What is Aromatherapy?
Natural aromatic plant materials, such as essential oils, have been used by ancient cultures for thousands of years to support the well-being of both the body and the mind.
The ancient Egyptians, Chinese, Romans, and Greeks used them in cosmetics, perfumes, and “medicines” for therapeutic, hygienic, spiritual, and ceremonial purposes.
Simply put Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils for some type of therapeutic benefit. Learn more: What Are Essential Oils?”
The internet is brimming with articles about Aromatherapy. This is just a small sampling of information.
The word Aromatherapy often represents different things to different people. For those steeped in the science and study of aromatherapy, as the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy, it is defined as “the therapeutic application or the medicinal use of aromatic substances (essential oils) for holistic healing.” Perhaps, you can think of Aromatherapy as a type of subspecialty of Herbal Medicine.
For others, it may simply mean, “lavender oil relaxes me;” “peppermint oil helps when I am car sick;” or “eucalyptus oil helps clear my sinuses during cold and allergy season.”
There are a variety of ways to add a bit of aromatherapy into your life using essential oils. Each essential oil offers a range of unique aromatherapeutic properties, uses, and effects. Different oils can also be combined to create a synergistic blend with its own unique benefits.
Although the word "aroma" suggests that these plant essences must be inhaled, they can also be used topically.
Although researchers still have a lot to learn about how aromatherapy works it makes sense that the systemic effects of aromatherapy are usually experienced through the sense of smell via inhalation.
We have all experienced the effects of smell on our memories and emotions. Scents remind us of times of joy as well as times of sadness.
The scent of a campfire brings me back to my days at summer camp and always makes me crave s’mores. The aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies brings me back to my kitchen and the joys of baking with my children when they were small. The scent of patchouli acts as a time portal, instantly transporting me back to the 1960s.
These same scents will awaken different feelings in different people. What emotions or memories do these scents evoke in you?
The way in which our sense of smell is wired to our brain is quite unique among our senses.
When we inhale through our nose, the scent molecules in essential oils travel across millions of tiny olfactory neurons that sit on the roof of the nasal cavity.
Once triggered, the olfactory neurons send messages to the olfactory bulbs, two lobes at the base of the brain. But the "scent" messages do not stop there. They also trigger brain regions like the limbic system.
The limbic system plays an important role in emotion, mood, stress levels, and behavior as well as heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and memory.
Although not fully understood, this relationship may help explain why smells often trigger specific memories or emotions.
Molecules inhaled through the nose or mouth are also carried to the lungs and from there, to other parts of the body. In this way, aromatic oils can affect the body through multiple systems and pathways.
There are many ways to use essential oils for inhalation aromatherapy, both for their lovely scent as well as their therapeutic properties.
They can be used in diffusers and humidifiers, in sprays for rooms, showers, or linens, and in products like bath salts, candles, and bath oils. Even your daily soaps and moisturizers, made with real essential oils, of course, can add some relaxing or energizing moments to your day.
While the word “Aromatherapy” suggests something only used for the nose, many essential oils may have a localized effect when applied topically in a carrier oil.
Topical application allows you to target a specific area of the body in order to achieve a desired effect.
Each essential oil has a unique chemical profile that determines the type of topical benefits it may provide.
For example, a massage therapist might add a few drops of ginger, rosemary, or juniper berry oils which, especially when combined with the sense of touch, can help relax tight muscles.
We always suggest that before using any new product you should perform a patch test to check for sensitivity or allergic reaction. If testing concentrated essential oils, please dilute in a carrier oil before testing!
Inhalation and Topical Often Work Together
It is often quite difficult to separate inhalation from topical use. Many applications such as massage oils, bath salts, salves, and other natural skincare products containing essential oils can provide both topical and inhalation benefits.
For example, adding lavender to bath salts to create a relaxing soak, adding patchouli to a skincare cream, or peppermint to a pulse point oil roll-on can provide the advantages of both.
Aromatherapy massage also does double duty. As your skin receives the benefits of touch and topical essential oils, you also breathe them in.
