Essential oils—or hydrosols, as they’re sometimes called—are aromatic compounds extracted from plants. The term “essential” is related to the “essence” or unique fragrance of each plant. Unlike the “essential” part of essential fatty acids, essential oils are not essential for our health, but they are used in a wide variety of products: perfumes and fragrances, cosmetics, soaps, cleaners (mostly to provide pleasant scents), massage oils, aromatherapy, and food flavorings.
An important thing to remember about essential oils is that they are highly concentrated! That means you should not apply them to your skin or consume them in an undiluted form. Some essential oils are inedible no matter how much they’re diluted. If you are going to ingest an essential oil—citrus oils are popular in baked goods, for example—make sure it’s edible-grade oil rather than one that is supposed to be used only for cosmetic or aromatic purposes.
Ways to use essential oils:
- Add a drop or two of cedar wood oil to a basic water-and-vinegar solution to make a sweet-smelling cleaning spray.
- Stir a drop of peppermint oil into unscented lotion to make the ultimate foot cream. If you make your own lotions, experiment with different types of essential oils. (But check first to make sure they’re suitable for topical use!)
- If you make your own candles or soaps, you can give them a natural scent by adding a few drops of your favorite essential oils to the recipe.
- Aromatherapy is based on using essential oils to boost daily and long-term health. Different combinations of essential oils provide different effects: calming, energizing, memory-enhancing, etc. The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy explains the basics of aromatherapy on their website (https://www.naha.org/), and many companies offer organic-certified oils accompanied with information about how to use them safely. Numerous books have been written on the subject of aromatherapy.
- To make DIY massage oil, dilute your favorite essential oil with a carrier oil like extra-virgin olive oil or unrefined almond oil. Again, remember that less is more—you don’t need much of the essential oil. Also note that citrus oils cause skin to be oversensitive to sunlight and therefore prone to sunburn, so don’t apply any oil or product with citrus oil before going outside. And make sure anyone coming into contact with your homemade massage oil doesn’t have an allergy to the plant the oil was extracted from.
- Next time you make a vanilla cake, stir ¼ teaspoon of orange, lemon, or lime oil into the batter to infuse the entire cake with a gentle citrus flavor. Try not to get the oil onto your skin, though—undiluted essential oil can irritate skin.
- Hydrosols like rosewater and orange blossom water are often used in North African and Middle Eastern cuisines—just a tiny drizzle provides a floral flavor and fragrance to everything from chicken dishes and salads to desserts and beverages.
- If you’re an amateur mixologist, try adding essential oils/hydrosols to your cocktails. Or go the non-alcoholic route and make custom sodas by combining the oils with extracts. Orange oil + vanilla extract = orange soda, while rosewater + vanilla extract = rose soda, a refreshing and unusual drink.
- If you’re a tea lover, a drop or two of orange blossom water will add a floral burst of flavor your next pot. Almost any non-minty herbal infusions pairs well with orange blossom water.