How Essential Oils Can Promote Sleep + 5 Research-Backed Scents To Try
Preparing for bed involves depriving certain senses. The ideal sleep environment is pitch black and quiet, so as not to give you much to see or hear. Your sense of smell, though? That's one that can benefit from a little activation around bedtime. Here are five research-backed essential oils that have been shown to promote sleep and relaxation, and the best ways to use them according to experts.
How essential oils can help with sleep.
Essential oils are fragrant, concentrated extracts derived from plants. Beyond carrying plants' aromas, essential oils also contain the compounds that give them antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, or make them healthy in some other way.
The field of aromatherapy harnesses the smells and properties of these oils to promote state changes in the body. Research shows1 that certain smells—like those listed below—can send a quick signal to the brain that it's time to relax (the nose and brain are linked by the olfactory bulb, don't forget). While smelling essential oils is the easiest and most popular way to reap their benefits before bed, you can also apply them topically or ingest them (if the product is specifically designed for oral consumption, of course), but these methods must be done very carefully and they're not suitable for all oils.
How to use them & where to apply.
As far as how to actually use essential oils before bed, you have a few options beyond just smelling them right from the vial. "The most effective methods involve weaving the use of essential oils into your sleep hygiene routine," explains essential oil expert and Osmia beauty founder Sarah Villafranco, M.D. Here are some ways to weave them seamlessly into your existing routine:
- Add them to a shower: To try Villafranco's personal favorite method, add a few drops of essential oil to the shower floor, not too close to the drain or where you stand (you don't want to slip on them!). The relaxing scent will be activated by the hot steam, leading to a blissful, spa-like shower.
- Add them to a bath: If you're more of a bath person, you can add a few drops of some (but not any) essential oils to your tub for a smell-good soak. Since these oils will be coming in closer contact with your body, you'll want to make sure that you're not using any that are potentially irritating to the skin. Here are a few to steer clear of.
- Diffuse them: Another popular way to use essential oils before bed is to add them to a diffuser so their scent can spread around a room. If you go this route, Villafranco recommends running your diffuser in your bedroom for around 15 minutes then turning it off. "You should not leave it running overnight," she cautions, as the potent oils are best enjoyed in small doses.
- Apply them topically: You should never apply essential oils directly to the skin. However, they can be safe to apply topically after being combined with a neutral carrier oil like jojoba oil, argan oil, or apricot kernel oil. Amy Galper, certified aromatherapist, author, and founder of NYC's first Aromatherapy School, advises a ratio of eight drops of essential oil to one to two tablespoons of carrier oil. Valencia McClure, the founder of The Artistry of Essential Oils, recommends rubbing your blend into pulse points like your wrist or neck and shoulders, and taking three deep inhales about 30 minutes before you're trying to sleep.
- Use them in a pillow spray: Another one of McClure's favorite bedtime rituals is to add 10 to 20 drops of essential oil to two cups of distilled water for a quick linen spray. "Gently mist on freshly cleaned linen before bed. It's heaven!" Again, since this spray will come in contact with the skin, Villafranco previously recommended avoiding minty (spearmint, peppermint) or hot (cinnamon, thyme) oils, as they may cause irritation. These stimulating scents aren't great for bedtime anyway.
5 best essential oils for sleep.
"All aromas have the potential of triggering the relaxation response in our limbic system—that part of the brain that controls how we respond to external stressors," Galper explains. "But there are a few essential oils that have shown to be more relaxing than others." Here are the oils that have been the most rigorously studied for their sleep benefits:
All the experts interviewed for this piece agree that lavender oil is far and away the most well-studied essential oil for relaxation. "Most of the studies are small, but the evidence is fairly strong that lavender can improve sleep quality (in college students2, postmenopausal women3, and those in specific clinical scenarios4) and can reduce stress, both subjectively (anxiousness) and objectively (blood pressure and heart rate4)," Villafranco, a former ER doctor, notes.
"Science also indicates5 that lavender's linalool bioactive confers unique neuroprotective benefits via serotonin receptors in the brain," adds mbg's vice president of scientific affairs Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN. "While lavender might be more famous for its use in aromatherapy applications, the body of evidence6 supporting the oral consumption of this essential oil for relaxation is impressive," she notes. However, don't try to mix up your own bedtime beverage using essential oils, as they can be dangerous to ingest. Instead, look to a supplement company that you trust that incorporates lavender into its formulations.*
A popular ingredient in stress-easing herbal teas, earthy chamomile can also be calming in extract form. Villafranco points to one randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial that found that Matricaria recutita (German chamomile) extract was superior to a placebo7 for easing stress when consumed orally. The extract was also found to improve sleep quality in a 2017 randomized control8 trial with 60 elderly participatnts.
Bright, citrusy bergamot can also be helpful around bedtime, says Galper. It was one essential oil included in an "aroma stick" that helped people in the UK get better sleep in a 2016 trial9. This is likely in part due to the scent's ability to kick-start a relaxation response—even during stressful times. Case in point: Those who smelled bergamot in the waiting room before a mental health appointment entered the session feeling calmer and more positive10 than those who did not, according to 2017 research out of Utah.
Blends to try:
Looking to level up your bedtime essential oil routine? Try pairing a few relaxing fragrances together for a smell-good blend. Here are a few expert-approved combos:
- frankincense, lavender, sandalwood
- lavender, clary sage, bergamot
Other ways to improve sleep.
There's research suggesting that essential oils can help promote sleep, but the emphasis here is on "help." These oils certainly don't work alone, nor can they undo any bad bedtime habits. "Remember that no essential oils will make up for a complete lack of sleep hygiene, so they need to be part of an otherwise supportive approach to sleep," cautions Villafranco.
This includes trying to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day (yes, even on weekends!), avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and certain foods too close to bedtime, staying off electronics at night, giving yourself plenty of time to wind down from the day, and taking a sleep-promoting supplement for a little extra support as needed.* Here's a full list of all of mbg's favorites.*
The bottom line.
Most people could use a little help in the sleep department, and relaxing essential oils may be just the thing. Pair your nightly chamomile diffusion or lavender soak with other sleep-supporting habits for a bedtime routine that smells just as great as it feels.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.