What You Need to Know About Aromatherapy and How to Practice It
What is Aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy (aromatherapie) was originally defined simply as “the use of essential oils.” Because of the rapid evolution and the amount of medical research that has recently been devoted to the study of aromatherapy, today it is commonly defined as the “art” or “science” of aromatherapy. So, to be more precise, aromatherapy is the art of using highly concentrated, natural oils that are extracted from flowers, leaves, roots, bark, and other parts of a plant to enhance or restore psychological and physical health. People trained in aromatherapy have nearly three hundred essential oils at their disposal to treat an extensive range of medical conditions.
Who Uses Aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is becoming more widely used in the average household to heal conditions such as anxiety, depression, low energy, and insomnia. However, holistic practitioners (all of whom believe healing occurs in the body, mind, and spirit) are usually the most knowledgeable about the uses of aromatherapy and can often create different mixtures of essential oils for their individual patients. Essential oils are used by holistic practitioners because, while Western pharmaceuticals are meant only to target specific symptoms, many essential oils target specific symptoms but are intended also to bring about a sense of well-being. For instance, peppermint essential oil helps alleviate pain but also conveys a sense of calm.
Aromatherapy has been adopted in medical clinics, hospices, and nursing homes. However, it is not yet a common practice by doctors and hospitals. While aromatherapy has been researched quite extensively in recent years, and while it is known to heal ailments such as viral infections, nausea, insomnia, and anxiety without the need of medications, it is considered more a complimentary therapy by medical doctors rather than a medicine that targets specific ailments. These views are changing, and essential oils are being used more today in clinical therapy.
How Aromatherapy Is Used to Heal
Different plants have many different medicinal properties that are beneficial to humans, and the production of essential oils is a means to target, augment, and take advantage of these properties. Plants themselves contain certain chemicals that they have gained through evolution to repel insects or other animals, to protect themselves against infections, and to heal wounds. The production of essential oils takes advantage of these properties. And while the part of the plant that essential oils are derived from contain medicinal uses, essential oils are exceedingly more potent.
Aromatherapy, then, is practiced in many different ways and for many different forms of health care. Some of these, as mentioned above, include:
- Stress and anxiety
- High blood pressure
- Sore muscles
- Skin problems, such as eczema and psoriasis
- Respiratory problems, such as asthma, cough, and congestion
How Aromatherapy Is Used to Feel Good
Aromatherapy is also becoming widely used solely for the pleasure of the scents essential oils emanate. Essential oils are often found in cosmetics: perfume, skin care, and hair care products. They are also used in cleaning products as many plants have natural anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-viral properties to help protect the plant from bacteria and diseases—other botanical benefits essential oils take advantage of. Essential oil fragrances have even been used by the tobacco industry.
While many essential oils are beneficial for the skin and hair, and while many essential oils are efficient solutions for cleaning and killing bacteria, these oils are also used for the aromatic pleasure they convey—that is, their scents make people feel good.
In fact, there are essential oils that are believed to have aphrodisiac qualities. You might read in many an article that a drop of lavender or patchouli placed on the “pulse points” or on the “most kissable spots” of the body will help seduce the one you love. While essential oils are broadly used for their medicinal purposes, they are perhaps even more widely used for the feel-good properties that they emanate. Essential oils can be:
- Uplifting – bergamot and grapefruit
- Playful – sweet orange
- Calming – frankincense and tangerine
- Soporific – lavender
- Amorous – cinnamon leaf
- Energizing – peppermint and lemon
- Memory and concentration enhancing – rosemary and eucalyptus
Different Ways to Use Essential Oils
Using Aromatherapy Topically
What Is a Carrier Oil?
For topical application of essential oils, aromatherapy practitioners will always tell you to use a carrier oil, such as jojoba oil, argan oil, or coconut oil. Most experts, however, agree that there are some oils deemed safe to use on the skin (such as cedarwood, tea tree oil, frankincense, and lavender), but there are still a few who suggest using even these oils with a carrier oil. Suffice to say, carrier oils are extremely important because of the potency of essential oils.
Like essential oils, carrier oils are extracted from plants, but, unlike essential oils (apart from almond and nutmeg oils), they are usually made from seeds, nuts, and kernels, the fatty parts of the plant. For this reason, they don’t have the intense aromas that essential oils do. They function to dilute the essential oil—i.e., to “carry” the essential oil—before it is applied to your body or your face. They are the base (often called the “base oil”) of your essential oil blend.
Although carrier oils each hold their own therapeutic values, their real principle healing and restorative benefits are attributed to their nourishing skin properties. And while most often carrier oils are mentioned for topical safety purposes, the primary reason they are used, again, is because they are so nourishing for the skin. Carrier oils are chosen because they are great moisturizers, and all of them can be used on their own for their restorative skin properties.
