In America's holistic health scene, essential oils have become synonymous with wellness. More and more stores, from health food to big box, have made space for tiny, amber-colored bottles stamped with plant names like jasmine and chamomile, and more obscure ones like mugwort and bergamot.
They are used for aromatherapy and a myriad of ailments including congestion, stress, insomnia, depression, acne, skin inflammation, burns and even allergies.
Although not new, they've become the rage. So what's all this essential oil buzz really about?
Essential oils, which differ from fragrance oils, are pure plant extracts. Seeds, bark, stems, roots, flowers and other parts are distilled or evaporated, leaving a tiny amount of potent liquid -- the "essence" of its mother plant. The idea is to take what a plant uses to keep itself attractive, healthy and disease-free and harness those qualities in our own lives.
Lauren Jones is convinced of the beneficial use of essential oils -- so much so that she launched her own brand last year with the idea of helping people minimize their exposure to harmful chemicals. She was a regular vendor at the Wrightsville Beach Farmers Market in 2017.
"Many of the recipes and formulas were developed for personal use over the years of my disappointments with manufactured product ingredients, frustration with adult acne, and desire to live a more natural and balanced life," Jones says.
Oils can be diffused in the air, applied topically, and incorporated into baths or massages. They're commonly used for aromatherapy with the idea that by stimulating olfactory receptors in the nose, they send messages through the nervous system to the part of the brain that controls emotions, and from there do good things like enhance mood or relieve anxiety.
Jones uses patchouli in the fall and winter because it is considered an earthy and warming scent; cooling peppermint is for summer; and she says lavender is good for relaxation and to reduce stress.
In addition to aromatic purposes, many make use of essential oils with antiseptic properties, including tea tree and the lesser-known helichrysum, as first aid for stings, burns, infections and other skin conditions.
With a reputation as a cure-all, tea tree essential oil is an antibacterial, antimicrobial, antiseptic, antiviral, balsamic, cicatrizant, expectorant, fungicide, insecticide, stimulant, and sudorific substance with a lengthy list of uses from curing athlete's foot to repelling insects.
Jones uses oils with antibacterial properties when creating recipes for products like dry skin salves and deodorant. For the latter she uses lemon, oregano and tea tree as the base, and adds scents based on seasons and uses. All three oils provide a refreshing, herbal fragrance while preventing odor-causing bacteria.
"A warm, moist environment like an armpit is a breeding ground for bacteria, and when trying to create a balanced solution for that, I looked into essential oils that were gentle, but known for their antibacterial and antifungal properties," she says.
Products made with oils have different properties and purposes, but all have something in common -- they come from nature.
"I look to plants as prevention, relief and cure before I look to modern medicine, which absolutely has its place and necessity," Jones says. "I just believe that there are more gentle and, in my experience, sometimes more effective natural options which have mostly been forgotten in our culture."
Jennifer Vanderfleet sees botanicals as a medicinal option, as it is part of her family heritage. Her great-grandmother was an herbalist in the village of Donegal, Ireland, and passed her knowledge on to her daughter. Vanderfleet's grandmother would gather the plants, help do the preparations and go on house calls.
She, in turn, passed her knowledge of the naturopathic approach to colds or cuts to her granddaughter.
"From a young age, it was instilled into me that this was a viable option for maladies," Vanderfleet says.
She became very interested in holistic medicine. Living at the beach without access to the plants, she fell into oils. She apprenticed for seven years learning about essential oils and then journeyed to the mountains for medical aromatherapy training. She made use of her knowledge of working with botanicals to open an oil bar in Wrightsville Sound.
"I am either the first person you come to or the last," she says.
Rileigh Wilkins' line of natural skincare products with botanical oils was born from a desire to fill a void that pharmaceuticals couldn't.
"I started researching and learning about natural skin care after struggling with recurring breakouts and a visit with a prescription-happy dermatologist," Wilkins says. "Once I learned the vast beneficial properties of natural oils and about the harmful ingredients that are in many popular products, I knew I wanted to make natural products for myself as well as to spread my knowledge of those benefits to others."
