A Handy Guide to Essential Oils

When we were in England, my cousin Olivia raved about essential oils. She uses them for everything from perfume to cleaning to baths. I was so intrigued! Here are 13 amazing everyday uses…

First things first: What are they, exactly? An essential oil is simply a very potent extract from the leaves, stems, roots, flowers or bark of plants. Essential oils are relatively inexpensive and come in hundreds of varieties, from basil to lavender to sandalwood.


For the ultimate bath: Add a couple drops of an essential oil to bathwater to help you decompress. (Scents that promote relaxation: lavender, camomile, bergamot, cedarwood and jasmine.) If you have sensitive skin, you can also mix the oil with coconut oil or a bit of shampoo before adding it to the bathwater.

For a signature scent: To make your own fragrance, mix 25 drops of your favorite essential oils (sandalwood, patchouli and bergamot are all sexy scents) with 1/4 cup of high-quality vodka (the higher the alcohol content, the better) in a clean glass bottle. Allow the mixture to sit for two weeks before using. Voila: custom perfume!

For incredible moisture: Sweet almond oil, which contains vitamins A, B, and E, is a wonderful natural moisturizer. You can rub it on hands and feet, use it to heal chapped lips and even dab a bit underneath your eyes before going to sleep to help reduce dark circles.

To heal a pimple: Tea tree oil, known for its healing properties, is great for controlling oily skin and calming blemishes. Neem oil is a natural antibacterial and makes a fantastic pimple-fighting potion. Mix a few drops each of neem and tea tree oil and dab directly on your blemish with a cotton swab. (As with any topical treatment, it’s best to spot test a tiny area first to make sure your skin isn’t sensitive to it. Also, beware the strong odor!)


For a natural room freshener: Add a few drops of essential oil to a spray bottle filled with purified water and shake it up for an all-natural air purifier. (Lemon, lavender and peppermint work well for freshness, but this will work with any scent.)

To make your whole house smell amazing: Add a few drops of your favorite scent to a pot of boiling water and let it simmer. Voila! Your whole home will smell fantastic. Warm scents like nutmeg and cinnamon are especially welcoming around the holidays.

To make shoes stink less: Put a few drops of lemon or geranium essential oil on a cotton ball and then place into shoes to freshen them up.

To freshen while cleaning: You know how vacuums can smell kind of gross? Put a few drops of essential oil on a cotton ball, then place it in your vacuum cleaner bag for help freshening while you clean. If you have a bag-less vacuum, mix a few drops of essential oil with a small spoonful of baking soda, then vacuum it up!


To make your own massage oil: Mix a couple drops of your favorite essential oil(s) with an unscented carrier oil, like avocado or coconut. (The scents of lavender and patchouli help you relax, while vanilla and orange are heralded as aphrodisiacs.) Perfect for an at-home date night.

For relaxation: Lavender promotes relaxation, but did you know it may also help with stress and even teeth grinding? Some sources suggest rubbing a few drops on the bottom of your feet (!) before you go to sleep to ensure a restful night.

For an energy boost: Peppermint is said to boost your mood and reduce fatigue. Keep a small bottle on your desk to sniff during a long work day or in your bag before you head to the gym. (Note: Peppermint oil can sometimes cause irritation when applied directly to the skin.)

To reduce congestion: Eucalyptus oil is lauded as a wonderful decongestant. The next time you have a cold, simply sniff the scent or place two to five drops on the shower floor and let the scented steam work its magic.

For overall well-being: Jasmine oil is said to reduce stress and combat depression. Rub a few drops on your pressure points, like your wrists or temples, when you need a pick-me-up. Jasmine is safe to apply directly to your skin. Bonus: It doubles as a heady perfume.

Would you try them? Or do you already use essential oils? I’d love to hear any tips or recommendations…You can find a bunch of essential oils here—I think I’m going to order sandalwood and eucalyptus:)

P.S. Lovely fall nail polish.

