Do Essential Oils Really Work Topically?

Image of a Young Living Essential oil bottle of carrier oil.
It is safe to use essential oils neat? What are the risks of using essential oils neat?

Do essential oils really work? Yes! Let’s look at the science behind how essential oils work topically.

How Do Essential Oils Work When Applied Topically

When you apply essential oils to your skin, it’s called using them topically. Understanding how essential oils are effective when used topically can get a little bit complicated and confusing. I’ve tried to break it down, step by step to make it as easy to understand as possible. 

Skin is the largest organ of your body. It is called the Integumentary System. The average adult has 7 pounds of skin or 18 square feet. This makes applying essential oils topically a great way to reach your entire body and all of your cells. This also makes it very dangerous when you apply toxins like make up or lotion to your skin since they also seep into our skin, your largest organ.

When applied topically, the essential oils can penetrate every single cell in your body in 20 minutes or less!

Let’s look at the science behind how this works.

In order to understand how essential oils work topically, we need to first understand how our skin works.

You have 3 layers of skin; the Epidermis, Dermis, and Hypodermis. The Epidermis is the outer layer of your skin; the part that you see. This layer of skin is waterproof and is meant to protect your other layers of skin and your other tissues. This makes it hard to penetrate. Water cannot penetrate your skin but oils can.

There are 2 aspects we need to know as well.

#1 Penetration

#2 Absorbtion

In order for anything to absorb into our skin, it has to be able to be penetrate our skin first. So essential oils must penetrate our outer layer of skin before it can be absorbed into our body and we can experience the benefits.

How do essential oils penetrate the skin?

Our skin contains sebaceous glands. Sebaceous glands connect to our pores and hair follicles. Sebaceous glands produce an oily substance called sebum. Our body can absorb essential oils because sebum is oil. Oils mix with other oils, not water. 

Our body absorbs essential oils because the essential oils mix with the sebum our skin creates. Let’s break that down even further…



How do essential oils absorb into our body?

Once essential oils have penetrated our skin by attaching to our sebum we can then absorb the oils into our bloodstream and our cells.

How Do Essential Oils Absorb into our cells?

Every cell in our body is surrounded by a cell membrane. Each cell membrane is partially made of lipids. Lipids are made of fatty acids. 

Think of a plastic bottle full of juice. The bottle(cell membrane) is made of plastic(lipids) and it’s job is to hold the juice in.(cell)

So, each cell is surround by a cell membrane made of lipids.

Lipids are molecules that contain fatty acids. Essential oils and carrier oils contain fat. Therefore, essential oils and carrier oils mix with lipids because they all have fats. Oils and fats mix with oils and fats.

Oils-contain fats

Lipids-contain fats

Sebum-oily substance that contains fats

Cells-contains fats

Since our cells are made of lipids, essential oils mix with them and penetrate our cells instead of only reaching them.  Because of this, we can experience the benefits of essential oils deep within our cells.


When we put essential oils on our skin they penetrate our skin through our pores because of sebum. Essential oils are able to absorb into our cells because of lipids. 

Essential Oils penetrate every cell as well as travel through our blood stream all over our body. 

So, we experience the benefits of essential oils because they penetrate our body to the deepest level possible-cellular.

How to Apply Essential Oils Topically

Applying essential oils topically can offer great benefits. There is a lot of contradicting information out there on how to apply essential oils correctly. 

Here are some terms you need to know:

Carrier Oil: A carrier oil is seed or vegetable oil that you use to “dilute” an essential oil.

Types of Carrier Oils: Fractionated Coconut Oil, Jojoba Oil(ho ho ba), Grapeseed Oil, Castor Oil, Olive Oil, Rose Hip Oil, Tamanu Oil, Hemp seed Oil, Argan Oil, Sweet Almond Oil…the list goes on and on. Nearly any oil can be used as a carrier oil! Remember, oils mix with other oils. Since oils are made of fats, they attach to our fatty cells (lipids).

The best part about using carrier oils is that they each have their own special health and beauty benefits too. When mixing essential oils with carrier oils you experience the full benefits of the essential oils AND you get even more benefits that the carrier oil has. 