When using an essential oil for its topical benefits, the scent can linger on your skin so you can continue to experience the uplifting or calming aromas for a while.
Each Essential Oil & Each Person is Unique
Essential oils can lift your mood and make you feel fabulous with a simple whiff of their natural aroma. Each oil has a different chemical make-up and therefore a different effect. For example:
- some have energizing, uplifting, and revitalizing properties
- some help ease stress, anxiety, and depression
- some promote relaxing, calming, and soothing feelings
- some help improve sleep
The purpose of aromatherapy is to elicit some reaction in the body. Since we are all unique, not all oils will benefit everyone in the same manner.
Since the emotions and/or memories evoked by a specific scent are very subjective, the different aromas and the chemical constituents of essential oils can produce different emotional and physiological reactions in different people.
While you may swear that peppermint oil always calms YOUR headaches, it may cause agitation in some people.
Rosemary essential oil can provide feelings of calm and contentment for some, but it can be quite stimulating to others.
For most people, lavender is calming and soothing. But for some, the scent could be associated with a negative experience and cause agitation.
Be mindful of the uniqueness when using diffusers, room sprays, or any method that may have an effect on others.
It may seem strange, but the scent and sometimes even the effects of a particular essential oil may change from one batch to another.
The exact chemical composition of the essential oil compounds is influenced by many factors including the general weather and temperature, rainfall, geographic location, soil quality, time of day harvested, season, year grown, every step of the production process, and how they are packaged and stored.
Each individual plant is a bit unique in its chemistry, therefore even essential oils from the same plant species are never exactly the same. This is very different from artificial scents or pharmaceutical drugs that are synthetically reproduced to be absolutely identical each and every time. Mother Nature is not predictable.
Safety: Some Things to Consider
While most essential oils are safe and free of adverse side effects when used properly, they are highly concentrated, should be used sparingly, treated with respect, and used with the same caution as a medicine.
Most undiluted essential oils should NOT be applied directly to the skin. Adding them to an organic carrier oil, such as coconut or sunflower, in the proper dilution, will help protect the skin from irritation.
Do you plan to create your own essential oil blends for aromatherapy or topical use?
If so, you must thoroughly research any essential oils that you plan to use. It is especially important to research the proper dilution for each essential oil. Different essential oils often have different safe dilutions for skin care. For example, so-called “hot” essential oils like Cinnamon, Clove Bud, and Oregano will require a much larger dilution than others.
Not all essential oils are good for topical use and not all essential oils are safe for everyone. Essential oils are generally not recommended for infants or young children, those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, people with serious medical conditions, and even some pets.
If you have any concerns please remember that the internet is not always a reliable resource. Contacting a licensed aromatherapist, naturopath, or qualified healthcare provider is a much better way to ensure that your essential oil blend or product, and its proposed use are safe.
There are some excellent resources that provide safety information for essential oils. We use the book Essential Oil Safety 2nd ed by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young to research safety precautions for our essential oils. Another great resource for essential oil safety is The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.
Also, please note that essential oils are soluble (will dissolve) in alcohol and carrier oils.
However, they are insoluble (do NOT dissolve) in water or water-based liquids like hydrosols, milk, aloe, or even witch hazel (which contains a small amount of alcohol).
When mixed with a water-based ingredient the molecules of the essential oil will float in tiny droplets on the surface (think of oil droplets on the surface of water). Those droplets can behave like undiluted essential oils on your skin and cause irritation. So please don’t simply pour essential oils into your bathtub!
Some people who are sensitive to full-strength essential oils, like those used in a diffuser, may still enjoy essential oils when used in a skin-safe dilution like in a cream or massage oil or the subtle aromatherapy from a bar of soap in the shower.
Be cautious with mass-marketed ‘aromatherapy’ products. The term aromatherapy is often used as a marketing strategy for many scented products. Unfortunately, the total amount of true essential oils in these products is often very low compared to the added synthetic aromatics.
Be sure that you are buying a product made with pure essential oils. You may see products with a label stating “calming lavender aromatherapy", however, they actually contain either synthetic fragrances or fragrance isolates rather than natural essential oils.
