Organic diet—check. Yoga—check. Meditation—indeed. Aromatherapy? It might be time to add it to your wellness list.
What is Aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy, which calls upon plant extracts to encourage well-being, dates back more than 4,500 years to Ancient Egypt and has been used for centuries throughout Europe and Asia. Formally coined as “aromatherapy” in 1937, it’s become a mainstay in the health and wellness scene and beyond, featured in everything from skincare to spa products.
For a good reason, too: Amongst all of our senses, smell is one of the most important, as it has a direct link to our brain and the energy, memories and emotions we feel. What’s more, recent research reveals that we don’t just smell through our noses. Rather, olfactory receptors—as in almost of half of them—exist throughout the body: On our skin, lungs, gut and more.
Meaning, when we come into contact with certain aromas, nerve impulses are sent to our amygdala, the emotional center of our brain. From this, we can experience subtle yet healing shifts in everything from digestion to injury recovery. Indeed, data shows that several essential oils can promote a host of benefits, including improved athletic performance, higher satiation, skin cell growth and enhanced relaxation.†
Intrigued? Here’s how to get started on the trend.
How to use essential oils for aromatherapy
1. Identify the issue you’d like help with
Struggling with insomnia? Need a perk-me-up halfway through your day? Intent on naturally supporting your respiratory health? Before jumping on the aromatherapy bandwagon, pinpoint the issue you’d like some botanical assistance with, as this will guide what you select.
For example, if you’re keen on finding an organic, plant-based solution to skin woes, consider chamomile essential oil, which has the potential to soothe acne and rosacea. If you’re constantly under stress, lavender or rosemary may do wonders for you, as they organically support lower cortisol levels. Feeling congested? Invest in eucalyptus oil—one of the key ingredients in Vick’s Vapor Rub. Or, if you’re bothered by PMS, reach for neroli essential oil.
In sum, gather info on what your mind and body desire and commence your research on the most suitable EOs for your needs.
2. Get synergistic
Synergy—basically, combining two essential oils for a more profound therapeutic impact—is at the crux of effective aromatherapy. For example, a popular blend is peppermint and caraway, as research shows that it may help relieve IBS.†
It’s best to blend essential oils that are within the same “family,” such as woody (cinnamon leaf, cypress), earthy (patchouli, vetiver), and floral (lavender, rose). Again, identify the issue you’d like to treat and prep to become a DIY chemist.
3. Select quality products
Given aromatherapy’s popularity, it ought to arrive as no surprise that plenty of companies are using faulty, non-potent, low-cost products…but touting their huge rewards.
You may ask, how is this possible? Similar to nutritional supplements, EOs are not regulated by the FDA.
To reap the real benefits of the ancient practice, it’s crucial to use only high quality essential oils. True, they may come with a heftier price tag but the difference between low and high, in this regard, is vast.
Search for filler-free, 100% therapeutic-grade essential oils from reputable brands (such as Vitacost and NOW Foods) and ensure that the plant is identified by its scientific name on the label. Further, double-check to see if the company has performed purity testing on their product (even better, from an outside source), and note the company’s country of origin. Opt for products that are sold in dark-colored glass containers, which help protect the quality of the oil. Also, look for extracts that have been organic or wild-harvested.
4. Know what might put you at risk for an adverse reaction
According to Johns Hopkins University, a small number of people might experience an allergic reaction or irritation from essential oils, particularly if they have a history of negative reactions to topical body products, or have atopic dermatitis. In addition, keep in mind that several essential oils might pose more of a problem to those who are sensitive. These include bergamot oil, cinnamon oil and oregano oil.
5. Use properly—and with caution
If you’re pregnant, dodge essential oils or, at the very least, get the green light from your physician, as research demonstrates that EOs may be toxic for fetuses.
Further, essential oils can be toxic to pets, especially to animals with breathing problems. (A diffuser should be fine but use cautiously on yourself when your dog or cat are present.) Once you have your bases covered, there are a few different ways you can use your essential oils:
Diffusing is a foolproof way to begin enjoying the benefits of essential oils. Diffusers for essential oils abound, but you can also add a few drops to boiling water to breathe in their healing properties, particularly when used in a controlled room. Add 5 to 10 drops of essential oil to your diffuser or method of choice and enjoy.
Inhaling essential oils is another way to get your therapeutic fix. This is a pleasure, too—while smell is surely subjective, most essential oils have wonderful aromas. Additionally, the evidence on inhaling essential oils is promising: Research conducted at Hong Kong Polytechnic University found that inhaling essential oils (as well as using them in massage—more on this below) mitigated depression.†
That said, if you have allergies or are sensitive to scents, be sure to spray or dab essential oils on a clean piece of cloth before inhaling.
Do note that some experts suggest investing in a personal inhaler. Why? Opening and closing your essential oils can shorten its shelf life.
For a more intense experience, consider steam inhalation, which aids in absorption. To do so, add one to three drops of essential oils to a bowl of steaming water. Place a towel over your head to contain the steam and gently drop your face towards the bowl, being careful to avoid direct contact with the water.
Once you feel more comfortable with essential oils and have identified the types that work best for you, they may be applied topically, either as part of your skincare routine, in a bath or used in a massage. This is a stellar use of essential oils, as many contain anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties.†
Start off slowly with this, however, as essential oils can irritate—and even burn—skin. Begin with a patch test before covering more ground on your flesh and refrain from applying essential oils to your skin without the inclusion of a carrier oil or body lotion. Top carrier oils include avocado, almond and coconut oil, and ratios should be 12-15 drops of essential oils to 1 ounce of carrier oil (or body lotion). Be sure to avoid your eyes and mouth, and stay out of the sun after using citrus oils. They have a photosensitizing effect, which may make you more prone to sunburn.
Finally, do not ingest essential oils, unless you’ve been urged to do so by a doctor or trained herbalist. Again, essential oils are unregulated, and some manufacturers may not list everything in their products. This might render some essential oils toxic if consumed.
6. Take special care of your essential oils
As I mentioned, quality essential oils—the only EOs you should invest in—aren’t exactly thrifty. However, if maintained well, they can provide benefits for months, if not years.
It’s essential to know that EOs can oxidize, deteriorate, and lose their therapeutic benefits over time, and this process may speed up if they’re not appropriately stored. In addition to ensuring that your oils are purchased in dark, glass containers, keep them in a cool, dark place away from sunlight—even the refrigerator works. Keep their caps tightly closed, and move essential oils to smaller bottles as you work your way through them.
Further, while essential oils don’t have hard expiration dates, their shelf life is mostly as follows:
Tea tree, citrus, lemongrass and Neroli: 1-2 years
Vetiver, patchouli and sandalwood: 4-8 years
Most all other essential oils: 2-3 years
Finally, a good rule of thumb is this: If the scent of your essential oil has changed—or if it has gotten thick and cloudy—it’s time to return to your favorite retailer. With the potential benefits these gems have to offer, though, you might just fly right through them.
†These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.