(Research and tips written by Caroline Donofrio. Photos by Kate Jordan for Cup of Jo. Tips found via Real Simple, Style Craze and Edens Garden)

  1. This is a great post that I tend to revisit (from my Pinterest). I have used many of these tips with great success. Just saying thank you! :)

  2. Thanks for the tips with essential oils. I didn’t know that can be used for house refreshing, that’s a great idea. I am always thinking how to make my home smelling more fresh and aromatic.

  3. Thank you for sharing this useful information. I ordinary use natural ingredients in products for cleaning, I prepare them all alone. Baking soda, olive oil and vinegar are my favorite ingredients. I like “green” recipes because they are safe for my children and they’re cheaper. Keep up the great work!

  4. I personally use orange essential oil as my cologne. No more of that expensive, all-chemical French-made perfume. 5$, smells better, natural, last longer!

  5. I love Essential Oils these for so many reasons.This is a great, inexpensive starter kit for someone interested in essential oils. My family uses doterra, and it is also amazing. For my budge this was a GREAT starter kit. I use lemongrass and sweet orange in my water. I add the eucalyptus to the basin of the shower for a spa like experience. I feel cooler and extra refreshed in this hot summer heat with a mix of peppermint and unscented lotion on my feet and behind my ears, especially while sleeping.

  6. I make my own face toner using rose water and a few drops of tea tree oil. It works wonders! My skin used to be highly sensitive and I got rid of that pain now. :D

  7. Thanks for the tipps on using it for beauty. Never thought about that before, i only heated some vanilla oil every now and then because it smelled so nice in my living room. Now I know what vanilla is for… ;-)

  8. Thanks for the essential oil cheat sheet! I will definitely be using this as a reference come the long winter! Thanks again

  9. I use Tea Tree directly on pimples. And yes, you can use it undiluted.
    Another great-great find is Ravintsare oil (Cinnamomum camphora)- it has anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties, it’s awesome for just sniffing, when you have flu, cold or runny nose and also helps if you put it on cold sores and such. I mostly treat those things without any pills or ‘Western’ medicine- ravintsare oil alone helps tremendously! But please don’t get it confused with a similar-sounding Ravensara aromatica, because ravensara is a totally different plant and doesn’t have the same anti-viral properties.


  10. I use lavender oil during summer to keep mosquitos away and appricot oil as moistrizer and wrinkle fighter :)

  11. Eucalyptus, Peppermint and Tea Tree Oil and always found in my home.

  12. I’m an aromatherapist* so I use essential oils a lot. I wrote a handy little book, just published, that answers most questions people have about essential oils and lays out how to use them and addressees safety issues.
    *certified, registered, and with a Master’s diploma- in case that’s important to you.
    Find it here:

  13. I love love love the way that they smell, but I have to be extremely careful about putting any on my skin… even ones that are considered “safe” for skin have caused mine irritation. I used essential oils in my homemade salves and body oils for a long time, and was so frustrated that my skin was still irritated, dry, and itchy when I was trying to take care of it naturally!

    This blog post helped me understand essential oils and skin a little better:

    Also, my yoga studio uses a mix of tea tree oil and water as a yoga mat sanitizing spray. I do love that, and it smells delicious!

  14. I use Young Living too! There are hundreds of oils and combination oils to choose from, which can be overwhelming! I purchased the Premium Starter Kit and have used only those few the past few months. It’s a perfect starter kit, because it has oils for most uses (healing, relaxation, purification, cleaning, etc). I use my oils topically daily, and I also diffuse them daily. I sometime use them in cooking. Loving that essential oils are becoming popular!

  15. I’m still so skeptical. I’m a long time believer in reducing the amount of smells in my home. No air fresheners, no perfume, no laundry scents or dryer sheets, no scented candles. If I want the house to smell good I bake cookies or make soup or tea. :) I feel like this is a good thing for my kids and pets too.

  16. Hi Joanna! We use essential oils all the time and LOVE them. My middlest came down with a little fever recently and I rubbed some peppermint oil on her forehead and temples…the fever was gone in less than 10 minutes! I love how soothing and cooling peppermint oil is, especially when you’re feeling icky. And I LOVE that oils work *with* the body to heal. I think you’ll love using them for your munchkins!

