What is aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy is the art of using essential oils to improve your physical health and enhance your emotional wellbeing.
The reviving aroma of freshly brewed coffee, the familiar scent of cut grass, the comforting smell of just baked bread… these are examples of aromatherapy at work. Smells evoke memories and emotional associations. In aromatherapy, essential oils are used to balance and restore your emotional and mental wellbeing through your sense of smell (eg lavender to balance or chamomile to calm).
Aromatherapy is also used to help heal the body by applying essential oils on the skin (eg massage, ointments or compresses) or by inhaling essential oils (eg steam inhalation, bath or oil burner).
How does it work?
The benefits of aromatherapy
Essential oils have many benefits for your body and mind. They can be used to treat common or minor ailments, to affect your mood, or simply to fragrance your home!
Physical benefits: skin care, muscular aches and pains, minor injuries, cuts and burns, circulatory problems, minor respiratory conditions, colds and flu, insomnia and fatigue
Emotional benefits: relaxes, calms, energises, uplifts, relieves stress, depression, anxiety or nervous tension, restores self esteem and confidence
Aromatherapy is not a medicine and aromatherapists are not allowed to diagnose illness or prescribe, only a GP or hospital doctor can do this in the UK. Aromatherapy should not be used as an alternative to traditional medicine, but can be used to complement your lifestyle.
What are essential oils and carrier oils?
What are essential oils?
When you smell fresh roses or catch the fragrance of jasmine on the evening air, you are smelling the aromatic essence of the plant. Around 15% of flowering plants contain volatile oils, or essences, which release a strong scent. Press a sprig of rosemary or a bud of lavender between your fingers or squeeze the peel of an orange or grapefruit to release these volatile oils.
It is thought that the creation of volatile oils in aromatic plants is closely related to photosynthesis – the process by which plants absorb sunlight for energy and food. Plants release the volatile oils through specialised secretory structures such as cavities, ducts and oil cells. The volatile oils are used by the plant to attract pollinators, repel predators or even in plant warfare!
The volatile oils, or essences, of aromatic plants can be extracted from the flowers, leaves, stalks, fruits or roots (depending on the plant) by steam distillation. Only oils that have been extracted by the method of steam, or water, distillation are true essential oils. Oils extracted by methods such as solvent extraction are ‘absolutes’ (eg rose and jasmine). Oils extracted by mechanical expression remain chemically unchanged and are ‘essences’ (eg citrus oils).
What are carrier oils?
Essential oils contain highly concentrated chemical compounds and must be diluted in ‘carrier’ oils before direct use on the skin (eg massage, baths and showers, beauty therapy). Carrier oils are vegetable oils such as sweet almond, grapeseed or sunflower and are used to ‘carry’ essential oils to the skin. They are sometimes called ‘base’ oils because they form the base (main ingredient) of aromatherapy blends. It is important to use the correct dilution of essential oil:carrier oil to ensure that an aromatherapy blend is safe to use: guide to essential oil dilutions.
How to use essential oils
There are many ways in which you can use aromatherapy. Some of the most popular methods of use are listed here.
Inhalation, vaporisation and compresses
Essential oils can be inhaled to help treat colds or flu (coughs, sore throats, blocked noses), respiratory conditions such as sinusitis, or even to relieve headaches. You can inhale essential oils through a steam inhalation, or when in the bath, or by sniffing a couple of drops on a tissue.
Essential oils can be vaporised in an oil burner to affect your mood, aid sleep, deter insects or simply to fragrance a room.
Compresses use essential oils with hot or cold water to treat muscle injuries (backache, strains and sprains), minor burns, irritated skin and to help draw out infection.
The most popular method of use for aromatherapy is massage. Massage has its own benefits. It relieves muscle tension and pain, makes muscles and joints more supple, improves muscle and skin tone, improves blood circulation, increases the flow of lymph fluid and the removal of waste toxins, and speeds up metabolism. Adding essential oils to massage blends can help to relieve conditions such as back ache or to improve the appearance of cellulite.
Aromatherapy is widely used in the beauty industry. Essential oils are added to facial washes for problem skins (lavender), to creams to rejuvenate (rose) and to shower washes to invigorate (peppermint). It’s easy to make aromatherapy products at home as you will discover from my blog posts on ‘Living with essential oils’.
There are many other ways in which to use essential oils. They can be used to enhance your home environment (eg to fragrance laundry), for healthcare (eg a first aid kit) or personal wellbeing (eg to aid a good night’s sleep) or even on-the-go (eg to help travel sickness).
Aromatherapy is a safe, gentle and effective therapy. It can be used alongside conventional medicine and other complementary therapies. However, it should NOT be used to replace conventional medicine and medical conditions can ONLY be diagnosed by a medical practitioner (GP or hospital doctor), not by an aromatherapist.
Always carry out a patch test before using an essential oil or blend, particularly if you have allergies or sensitive skin. If you are pregnant or have any of the following CONTRAINDICATIONS below, consult your GP before using aromatherapy.
Contraindications to aromatherapy
You should inform your aromatherapist if you have any of the following conditions, because these may indicate that certain precautions should be taken or that your aromatherapist should seek permission to treat you from your GP, consultant physician (hospital doctor) or midwife.
- heart disease
- blood pressure (high or low)
- circulatory problems
- varicose veins
- haemophilia or on anticoagulants
- respiratory problems (asthma)
- infectious disease or fever
- recent operations or injuries
- allergies (including nut and wheat)
- thyroid problems
- skin problems
- menstrual problems (eg PCOS)
Aromatherapy for pregnancy
Aromatherapy provides many women with relief from common complaints during pregnancy. It may be used safely in the second and third trimester, providing you have no history of complications in your present or any previous pregnancy.
Certain essential oils and vegetable oils should be avoided during pregnancy and your aromatherapist will be able to advise you about this. For this reason, if you are pregnant or trying to conceive, it is important to inform your aromatherapist before a treatment.
Always consult your doctor and midwife before starting aromatherapy or massage treatments for pregnancy.
Index of essential oils
An at-a-glance guide to the essential oils on my blog under the category Living with essential oils and there will be more listed over the coming months. I studied around 70 essential oils for my diploma and there are over 300 essential oils that may be used in aromatherapy.