How to Use Essential Oils for Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils (plant oils extracted from leaves, flowers, and other parts). Each oil has a characteristic scent, and in aromatherapy, the oil is inhaled or used topically on skin for sleep, headaches, and other conditions.

Although essential oils are widely available, it’s important to understand how to use these potent oils. Here are some tips to guide you.

A woman holding an essential oil
JGI / Jamie Grill / Getty Images


Whether you’re using a diffuser, steam inhalation, spray, or you are simply inhaling a drop or two of an essential oil on a cotton ball, be sure to test a very small amount first because allergic reactions can occur.

A common mistake when using essential oils is to use too much. Usually, one to three drops is all that is needed.

Topical Use

When using essential oils on skin, in a bath or shower, or in an aromatherapy massage, always dilute the oil and be careful not to use too much. Essential oils are absorbed through the skin, and using an excessive amount or applying undiluted essential oils to the skin can result in an overdose.

Although recommended amounts may vary, concentrations as low as 3% to 5% have been shown to cause irritation. A 1% solution is generally considered safe, or less if you have sensitive skin or plan to use it on your face or another delicate area.

Skin irritation, contact allergy, and burns can occur when using essential oils topically. Be sure to patch test an essential oil before using it all over your body.

To do a patch test, mix a small amount of essential oil with a carrier oil, at twice the concentration you plan to use. Apply two drops of the solution to the inside of your forearm, then cover with a bandaid and check after 48 hours for irritation or an allergic reaction.

Test aromatherapy skin and hair products, such as lotions, creams, or shampoos, by applying a small dab to your arm.

Precautions and Tips

Be sure to store essential oils out of the reach of children.

Avoid getting essential oils in your eyes, nose, or ears. Wash your hands thoroughly after using essential oils. If you're blending or working with pure essential oils, you may want to get disposable latex gloves (or latex-free alternatives) from the drug store.

If you're working with essential oils (e.g. making your own lotions, candles, or bath salts) make sure you're working in a well-ventilated area or take breaks to go outside.

Don't take essential oils internally. Even small amounts can be toxic and potentially fatal if ingested.

Side Effects and Interactions

Before going out in the sun or to a tanning booth, avoid essential oils that increase your sensitivity to the sun, such as bergamot, grapefruit, and other citrus oils.

Overuse of essential oils can trigger a headache or dizziness. Don't exceed recommended amounts.

If you have a medical condition, consult a qualified practitioner before using essential oils. Certain essential oils should not be used by people with health conditions. Also keep in mind that the safe limit for children, people who are pregnant or breastfeeding, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established.

People with liver or kidney disease should only use essential oils under the guidance of a qualified practitioner. Once absorbed into the bloodstream, essential oils are eventually cleared from your body by the liver and kidneys. Using essential oils excessively may injure these organs.

If you're considering the use of essential oils for a health condition, make sure to consult your physician first. Self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences.

Consult a qualified practitioner if you take any medication, because essential oils may interact with certain medications. For example, essential oils such as chamomile, lavender, and lemon balm may heighten the effect of sleeping pills or sedatives.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. de Groot AC, Schmidt E. Essential oils, part IV. Contact allergy. Dermatitis. 2016;27(4):170-175. doi:10.1097/DER.0000000000000197

  2. Posadzki P, Alotaibi A, Ernst E. Adverse effects of aromatherapy: a systematic review of case reports and case seriesInternational Journal of Risk and Safety in Medicine. 2012;24(3):147-161.

  3. University of Minnesota. Are essential oils safe?

  4. University of Minnesota. How do I choose and use essential oils?

  5. University of Minnesota. Are essential oils safe?

  6. Nath S, Pandey C, Roy D. A near fatal case of high dose peppermint oil ingestion- Lessons learnt. Indian J Anaesth. 2012;56(6):582-. doi:10.4103/0019-5049.104585

  7. The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne. Essential oil poisoning. Updated June 2017. 

  8. Bowles JE. Case study – possible interaction of herbal sleep remedy containing Lavender essential oil and anxiolytic drugs. Updated 2018.