Essential Oil Dilution Chart for kids.

The BIGGEST Misconception About Using Carrier Oils

This is one of the biggest pet peeves I have!!! I get annoyed just typing about it!

Too many people think that using a carrier oil "dilutes" the BENEFITS of essential oils!




A carrier oil does not “water down” or “dilute” or “take away” the benefits of essential oils what so ever! It does the opposite. I see too many people using their essential oils “neat.”

Neat is the process of using an essential oil without any type of carrier oil mixed with it.

It actually makes your essential oils LESS effective! 

You end up wasting money! Essential oils are made up very, very, tiny, minuscule, aromatic compounds. These molecules start to evaporate instantaneously. When you put essential oils directly onto your skin, without a carrier oil, a portion of the essential oil evaporates from your skin instead of penetrating your skin and absorbing into your cells. 

Therefore, you have to use a larger amount of essential oil before you experience the benefits.

When you use a carrier oil with your essential oil they bond together. Remember, oils mix with oils. Carrier oils do not evaporate quickly, their molecules are much larger and heavier. When essential oils and carrier oils mix together, they become one; they are both heavy and do not evaporate quickly.

Your essential oil and carrier oil bond together and then it absorbs into your skin. Carrier oils allow the essential oils to spread over a wider range of skin which also helps the absorption rate. Carrier oils also allow your essential oil to penetrate more quickly. 

You end up wasting money. You go through too many drops of oil when you do not using a carrier oil. Your body is not able to absorb it as well, it is not as effective and then you use way more than you need to. You are also putting yourself at risk.

When you do not use a carrier oil you put yourself at risk for developing a rash or even a permanent allergy to that oil. Some oils are considered hot and you can even burn your skin. Citrus oils are especially dangerous because they are phototoxic.

Phototoxic means they react in the light and cause a burn on your skin. Not using a carrier oil only exaggerates this effect. 

A carrier oil is a barrier to your skin as well as a passage for the oils to seep into your skin instead of just evaporating or sitting on top.

Sensory adaptation can also become a factor when using essential oils neat. Sensory Adaptation is when your body becomes so used to something that it blocks it out. 

In a different post called The Science Behind Aromatherapy, I go into detail about this also. For example; A smoker becomes so used to the smell of smoke, they no longer realize that they stink like smoke, whereas a person who does not smoke can easily recognize the scent of smoke. 

At first, the ticking of a clock can be so loud and disturbing you cannot hear anything but the tick tick tick. After a while, your ears tune the sound out…as if it isn’t even happening. Sensory Adaptation applies to all of your senses, even touch. Essential oils are so strong, your body can quickly build an immunity to it and it will no longer be effective.

Are there certain times when you should use essential oils neat?

This is also an extremely controversial subject. 

With the above statements as the primary code of conduct, I do believe that there are times when you can or should apply essential oils neat. I use essential oils neat all the time BUT I am very careful about how I do it. 

It is important to bear in mind that not all people can handle using essential oils neat. There are a lot of people out there with sensitive skin that could react quickly and very badly to this. It is also common for fair skinned people to not be able to handle the effect of pure undiluted essential oils. 

Not all oils are gentle either. There are some oils that are well known for being gentle and being able to be applied neat.

The Essential Oils that are considered safe for being used neat are:


-Roman Chamomile

-Melaluca (Tea Tree)





-Bay Laurel


There are also occasions where it is considered safe and effective to use oils neat;

According to the New York Institute of Aromatic Studies, the following issues are safe for neat application

-Acne spot treatment

-Ear Aches


-Cold Sores


-Insect Bites ect.

It is still the best to try using essential oils mixed with a carrier oil first, before moving on to using them neat. That being said, I do use essential oils neat quite often BUT I have been using essential oils for a very long time. I have studied them very thoroughly. I do not recommend this unless you are very experienced with them. If you do use them neat it is best to do on your feet. It is also best to not use the same oil neat very often. Sometimes, it is far more convenient to use them neat. Just be sure to know the risks of using essential oils neat and do not do it too much.

