The Basics of Aromatherapy
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The Basics of Aromatherapy

Proving the theory that everything old is new again, the ancient practice of aromatherapy has returned as a popular way to bring calmness, relaxation, and balance to body, mind, and spirit.

Why and How It Works

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Aromatherapy uses
natural oils to
promote wellness.

"Aromatherapy is using the essential oils of plants, flowers, seeds, leaves, and roots to promote health and well-being," explains Barbara Close, a certified aromatherapist and founder and owner of Naturopathica, a holistic spa in East Hampton, New York. Close says many people make the mistake of thinking aromatherapy is nothing more than scented candles. On the contrary, aromatherapy covers many issues of health and well-being. Holistic aromatherapy uses essential oils to heal the body (for example, a drop of thyme oil under the tongue for someone feeling the first symptoms of a cold or flu) while psycho-aromatherapy addresses the way smells affect our moods and well-being.

The scientific reasons behind why and how aromatherapy works involve the human body and our response to scent. Experts suggest the olfactory nerve takes the smells of essential oils and carries them to the parts of the brain involving our emotions and hormones. When essential oils are used in bath or body products, the oils are absorbed through the skin and into the nervous and muscular systems for a restorative effect. This explains why you feel more relaxed when you light a lavender candle, use a rose room spray, or rub on massage oil with ylang-ylang.

Essential oils are chemical compounds that can be antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and even antiviral. Essential oils are made from plants, but not all plants have essential oils. "Most are steamed distilled -- that's the most common form of extraction -- but some citrus oils like orange and lime are cold pressed," explains Tina Rocca-Lundstrom, a certified aromatherapist and president and founder of Aroma Naturals, a California-based retailer of aromatherapy products.

Because essential oils are very concentrated, a drop goes a long way. Applying essential oils directly to the skin can cause irritation, so many people use a carrier oil (such as safflower, grape-seed, or sweet almond oil) that helps dilute the product and make it more user-friendly.

Essential-oil blends also allow you to customize the desired fragrance and/or therapeutic effect. "Different people get different things out of the oils, so you have to find what works best for your system," says Rocca-Lundstrom.

"People are very interested in finding simple ritual ways to take care of their well-being, and as they look at their stress levels they are turning to aromatherapy to take care of that," adds Close. "Aromatherapy is a lot like people working with and learning about wine. There's a lot of information out there, but once you get started you will be excited and love it."

How to Use Aromatherapy

Relaxing Scents

If you are looking for essential oils that will promote calm and relaxation, try:

  • Atlas cedar
  • Bergamot
  • Chamomile
  • Clary sage
  • Lavender
  • Lemon
  • Lemongrass
  • Sweet marjoram
  • Orange
  • Rose
  • Rose geranium
  • Sandalwood
  • Violet
  • Ylang-ylang

Products & Uses

Once you become familiar with essential oils, you will probably want to use them in a number of different ways. You can create customized bath products, body lotions, or massage oils using one essential oil or a number of oils mixed together. For example, to create a relaxing massage or bath oil, fill a 1-ounce bottle half way with a carrier oil. Add 12 drops of an essential oil (like rose or lavender) and shake thoroughly.

There are also plenty of bath and body oils and body lotions being marketed with an aromatherapy angle. Quality varies, so some savvy shopping and sampling will likely be needed to find the products that best work for your body chemistry.

Beginner Tips

If you are working with aromatherapy and essential oils for the first time, try visiting a health food store or a retailer with a good variety of premium, high-quality essential oils. Take advantage of testers and simply start smelling the individual oils. Experts suggest swirling the oil around in the bottle to gently awaken the molecules before you smell.

Another option is placing a drop of the oil on an unscented tissue or blotter paper to smell the fragrance and experience the desired effect. Sensory overload can develop if you smell too many essential oils at one time, so go slowly or smell something like a coffee bean between testers to "clear your palate."

Because there are no laws governing the purity and labeling of essential oils, being an educated consumer is the best way to ensure your money is well spent. "You have to work with genuine essential oils to get the therapeutic effect," cautions Close, "so go to health food stores you trust or other reputable suppliers." Both Close and Rocca-Lundstrom believe experienced consumers can learn to tell the difference between genuine essential oils and lower-quality, synthetic versions. (See "How to Buy Essential Oils.")

For More Information

  • Well Being (Chronicle Books, 2000) by Barbara Close

  • Aromatherapy: The A-Z Guide to Healing with Essential Oils (Dell, 1997) by Barbara Close

  • The Aromatherapy Book (North Atlantic Books, 1992) by Jeannie Rose

  • The Essential Oils Book: Creating Personal Blends for Mind & Body (Workman, 1996) by Colleen K. Dodt

  • Aromatherapy for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide, 1999) by Kathi Keville

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) is a professional organization that promotes educational guidelines for the aromatherapy profession and provides aromatherapy resources and information for consumers. Call 888-ASK-NAHA or visit their Web site.