How to Make a Topical Essential Oil Mix
A good rule of thumb when making a carrier oil/essential oil mix is to add 1 to 3 percent essential oil to your chosen amount of carrier oil. To make a 1 percent dilution, add 5 to 6 drops of essential oil to every ounce (30 ml) of carrier oil. Then, just double (10 to 12 drops) and triple (15 to 18 drops) this as needed to make 2 and 3 percent dilutions, respectively.
- A 1 percent or less dilution is recommended for facial massages and for people with sensitive skin.
- A 2 percent dilution is recommended for daily use.
- A 3 percent dilution is recommended for health problems, such as sore muscle pain, but this should only be used for a short time.
The percentage can be increased, and often people that are used to wearing strong perfumes will find a 2 percent dilution a little weak at first. However, many people adjust to the strength of the scent and notice that it enhances over time.
What Carrier Oils Are Commonly Used?
Just as essential oils can be combined to target certain symptoms or to discover a pleasant fragrance, so too can carrier oils be combined in an essential oil mixture—in fact, it is sometimes advised. For instance, castor oil is a powerful emollient, but it is considered too thick and sticky to be used without being diluted with other carrier oils. Here is a list of some commonly used carrier oils:
Argan Oil: Having a faint nutty and citrusy smell, argan oil is full of vitamin E and essential fatty acids. It nourishes skin and reduces inflammation. Argan oil can act as a face wash or a face moisturizer because it dissolves quickly and does not leave grease or oil behind. Argan oil has a shelf life of about two years.
Avocado Oil: Having an earthy, nutty scent, avocado oil nourishes skin and promotes cell regeneration. It is deeply moisturizing and can be used as a cleanser. Avocado oil has a shelf life of about one year.
Cocoa Butter: Having a chocolaty smell, cocoa butter helps to restore dry, cracked, and aging skin. It is rich in vitamin E, nourishing, and moisturizing. Cocoa butter has a shelf life of about one year.
Coconut Oil: Having a tropical sweet smell, coconut oil can penetrate skin quicker than most other oils. It soothes dry skin and reduces inflammation, irritation, and itchiness. Coconut oil has a shelf life of about two years.
Fractionated Coconut Oil: A scentless oil, fractionated coconut oil is a (naturally) refined version of coconut oil. It is a lightweight, hydrating moisturizer that quickly absorbs into the skin. It has a shelf life of five or more years.
Jojoba Oil: Having a faint sweet smell, jojoba oil is used as a carrier oil because of its similarity to “sebum,” a natural oil that the skin produces. It is a nourishing oil for either gentle or dry skin. Jojoba oil has an almost indefinite shelf life.
Castor Oil: Some people say castor oil smells like its consistency: thick and oily. The smell can be tamed with a little essential oil. Still, castor oil is one of the best oils for any kind of skin condition: eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis. Because of its thick consistency, only about ten percent of castor oil is suggested for a carrier oil mix that will be massaged over large areas of the skin. It has a shelf life of about one year and should be refrigerated.
Using Aromatherapy With a Diffuser
A diffuser is the most common and simplest way to use essential oils. A diffuser allows the oil or combination of oils you choose to be suspended in the air for hours, providing the physical or emotional benefits that you crave, receiving the feel-good effects you desire, or simply making a room smell good or free of air-borne pathogens. In order to use a diffuser, follow the manufacturer’s instructions—because there are many different kinds of diffusers. Choose a diffuser that is easy to use.
Diffusing uplifting oils such as lemon or tangerine can help create a cheerful atmosphere. Diffusing relaxing oils such as lavender or bergamot can help create a calming atmosphere. Diffusing anti-bacterial oils such as eucalyptus or tea tree can help clear the room of air-borne pathogens. Diffusing any of these oils, or a mixture of your choosing, will freshen the air and help clear the room of any bad odors.
Using Aromatherapy by Direct Inhalation
Place a couple drops in the palm of your hand and rub your hands together. Cup your hands over nose and mouth, then take 3 to 5 deep inhalations. Afterwards, give yourself at least 3 minutes to relax before continuing with whatever task you were doing. This method should only be practiced with certain oils and hands should be kept away from the eyes. For safe inhalation, 1 to 3 drops of essential oils can be placed on a cloth, a cotton ball, a handkerchief, or, if there is nothing else at hand, a folded paper towel.
Using Aromatherapy in a Bath
Mix 3 to 6 drops of essential oils with a carrier oil and add to a bath while the warm water is running, keeping most of the oils from floating to the top. A bath with essential oils allows you to receive not only the benefits of skin penetration but also the benefits of inhalation. Even better, the carrier oil in the bath water will moisturize your skin.
Using Aromatherapy with a Compress
Add 4 or 5 drops of essential oils to a bowl of hot or cold water. Fold the towel and lay it gently on the water for absorption. Then, wring out the excess water. Place the compress on the sore area and cover with a bandage. Remove the compress when it is no longer cold or hot. Repeat as necessary.
