Essential Oil Families
Classifying essential oils into families is one great way to make learning aromatherapy a little easier. After learning some basic families and how to recognize them, approaching a shelf of unknown oils isn't overwhelming — it's fun!
It's still important to learn the properties of individual oils, but learning the uses of geranium is a lot simpler if you know what most floral oils are like. However, keep in mind that these ‘families’ are an intellectual exercise to aid learning rather than scientific truth.
Floral and Floral Herbs
Many of the most familiar oils fall into this category. Rose, jasmine, and neroli are all florals, as are geranium, ylang-ylang and many others. Certain flowering herbs (such as lavender, roman chamomile, and clary sage) can also be helpfully classified as floral oils since their uses fall neatly in line with the others.
True florals tend to be sweet, heady, and well-rounded. Think of a rose mid-bloom, rather than a rosebud; there's rarely any sharpness to true florals, although a sharp 'green' note can show up in geranium. Herbal florals tend to be a little sharper and more 'clean' smelling, although they still have the characteristic sweetness of all florals.
This is the family to reach for when you’re looking to balance hormones, cultivate romance, or lift depression. All floral oils — particularly rose, jasmine, and clary sage — have a strong balancing effect on hormone levels, making them ideal for PMS and cramps as well as less-obvious hormonal issues (such as sleep disorders).
However, this strong effect means that pregnant women should stay away from most florals; please check in with one of our staff to learn about which oils are safe during pregnancy. Floral oils are also a great choice for skin care, where they soothe irritated skin and have a balancing effect on oil production.
Although there are plenty of benefits to using floral oils, there are some cases where they should be avoided. For instance, diffusing is a great way to enjoy the benefits of all oils, but the heaviness of true florals can make small rooms feel even smaller. They're also not a great choice when the goal is to kill bad smells — florals have a tendency to blend with scents rather than cover or eliminate them.
- Rose: relieves anxiety, tension, and depression, balances hormones, repairs skin damage, heals dry skin, anti-fungal, balances oil production, aphrodisiac. Usually derived from the petals of the Rosa damascena variety, either through steam distillation or solvent extraction.
- Lavender: soothing and energizing, deeply healing for burns, wounds, skin ailments, and scars helps with sleep and mood disorders, relieves sore muscles, helpful for respiratory disorders, improves circulation, soothes a digestive upset, relieves headaches, balances hormones, aphrodisiac. Can be used directly on the skin. Derived from lavender flowers through steam distillation.
- Geranium: antibacterial, healing for skin ailments, burns, wounds, and scars, balances hormones and mood swings, relieves anxiety, balances oil production, anti-depressant, anti-fungal. Derived from the stalks and leaves of the pelargonium odorantissimum and pelargonium graveolens varieties through steam distillation.
Another popular oil family is the citruses. Lemon, orange, and bergamot are the most common, but mandarin, grapefruit, and lime are also great choices. Citrus scents are deeply familiar to almost everyone, and the oils themselves are often found in cleaning products. All citrus oils are sweet but fresh, staying away from the heavy sweetness of vanilla and some florals. Even tart fruits – like lemon and grapefruit – tend to be pleasantly ‘clean’-smelling as oils. The scents appeal to a wide range of people, making citrus blends the best choice when buying a gift.
Tired? Depressed? Missing the sun? Then reach for a blend of citrus oils, all of which help with mood disorders and lethargy. They also tend to be detoxifying and energizing. The citrus family is also your best choice for killing bad odors and making dreary basements feel open and inviting. It’s hard to go wrong with using citruses for home scenting: a citrus reed diffuser in the bathroom, a citrus oil diffusing in the kitchen, and a room spray in the bedroom will appeal to everyone who comes by.
Citrus oils are also non-toxic but naturally antibacterial, making them ideal for cleaning – it’s easy to make your own spray with water, vinegar, and essential oils. People with oilier complexions can benefit from citrus oils, which are great at controlling oil production and clearing blemishes, but be cautious. Almost all citrus oils have strong phototoxic properties: if you apply them to the skin and then go out into the sun, they can cause a rash and amplify sun damage. Think of using lemon juice to bleach hair naturally – you don’t want to do that to your skin! To minimize these effects, look for pre-made blends for use on the skin.
