How Do Essential Oils Work?

July 3, 2013

Essential oils can be inhaled through the nose and the lungs or absorbed by the skin. (Essential oils can even be used internally, however this is only advisable under the advice of an expert.) Below is a short explanation of how this works:

Through the nose to the brain
When diffusing essential oils, the aroma molecules travel through the nose, directly into the limbic system* in the brain. This is the part of our brain where our emotions are triggered, which explains why scent can have such an impact on how we feel and why it can stir up all kinds of memories. At the moment that the scent is received by the limbic system, several parts of the brain are immediately activated.

These centres of the brain are responsible for many things, including our appetite, sexual desire, sleep, euphoria, memory and the relief of pain or stress. By diffusing essential oils, these areas of the body can be stimulated and balanced thanks to the air being imbued with the oils’ special properties.

Through the lungs into the bloodstream
When diffusing essential oils, aroma molecules are inhaled by the nose and into the respiratory tract. Here they are absorbed directly in the bloodstream through capillaries and pulmonary sacs in the lungs. Once they are in the bloodstream, the essential oils are being transported to the various organs where they can have further positive effects.

Through the skin into the bloodstream and organs

Essential oils can also be absorbed by the skin. They are one of the few substances that can penetrate the epidermis, the outside layer of the skin. For example, our skin is ‘waterproof’. Because of the unique composition of the oil, it can penetrate the epidermis, where it can be picked up and transported via our cells and lymph fluid. The essential oil then reaches the bloodstream, which is how it finally gets to the various organs of the body.

The aforementioned provides a brief explanation of why the use of essential oils can have such a positive impact on our physical and/or emotional well-being, and why scent plays such an important role in triggering our memories.


* Limbic system: The limbic system is situated in one of the oldest parts of the brain. Its different components are involved with emotions, memory, the autonomic nervous system and hormonal system, as well as the primary centres of the brain that control hunger, thirst and sexual desires. This is also the location within the brain where information regarding a scent is processed.

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