19 Essential Oils for Beginners

Reader Contribution by Marlene Adelmann
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Is Aromatherapy Herbalism?

No and yes. No, because they’re different disciplines using botanical materials in different ways. Yes, because aromatherapy is used by many herbalists to complement an herbal treatment, or, in many cases, to complete it. Both disciplines use plants to support healing. Herbalists use a holistic approach, considering all aspects of a person’s dis-ease. In using both herbal preparations(infusions, decoctions, tinctures, etc.) and essential oils (water-insoluble components of the plant), an herbalist can create a broader holistic approach to address imbalance.


Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils to support healing. Essential oils are volatile substances extracted from plants, typically by a distillation process. Their properties aren’t released in any significant amount in typical herbal preparations. Essential oils are comprised of numerous chemical constituents, with each chemical having a particular signature and mode of action. The majority of the constituents in essential oils are produced by the plants, either for their own protection, to attract pollinators, or to heal wounds. Their modes of action and therapeutic properties are also effective on humans, and we can use essential oils to affect our physical and emotional health.

Photo by Pixabay/erinstone

Over 100,000 aromas can be found in nature, but as humans, we can recognize only about 300. Receptors in our sinuses (the olfactory bulb) lead to the limbic system of the brain that corresponds to our emotions and feelings. When we inhale aroma molecules, we have a direct path to our emotions and memories. That’s why when you smell certain aromas, such as a cake baking in the oven or a soup pot on the stove, it can bring you back to a different place and time. You have effectively experienced aromatherapy! This is a simple example for a complex healing art, but you get the point I’m sure.

Essential oils are most commonly administered aromatically via inhalation, and topically via absorption through the skin. Essential oils are rarely taken internally, and never without the supervision of a professional health care provider with extensive knowledge in the practice of aromatherapy and its effects on the body. Safe use of essential oils is paramount! Learn more about safety guidelines for aromatic, internal, and topical use as well as dilution recommendations in the article “Essential Oil Safety.”

Many essential oils are antiviral and antibacterial and can be used in diffusers to help fight cold and flu infections as well as ease congestion. Essential oils with nervine properties can be used to calm anxiety, soothe headaches, and alleviate sleeplessness. The stimulating effect of some essential oils can be used to energize the mind and body, improve mental focus and memory, and ease mental fatigue.

Remember that our skin is our largest organ and is not to be ignored. However, essential oils are potent and are usually mixed with carrier oils before being used on skin. When essential oils are used in skin products, they can promote cell growth, improve circulation, and help rid the body of toxins. Essential oils can also be helpful for alleviating pain, swelling, and itching from bruises, bug bites, and stings.

Aromatherapy in Herbalism

Herbalists use botanical material (flowers, leaves, bark, seeds, roots) to make remedies that can be taken internally. Many herbs are actually food and can be eaten or drunk on a daily basis. Aromatherapists use the essential oils of the plant, and for the most part, they’re used externally or topically, although internal use is sometimes recommended under their experienced supervision.

An herbalist may complement an herbal treatment with an essential oil to help stimulate feelings or emotions that may indeed support the healing process. They may also include essential oils as part of their prescription to help build immunity or to reduce stress and encourage relaxation. Essential oils can be used for these purposes in salves, lotions, ointments, and other skin preparations; in steam inhalations and simply diffused into the air; and in dental hygiene products and throat sprays. A thoughtfully made herbal preparation with essential oils has therapeutic value not just from the essential oil itself, but also the other ingredients with which the essential oil is combined. This, along with the careful, holistic consideration of the dis-ease profile, makes for a powerful holistic remedy.

19 Essential Oils For Beginners

Here are some essential oils that you may want to have in your home kit. For suggestions for a starter kit with four essential oils, see this “Basic Essential Oils for Daily Living” article.

Essential Oil


Therapeutic Properties


Light, citrusy

May help nervous tension.

Chamomile (Roman)

Fruity, woody

May help ease stress, tension, and anxiety; improves digestion; reduces pain; heals skin.


Lemony, citrusy

Insect repellant; may help with fevers and digestion.

Clary Sage

Sweet, spicy

Calming; may help with muscle fatigue, improve sleep; uplifting; tension tamer and aphrodisiac.


Light, woody

Calming and uplifting.



Helps ease pain; improves mental clarity; reduces congestion.


Warm, exotic, sweet, spicy

Calming; may help with aging skin.


Floral, spicy

Promotes emotional balance; eases stress and tension.



Stimulating; improves mental clarity; soothes pain and nausea.



Improves mental clarity and memory.


Sweet, heavy, floral

Helps uplift mood; may help improve skin elasticity; reduces stretch marks; aphrodisiac.


Fresh, fruity, woody

Helps with mental exhaustion.



Helps reduce pain and inflammation; promotes relaxation and restful sleep.



Uplifting; improves mental clarity.


Heavy, floral

Calming and uplifting.

Rose (otto)

Floral, damp, invigorating

Helps uplift mood and ease anxiety.


Menthol, earthy

Helps soothe mental fatigue; relaxes tight muscles.


Earthy, spicy, floral, woody

Calming; aphrodisiac; eases stress.

Tea Tree


Antibiotic; antifungal; antiviral.

*Sustainability concerns; use a sustainable source or an alternative essential oil.

Herbalists are lifelong learners, and a well-informed herbalist will want to embrace the use of aromatherapy in their art and practice, but not without educating themselves first. It is important to remember that essential oils are not the same as their whole-plant counterparts, and may have very different properties, so developing a thorough understanding of them is essential to using them safely and effectively. Through education, we can better inform ourselves to take care of ourselves and those that we love. Aromatherapy and herbalism are serious studies that require dedication and commitment.

Learn more about essential oils in the Using Essential Oils blog series.

Marlene Adelmann is the Founder and Director of the Herbal Academy of New England, the home of the Online Introductory Herbal Course, Online Intermediate Herbal Course, and meeting place for Boston area herbalists. Photos provided and copyrighted by Herbal Academy of New England.

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