Using Aromatherapy in Unscented Facial and Body Lotions
Just as you would do with any carrier oil, add between 1 to 3 percent dilution to every 1 ounce of unscented cream or oil. Use only 1 to 2 percent for facial creams and for people with delicate skin. See how your skin reacts, then raise the dilution rate. Remember to mix well.
What Are Top, Middle, and Base Notes?
Each essential oil is classified as a top, a middle, or a base notes. Not every blend needs to contain each note, but a good smelling blend usually contains all three. Top, middle, and base notes are determined by the length of time it takes for an individual oil to evaporate. Using all three notes in an essential oil mixture allows the blend to be layered and cohesive.
Top notes are the first oils that you smell in a diffused or topical blend and they are the first oils to evaporate. Top notes usually have a fresh yet strong smell. Citrus oils such as bergamot, grapefruit, lime, and sweet orange fall into this category. Middle notes usually have warmer smells. They include oils such as rosemary and lavender. Base notes generally have deep, earthy smells, such as frankincense and patchouli. Base notes take the longest to detect but their presence also lingers the longest.
The practice of blending essential oils is the reason that aromatherapy will always be described as something between an art and a science. A masseuse or holistic practitioner might prepare a blend for a particular therapeutic purpose, but they also want the blend to have a pleasant fragrance.
What Are Some of the Most Commonly Used Essential Oils?
Aromatherapy has been used for centuries for its curative effects, but only relatively recently has aromatherapy become the subject of scientific research. However, because that research is quickly advancing, we have to leave open the idea that many more benefits are still to be realized. Five of the essential oils most commonly used and most widely researched today are lavender, peppermint, tea tree, frankincense, and eucalyptus oil.
Lavender essential oil has numerous benefits, but it is regularly used for reducing anxiety and for inducing sleep. In 2016, a study was taken to see what effects the inhalation of lavender oil could have on the cortisol levels (cortisol helps to manage stress in the body) and vital signs of candidates for open-heart surgery. The candidates that inhaled lavender were found to have much lower stress levels than did the control group (1). Lavender oil has also been shown to reduce restless leg syndrome in patients with chronic renal failure (2), to reduce postoperative pain in women who have undergone cesarean delivery (3), and to reduce pain severity in the treatment of people who have migraine attacks (4). This oil is a safe, alternative treatment for sleep and anxiolytic medications, such as benzodiazepines, because it has no addictive properties. And if not to replace those more potent and dangerous medications, lavender can always be used as a complimentary treatment for stress, insomnia, and pain.
Peppermint essential oil is perhaps the most versatile oil known. In 2013, an Iranian medical team wrote an article about the effects of peppermint oil on patients undergoing chemotherapy. The study found that ingesting peppermint oil significantly reduced the chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting of their patients (5). In 2007, an Italian team conducted a four-week trial on patients with irritable bowel syndrome. They found that peppermint oil significantly reduced the abdominal symptoms associated with IBS (6). Peppermint oil has been shown not only to reduce abdominal pain but also to increase energy. A 2013 study found that peppermint oil helps to increase athletic performance (7). However, this natural and highly versatile oil can also:
- Improve respiratory rate
- Improve mental focus
- Heal headaches
- Reduce allergic reactions
- Moderate blood pressure
- Ease muscle tension
- Relieve menstrual problems
- Enhance mood
Tea tree essential oil has antifungal, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties. In her book Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Healthcare, Jane Buckle describes a clinical study in which patients with chronic cystitis (recurrent bladder infections) were given 24 mg of tea tree oil for 6 months. She explains that 60% of those given tea tree oil were completely cured, though there were no signs of improvement in the control group. Tea tree oil is used in aromatherapy to boost the immune system, to clear a room of airborne viruses, and to cleanse the skin of infection and other disorders, such as acne and dermatitis.
Frankincense essential oil is a base note that is common in essential oil mixes because it complements other (especially citrus) oils with its earthy, yet sweet, smell. In one way or another, many already have a sentimental attachment to this scent because, as an incense, it is identified with and used in so many sacred settings.
Frankincense oil is well known for its anti-aging properties: it helps remove wrinkles, scars, and sunspots. However, it has recently become the subject of much research because there have been promising signs that it can reduce the symptoms of arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and asthma (8). There is even evidence suggesting it can suppress the proliferation of cancer cells (9). In aromatherapy, however, frankincense is perhaps most often used simply for its calmative effects.
