applying essential oils

To complement “Help in a Bottle: Anti-Inflammatory & Pain-Relieving Essential Oils” in the September 2015 issue of MASSAGE Magazine. Summary: Essential oils may be applied via inhalation, topically or internally; all methods provide support for many health conditions.

There are several ways to reap the benefits of essential oils. Here are the basics to consider when choosing the most effective ways of applying essential oils during sessions with clients or for self-care.


This is the number-one way to use essential oils. Inhalation is very effective for most therapeutic conditions and is easy to do. Also, no matter how else you apply them, the scent of essential oils will automatically be inhaled, making every application of essential oils an inhalation, as well.

Science supports inhalation for many conditions. One of the most common is inhalation for affecting the emotions. The olfactory response—which occurs via the brain’s amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus—triggers emotional memory and neurotransmitter release for a multitude of emotionally related responses, including documented results for anti-anxiety, stress relief, mental alertness and anti-depressive effects.

Inhalation for weight loss may seem counterintuitive, since scent is closely tied to the sense of taste; however, one 2005 research study in Neuroscience Letters concluded, “the scent of grapefruit oil affects autonomic nerves, enhances lipolysis through a histaminergic response, and reduces appetite and body weight.” In another study published in 2015 in the journal Nutrients, the authors concluded, “inhalation of citronella oil decreased body weight by decreasing appetite.”

Inhalation for antibacterial and antiviral effects is also well-supported. It’s been demonstrated that the “antibacterial action of essential oils was most effective when at high vapor concentration for a short time” with “cinnamon bark, lemongrass and thyme oils showing the lowest minimum [concentration for] inhibitory growth, followed by essential oils containing terpene alcohols as major constituents” (Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, 2000).

Researchers in a 2007 study published in Antiviral Research concluded that inhalation of cinnamaldehyde from cinnamon inhibited virus growth in a dose-dependent manner. Even pain-relieving properties can be attributed to inhaling the oil. In a 2004 study published in Life Sciences, the authors concluded that “lavender oil reveals an interesting analgesic activity mainly relevant after inhalation.”

Any method used for breathing in essential oils, whether it’s a diffuser, the tissue method, or smelling from the bottle or a fragrance strip, may provide profound aromatherapy results.



Topical application is the aromatherapy standard and effective for several therapeutic treatments. Essential oils are diluted in a carrier oil or cream and applied as needed to the whole body or areas of concern. Wound healing, skin care, arthritis, back pain, stress, low energy and detoxification are all conditions that benefit from topical application of essential oils.

Carriers for essential oils include massage oil, skin care formulations, lotions, creams and botanical butters. The carrier is chosen for the appropriate condition and ease of application. A proper dilution for most topical uses is 12 to 15 drops total of essential oils per one ounce of carrier. There is also an inhalation effect from topical applications.


Applying essential oils internally

Essential oils have been suggested for internal use since aromatherapy began as a health care practice in the early 1930s. Internal use has further developed into an effective application by qualified aromatherapists. (Recommending or administering essential oils for clients’ internal use is outside of massage therapists’ scope of practice; however, any person may engage in internal application for self-care.)

The easiest internal application is achieved by adding drops of essential oil to water. A drop or two of organic-derived lemon essential oil once daily in water can be useful for liver and digestive support. Herbal teas generally contain essential oils, such as fennel and peppermint for digestive health or Roman chamomile for relaxation and stress relief. As an oral supplement, two to three drops of essential oil in a capsule two or three times daily can treat certain parasitic infections. Suppositories are the most effective internal application method, especially for lower bronchial infection.

There is a recent move toward ingesting essential oils every day at sometimes very extreme amounts—any dose of more than 10 drops, or used for a period exceeding 10 days. Internal application should be saved for specific conditions and limited to an appropriate treatment dose and determined length of time.

Internal safety considerations have been presented by the professional aromatherapy associations in the U.S. and Europe, as well as documented in Robert Tisserand’s Safety of Essential Oils, Second Edition. There are some practitioners who suggest internal application to be a waste of oil in most instances, due to lack of absorption of most compounds and filtering through the liver. Further, results from internal application may be due to inhalation of oils while ingesting rather than the actual internal consumption. Experience, caution and awareness must be used when considering the conditions in which essential oils are safe and effective internally.


Pure, quality essential oils

Essential oils are currently regulated as food, and provide flavoring in many processed products. These are generally listed on labels as natural flavorings, and are adjusted for consistency. Adjusted essential oils, known as adulterated oils, are often sold on the aromatherapy market.

The confusing issue presented by some essential oil sellers is the statement that their oils are pure enough for internal use, which makes them appear to be similar to the adulterated oils used in food flavoring. High-quality, pure essential oils are therapeutically complex—not like food flavoring at all—so be aware of their proper, safe use before utilizing them for any purpose.


Jimm HarrisonAbout the Author

Jimm Harrison is an essential oil, holistic wellness and scent branding consultant, educator and author with more than 20 years’ experience. He is the author of Aromatherapy: Therapeutic Use of Essential Oils for Esthetics (Milady) and teaches his Aromatherapy and Essential Oil Certificate CCCE Program at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, across the U.S. and internationally. Harrison wrote “Help in a Bottle: Anti-Inflammatory & Pain-Relieving Essential Oils” for the September 2015 issue of MASSAGE Magazine.