Most of America is stressed. According to a study by the American Psychological Association, more than three-quarters of the population have experienced physical symptoms of stress, like headaches and fatigue, while more than a quarter say they are too stressed to function. There are many, many different reasons behind this. For some, it’s the political climate, while for others, it’s inflation. For many, day-to-day life is simply overwhelming.

If you’re feeling like it’s all just too much right now, there are many things you can do to help yourself unwind. Talking to friends, family, or your healthcare provider may offer some relief, for example. Exercise may help, too, or getting outside in nature. But for many people, self-care is also an important part of de-stressing. According to one study by Vagaro, 75 percent of Americans believe self-care activities can help reduce stress, and that includes things like at-home spa rituals.

If you’re looking for an effective way to just calm down, it might be time to run a bubble bath and break out the essential oils. We’re not saying it will fix inflation, but it might just help you find a few moments of calm in the chaos. We spoke to aromatherapist and perfumer Melike Atilgan to find out the best essential oils to use in the winter months. But first, what are essential oils? And why can they help us relax?


What are essential oils and are they vegan?

“Essential oils are natural compounds extracted from plants,” explains Atilgan. “They don’t contain any animal-derived compounds, which makes them vegan-friendly. And many essential oils in the market are not tested on animals.” That said, Atilgan also notes that consumers should be aware that some cosmetic brands that sell essential oils may not be cruelty-free, so it’s always important to double-check the ethics before you buy.

Some of the most popular essential oils include frankincense, lavender, peppermint, and lemon, and they can be used in many different formats. Some like to use them in diffusers or humidifiers, for example, while others apply them directly to the skin or add a few drops to the bath water.

If you’re using essential oils on your body, proceed with caution, says Atilgan. “Never apply directly to the skin without dilution, and only for external use. Individuals with health issues, on medication, or pregnant should consult their physician before use,” she notes.


How do essential oils work?

Essential oils are big business; the global market was valued at nearly $22 billion in 2022. They’ve been around for thousands of years, and remain a key part of Ayurvedic Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

When it comes to relaxation benefits, modern science does agree that essential oils can be beneficial. In July 2023, one study from West Virginia University suggested that aromatherapy could ease stress for those going through treatment for substance use disorder, for example. In 2022, another study published in Applied Sciences suggested that aromatherapy may help to significantly reduce stress in the elderly.

According to Atilgan, essential oils work on the limbic system, which is the part of the brain that deals with behavioral and emotional responses. “Each oil has distinct chemical constituents with therapeutic properties, triggering emotions and reactions in the body,” she notes. “The limbic system, the oldest part of the brain, responds to olfactory stimuli, influencing how the body reacts.”

She adds that different oils have different benefits, but in the winter, “our bodies crave warming, comforting, and restorative aromas.” 

The best essential oils for winter, according to an aromatherapist


1 Citrus

“Uplifting and energizing oils like orange and grapefruit are excellent choices for winter,” says Atilgan. “They provide a warming effect and help to uplift mood. Citrus oils also serve as perfect air purifiers.”

Citrus oils to look out for: lemon, grapefruit, bergamot, citronella, mandarin, and lime.


2 Herbs and Spices

“Spices, such as cardamom, clove, and vanilla, are excellent for supporting the immune system and offer warming aromas,” notes Atilgan, before adding that frankincense, an Ayurvedic herb, “aids respiratory well-being” (helpful for cold and flu season!).

Herbs and spices to look out for: cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, frankincense, clove, and coriander.


3 Florals

“Floral notes like patchouli can boost mood, and they have nurturing qualities,” says Atilgan. Rose, jasmine, and lavender are also popular floral essential oils, they’re often found in skincare products and perfumes due to their pleasant scent.

Floral essential oils to look out for: patchouli, rose, jasmine, lavender, chamomile, geranium, and neroli.

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