    Thanks for these fun tips! I haven’t used Jasmine yet, but now I want to! xo

  17. I keep saying I’ll try them, pinning so I have a guide once i do!

  18. such a useful post, i loved it! i love essential oils but didn’t know they had so many uses!!

  19. I love them and have helped me with my pollen alergy during my pregnancy when all medicine was off limits. I often use lemon, lavender and peppermint for all sorts of issues.

  20. Everyday feels like a spa day with oils. A bit of pampering amid the chaos.

  21. Joanna, if you use a humidifier in the winter time, try putting a couple drops of eucalyptus oil in with the water…it smells and feels so nice when you breathe it in, especially during cold season.

  22. Wow this is a great list, and the suggestions in the comments are even greater! I have been intrigued by essential oils for quite a while but have been looking to expand my horizons. I’ve been applying lavender on my neck before bed for relaxation and adding a few drops to my laundry for freshness. I just recently purchased the InTense roll on from doTerra which helps with headaches and general tension. I wouldn’t say its a cure all but it definitely helps take the edge off. I have a few others coming in the mail this week too. I can’t wait to try some of the uses you recommended!

  23. I use Young Living. I love my oils!! I put lavender on my children’s (and my own) big toes before bed time, and we sleep like babies. When I tuck them in bed at night they all have their little feet sticking out of the covers waiting on their lavender. :)We use peppermint a lot too, and have found some great blends to help with muscle soreness from sports(PanAway), mouth ulcers (Thieves), and allergies/sinus (R.C.) just to name a few.

  24. I’m a big fan of a couple of drops of lavender oil on fresh bed linen – perfect for a good night’s sleep!

  25. I use oil as a face wash – 1 part castor oil, 1 part avocado, 2 parts sweet almond oil, few drops of tea tree if I’m spotty. I massage it into my face about 2 minutes before I have a shower then let the steam open up all my pores. I drench a face washer with hot water, wring it out and then place the hot face washer over my face for a few moments before using the cloth to wipe all the oil off. It leaves my skin so soft afterwards and I don’t need to apply moisturiser after – it’s the only thing that got rid of the huge pores across my nose and it has done a lot to even out my skin tone. You can read more about it here

  26. I swear by rosehip oil under moisturiser daily on the face. I have been using it for years and it staves off crows feet and blemishes

  27. A bit off topic: Try out Harney and Sons Peppermint Herbal tea. Is our favorite!

  28. I always put frankincense oil on my skin as a perfume. In the bottle, it smells kind of like an old musty basement but once it mingles with my skin, it’s a really seductive scent! Also, I like to think that I smell vaguely…biblical.

  29. I’ve recently got into Doterra oils. I’m pregnant and planning on nursing again and you know you can’t take anything! I’ve been very happy so far, my son loves them too.

  30. I love this Canadian company, Saje.
    Especially their Peppermint Halo for headaches or stress applied to my neck and the Quick Study blend in a nebulizer to promote focus and well being. And my house smells awesome.

  31. Nice timing! I was just saying to a friend I would love to learn more about essential oils.

  32. A great source essential oils is Enfleurage in NYC. Joanna, since you’re in NYC, you should drop by and check it out. They’re on W. 13th st btwn 7th ave and Greenwich. Pure essential oil. No preservatives. No “enhancers”. I study there and buy a lot of my oils there. You have to be careful when buying EOs. Especially here in America where it’s a bit of the Wild Side West still when in comes to EOs. What it says on the bottle doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what’s in the bottle. It’s much more strictly regulated in Europe for just reason. EOs should help you, not hurt you. Speaking of hurt, one can apply some EOs neat on the skin, ie, lavender, but that has to be for a purpose, eg, acne, cuts, scars, and for a short period of time. You do not want to apply EO neat daily for a long period of time. It’s too much for you body and your body systems to handle properly. You could put your system out of whack. And I wouldn’t ingest EOs. Again, it’s too much for your body and body systems, and you could be putting your body system off balance and out of whack. Let’s say you had a parasite due to contaminated food handling or something like that, then maybe one drop of basil in tea. But after that one drop, you do not need to ingest again. It’s done the work and served a purpose properly. The whole point is to get the proper information and make a choice that is appropriate for you. Oh, yeah, and you gotta have fun with EOs. It is fun! And they smell good too! My two cents.

