Essential Oil: The Basics

TEXT by Celine MacKay + Kara Thomas | PHOTOGRAPHS by Celine MacKay


Aromatherapy has been of keen interest to me lately but not simply because of their perfume but because of their deep, powerful actions on the body. In fact, these potent oils go down in history thousands of years and were among Europe's first plant-based medicines to be found in traditional pharmacies. In some ways it's too bad that the term "aromatherapy" implies that essential oils are targeted only at the sense of smell, when in truth they can be used to treat many, many common discomforts and minor illnesses quite effectively. One drop contains plant power in amazing concentrations—for example it takes one tonne of rose petals to create 300g of rose oil (sheer numbers like this highlight how imperative it is that the essential oils are harvested and produced sustainably, otherwise our planet won't be able to afford a luxury like that forever). It's a bonus that annointing yourself also happens to also smell divine. Mother Nature is amazing that way.

We've noticed that we're not the only ones interested in the art (and science) of aromatherapy and we field a lot of questions on getting started, which inspired us to put together this simple introduction.


Your nose is a powerful tool when seeking to decipher between a truly organic, authentic, and pure essential oil and a synthetic, adulterated fragrance oil. As you inhale a scent deeply your body will naturally react to the molecules it is breathing in. Synthetics will often cause you to recoil due to their potent sweetness, feel nauseous, dizzy, anxious, aggravated, or repulsed. A natural essential oil will cause you to relax, enjoy, and even smile, as you experience the instant healing that it brings. (True authentic essential oils are potent and don't always smell like you'd expect—they can smell medicinal, raw, deeply earthy, and pungent as well as intensely floral.) Think of a beautiful organic, freshly picked, summer strawberry—the difference in aroma and taste is easily discernable. This is a good comparison to remember when seeking out a pure essential oil from the mass of synthetically processed fragrance oils that are so easily accessible to us. Chemically, essential oils are more than a fragrance—they are volatile oils that contain chemical constituents with real actions on the body, physically and emotionally.

Other things to look for:

  • Organic whenever possible
  • A pure essential oil should list the country of origin
  • Oils should have been extracted using steam distillation or cold-pressed and not by chemical solvents.  



There are so many amazing ways to utilize the healing properties of essential oil. They can be used in cleaning as an antiseptic or antibacterial (such as rosemary, thyme, lavender, or tea tree). They can be used medicinally to treat the common cold (such as peppermint or eucalyptus), fungal infections (lemon or thuja), respiratory issues, combat stress, or bring on sleep, to list a few examples. Essential Oils are also perfect for all your personal care needs. From boosting your shampoo, healthy hair growth, promoting nice skin or healing skin conditions, helping you stay alert and focused, or even lift a bad mood, you will be amazed to see how they positively change your daily life.

Aromatic diffusers are very popular as of late and this is a simple way to ease into the art of working with essential oils. The folks at Vitruvi provide a great rundown on how scent signals the brain, and why it can conjure up memories and emotions, or trigger sensations of calm or wakefulness. Start by choosing an ultrasonic diffuser which does not use heat to disperse the oil (using heat risks altering the chemical makeup of the oil). You can choose a favourite oil simply because it smells nice to you (which is healing in and of itself) or work on blends that may have a desired effect on your mood, such as energizing or calming. Here's a suggestion called Sunrise at Bali from our friends at Vitruvi, designed to induce that feeling of calm you experience right after yoga, or to indulge in on Sunday mornings "when you have your comfortable pants on, a hair mask hydrating your tresses and your slow jams on while you dry brush and do your laundry". Sounds pretty good, no?

  • 2 drops of Ylang Ylang
  • 4 drops of Geranium
  • 6 drops of Sweet orange
  • 3 drops of Tangerine
  • 4 drops of Tea Tree
  • 2 drops of Lemon


Massage is one of the easiest ways to explore the medicinal qualities of essential oils such as those targeted at softening tense muscles like lavender, eucalyptus, coriander, marjoram, black pepper, or peppermint, to name a few. Usually when used on the body, essential oils are meant to be diluted due to their incredible concentrations. You'll also notice that the smell "profile" becomes easier to discern once diluted and the experience of using an oil becomes althogether more pleasurable. Choosing a carrier oil to make your own body, perfume or massage oil is important to and it's generally recommended to choose organic, nourishing oils such as jojoba or apricot kernel oil.

Dilution Guide:

  • 20-60 drops per 100ml of base oil
  • 7-25 drops per 25ml of base oil
  • 3-5 drops per 1tsp of base oil


Also shown above is Bohindi's gorgeous essential oil bracelets using lava rock and moonstone. I have fallen seriously in love with these bracelets and wear them almost daily. A single drop of oil on the lava rock imparts a gentle smell you can enjoy for a few hours before it needs more. My favourite oil to use is Frankencense or Patchouli for their earthy, grounding properties. Once of the properties of Frankencense is to aid in medition by calming the nervous system and deepening the breath. Browse Bohindi's products here.

There are two typical ways to blend essential oils: for therapeutic/medicinal purposes or for fragrance/sensual purposes. Since it takes years of experience and lots of knowledge to make effective medicinal blends, we'll focus here on some tips on achieving a pleasing aromatic blend (and for insanely wonderful therapeutic blends check these out—we are the HUGEST fans of Living Libations).

An important part of blending scents properly is understanding the difference between top notes, middle notes, and base notes, to be combined in your carrier oil. Here's an analogy we found helpful: top notes, middle notes, and base notes can be understood by comparing them to a tree. Some scents reside in the highest branches (the “top notes”), and these are the scents you will smell first. They also fade away quickly, leaving the lingering middle and base notes; the strong centre and roots of the tree.

  • Examples of top notes (usually fruits, twigs, or flowers that appear at the top of a tree): Tangerine, Lemon, Pink Grapefruit, Sweet Orange & Bergamot.
  • Examples of middle notes (usually bushes, grasses, shrubs, barks, flowers, and seeds – plants that grow above but not on the tops of tree): Tea Tree, Spruce, Geranium, Lemongrass, Lavender, Peppermint, Rosemary, & Eucalyptus
  • Examples of base notes (usually from roots, resins, barks, or some flowers – very deep and grounding scents): Ylang Ylang, Frankincense, & Cedar Wood

* Sometimes oils can fall into more than one category. Such as: Rosemary. While it is an herbal middle note, it has great staying power and can be blended as a base note if so desired. 

** Generally speaking, oils that fall in the same plant family or scent category (such as "spices") will blend nicely.

*** Often, a single drop of lavender will bring a blend together.

Blending is truly an art form that simply takes practice to make perfect. To start your blend, add one drop each of a top, middle, and base note. Allow the oils to mix and swirl together, and give it a minute to develop a full aroma profile. Add your drops in slowly, one at a time, taking time to pause and smell between each drop. This will help you avoid a mix that is too heavy or unpleasant.


The Ayurvedic art of Abhyanga | Skin-Brushing | Essential Oils for Oral Care


Vitruvi (Oils + Diffuser) | Living Libations