Home fragrance has come a long way from the synthetic aerosols and potpourri of yore. More than creating ambiance, a growing body of clinical evidence shows that aromatherapy—the use of plant essential oils for therapeutic purposes—has remarkable healing properties. So much so that hospitals and clinics across the country are turning to aromatherapy to solve an array of healthcare challenges, from treating chemotherapy-induced nausea to battling antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Dr. Angie Lillehhei (Ph.D., MPH, RN) became interested in aromatherapy after reading an article about a lavender farm. Angie fell in love with the rolling purple fields, and the idea that the plants populating them could be as useful as they were beautiful.

After earning her Masters in Public Health, Angie’s interest in integrative care led her to the University of Minnesota’s Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing, where she took a Clinical Aromatherapy course. Under the guidance of Dr. Linda Halcon, Angie learned about the elegant interplay between plant biology and essential oil chemistry, and the powerful healing applications of those oils.

For her Ph.D. research, Angie chose to conduct a clinical study on lavender’s effect on sleep—a choice that was spurred by the CDC’s designation of sleep deprivation as a public health issue, as well as the sleep struggles of her own daughter. The study found that inhaling lavender improved subjects’ sleep quality in a pronounced and lasting way, and prompted Angie to found Noctilessence, a wearable lavender-infused sleep patch.

We caught up with Angie to discover easy and inexpensive ways for families to benefit from aromatherapy.

What are some of the benefits of essential oils, and how do they work?

Essential oils are lovely to use, natural, and provide a wide range of healing properties. Small amounts can be inhaled, where they enter your limbic system and your neurochemical pathway. They can also be used topically—in most cases diluted in a carrier oil—and absorbed through the skin, where they enter the circulatory system.

Essential oils are made up of over 40 chemical constituents that give them a variety of therapeutic properties. Each plant species has a unique range of chemical constituents, so it’s important to select essential oils by species. For example, some Lavender species have stimulating properties, and other Lavender species (Lavandula angustifolia) have calming properties.

If you’re a family just starting out with aromatherapy, what are the most versatile oils to stock?

A good starter kit would consist of Tea Tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) for a disinfectant and antiseptic, Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) for sleep, pain, and calm, and Spearmint (Mentha x spicata) as a pick-me-up, and for stomach pain and digestive issues. Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus Globulus) is good to have on hand for inhalation when congested with the cold or flu.

How do you use essential oils safely?

Essential oils are safe and easy to use when diluted for topical use and inhaled in small amounts. All essential oils should be used with caution in children, and should never be ingested. Be sure to read the recommendations for each oil. See the safety guidelines at the end of the post, and this dilution chart for more information.

For children under 15, be sure to use lower concentrations—between .5% and 5%, depending on the essential oil, application method, and age of the child. Children aged five and younger should not be exposed to essential oil vapors.

It’s important to note essential oils are very concentrated. It takes a lot of plant matter to make a single drop of essential oil. So for best effect, to be safe, and to be good stewards of plants, it is important to use only small amounts. Adults should use only 1-2 drops on a cotton ball or tissue for inhalation  For topical application to a large area (as in massage), essential oils should be diluted to 3% concentration in a carrier oil. If you’re applying essential oils to just a small area, like lavender to a burn, the concentration can be as high as 10%.

Which oils might help kids focus during homework time?

Some essential oils such as Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis) have calming properties, and inhalation is the best way to get those calming effects. Again, adults only need to use 1-2 drops on a cotton ball or tissue, and children over age five will see benefits from ½-1 drops inhaled at less frequent intervals.

How can essential oils combat cold and flu as we roll into winter?

The best way to combat colds and the flu are the basics: good hand washing, coughing into your sleeve, and avoiding close contact with those who are sick.

You can use Tea Tree oil as a disinfectant: put 2-5 drops of tea tree oil in 2 cups of water in a spray bottle, and shake before using. Use intentionally and in small amounts as needed. Inhaled Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus Globulus) can help clear congestion from the cold or flu. (Do not use with children under five).

How do you incorporate aromatherapy into your own life?

I use the Noctilessence lavender sleep patch when I’m having trouble with sleep. I also use Tea Tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) for an antiseptic for wounds, and a Frankincense (Boswellia Carteri) blend to minimize scarring when needed. And I use Spearmint (Mentha x spicata) as a perk-me-up when I need to be sitting for long periods of time. I also make a skin care oil for my daughter, who has sensitive skin. I am still daydreaming about that Lavender farm concept.

Final thoughts?

Essential oils are effective. A little goes a long way. Use intentionally. Enjoy—they are a lovely way to provide healing.

Storage and safety tips for families:

  • Essential oils should be used with caution in children
  • Do not allow children to ingest essential oils
  • Keep essential oils out of reach of children
  • If possible, purchase small bottles of essential oils with child-resistant caps
  • Do not apply essential oils on or near a child’s face, or inside the nose of a child
  • Do not expose children five years or younger to strong essential oil vapors
  • Do not add undiluted essential oils to bathwater of children
  • Purchase essential oils in a small dark bottle with the species name and country of origin listed. Make sure the label states it is 100% essential oil
  • Store tightly covered bottles of essential oil in a cool, dark, place and replace after 6-12 months. Essential oils oxidize over time, which changes their properties


To purchase Angie’s lavender sleep patches, click here

Co-ops are good places to purchase essential oils, but be wary of any supplier that promotes ingestion and/or using high volumes of essential oils

The University of Minnesota offers an online class on essential oils, and Allina Health’s Penny George Institute for Health and Healing offers aromatherapy as part of its integrative health programs.

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