We can get very attached to the smell of our favorite lotion or body wash, but there’s often something lurking behind the scent that can harm your health. Many fragranced personal care products contain chemicals called “phthalates,” which help the scent cling to skin and hair. The term hardly ever actually appears on the labels, but instead may be one of the ingredients that make up “fragrance” or “parfum/perfume.”

According to the Environmental Working Group, studies have linked phthalates to testicular cell death as well as hormone changes, lower sperm count, less mobile sperm, birth defects in the male reproductive system, obesity, diabetes, and thyroid irregularities. It’s best to avoid them altogether! The EWG’s Skin Deep database can help you discover the safest alternatives.

Essential Oils: A Safer Option

Essential oils have soared in popularity and are commonly found in people’s medicine cabinets, but can they be used as a replacement for the scents you love? When diluted properly, they often can. Essential oils are highly aromatic substances found in certain plants and used for protection from predators and to attract pollinators. After the distillation of a plant, the aromatic substance is referred to as an essential oil.

Safety, Dilution, and Storage

It takes a lot of plant material to make a small amount of essential oil—they are highly concentrated. For example, it takes 50-60 roses to produce one drop of rose essential oil! This means you only need a very small amount to achieve a desired effect. Very few, if any, essential oils should be ingested or applied directly to the skin. I recommend diluting essential oils into a carrier oil or substance. You do this by combining the oils with “carriers” (such as vegetable, seed, or nut oils) before applying them to your skin.

Because essential oils evaporate easily, it’s best to store them in dark, airtight, glass bottles. Exposure to light, oxygen, and heat will break down the oils and they can become “oxidized” and irritating to the skin. Purchasing unadulterated, organic 100% essential oils from reputable manufacturers helps ensure you are using the purest plant constituents while ensuring ethical and sustainable harvesting methods.

Popular Oils and Their Therapeutic Benefits

Here are a few of my favorite oils to diffuse, combine with carrier oils, and use in my homemade cleaning solutions:

  • Lavender — The most widely used essential oil due to its broad range of properties; antidepressant, decongestant, sedative, promotes calming, relieves headaches and muscle aches, healing for burns. Very safe, non-toxic, non-irritant; can use with children.
  • Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) — Great for green cleaning products and first aid; antifungal, antiseptic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, decongestant, expectorant, stimulating to the immune system, good for acne; can put directly on the skin.
  • Peppermint — Found in 1000 BC in Egyptian tombs, widely used; anti-inflammatory, antifungal, circulation stimulant, pain relief, nausea, headaches, digestive upset (can have the opposite effect with GERD). Strong; dilute well! Avoid in children younger than 5.
  • Frankincense — Extracted from the resin / gum of the Boswellia tree, grown in the Middle East and Africa; antiseptic, wound healing, expectorant, pain-relieving, nervous system relaxant. May cause irritation in those with sensitive skin. Use in low dilution.
  • Eucalyptus — Uplifting aroma useful for respiratory conditions, decongestant inhalant for colds, antiviral, antibacterial; because it inhibits proliferation of the virus causing the cold, it’s useful as an air spray in the house for protection when other are sick. Non-toxic and non-irritating when used properly, but not be used on or around children younger than 10.