This post was written in partnership with Pharmaca
Aromatherapy is the art of using scent from essential oils to achieve a change in the body’s emotional or even physical state. The essential oils may be extracted from flowers, seeds, leaves, roots, fruit and twigs, and the special effect varies depending on the type of essential oil used. Aromatherapy has been used to promote relaxation, aid mood, relieve stress, support sleep, help with overall health and wellness, and even support healthy blood pressure.
Why is it that certain smells can evoke strong emotions? It turns out our sense of smell is one of the most basic, primal senses. Aromatherapy uses highly concentrated plant extracts to create pure essential oils that can effect changes in our emotions and body.
How does aromatherapy work?
Aromatherapy works on two levels. When we inhale, smells activate a part of our brain. Smells can also work energetically, in a homeopathic way, to ease specific health conditions.
Specifically, smell receptors in the nose send messages through the nervous system to the limbic system, the part of the brain that’s connected with emotions. Smells can cause physical responses too, and can ease some ailments when we breathe in the appropriate scent.
How can I use aromatherapy?
- A diffuser: You place the essential oil into this device, sometimes with water and sometimes with heat (depending on the device used – make sure to read the directions), so they evaporate. This helps add the scent of an essential oil to a whole room, for example if you want to enhance a study session with the scent of sandalwood. Essential oils should never be directly burned, as the chemical structure dramatically changes.
- Dry evaporation: When using this method, you place several drops of essential oil onto a cotton ball or tissue and allow it to evaporate on its own into the air. For an intense dose, sniff the cotton ball or tissue. For milder but more constant exposure, keep the cotton ball or tissue close to you (for example, let it sit on the coffee table by your sofa where you’re seated).
- Steam: Place drops of essential oil to a bowl of steaming water, which will quickly vaporize the oil. Then place a towel over your head and over the bowl of water and breathe deeply. This is a very potent scent delivery method and the use of more than one to two drops may be overwhelming. Please note that it is important to keep your eyes closed when utilizing this method.
- Spray: For this method, place drops of essential oil in a water-based solution, shake the bottle, and spray it into the air. This can either deodorize a room or help to set a mood. This can also be useful as a yoga mat cleaner. Please note that the bottle should be shaken before spraying in order to spray the mixed solution and not just water.
Essential oils may also be applied topically to the skin, but must be diluted before doing so.
Tips for Choosing Essential Oils
- Purity: The right oil contains only aromatic plant compounds, not additives or synthetic oils. One hint is that in the ingredients, the plant’s official Latin name will be listed rather than terms like “essential essence of lavender.”
- Quality: To select a high-quality essential oil, pick one that has been only minimally transformed by the extraction process. That means picking a chemical-free essential oil extracted through distillation or mechanical cold pressing.
- Reputation: Finally, do your research and pick a brand known for producing high-quality products.
There are multiple ways to enjoy the benefits of aromatherapy. They can be applied to the skin, inhaled, or ingested.
How to Prepare a Aromatherapy Solution
- Dilute in a carrier substance at no greater concentration than 3 to 5%.
- For massage or application over large areas of the body, a 1% solution (one drop of essential oil in one teaspoon of carrier) is generally safe. Infants should use a .25% solution, with .5% recommended for toddlers.
- Common carrier substances include: sweet almond oil, apricot kernel oil, grapeseed oil, jojoba oil, or avocado oil. Organic and cold-pressed carrier oils are preferable and can be found in many health food stores. These oils are excellent as carrier oils because they do not have strong smells of their own.
Some techniques for applying essential oils to the skin include:
- Compress: Dilute the essential oil in a liquid carrier (water or oil) and apply it either to a dressing or directly to the affected area, with optional heat or cold as well. For example, to treat a stiff joint, you could add a few drops of ginger essential oil to hot water and mix to disperse the oil, then soak a cloth in the mixture and place it on the affected area.
- Gargle: You add drops of essential oil to water. You mix it into a solution, then gargle the solution and spit it out – do NOT swallow it. For example, one drop of tea tree oil in a glass of water could be gargled to treat a sore throat.
- Bath: To use essential oils in a bath, add a solution of essential oil drops and a dispersant immediately before stepping in. This results in absorption through the skin as well as inhalation of the scent. You can use a few tablespoons of full cream milk as a dispersant. It’s important to note that essential oils are not water soluble, which means they will float on top of the bath and skin passing through the oil will be exposed to the essential oil at its full strength. To overcome this, use bath salts to disperse the essential oils. For example, mix one part baking soda, two parts Epsom salts, and three parts sea salt. Add six drops of lavender essential oil to about two tablespoons of this mixture and mix it into bath water just before entering for a truly relaxing bath.
- Massage: When using essential oils for massage, you add drops of the essential oil to a natural carrier oil and apply it to skin areas with gentle rubbing.