10 Buzzwords You Need to Know If You Use Essential Oils

When I first became interested in essential oils, I was downright confused. There were so many terms I have never heard of. I consider myself a pretty smart person (even after having three kids) but my head was spinning. I wasn’t sure I would be able to pull off this whole essential oil thing. I had so many questions.


“What does phototoxic mean?”

“These oils say they are therapeutic grade but these are certified therapeutic grade. What the difference?”

“Melissa says I can use this oil without diluting while Sarah says I shouldn’t use it neat. Who is right? What does neat even mean?”


Luckily, I pushed through the confusion and received a solid, quality education to become a certified aromatherapist. It is my job as a professional aromatherapist to give accurate information to the public. I got the answers I was looking for and I want to give YOU the answers too.  Let me lay it out for you in simple terms.


Here are 10 words you should know when using essential oils and what they mean.


1.   Essential oil- Highly aromatic, concentrated, and volatile substances found in specialized cells of certain plants. Essential oils are not found in all plants. These essential oils (or “essences” as they are referred to when they are still in the plant) may be used by plants to protect themselves, to attract pollinators, and other unknown uses.  They can come from the leaves, roots, branches, fruit rinds, flowers, seeds, trunk, or resins of plant matter. One thing that surprises people when they first start using them is that they do not have a “greasy” or “oily” texture.

2.   Carrier oil- also known as a “fixed” or “base” oil. These are pressed from the fatty portions of a plant, usually from seeds, fruit, or nuts. They do not evaporate like essential oils and do have an oily texture. They are a means of applying essential oils onto the skin safely. They also carry therapeutic benefits. Read more about those benefits here.

3.   Dilution- To mix a carrier oil with an essential oil when applying to the skin. This is imperative for everyone to avoid skin irritation or sensitization. The dilution ratio depends on several factors; including the age of the person, the oils used, why you are using oils, and the modality in which you are using the essential oils (bath salt, roller bottle, etc.)

4.   Neat- The use of an essential oil on the skin without a carrier oil. This is not recommended except in a few acute, short-term scenarios, such as a single bug bite or bee sting.

5.   Diffuser- A means of dispersing essential oils into the air. While there are several types of diffusers, the most popular ones are the electric ones. In order to use these, you just need to fill your diffuser with water, add a few drops of essential oil and press the “on” button. When using a diffuser, you do not need to dilute the essential oils, since you are not applying topically. You can read guidelines for diffusing here.

6.   Steam distilled- The most common type of essential oil extraction from a plant. This is when steam forces plant matter to open their cells, which hold the essences, and then is collected. There is also cold pressing, solvent extraction, and CO2 extraction.

7.   Phototoxic- When using certain oils on your skin makes it more prone to burns or damage from UV light. Such examples are Bergamot and Lemon. There are safe levels of usage for phototoxic oils. It can be confusing for those not trained in aromatherapy to understand each oil’s maximum dermal dose. I would suggest double-checking with a qualified aromatherapist first if wanting to use these oils topically when exposed to sunlight. Phototoxic burns last a long time and can be painful. Best to avoid using them unless you know how to safely or will be avoiding sunlight/tanning beds for 12-48 hours after application.

8.   Adulterated- “A substance, artificial or natural, added to an essential oil, which is not originally present in the oil at the time of distillation”. (Black & Butje, 2016) Sometimes companies will add certain chemical compounds (such a d-limonene) to help its therapeutic effects or to make the oil more pleasant smelling.  Some companies that claim proprietary with their blends do this so all the blends are the same, no matter what condition the oil is in when distilled.

9.   Therapeutic Grade- First of all, let me press that there is NO governing body in the United States that gives quality grades to essential oils. Therapeutic grade simply means that the company is saying their oils meet their OWN therapeutic grade standard. The question is, what is their standard? Does it mean it’s pure? Does it mean it’s high quality? Does it mean it smells good? It’s hard to know for sure. So how can you pick a quality oil? Here are some excellent guidelines.

10.  GC/MS Report- Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry. “This is a device used by analytic chemists to give the precise make up for a given substance. Used in aromatherapy to determine the precise chemical constituents of an essential oil, and whether it is pure or adulterated with synthetic chemicals or other products.” (Black &Butje, 2016). GC/MS reports are a way where companies can be transparent. It is not the “be all and end all" of essential oil quality, BUT the refusal to supply these tests to the consumers should be a red flag.


So, there you have it! A simple, straightforward list of buzzwords you need to know when using essential oils. Are there more terms to learn? Absolutely! But learning these basic terms can help bring the whole essential oil puzzle together.


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Black&Butje (2016). Aromahead Certification Program. http://www.aromahead.com