Ryan Fiorenzi
May 23, 2021

We recommend sleep products to our readers. We may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site - Learn More

What Are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are used in aromatherapy and are compounds extracted from plants that retain the original smell and flavor. Essential oils are made through distillation (or another extraction method such as cold-pressing), then the oil is combined with a "carrier" oil such as olive oil.

Essential oils are inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin.

There are more than 100 essential oils available, each with a different smell and purpose. Some of the most popular are:

  • Lavender: Used for promoting sleep and reducing stress
  • Sandalwood: Calming, helps with focus
  • Bergamot: Used for easing anxiety
  • Rose: Improves mood and reduces anxiety
  • Tea tree: Boosts immunity and fights infections
  • Jasmine: Used for the treatment of depression, in childbirth, and to enhance libido
  • Lemon: Aids digestion, mood, headaches

Research On Essential Oils and Sleep

Essential oils have shown good results in helping people find more restful sleep. Research from the University of Minnesota School of Nursing concluded that inhalation of essential oils may be helpful for people with mild sleep disturbances.

Another study from Wesleyan University asked subjects (between 18 and 30 years old) to inhale lavender oil between 11:10pm and 11:40pm. Researchers then studied polysomnographic data and had subjects report their mood and sleep quality and compared it to a control group. All 31 subjects reported higher vigor in the morning after inhaling lavender. Lavender also increased stage 2 (light) sleep, decreased rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and also decreased the amount of time it took women to fall asleep. The study concluded that lavender is a mild sedative and promotes deep sleep in young men and women.

The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine published a study that found that Lavandula Angustifolia (English lavender) is favorable in treating mild insomnia and that more research is required.

A study published in the Oxford Academic Journal Sleep® focused on aromatherapy's effect on the elderly in cognitive function as well as sleep. Subjects were given rosemary and lemon essential oils in the morning, and lavender and orange oils in the evening. They were then tested with the Touch Panel-type Dementia Assessment Scale (TDAS) and a revised version of Hasegawa's Dementia-Scale (HDS-R). The results were: total TDAS scores significantly decreased after four weeks, no significant differences were found in the HDS-R scale or total sleep time, and the number of days of difficulty maintaining sleep was significantly lower after four weeks of aromatherapy.

Several studies didn't focus directly on sleep but factors that can influence sleep, such as a study from Thailand that studied the subject's blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, skin temperature, and electroencephalogram results after inhaling lavender. The study concluded that inhaling lavender provided a relaxing effect.

What Are the Best Essential Oils for Sleep?

There are several essential oils that can be used to promote restful sleep, but the one that has been studied the most is lavender. It's one of the few essential oils that can be rubbed into the skin without dilution. The second most popular plant and oil is valerian. Other essential oils used for insomnia and better sleep include sweet marjoram, chamomile, peppermint, sandalwood, jasmine, rose, geranium, ylang-ylang, cedarwood, citrus, bergamot, and vanilla. These oils can be used individually or in combination.

People respond to different oils in various ways. One person raves about lavender while another likes chamomile. Every oil has different effects—ultimately the best thing to do is to try a few to see how you respond. 

How to Use Essential Oils

There are three main ways to use essential oils:

  • Inhalation: You can add essential oils to water in a spray bottle, or to a bowl of steaming water, in a diffuser, on a cotton ball, or you can spray your pillow or pajamas. It's probably the safest way to use essential oils and the fastest way to start feeling the benefits. It's safest to diffuse the oil in a well-ventilated area, for periods of 30 minutes or less, with breaks, and make sure that your pets can leave the room if they don't like it.
  • Apply directly to the skin: You can rub diluted essential oils directly into your skin, or apply with a roll-on, and it can be used in addition to massage oil in a massage. Essential oils are added to vegetable oil, nut oil, or water to be no more than 5% of the total volume of the solution. For massage, 1% is generally recommended.
  • Added to bathwater: Put a few drops into your bath which will create an aroma that you will inhale and absorb through your skin. 

Cold-pressed and organic oils are good choices as carrier oils, as well as oils that don't have a strong smell. Common carrier oils are avocado, jojoba, sweet almond, and grapeseed oil.

Dosage

One of the most well-known essential oil producers, doTerra®, recommends the following:

  • Start with the lowest possible dose (1-2 drops) and increase the dose as needed.
  • For internal use the recommended dose is 1–5 drops, depending on the oil or blend.
  • More isn't always better. At a certain point, it can even hurt you. They recommend a small dose that can be taken every 4–6 hours.
  • No more than 20 drops should be taken every 24 hours.
  • If you're consuming near the maximum dose, you shouldn't continue with the oil for an extended period.
  • A lower daily dose is recommended for extended internal use.
  • Oils should be taken under the observation of a physician.

Risks

Make sure that you use essential oils as they're intended—don't put edible oils on your skin, or swallow topical oils. Some assume that because these oils are derived from plants that they can't hurt you but that is untrue.

Most cases of poisoning are from ingesting more than the recommended daily dose orally—the safest way to use essential oils is by inhalation. The two most common oils that cause poisoning are tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil.

Be extremely careful with photosensitive oils on your skin—users have received 2nd and 3rd-degree burns by applying these oils and then tanning or going outside into the sunlight. According to the American College of Healthcare Sciences (ACHS), photosensitive oils can also increase your risk of cancer. Photosensitive (or phototoxic) expressed citrus essential oils (not steam-distilled citrus oils) contain furocoumarins, which cause burns when exposed to sunlight or UV light. Most essential oil bottles will say whether they're steam-distilled or expressed. Some of the oils that have furocoumarins include:

  • angelica root
  • bergamot peel
  • bitter orange peel
  • cumin seed
  • grapefruit peel
  • lemon peel
  • lime peel
  • mandarin leaf
  • rue leaf

If you're not sure whether your oil is steam-distilled or expressed, don't expose your skin to sunlight or UV light after applying.