Eucalyptus essential oil is commonly found in many different pharmaceutical. It can be found in mouthwashes, toothpastes, lozenges, and balms, because of its minty taste and cooling properties. So, it is no surprise that, in aromatherapy, eucalyptus is often used for respiratory problems. It helps relieve asthma, bronchitis, coughs, and colds. And its cooling properties are further used to reduce fever and to stimulate the body. Moreover, it is also an effective pain reliever. A recent study conducted on fifty-six patients following knee-replacement surgery found that the inhalation of eucalyptus successfully reduced pain and lowered blood pressure (10). Some believe that there is very little that this oil cannot do.
How Do I Choose the Essential Oils That Are Right for Me?
You don’t necessarily need research to tell you which essential oils make you feel good. Many smells are very personal. For instance, some people find patchouli seductive while others are turned off by it.
Our sense of smell is tied to the limbic system, an area of the brain that processes emotion (it’s actually described as “the emotional center of the brain”). The limbic system is also an area where long-term memories are stored. Emotions and memories are deeply connected to our sense of smell. For this reason, some scents attract and others repel. While many scents encourage common responses, many individual scents induce very individual reactions. If the first time you smelled roses was at a funeral, then rose oil might not remind you of love, but of loss. So, it is best to learn how your body responds to each different oil.
To find out whether you like an oil or not, it is best to put a couple of drops on a napkin or cloth and then smell the material from about 6 inches away. This is a better method then trying to take a whiff straight from the bottle.
Remember too: Different essential oils have different effects in different situations. If work is over and you need to relax, then lavender or bergamot might be the right oil to diffuse. If you need energy to get through work, then peppermint or lemon might be a better oil to have on hand.
How Do I Use Essential Oils Safely?
Essential oils might be natural, but they are potent and powerful. A huge amount of plant material is used to make a very small amount of oil. For instance, it takes about two hundred kilograms of lavender flowers to produce one kilogram of lavender essential oil. It takes about four dozen roses to produce a single drop of rose oil. So, these highly concentrated oils deserve our respect.
Irritation and allergic reactions: It is rare, but some people have allergic reactions (also called “sensitivity”) to certain essential oils. Some people also develop irritation when they use oils topically. To find out whether someone is allergic or sensitive to a certain oil, a “patch test” is often suggested. There are critics who believe that a patch test will not clearly show whether someone has an allergy to the oil or, conversely, who believe that a patch test might actually cause irritation. However, these same critics haven’t offered many other ways to test whether an essential oil can cause sensitivity or irritation.
Here is how to perform a patch test: Mix 1 drop of essential oil into 1 tsp (5 mL) of carrier oil. Place a small amount of the mixture on the crook of your elbow or the back of your arm, and cover the applied area with a large bandage. Wait twenty-four hours to see whether there is a reaction.
Near the eyes: Keep essential oils away from your eyes. If an oil gets in your eyes, irrigate your eyes with milk or with a vegetable oil, and gently wipe the irritated eye with a soft tissue.
Photosensitivity: Most citrus-based oils can cause photosensitivity (often depending on whether they are distilled or expressed), meaning that, if a citrus-based essential oil is applied topically, it can irritate, redden, or darken the pigmentation of the skin when exposed to direct sunlight within twelve hours of application.
Ingesting: Many websites, and some books, will suggest putting a drop or two of essential oils in your water or will give advice on cooking with essential oils. However, most books written on aromatherapy will advise against any ingestion of essential oils unless you have first spoken to a doctor or an aromatherapist. That said, some essential oils can be ingested in small amount, but you should be discerning and check your sources.
Children: Just as you shouldn’t keep your aspirin lying around in a place where children can get hold of them, so too should you not keep essential oils where children can come into contact with them. Some people recommend that children can use most essential oil mixtures at a 1 percent dilution rate or at half the strength that an adult would use. It is always recommended that a holistic care professional be consulted before using essential oils topically on a child under twelve. If a child accidently drinks the oil, give them milk immediately (to dilute the oil), then take them to a hospital. Essential oil products that come pre-mixed are made with adults in mind.
Pregnant women: It is often recommended that pregnant women should use 1 percent dilution when using essential oils topically. It is also often suggested that pregnant women should not use essential oils during their first trimester. However, one thing is certain, pregnant women should definitely avoid some essential oils, such as sage oil, because they are emmenagogues (they stimulate or increase menstrual flow). It is best to look up which essential oils fall into this category.
As a final note, don’t let safety precautions keep you from experimenting with essential oils. Essential oils are much safer than most of the drugs you store in your medicine cabinet. The biggest fear is that a child or a pet might confuse their sweet scent with something that can be consumed.
Using Aromatherapy: An All-Natural Curative
There are many products that are labeled “fragrance oils” or “perfume oils,” but these are not essential oils. Many products have labels that state that they are “made with essential oils” but often these products only contain small amounts of essential oil—and are steeped with synthetic ingredients. The United States has no regulations against the misuse of the term “aromatherapy” on product labels. Be sure to investigate the labels of any aromatherapy product to make sure all the ingredients are natural. Aromatherapy products are only and always 100% natural.