  33. oooh man! I use essential oils for everything! From perfume, to soap, to air freshener, to helping with rashes!
    I always try an oil before anything OTC.

    Thanks for the more health conscience posts lately!


  34. I love this! I’m currently obsessed with essential oils, but I never thought of mixing them with alcohol to make a perfume. Thats genius! Can’t wait to try!

    the little lion girl

  35. I just learned that peppermint oil soaked cotton balls help to keep mice, chipmunks and other critters away. Helpful if you live in the country where these guys are eyeing your attic at this time of year or if you’re closing up a cottage…

  36. How funny that you posted this today- I had just written about this last week (which posted today as well). I feel like the craze is truly in the air, but it’s one I’m really glad to be a part of. I love how versatile they are! They really can be used for anything from relaxation, cleaning, health, immunity…it’s crazy! Young Living has one called Peace & Calming that I diffuse almost every single night- my husband constantly asks for that one! We sleep SO deeply every time we do- it’s a noticeable difference! Love that you’re interested in this too, Joanna!


    p.s. the post I wrote about them can be found here:

  37. My favorite essential oil to go is, has been and probably will be lavender. I use it all the time. It’s a lifesaver!

  38. If you ever read a comment from me, let this be the one! The best smelling longest lasting universally appealing scent is …
    Their essential oil blends are so affordable for smelling and lasting like they do! I am obsessed with fragrance, sold it for years.. This stuff is incredible!!

  39. I love essential oils and use them often (mostly for making things, though when we’re sick I get out the actual bottles more!). I use several different brands and my knowledge is growing and changing every year (on safety, especially). I love that you recommended Mountain Rose Herbs! What a good quality and affordable source with no controversy surrounding it like some of the other big companies.

  40. This website is a great resource for learning more about aromatherapy. There’s actually a lot to learn about essential oils (re: ingestion, dilution, etc.):

    And I thought I’d share this article because I learned a lot from it. Lots to be aware of now that there are more companies producing essential oils, and making claims they shouldn’t be making since it affects our health and safety:

  41. I use Young Living essential oils, and I love them. They help with everything you can imagine. I highly suggest Young Living to anyone interested in oils… you can email me with any questions about YL if you’d like!

  42. Wonderful ideas here. I would like to add three things. Thuya oïl is widely used here in France/Switzerland to treat warts. It works very well. lavender drops go on my pillow before sleep. sweet almond oïl is often recommended here as the only thing to put in an infant’s bath tub.. and we still use it w toddlers. no skin problems to be seen. wonderful moisturizer even for sensitive skins. thanks for these tips!

  43. I love this! The website you linked to looks so great, but they sadly don’t ship to the UK, I was wondering if you might know of any other places to get hold of some that either ship internationally or that you came across in England? I’ve only really seen them in Holland & Barretts at high prices! :-)Ailish

  44. Good Brand Recommendation would be Tisserand by a aromatherapist!

  45. I would suggest that EO newbies do research first

    Tea tree(like lavender for a headache and sleep aid, few drops)can be applied neat on pimples, grazes, cuts etc.


  46. A good tip for those with school-age kids — tea tree oil repels lice! A drop or two mixed into their shampoo or a light misting of water/tea tree oil from a spray bottle keeps the buggies away. (Fingers crossed.)

  47. Yep, agree with your cousin as I’ve been an EO enthusiast for years!

    I was asked by a gentleman in a catalogue store in England (well over a decade now),what I was wearing? explained in was my own chemical-free & natural diy EO scent which included bergamot btw. He was thinking of gifting his wife.

    Try lavender oil in baking soda(let it mingle for a few days)and shake and vac. I could go on and on……….

    For skincare ir perfume it is best if you use them with a carrier oil like coconut, sweet almond etc.

    So versatile!