- Bergamot: antidepressant, anti-anxiety, antiseptic, antibacterial, helps with digestion, energizing, helps fade scars, balances oily skin, anti-fungal, toning. Expressed from the peel of ripe and unripe fruits.
- Orange: energizing, antidepressant, anti-anxiety, antiseptic, antifungal, antibacterial, aids digestion, balances oily skin, helps heal psoriasis, toning, anti-inflammatory, detoxifying. Expressed from the peel.
- Lemon: energizing, antidepressant, anti-anxiety, aids in deep sleep if used during the day, adaptive, antifungal, antibacterial, antiseptic, aids digestion, balances oily skin, detoxifying, soothes respiratory disorders. Expressed from the peel.
Not all oils derived from trees are part of this family, but those that are – eucalyptus, tea tree, cedarwood, and all evergreens (such as pine, cypress, and fir) – share some common qualities. When remembering these attributes, think of eucalyptus; it’s king of the tree oils, and all other oils fall into place around it.
This is the family for colds, cases of flu, allergies, and almost any other kind of respiratory problem. Oils in this family usually provoke a cooling sensation in the chest and at the bridge of the nose when inhaled. If you notice this, you can be reasonably certain that they’ll be good oils for coughs, congestion, sinus irritation, and allergies.
Tree oils are often very antibacterial as well, lending a 1-2 punch to preventing and healing colds and cases of flu. In a pinch, some oils – like tea tree – are also very useful at preventing infection in wounds. This antibacterial quality and drying action also make them the top choice for treating acne, but be careful when using around the eyes and mouth, as they can be very strong.
These oils stimulate the circulatory system with a cooling sensation, which is why they are often the top oils in pain reduction blends. They also relax muscles and help release tension from the body. Some other common qualities in this family are: detoxification, anxiety and panic attack relief, and antifungal effects. Tree oils are fresh and invigorating, as well as a top choice for killing bad odours (both in the air and on the body). Most are energizing, although some are also good for encouraging sleep, so do a bit of reading on them before suggesting one for narcolepsy!
- Eucalyptus: encourages a healthy respiratory system, calms coughing, breaks up mucus and congestion, antibacterial, antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, reduces pain, stimulates circulation, energizing, anti-anxiety, destroys unpleasant odors, balances oily and acne-prone skin. Derived from leaves and twigs through steam distillation.
- Tea Tree: antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, antiseptic, effective against lice, balances oily skin, dries and heals blemishes, energizing, anti-anxiety, stimulates circulation, encourages a healthy respiratory system; breaks up mucus and congestion. Can be used directly on the skin. Derived from leaves through steam distillation.
- Cedarwood: kills bad odors, antiseptic, antibacterial, antifungal, calms coughs, encourages a healthy respiratory system, breaks up mucus and congestion, balances oily and acne-prone skin, reduces itching from eczema and psoriasis, stimulates circulation, insecticide, relaxes muscles, anti-anxiety, helps with sleep disorders. Derived from wood chips through steam distillation.
Not all herbs fall into this family, but those that do can be recognized by their bracing but delicious scent that’s sometimes reminiscent of oils from the tree family. Rosemary, basil, peppermint, spearmint, and sage (among many others) are part of this family – if you cook with it and it’s not a spice, it’s probably an herb. Of all the families, these oils tend to have the fewest defining similarities. If you run into an unfamiliar herbal oil, it’s worth having a quick look at its uses before recommending it.
Like tree oils, herbal oils are usually antibacterial, antifungal, and good for respiratory complaints (particularly rosemary and the mints). They tend to increase circulation, with an anti-inflammatory and relaxing effect on the muscles, and they are often detoxifying and aid digestion. Herbal oils help with focus, memory retention, and low energy. Used in a diffuser, they also help to clean the air of unpleasant odors.
- Peppermint: cooling, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal, increases circulation, aids digestion, eases headaches, relaxes muscles, anti-anxiety, antidepressant, energizing, increases focus, encourages a healthy respiratory system, breaks up mucus and congestion, reduces nausea, reduces pain, balances oily skin. Extracted by steam distillation from the whole plant.
- Basil: calms almost all digestive complaints, energizing, increases focus, aids memory retention, antidepressant, anti-anxiety, tones and balances skin, breaks up mucus and congestion, antibacterial, calms respiratory complaints, calms muscle spasms, increases circulation. Extracted by steam distillation from the leaves and flowers.
