A Beginner’s Guide To Buying Essential Oils

produced by Anna Jay; photographed by Kate Anglestein.
Maybe it's the Lord of the Rings fan in me, but I still view essential oils as somewhat mystical items: soothing tinctures with the power to influence your mood and enhance your self-care routine. Of course, that's only when they're used properly. Essential oils can be irritating when used in skincare products and they can be downright dangerous if you use a hazardous variety or don't dilute them properly. Despite essential oils' growing reputation as goop-approved, "all natural" products for general wellness, it's still important to do your research before trying them out willy-nilly.
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But, there's no need to be intimidated if you are interested in dipping a toe or two into the world of essential oils. And, you don't have to be an expert to reap their benefits. According to holistic aesthetician, aromatherapist, and author Stephanie Tourles, you just have to start slowly with a few basic varieties — and be prepared to read a lot before actually using any.
Ahead, Tourles walks us through five beginner-friendly steps to buying and using essential oils.
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illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Start building an essential collection.

If you're a beginner but still want to make sure your bases are covered, Tourles says to start with the following 11 varieties, which present a range of properties, from soothing to energising to purifying: clove bud, eucalyptus, geranium, lavender, lemon, peppermint, rosemary, tea tree, thyme, and two varieties of chamomile (German and Roman). Plus, they take the cake in terms of versatility, Tourles explains.

When you set out on building your collection, Tourles stresses the importance of being a discerning consumer. Take time to find a source that is legit — she says to watch out for retailers whose prices are much lower than average, who don't provide purity reports for their oils, or whose products are marked as "perfume oil," "fragrance oil," "scented oil," or "essence of (whatever plant)," in particular. "These descriptors indicate that the contents are synthetic or a synthetic blend and are of no value therapeutically," Tourles explains. And, she adds as a blanket rule: "'Natural' does not mean 'harmless.'"
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illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Know which varieties are off-limits (and when).

Not only can individual people have sensitivities to essential oils, but whole groups such as pregnant people, people with asthma, people with sensitive skin, and infants — are known to be sensitive to certain blends and quantities of essential oils. While pregnant people can still use some essential oils in low concentrations, the other groups should just avoid using essential oils altogether, Tourles advises. She adds that those who don't have any known sensitivities should still practice caution when trying a new variety. Always talk to your doctor and do your research (more on that later).
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illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Enjoy their versatility, but do not eat them.

"As a professional aromatherapist, I don’t generally recommend ingesting essential oils," Tourles says. She adds that essential oils are usually intensely concentrated — just a few drops of one could be far more potent that you realise, which could lead to irritation when it comes in contact with the thin tissues of your mouth and oesophagus. The only exception is if you're working with a professional or using a product that contains minute amounts of essential oils and was made specifically for ingestion.

Otherwise, stick to external uses: Diffuse them in your home for 20 to 30 minutes. Dilute them with a carrier oil (a neutral oil like jojoba, almond, coconut, or olive oil) and create a soothing compress, a massage oil, or even an insect repellant.
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illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Do your research

This is probably the tip that Tourles offers the most: "Before using a new essential oil, become familiar with its properties, methods of application, toxicity, precautions, and contraindications." Yes, they're fun and they smell nice, but you should always know what you're putting on your body before you do so. Like we said before, that means talking to your doctor, and most likely doing plenty of reading on your end, too. Despite their growing popularity, essential oils are very personal products. Only when you do your research will you know which ones are right for you, how you should use them, and how much you'll need to dilute them.

This might sound like a lot of work just to try something out of curiosity, but you really don't want to mess with essential oils without taking the proper precautions. And, once you're an unofficial expert in the type you want to try, be sure to do a patch test on the inside of your forearm.
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illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Don't get stuck in a rut.

Variety is, after all, the spice of life, so don't settle for just one or two essential oils you cycle through. Tourles recommends several non-basic varieties you could add to your collection, including bergamot, grapefruit, cedarwood, and balsam fir.

And, when we say "rut," we also mean avoiding overexposure to essential oils in general, whether you're diffusing them, using them for aromatherapy, or using them topically. Don't leave your diffuser running for more than a half hour at a time and, again, know how to maintain a safe concentration of your variety of choice.
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