How are Essential Oils Absorbed in Body?

Essential oils absorption into the bloodstream takes place in two ways – through the skin and respiratory system. Only then will the therapeutic effects of these oils be experienced. When essential oils enter the blood stream, they start a chemical reaction by reacting with enzymes and hormones. Experts are divided as to whether the benefits of essential oils are felt due to their chemical composition or because of the route of administration by way of massages or inhalation.

Essential oil absorption by the Skin

Since aromatherapy is the most common use of these oils, the skin is the main surface through which essential oils absorption takes place. This is also the biggest surface area of absorption into the bloodstream. 

Our skin has two layers:

  • Dermis is the deeper layer between the subcutaneous tissues and the outer layer – epidermis. It has two layers – papillary region and reticular dermis. It contains hair follicles, sweat glands, apocrine glands, sebaceous glands, blood vessels and lymphatic vessels. The numerous blood vessels found in the dermis nourish the epidermis and remove dermal waste.
  • Epidermis is the outer layer of the skin and consists of 4-5 layers – cornified, translucent / clear, granular, spinous and basal / germinal layer.

A basement membrane separates both these layers.

Essential oils absorption during massages takes place through the outermost cornified or horny layer of the epidermis. It then enters the sweat glands, hair follicles found in the upper dermis on to capillary circulation. Most essential oils are chiefly fat-soluble and partly water-soluble. This is why they are easily absorbed into the skin that is semi-permeable by simple diffusion. The sebaceous glands have an oily sebum that facilitates the dissolving of essential oils. They then pass into the dermis from where they are carried by the lymph glands and blood vessels to the bloodstream.

The rate of essential oils absorption depends on:

  • The viscous nature of carrier oils
  • Composition of oil
  • Skin of the person undergoing a massage – those with excessive fat tissue, slow circulation or edema will have slow absorption levels.
  • The area of the skin – a smaller area means lesser absorption
  • Absorption rates will differ depending on areas of application. Permeable areas include soles, palms, forehead, scalp, area behind ears, inside wrists and armpits.
  • Less permeable areas include trunk, legs, buttocks and abdomen.
  • Subcutaneous areas of the skin have more fat and improper blood supply. So, these areas also have lower rates of absorption.
  • Older people with dehydrated skin also have lower absorption rates. 

Factors that affect absorption

  • Massages increase warmth of skin and circulation, therefore increase the ability of the skin to absorb essential oils.absorbtion of esssential oils
  • The larger the massage area, the greater quantities of oils will get absorbed.
  • Clean skin has open and unclogged pores that facilitate absorption.
  • Carrier oils that are less viscous like almond or grape seed get absorbed quicker than thicker oils such as avocado or olive oil.
  • Rooms where massages are done should be kept warm. Clients should also be covered and kept warm to facilitate better absorption
  • It is good to remove dead skin before a massage
  • Continuous deep breathing during a massage session can greatly increase the amount of molecules of essential oils that enter the bloodstream.

Essential oil absorption by the Respiratory System

Essential oils absorption into the respiratory system is slower and the rate of diffusion in the bloodstream is also greater. This is because these oils that enter through the respiratory system are constantly moving through various exits.

The combination of the right essential and carrier oils help the respiratory system by improving breathing, clearing lungs and better interchange of gases.  When certain physical conditions indicate that a massage can produce side-effects, inhalation of essential oils is helpful. It helps in the treatment of sinuses and infections of the lungs and throat. 

The quality of essential oils used determines the responses people can experience from stimulating to relaxing. When these oils are inhaled, the molecules reach the tip of the nose and then come in contact with the olfactory mucous membrane. Thousands of receptors in this membrane create a sensory stimulation that reaches the limbic portion of the brain via the olfactory nerve. This area controls the psychological and emotional responses in humans. From the limbic system, nerves reach other parts of the brain that regulate many body functions. A simple process of inhalation takes just a few seconds and therefore essential oils absorption is also quick.

The strongest and most direct pharmacological effects of essential oils are their effect on the brain. Fragrances of essential oils are absorbed through sinuses and enter the blood stream and nerves into the central glands that are found in the brain. These then control various neurological, emotional and immunological functions.

Circulatory problems can be addressed by using essential oils that are absorbed through the skin or through respiratory absorption. When essential oils are massaged into the body, stimulating effects are experienced.

Essential oils that help the respiratory system and get absorbed quickly include:

  • Pine, eucalyptus and peppermint oils can reduce nasal congestion. Other decongestant essential oils that also have anti-infectious properties are rosemary and niaouli oils.
  • Bergamot, lavender, lemon, juniper, teatree and sandalwood also help prevent respiratory tract infections
  • Viral infections of the respiratory tract can be treated using lavender, eucalyptus and teatree – that have anti-viral properties.
  • Bronchial spasms can be treated with anti-spasmodic essential oils such as peppermint, clary sage and frankincense.
  • Those who have coughs can use oils with expectorant properties like peppermint, eucalyptus and sandalwood, which clear the lungs of phlegm.


A competent aromatherapist must know not only which essential oils to use but also about the rate of essential oils absorption into the bloodstream and their effects on various parts of the body. Chemical, physiological and psychological reactions take place when these oils are massaged into the skin, when they are inhaled and they enter the respiratory tract. When absorbed into the bloodstream, they have various therapeutic effects that benefit us tremendously.