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What is Aromatherapy? A Guide to Essential Oils and Diffusers

BY: Andy Seifert | Apr 26, 2017

If you've spent any time researching alternative medicines, you may have come across an alluring remedy: aromatherapy. You might see it paired with an assortment of products called "diffusers" or with a huge catalog of different scents. Or you might see it as an optional add-on to a massage.

So what is aromatherapy? Simply, it's the process of using essential oils (typically extracted from plants) for therapeutic purposes. The practice has a wide range of uses, from treating anxiety and relieving muscle pain to improving your general well-being. If you're interested in the basics of the holistic practice, use this guide to choose between aromatherapy's myriad diffusers and essential oils.


Choose Your Aromatherapy Essential Oils

Don't be overwhelmed by the amount of aromatherapy essential oils to pick from—one of the great joys of the practice is experiencing and experimenting with as many different oils as possible. As you progress along this exploration of olfactory sensations, you may want to start blending oils to create new and adventurous smells. But to start, use this list of the most-popular oils and their benefits:


Lavender might be the quintessential essential oil because it does it all. Use it for stress and pain relief, to brighten your mood, or for a more peaceful night's rest (consider a drop or two on your pillow). If you're looking for an oil to explore first, lavender is a great choice, especially if you're looking to enhance your facial oil routine.


If you're suffering during cold/flu season, try diffusing a few drops of eucalyptus oil into steam. Eucalyptus's cool, crisp properties should help ease your cough and any sinus or chest pains. You could also apply it directly onto any sore muscles via carrier oil (more on those later).


Combined with coconut oil, lemongrass essential oil makes for a popular aromatic addition to a massage, since it purifies the skin. Some report that lemongrass's aroma alleviates nervousness. You might also want to diffuse a few drops on your patio during summer cookouts, as it's known to repel mosquitoes.


This oil comes from the orange's peel, and it's mostly associated with boosting your immune system. It's used to reduce anxiety and promote relaxing thoughts, too. After all, when your mind registers the smell of oranges, how can you not imagine the sight of tropical orchards packed with orange trees, stretching along the sea? 

Cinnamon Leaf

Cinnamon's potpourri-esque scent makes it perfect for autumnal aromatherapy sessions. While it doesn't boast a deep menu of health benefits, some people use it to boost blood circulation, and others say that it works as an aphrodisiac.


Peppermint essential oil is sort of like aromatherapy's version of smelling salts. A few whiffs of peppermint's signature menthol scent should shake the cobwebs from your mind and wake you up. And as you probably guessed, it's popular to soothe the sinuses of those with congestion issues.


Not unlike lavender, lemon is one of aromatherapy's most-versatile oils. Its citrus smell has been known to fight depression, increase energy, and make a room smell clean and bright. Try it for just about anything.

Tea Tree

This is another classic immune-system booster. Extracted from the Melaleuca alternifolia tree of eastern Australian, tea tree oil has been used by the Aussies for decades. When used in aromatherapy, it helps stimulate blood circulation and may kill acne bacteria. (Note: do not take tea tree oil internally).


People especially like spearmint's pleasant, refreshing scent, but it also has been used as a diuretic and for its anti-bacterial properties. If you have a headache, try relaxing in the bathtub after applying a few drops of spearmint oil.

Shop: Nu Yuu basic set with lavendar, eucalyptus, peppermint, lemon, orange & tea tree essential oils ($13.99)

Choose Your Method

Once you've purchased your essential oil, it's time to start your aromatherapy experience. You have a number of options, and we encourage you to try as many as possible. You can:

  • Drip it directly onto a tissue, and breath it in. Go easy on the oil here. One or two drops will work fine.
  • Steam it by putting a few drops of the oil into a bowl of just-boiled water.
  • Apply it on to your skin, but do not apply it directly without diluting it. Many essential oils are too potent for the skin by themselves. Dilute the oil by adding a few drops to what's called a "carrier oil" (sweet almond or coconut oil are two options) and then use the mixture on the skin. This method is especially popular for massages.
  • Bathe with it by adding 5 or 6 drops into a carrier oil and pouring this mixture into a bubble bath.
  • Diffuse it with one of the diffusers listed below. This way, you can either breath it in, or let its aroma fill up the room as an air freshener.

Note: Carefully read the instructions on each essential-oil container, as some of these methods are not suitable for specific oils.

Choose Your Aromatherapy Diffuser

If you think you're going to enjoy the practice long-term, you'll eventually want to purchase an aromatherapy diffuser, which lets you easily breathe in the oil. Here, you have several options:

Ultrasonic Diffuser

What it does: Instead of heat, this electronic diffuser uses ultrasonic waves to break down the particles of the essential oil, releasing them as a pleasing mist that's easy to inhale.

Why choose it: Because it avoids heat, which can change the chemical properties of your oil. It also uses water, so it doubles as a humidifier.

Shop: Art Naturals diffuser with 8-pack essential oil gift set ($34.99)

Evaporative or Fan Diffuser

What it does: This simple diffuser uses a fan to push air through an absorbent filter that you apply your oil to.

Why choose it: Because it's quiet and easy to use, and it might be your best option for filling up a large room (i.e., for use as an air freshener).

Shop: Mini Scentifier portable fan diffuser ($10)


What it does: Like an ultrasonic diffuser, a nebulizer breaks down an essential oil into smaller molecules. However, it uses a pressurized air flow, typically routed through a glass container that gently exudes it into the air.

Why choose it: Because of all the diffusers, a nebulizer will likely work the fastest and may produce the most potent aromas.

Shop: Carepeutic aroma nebulizer ($99.95)

Heat Diffuser

What it does: It uses heat (often via candle that you light when ready) to diffuse your oil.

Why choose it: Because this is one of the quietest types of diffusers; it's often silent if you're simply using a candle.

Reed Diffuser

What it does: These reeds soak in an essential oil and slowly release the scent into the room to create a de-facto long-term aromatherapy session.

Why choose it: Because this is the quietest diffuser. No electrical outlets are necessary. And they're usually the most affordable option.

Shop: Bodhi essential oil reed aromatherapy diffuser ($58.99)

Guide Staff Writer
BY: Andy Seifert