use a cloth to ‘pick up’ the oil floating on the surface of the water, gently squeeze out the cloth and apply to the injured area. For small areas, like a cut to a finger, you can place the affected area into the bowl of warm water.
Which oils: tea-tree or manuka
How to use: when you feel that tingle, a single drop of tea-tree or manuka on a cotton wool bud can be applied to a cold sore.
Sprains, strains, bumps and lumps
The RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) procedure should be followed, your essential oils can be utilised as part of the ice stage.
Which oils: camomile or lavender for their anti-inflammatory action
How to use: a cold compress (as described above) should be applied in a firm manner, but not too tightly.
Tea-tree makes a great emergency spot treatment – use it at the early stages to clear it up more quickly.
A fungal infection under the toenails can be treated by regular foot baths using tea-tree and lavender.