With sensitive skin in mind, she makes her products mostly with mild carrier oils like almond, olive and coconut. These are used to dilute the more potent essential oils before topical application.
One of her favorites is geranium essential oil, which has a strong floral scent. For a headache, Wilkins' home remedy is a mixture of one drop each of lavender, peppermint and rosemary essential oils diluted in any carrier oil. She recommends rubbing it gently on the temples and behind the ears.
With so many oils for so many uses, it can be difficult to know where to begin. For those just getting started, Wilkins says lavender is the "essential" essential oil.
"Lavender is great for bruises, insect bites, helping you sleep, relieving stress, and so much more," she says.
Vanderfleet also likes lavender for its multiple uses.
"Lavender is nature's antiseptic," she says. "It is basically nature's Neosporin. You can use it on babies all the way to the elderly and pets. It's antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiviral, it's great for the respiratory [system], and you have your gentle sedative approach. It calms the nerves, calms the spirit, and calms the emotions, the mind. You can tell a lot about the oil by the character of the plant. Lavender is a tough, durable plant with nothing but love and nourishment. For somebody just starting out, lavender is offering you only love."
Vanderfleet also extols the virtues of frankincense, an oil used in biblical times. Its aroma has, since ancient times, been known to promote feelings of satisfaction, wellness and peacefulness.
"It was one of the gifts to Baby Jesus," she explains. "It was traditionally used instead of gold for trade and barter because of the properties that it offered."
She credits it for benefiting the nervous system, and also benefiting the skin, making it useful and healing for topical applications such as lotions, salves, and some say even skin cancer remedies.
"It is anti-aging," Vanderfleet says. "For me it is a regenerative oil, for healthy skin cell regeneration, it can rebuild."
Cardamom is another oil with its roots in the Middle East. It's a favorite of Corinne Lefebvre and her husband, Fabien, who founded River Organics by making products in small batches using organic plant oils and butters. Lefebvre says the scent can encourage energy and also help with nausea.
While it's Wilmington-based, the couple's company really began in Europe. Canadian-born Lefebvre moved to France where she met her husband, who worked as a natural product chemist for Chanel perfume. She discovered that essential oils could be used in skin care when she went looking for refills on her usual creams and face cleanser.
"In France, I couldn't find cream anywhere, so I looked at what they were using and it was oils," Lefebvre says.
Lefebvre was shocked when she learned the seemingly contradictory use of oil as a cleanser, but it worked.
"You can physically see the makeup coming out of your pores and you don't feel that tight, pulling sensation," she says.
Their approach to using essential oils is all about simplicity and being able to connect with the product's origins.
"As much as it seems overwhelming to learn about essential oils, it's actually so much simpler than using products with chemicals," she says. "If you use essential oils on your skin to wash your face, you'll realize you don't need as many products."
The FDA doesn't yet regulate essential oils, but Wilkins says there are still ways to know you're getting the good stuff.
"When buying essential oils, do your research," Wilkins says. "Be sure to purchase from a reputable company, and look for 100 percent pure essential oils over dilutions and synthetic identicals."
The rise in popularity of essential oils seems to correlate with a larger demand by consumers for transparency in ingredients and sources.
"People are beginning to be more educated on the risks to their health and starting to question the necessity of ingredients," Jones says.
The fascination with essential oils also seems to involve something less tangible. To many people, using essential oils is a mindset and a lesson in unplugging and listening to your body.
"Oils are great for your skin because they're nutrient rich and full of minerals, but it's about a routine where you associate a little time for yourself and pleasure," Lefebvre says.
Research on essential oils by unbiased organizations is still new and limited, and skeptics say the craze about them has created a placebo effect. Skeptic or not, Jones says the best way to see what essential oils are all about is to just pick one and start.
"Really try to connect with that experience, whether you are diffusing, adding into carrier oils, or picking out products that you wear and go from there," she says. "Our human experience is individual and how you process smells around you can be an absolutely basic, sensual experience if you allow yourself a moment to realize and appreciate how things affect your body and mind."