- Rosemary: antibacterial, antifungal, good for almost all respiratory complaints, energizing, increases focus, antidepressant, reduces hair loss, breaks up mucus and congestion, stimulates circulation, anti-inflammatory, reduces pain, increases memory retention. Extracted from the flowering tops by steam distillation.
With only a few exceptions, resins are very easy to recognize. They tend to be deep base notes, with either a musky/grassy scent (like patchouli, vetiver, oakmoss, and sandalwood) or a very sweet scent (like benzoin and sometimes myrrh). Their oils tend to be dark and very thick in the bottle, and are occasionally very difficult to even get out! Frankincense is an outlier, with a sharper scent and a clear, liquid oil. (Not all resins are extracted using the resinoid solvent method.)
These oils are one of the top choices for stress, anxiety, and panic attacks, as they are very ‘grounding’ – they put you 'back in your body’, calm racing thoughts, gently slow racing heartbeats, and are deeply relaxing. They are also often antidepressant (particularly frankincense, which is one of the best oils for that disorder).
Many resins are also traditionally seen as aphrodisiacs, patchouli and sandalwood being the most famous of these. Resins are also calming for the skin, helping to heal dryness and irritation, as well as reducing itching from skin disorders like eczema and psoriasis. Many are also anti-inflammatory, antifungal, antibacterial, and aid respiratory complaints.
- Patchouli: antifungal, antiviral, antidepressant, deeply calming and grounding, aphrodisiac, reduces inflammation, calms panic attacks, fades scars and heals irritation and dry skin, helps treat eczema, dandruff, and psoriasis, heals wounds, reduces itching, aids digestion. Derived from the leaves by steam distillation.
- Sandalwood: antidepressant in lower doses, anti-anxiety, calming and grounding, encourages restful sleep, calms muscle spasms, reduces skin inflammation and irritation, breaks up mucus and congestion, aphrodisiac, tones the skin and balances oil production. Derived from wood chips and sawdust by steam distillation.
- Frankincense: aids respiratory complaints, antidepressant, anti-anxiety, calming and grounding, increases focus, antiseptic, breaks up mucus and congestion, sedative, anti-inflammatory, heals and helps to rejuvenate skin, increases circulation, deepens breathing. Derived from the oleo resin through steam distillation; an absolute is produced, but rarely used in aromatherapy.
There aren’t many spice oils in common use, but cinnamon, clove, and ginger are all popular and familiar. Other spices include cassia bark and nutmeg. Spice oils are easy to recognize by scent — they’re spicy! Warm, powerful, and capable of tickling the back of the throat with just a whiff, spices can smell medicinal or like fresh baking depending on how much is in any given blend.
This divide is appropriate for spices, which have a wide range of uses. When blended with oils like tea tree or rosemary, cinnamon and clove are a great choice during the cold and flu season — they tend to be antibacterial, antifungal, and helpful for respiratory problems. Spice oils are also the best family for most digestive problems.
The ‘warm’ qualities of spice oils are also very literal: a little cinnamon or ginger in massage oil will stimulate circulation, reduce inflammation, and relieve pain. However, it is important to use these oils carefully: all spice oils (but particularly cinnamon) are capable of causing painful rashes or burns if used undiluted or at too low a dilution.
Spice oils encourage feelings of safety and comfort when used in lower amounts, but higher percentages in a blend can be overly stimulating and irritating to the nasal passages and lungs.
- Cinnamon: warming, increases circulation, anti-inflammatory, pain reducer, relaxes muscles, stimulates the immune system, antibacterial, antifungal, breaks up mucus and congestion, reassuring, reduces lethargy, aids almost all digestive complaints. Irritating to skin and mucus membranes. Derived from leaves, twigs, and inner bark through steam distillation.
- Clove: numbing, anti-inflammatory, increases circulation, pain reducer, antibacterial, antifungal, aids almost all digestive complaints, stimulating, warming, aids respiration, breaks up mucus and congestion. Irritating to skin and mucus membranes. Derived from leaves, stems, and buds through steam distillation.
- Ginger: warming, anti-nausea (including travel and sea sickness), aids digestion, increases circulation, pain reducer, anti-inflammatory, relaxes muscles, stimulant, breaks up mucus and congestion, antiseptic, calms muscle spasms, reassuring. Derived from the root through steam distillation.