How do essential oils work in your body?

Posted: August 30, 2010 by Cristina Proano-Carrion

As much as we love essential oils and all the wonderful things they can do for us, it certainly helps to know how they work within our bodies to enable us to use them optimally. The mechanism also forms a scientific basis to establish their myriad positive effects on the body, mind and soul. The aim of this article is not to confuse the reader with complex theories and jargon but to put across facts about aromatherapy in a simple and easy-to-understand manner. Essential oils can enter the body via two routes – the nose (inhalation) and the skin (topic application, massage, baths).


  • Essential oil particles are quickly picked up by the tiny hairs in our nostrils (cilia) and are absorbed into the mucous lining from where the aroma reaches the ‘smell center’ in the brain (olfactory bulb).
  • The olfactory center converts the aroma into a neural code which is relayed across to the ‘emotion center’ (limbic system) and further to the ‘short-term memory center’ (hippocampus) and the ‘long term memory center’ (hypothalamus).
  • The information is then passed on to the ‘master gland’ (pituitary gland)  and other endocrine glands to secrete ‘feel good’ hormones and  to restore hormonal balance.
To put it straight, here is how it goes: Nose —-> Smell center —-> Emotional center —-> Short term memory —-> Long term memory —-> Master gland —-> Endocrine system In this simple way, the brain establishes a strong connection between certain smells, emotions and memories and responds to it in a predictable way. For instance, if your partner professes his love for you with a bunch of red roses, your brain will associate the smell with a romantic emotion and fragrance will make you feel nostalgic and romantic for a long time to come. Inhalation is especially helpful in alleviating emotional problems like stress, anxiety and depression. Oils like Eucalyptus, Ravensara, Tea Tree, Pine, Rosemary and Niaouli can be directly transported to the lungs within seconds to help with respiratory difficulties. Inhalation is an easy, effective and inexpensive mode of administration that can be carried out anywhere at any time.
  • Place 2-3 drops of an essential oil  or essential oil blend on a tissue and inhale deeply.
  • You may also place a few drops of the oil on the insides of your shirt so that the heat from your body can send aromatic vapors up to your nose all through the day. It also acts as an organic alternative to perfumes.


Until a few decades ago, the skin was thought to be almost impermeable but modern research changed all that. It is interesting how components of essential oils can be detected in exhaled air after 20-60 minutes of topical application!* All essential oils undergo a process of distillation where the finest and smallest molecules remain. These molecules are small enough to penetrate the outer layer of the skin (epidermis) and the smaller they are, the faster they are absorbed. The molecules pass through the deeper layers of the skin (dermis) and enter the blood stream through the capillaries from where they are taken to various parts of the body. Owing to their specific biochemical characteristics, the oil molecules bind to cell receptors in the target organ and work as a tonic for the same.  While traveling in the body, the oils also act to revitalize and detoxify organs involved in metabolism and drainage (kidneys, liver and lymphatic network). Skin (outer layer) —-> Skin (inner layer) —-> Capillaries —->Blood stream —-> Target organs —-> Cell receptors —> Metabolized and excreted The topical method of administrations is therefore, more holistic in nature as it seeks to balance out all systems of the body. Since they are all-natural compounds, essential oils do not deposit themselves in the cells and are expelled from the body through sweat, urine and exhalation within 24 hours. The absorption of oils into the skin depends on several factors:
  • Skin diseases and wounds may interfere with the rate of absorption.
  • A warm bath hydrates the skin and opens up the pores thus facilitating penetration to a large extent.
  • Compresses increase the surface temperature and prevent loss of molecules through evaporation.
  • Thinner carrier oils are more effective for penetration than thicker, viscous oils.
  • Essential oils with a higher molecular weight take longer to get absorbed.
  • Warm temperatures cause capillary dilatation and promote faster penetration and absorption.


Aromatherapy For Health Professionals, Shirley Price, Len Price THIRD EDITION ‘How does Aromatherapy Work in the Body’ (  
© 2011, Cristina Proano-Carrion, Aromandina LLC This information is based on traditional use of aromatherapy and it does not intend to diagnose or treat any condition. This information should not be used as a substitute for medical counseling with a health care professional. No part of this article may be reproduced in whole or in part without the explicit written permission of Aromandina.