Be sure you know and understand the intended use, recommended application method, and concentration for any essential oil product. Always read and follow label directions when using any essential oil product.
An essential oil that is safe when applied in one way may not be safe when used in another way.
Some oils are considered safe if inhaled, and yet could be irritating if applied to the skin. Others like some citrus oils can cause phototoxicity, a condition in which the skin becomes very sensitive to sunlight, whereas this would not result from inhalation.
There are many wonderful uses for essential oil aromatherapy, but YOU MUST do your own research. Please remember that everything you read on the Internet is NOT true or substantiated by research. Unfortunately, a lot of your research will take you down a rabbit hole of conflicting information which can be very frustrating.
Since the exact chemical composition of the essential oil compounds is influenced by many factors, they can be difficult to research in scientific studies.
As a result, there have been many more studies done on isolated components, “isolates,” of an essential oil rather than the whole plant oil. While sometimes there is an individual compound that seems to be responsible for the biological effects of a specific oil, that is probably not the case.
Each essential oil is a complex matrix of hundreds of components. It is the synergy of all of these compounds working together as a whole plant oil, as nature intended, that will achieve the best therapeutic effect. More research must focus on the therapeutics of the entire unaltered essential oil.
Are the Effects of Aromatherapy Real or Placebo?
Every day many people turn to aromatherapy, swearing by its ability to treat common ailments such as stress, anxiety, congestion, and insomnia.
Picture from sketchplanations.com
Many western medicine health care providers are convinced that the effects of aromatherapy are purely placebo.
Although scientific research on the effectiveness of aromatherapy is limited, there have been studies, like this one published in 2016, that show that "Essential oils generally resulted in significant clinical improvements..."
There is also a lot of anecdotal evidence that has shown health benefits from aromatherapy, such as relief from anxiety and depression, improved sleep, and improved quality of life, especially for people with dementia and some chronic health conditions.
It is very difficult in any type of study to control the effect of our minds on our bodies. To be honest, in my opinion, I am not sure that it matters since the mind can have a powerful influence on the body, and in some cases, can even help the body heal. So why not leverage the power of the mind and take advantage of that effect?
The placebo effect is often dismissed as an illusion. However, there is research that shows that the placebo effect is a real biological response based on the mind's expectation surrounding a particular therapy. Once again, more research is needed because we just don’t know enough.
Can Essential Oils Be Absorbed Through the Skin?
Since everyone’s skin is different and every essential oil is different there are many factors that can affect transdermal (through the skin) absorption.
Essential oils are fat-soluble substances with a small molecular weight, which may allow them to penetrate the skin and be absorbed into the bloodstream. Research has found small amounts of essential oil constituents in the bloodstream after topical applications. However, since these studies do not prevent test subjects from inhaling the oils during testing, it is difficult to know whether the traces of essential oils in the bloodstream are due to absorption through the skin or inhalation. Again, there is just not enough research available concerning the systemic effect of essential oils when applied to the skin.
More Research is Needed
I know that I sound like a broken record, but it is true.
Further research is desperately needed to determine how essential oils might affect children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Also, how these oils, whether inhaled or applied topically, might interact with medications and other treatments in a positive or negative way. Drug interactions can be dangerous.
Although limited research shows that aromatherapy can have health benefits, you should NEVER use aromatherapy instead of your regular medical treatment.
Aromatherapy may be prescribed as a complementary therapy for some conditions but only under the supervision of a qualified professional. It does not provide a cure for diseases, disorders, or illnesses, but it may support conventional treatment of various conditions again under the supervision of a qualified professional.
Hopefully, researchers will continue to learn more about essential oils and the ways in which we can better use them to enhance our psychological and physical well-being.
There are many questions and while we do not have all the answers, ongoing research can help us learn more about the safety and efficacy of these lovely natural aromatic oils.
If you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, have a medical condition, or have any medical concerns regarding yourself or your family always consult a qualified, licensed health professional prior to use.
We would love it if you would share any of your experiences with essential oils!