  48. I love essential oils. When I had my baby I began learning even more about them. Now I have an essential oil diffuser that we use daily. I’ve used oils to relieve stress, promote forgiveness, gratitude, opening my heart and I’m always amazed by how effective they are. I even diffused some oils that caused my child’s stuffy nose to drain the other night! Ah-mazing. You would really like the FB group Using Essential Oils Safely! I learned that eucalyptus oil can slow down breathing in children, which can obviously be very dangerous. I also learned oils should never be applied to the skin without a carrier oil, like coconut oil. I had been applying it without a carrier oil for a few moths, so I was really thankful to learn it early on in my use of EO’s. Oh, and they should never be ingested! EO’s are very difficult for the liver to process, which can cause liver damage. :-/ The pros to their use are abundant, as you know. :) Welcome to essential oils.

  49. @V: New Directions Aromatics is a website with hundreds of essential oils. I’ve used them before and they’re fantastic.

  50. V says...

    Sounds silly, but where do you get essential oils, especially eucalyptus? My gym offers chilled washcloths with eucalyptus, and I love them.

    Anyone know where to purchase eucalyptus oil in San Francisco?

  51. I’ve been wondering about essential oils. Thanks for this!

  52. I LOVED this post! I have been intrigued by essential oils for a while but haven’t been sure how to use them. This is such a great summary that I’m sure I’ll refer back to. Thank you!

  53. I use lavender essential oil to freshen up herb bundles in my closet and dresser, which keep away clothes moths. It’s worked out really well so far! Cedar is also great, and both keep my clothes smelling good as a bonus.

  54. Essential oils are great. However some should be used with carrier oils. Pros Mary oil,for example can hurt when put on the skin directly.

    A carrier oil is jojoba,almond oil,grapeseed oil,etc.

  55. is that navy blue nail polish the color for fall AGAIN? i love it, but i don’t love how hideous it looks after chipping (usually, after less than 24 hours). i’m sticking to my southern woman staple: OPI’s bubblebath!

  56. I use Young Living Essential Oils. The Panaway essential oil blend is great for muscle soreness and bruises, just rub it in right on the area in need. I also use the Lavender before bedtime, I inhale the scent for a couple of deep breaths before drifting off to sleep. The thieves blend is also great for household use and I’ve seen it cut through mold better like bleach.

  57. Essential oils have changed the way I take care of myself, my children, and my home. Absolutely love them, and there’s always more to learn! Oils are my fun little “mom outlet.”

    I blog about essential oils and lots of other things here:

  58. I use oils for almost a year now. Argan, lavender, rosa canina oil for face. Coconut in summer on body, tea tree on spots.
    They are great :)

  59. @anonymous, caroline researched the list of ways to use different oils. thanks!

  60. I love essential oils, but I feel morally obligated to spread the word to readers that it’s extremely important to DILUTE! Essential oils (especially bergamot!) can react with the sun to cause photosensitivity, which effectively acts as a magnifying glass with UV rays. I’m still healing from 2nd degree burns from dabbing on some essential oils before spending some time in the sun (with sunscreen of course). Just spreading the word, I’d hate for someone else to go through that!

  61. A little confused about something editorial: why does it say “written by Caroline” when you started the post with the voice of yours (“my england vacation”)?

  62. I’ve been considering trying essential oils since I have a few friends that sell them and have nothing but wonderful things to say. Thanks for posting!

  63. I love essential oils as well and use the DoTerra brand. I prefer that company as they are certified pure therapeutic grade. I love their DigestZen for upset tummies and use their OnGuard for immunity boosting on me and my 3 year old son. You need to be careful with the cheaper brands as they are often cut with synthetic materials and can cause rashes, etc.

  64. i bought some eucalyptus oil a while back when i had a cold. I put a few drops in boiling water and put a towel over my head to make a tent and breath it in. It really helped.

    It also works for migraines. I put some in warm water, swish a washcloth around in it, fold it into a compress and place on my forehead. It really takes the edge off the pain

  65. I love essential oils and aromatherapy. I’ve been studying and practicing for 8 years. There’s debate though to dilute or not dilute when applying to skin. I say dilute, dilute, dilute! Dilute your EOs properly before applying to skin. Depending on the oil, one could have a mild to severe reaction, or perhaps no reaction. These are natural occurring chemicals, and it’s a lot to ask your skin, central nervous system, and internal organs to process. Read up and study from reliable sources before you apply to skin. After that, go for it!

