For aromatherapy aficionados, it’s common knowledge that a sniff of lavender is relaxing and a waft of peppermint is invigorating. But did you know that, according to 16th century herbalist John Gerard, the fragrance of marjoram is recommended “for those given to much sighing?”
Essential oils are the natural chemicals that give flowers, herbs and other plants their odor and flavor. These oils also help their host plant ward off many types of disease and trauma, leading scientists dating back to Hippocrates to wonder if the oils can pass on their myriad properties to humans. Over the centuries, says aromatherapist Mindy Green, research has shown that indeed they do.
In 1990 alone, she points out, more than 50 papers were presented at the International Conference on Essential Oils and Aroma Chemicals. Many more studies have been conducted since then. “Lavender, for instance, has hundreds of studies,” says Green, who owns the aromatherapy consulting company Green Scentsations and is coauthor, along with Kathi Keville, of Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art (Crossing Press, 2009).
Over the last three decades, Green and Keville, who is director of the American Herb Association, have documented the health properties of essential oils. Here are some of the lesser-known uses they’ve discovered.
- To disinfect a room: Make a spray of 3 drops eucalyptus oil, 1 drop peppermint oil, 2 drops pine oil, 1 drop tea tree or rosemary oil and 2 drops bergamot oil per ounce of water. All of these oils have antibacterial and antiseptic properties. If you really want to zap germs, Keville and Green say that studies show that a solution of 10 to 12 drops of eucalyptus oil per ounce of water kills 70 percent of airborne staph bacteria.
- To relieve menstrual cramps: Combine 4 drops lavender oil, 2 drops marjoram oil, 2 drops clary sage oil, 3 drops geranium oil and 1 drop ginger oil in 1 ounce of yarrow oil, and massage onto your abdomen, hips and lower back. A study published in May 2012 in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Research showed that a cream with lavender, marjoram and sage oils reduced the duration of menstrual cramps from 2.4 to 1.8 days.
- To concoct a “kiss me quick” perfume: Add 2 drops rose oil, 3 drops jasmine oil, 6 drops grapefruit oil and 2 drops ylang ylang oil to 1 ounce of jojoba oil. To make a massage oil, add the essential oils to 1 ounce of a carrier oil like almond, apricot, hazelnut, olive, rice bran or sesame oil.
- To treat an itchy scalp and alleviate dandruff: Add 2 to 3 drops of lavender, basil, cedarwood or patchouli oil to your shampoo.
- To fight wrinkles: Mix a couple drops of rose oil into your face cream. A May 2012 study published in the journal Chemical Senses showed that applying rose essential oil to rats’ skin helped replenish moisture lost as a result of chronic stress.
- To spice up a dessert: Make an aromatic topping for chocolate confections by whipping ½ pint of cream and adding sweetener and 1 or 2 drops of food-safe neroli (orange blossom) oil.
- To make your own bath salts: Combine 1½ cups Epsom salt, ½ cup baking soda and ½ teaspoon of your favorite essential oil. Use ¼ to ½ cup of the mixture per bath.
- To formulate an all-natural deodorant: Mix 15 drops sandalwood oil, 5 drops cypress oil, 5 drops sage oil, 5 drops coriander or lavender oil, 2 ounces aloe vera juice or witch hazel and 1 teaspoon alcohol in a spray bottle, and shake well. These oils are powerful antibacterials and antiseptics.
- To soothe a child at bedtime: Place a couple drops of chamomile, lavender or geranium oil on a stuffed animal and put it in a plastic bag overnight to disperse the aroma. Remove the toy from the bag and let your child snuggle up with it while falling asleep. The scent lasts for about two weeks.
Directions for use
Green and Keville recommend using only pure essential oils from plants, rather than synthetics made in a laboratory. But because companies don’t have to disclose on the label whether their oil is natural or artificial, this can be easier said than done. Green recommends checking an oil’s ingredient deck. “If the first thing listed is a botanical Latin name, you know it’s from a plant,” she says.
Because essential oils are concentrated, they can irritate your skin or nasal passages if they’re used undiluted, Green says. To test for allergies, put a very small amount of a diluted oil (10 to 12 drops of essential oil per ounce of carrier oil) in the crook of your arm and wait eight to 12 hours. If your skin isn’t itchy, red or irritated in any other way, you’re good to go.