The ACHS also recommends using a low concentration of essential oils on the skin. If you've used too much, using at least 2% milk will reduce the irritation and help your skin recover. Some people are sensitive to some oils while others aren't. Some of the oils that cause irritation include steam-distilled cinnamon bark and leaf, steam-distilled clove bud, leaf, and stem, as well as steam-distilled lemongrass leaf.

It's safest to tell your doctor before you start using essential oils, especially if you're using any pharmaceuticals as some essential oils can cause drug interactions. We also recommend testing a very small amount to make sure that you don't have a negative reaction. To do this, wash a part of your body with an unscented soap, dry it, and add a little bit of diluted essential oil to that area. Wait for a day to see if you have a negative reaction.

Undiluted essential oils can be an irritant for some people, so be careful. Avoid contact with your eyes and mucous membranes. Concentration levels should be 5% or less. 5 drops of essential oils can be added to a 1/2 cup of water, or you can add drops of pure essential oils to a carrier oil such as olive or almond oil.

  • Oils more than three years old should be thrown out as they will spoil. Always look at the oil, smell it, and check how old it is before using it in any way.
  • Undiluted oils can be very powerful and usually need to be diluted.
  • Use essential oils as intended—don't swallow oils for your skin and don't put edibles on your skin. Cumin oil is safe in food but can cause blisters on the skin. Citrus oils are good for food but can cause skin damage if exposed to the sun. Eucalyptus oil can cause serious problems if swallowed.

Always keep the oils out of reach of children and pets. If you have children, you may want to invest in childproof essential oil lids.

As far as administering essential oils to children, some recommend not using essential oils with kids, others recommend a very high dilution, with the essential oil being .25% for infants and .5% for toddlers.

Storage

As with most oils, they'll last longer in a cool, dry place out of sunlight. It's also good to store them in dark-colored bottles to reduce exposure of the oil to light.

Chicago Internal Cleansing recommends adding 10% jojoba oil or vitamin E to your essential oil, extending the shelf life, and slowing down the oxidation process that leads an oil to become rancid.

Best Essential Oil Products for Sleep

Aura Cacia Lavender

Aura Cacia Lavender best essential oil for sleep

Top Choice

  • Lavender lowers blood pressure, reduces heart rate, and has been shown to promote restful sleep.
  • 100% pure essential oil.
  • No synthetic fragrances, colors, or stabilizers.
  • Paraben and petroleum-free
  • No animal testing.
  • Great aroma—the lavender comes from the flowers as well as the leaves and stems.
  • Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry tested in their own lab to prove the oil's unadulterated quality.
  • It comes from a socially and environmentally responsible company that created the Positive Change Project that gives annual grants to organizations that help women and girls transform their lives.

Viva Naturals Organic Lavender

Viva Naturals Organic Lavender

Best Organic Lavender

  • It can be used in diffusers, massage oil (when combined with a carrier oil), in lotion, or in a spray for pillows and bedding.
  • Cold-pressed from organic Bulgarian lavender flowers.
  • Third-party tested—no added fillers or solvents (hexane-free).
  • Non-GMO project-verified.
  • Bulb dropper prevents spills and leaks.
  • Money-back guarantee.
  • Viva Naturals is a socially and environmentally responsible company.

Plant Therapy Relax Synergy Roll-On

Plant Therapy Relax Synergy Roll-On

Best Roll-On

  • Combination of lavender, sweet marjoram, mandarin, patchouli, roman chamomile, geranium bourbon.
  • Pre-diluted in fractionated coconut oil so you don't have to dilute it yourself.
  • Kid-safe.
  • Plant Therapy does third-party testing, including gas chromatography-mass spectrometry tested for purity, as well as smell-tested by essential oil expert, Robert Tisserand.

Plant Therapy Organic Bergamot

Aura Cacia Lavender for sleep

Best Organic Bergamot

  • Bergamot is a citrus fruit native to Italy that's known for reducing stress and anxiety, lowering blood pressure, and slowing your heart rate. It's used in Italian holistic medicine. The fruit is described as tasting like a cross between an orange and a grapefruit.
  • 100% USDA-certified organic.
  • Undiluted, so it needs to be combined with a carrier oil.
  • Plant therapy does third-party testing, including gas chromatography-mass spectrometry tested for purity, as well as smell-tested by essential oil expert Robert Tisserand.

Edens Garden Good Night

Edens Garden Good Night

Best Essential Oil Combination

  • A combination of lavender, sweet marjoram, chamomile, bergamot, ylang ylang, sandalwood, key lime, lime, and vanilla CO2.
  • Gas chromatography-mass spectrometry tested for purity.
  • Free from parabens, sulfates, phthalates, fillers, preservatives, fragrances, and any other synthetics.
  • No animal testing.
  • Edens Garden focuses only on essential oils.
  • Women-owned and family-operated, Edens Garden is a socially responsible company that supports female innovation and leadership.

Asutra Lavender & Chamomile Mist

Asutra Lavender & Chamomile Mist

Best Spray

  • A combination of lavender and combination that can be sprayed on your body or on your pillow and linens.
  • Infused with aloe vera and jojoba oil that revitalizes skin.
  • Won't stain skin or clothes.
  • Made in the USA.
  • Alcohol-free.
  • Non-toxic and eco-friendly ingredients.
  • Not tested on animals.
  • 100% money-back guarantee.

Essential Oil Frequently Asked Questions

Here are the answers to our most frequently asked questions about essential oils and sleep.
The essential oil that has been studied the most for its positive effects on sleep is lavender. The second most popular is valerian. Other essential oils used include sweet marjoram, chamomile, peppermint, and sandalwood.