  66. Dill oil is said to help heal the pancreas and help with balancing blood sugar=no more sugar cravings :)

    I use lemon, peppermint and dill mixed with oil on the bottoms of my feet at night.

    And I use a diffuser for a fresh scent in the house. I buy most of my oils from Mountain Rose Herbs online or Whole foods.

  67. eleanor, no, but i would love to go!! thanks for the tip!

  68. Have you been to Remedies in Carroll Gardens? I love to be able to sample/smell things in person, so feel iffy about ordering fragrances online.

  69. Every night I warm up my cherry pit cushion and put a few drops of lavender oil on it and take it to bed with me.
    Since I’ve been doing that I sleep like a rock. Works like a charm!

  70. Yes, I already use them. I love them- especially in the bath. On vacation when my kids are sleeping in a new bed I often put a few drops of lavender oil on the pillow or sheets to make it smell lovely and soothing. These are some great ideas though Joanna– thank you. Especially love the vacuum one! Thanks.

  71. IF YOU HAVE CATS, do some research first because most essential oils are dangerous for felines.

  72. Is tea tree oil OK to use undiluted (or does the neem oil dilute it)? I thought undiluted tea tree oil may cause blisters/burns. . . .

  73. Love Mountian Rose Herbs – they even send little recipes in your box when you order from them which is fun! Love them! Just this morning I made a mix of Almond Oil and Lavender for my husbands sun burned lips. :)

  74. Great post! I make my own toner using witch hazel, tea tree oil, & dried calendula flower. It keeps my skin clear, but it’s also bright & fresh smelling. It really wakes me up first thing in the morning. I love to add a little lavender oil to my bath, or mix it with baking soda & use it when I launder our sheets.

  75. We’re big fans in our home! I use some as perfume, have diffusers in our house, use lavender on cuts and scrapes, put some in our homemade toothpaste… the list goes on and on.
    Love them.

  76. I like essential oils too. One thing to be cognizant of is that some can be sensitizing if you apply them neat to skin. This can screw you up for life… like say it happens with vanilla, you then could potentially react badly to vanilla EO no matter how minute the concentration is for life (like even in something like a body lotion). Others like lemon can make you very sensitive to the sun. I have come across these warnings when doing my own research about EOs so don’t just take my word for it. This is one of those situations where lots of people think “oh EOs are natural so they must be harmless”… which is not the case at all. Some EOs are also very toxic to humans and pets. You’ll generally be safe with the mainstream oils, but some of the more rare ones I would definitely suggest reading up on before you use them. And do not ingest them unless you buy ones specifically marked for that purpose (even that is iffy). The safest way to use EOs (if applying to skin) is to dilute them in a carrier oil. EOs can be fun and relaxing… just respect them as you would any potentially dangerous substance and you will be fine.

  77. Yes I love using the doterra oils! My kids even use them to help focus in school and to relax at night. I run Ylang Ylang in a diffuser in my kitchen and it makes my house smell wonderful. Big thumbs up for oils!

  78. We love essential oils! We use DoTerra oils and love them! I make my own cleaning supplies, laundry detergent, and remedies for sickness. I use a kind called serenity on the soles of my kids feet to even them out and calm them down if they’re struggling emitionally. Thanks for the tip on making perfume! Never thought to do that!

  79. I only use DōTerra essential oils. If you’d like to order, please contact me at My website is

  80. They’re great for after giving birth! I put lavender and tea tree oil in the bath to help with healing. You need to mix it with a small amount of milk to help it disperse properly otherwise it just sits on the top! I also had lavender oil in my birthing pool!

  81. Yes, essential oils are great and i use them often when i am stressed for instance. They are also great in cakes and other foods (but be careful, not all esstnial oils are edible and they must always be used in tiny quantities).

  82. I use them every single day! So good! :)

  83. Everyone raves about essential oils for everything. I have a few friends who sell them, but would like to see a catalog or something before I make a purchase.