It is never advised to use essential oils neat on children, babies, the elderly, or pregnant women. Before using any essential oils neat, it is wise to consult your personal physician before changing your health care routine.

Remember, what works for you does not necessarily work for the next person. What burns to you, may only feel a little warm to someone else.

Again, keep in mind you can become desensitized to certain essential oils. It is a sad thing when something that can benefit you so greatly becomes obsolete and totally useless. Also remember how carrier oils aid in absorption and save you money. High quality essential oils are not cheap. It takes a lot to make a real, pure therapeutic grade essential oil. It takes 242,000 rose petals to make a 5ml bottle of rose essential oil. That is 22 lbs for 5 ml of oil! It takes 50 lemons to make 1 bottle of lemon essential oil. Essential oils are not cheap. It can take days of distillation to create an essential oil. It has to be steamed at the perfect temperature without any fluctuation in order to preserve the healthful qualities. Essential oils are full of health benefits and they are hard to make.


Using low quality essential oils neat will cause severe harm to your body. 


Essential oils are highly concentrated forms of plant matter. If that plant matter has been sprayed with pesticides, adulterated or extracted with chemical solvents; you are also putting those poisons on your body at highly concentrated levels. You wouldn’t rub pure poison on your skin would you? No, but that is what you are doing if you are using inexpensive, low quality essential oils. You matter, your family’s health matters, choose quality…because money means nothing over your family’s life.

Why Do Essential Oils Work Topically

Above you just read HOW essential oils work topically…below is WHY they work topically.


YOU are very similar to a plant. Sorry, I hope that doesn’t offend you but you are. Although we are very different from a plant we are also very similar. Your chemistry is very similar to a plant’s chemistry in many ways…Here’s how:

Plants and humans have cells. Our cells are similar to a plants cells in this- they both serve nearly the same function. Our cells divide so we can grow and change, so do a plant’s cells.

Plants and humans both have DNA in our cells. We both have a genetic code within our cells (DNA) that tell our cells what they’re supposed to do and what they’re supposed to be. Our DNA is made of nucleotides which is an organic compound. Plants produce organic compounds.

We both produce similar chains of amino acids. Although, plants produce more…we only produce 10 out of 20 amino acids. Plants produce all 20.

Both plant and human cells convert nutrients in to energy.


What does this have to do with essential oils?

Since our body chemistry is so similar to a plants chemistry, our body reacts nearly the same to their chemical constituents. Most times, our body cannot tell the difference. Plants offer what we may lack and heals the parts of us that need healing just as they would heal themselves.

Below I explain the chemistry of Essential Oils to see how this plays out.


What are essential oils?

Here is a quick summary of what essential oils are.

Certain plants secrete oils which we extract and turn in to what we know as essential oils. There are various different methods of HOW we extract these oils. It’s important to know that not all plants make oils, so we cannot find every plant in an essential oil form.

These oils are not an accident. They are far more than just the fragrance of the plant, they serve several purposes for the plant. Essential oils help the plant heal, grow and attract pollinators. They fight off diseases, sickness, bacteria and even predators. They have similar effects for humans because our body chemistry is so similar to a plant’s chemistry.

For example:

Some plants living in dry climates and use their essential oils to prevent water loss. Theses oils may be moisturizing to our skin.

Some plants emit essential oils that prevent fungus and other parasitic type things. These oils may have anti-fungal, antimicrobial and antibacterial properties when we use them.

There are some oils made from the resin of trees. Their resin is like a healing band-aid to the bark of the tree. To us, it may help heal wounds and restore the appearance of our skin.

So, there you have it-the HOW essential oils work topically and the WHY essential oils work topically…

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Disclaimer: None of the statements on this website have been evaluated by the FDA. Essential Oils and Young Living products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any diseases or illnesses. Read full disclaimer here.
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1 thought on “Do Essential Oils Really Work? The Science Behind Using Essential Oils Topically.”

  1. Old Soul Mama

    Of course! I would love to! I was worried about going too in depth, so I am grateful for the feedback. I will get that done asap. 😀

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