Let’s begin with a quick exercise:
Think of the sweet scent of roses or the spicy aroma of black peppers and herbs when you cook a meal.
Without even consciously being aware of it, your mind has now created an image to go alongside the smell.
The connections between smell, memories, and emotions have always been strong and a huge part of our human experience.
Aromatherapy has always been used by humans, even if we didn’t have a name for it.
Essential oils were valued and highly prized in ancient cultures.
Ancient Egyptians used myrrh, frankincense, cinnamon, and juniper in their perfumes and religious celebrations.
At the birth of Jesus, two of the Wise Men brought frankincense and myrrh as gifts, solidifying their importance alongside gold.
In its broadest sense, aromatherapy has been defined by Jan Kusmirek as a healing method that uses pure essential oils to “seek to influence, to change or modify mind, body or spirit; physiology or mood”.
What we know as aromatherapy today, began in 1910 by the French chemist René- Maurice Gattefossé after he discovered the healing properties of lavender essential oil after burning his hands during an explosion at his laboratory.
He wrote his first book on the subject in 1937 and since then aromatherapy has spread throughout the world.
Aromatherapy can be used by anyone and is often employed in clinical settings by professional aromatherapists, medical practitioners, counselors and psychologists, beauty therapists, and perfumers.
Apart from working its magic through our sense of smell (olfaction), aromatherapy has many other applications.
The use of essential oils during a massage heightens the physical benefits of touch which has been shown to reduce high blood pressure, muscular tension and improve circulation.
Many practitioners include aromatherapy as it is an easy, practical adjunct to treatments for people who suffer from complex health conditions.
The use of aromatherapy through massage or diffusion is safe, non-addictive, and has minimal interactions with other treatments.
Keeping a small range of simple essential oils can be invaluable for personal care, first aid, and home use.
This mini-course is designed to introduce you to the world of aromatherapy and how you can use essential oils safely in your home for personal care, health and wellness. A good collection of essential oils doesn’t have to be overwhelming or expensive.
The well-reknowned aromatherapist Valerie Ann Wormwood recommended:
- Tea tree
When purchasing essential oils, always opt for good quality pure essential oils, not fragrant oils!
Companies that offer certificates for phytochemistry are usually a bit more expensive but well worth the extra cost.
If in doubt, purchase smaller bottles (6ml) in dark glass to ensure the oils remain safe from oxidation.
Essential Oil Phytochemistry and Pharmacokinetics
The aromatic compounds within plants which contribute to their fragrant and therapeutic actions are the result of many chemical compounds including: hydrocarbons, alcohols, aldehydes, esters, ethers, ketones, phenols and oxides.
This chemical cocktail is never stagnant and continuously adapts to a variety of conditions such as:
- Soil type
- Use of chemicals
- Harvest time (as a general rule, maximum oil yields are gained in late summer)
- Plant type
It is believed that essential oils are excreted by plants for a variety of reasons including:
- Excretion of toxic substances as a result of normal growth
- Protection against pest infestation
- Needed for plant behavior – ripening of fruit
- Attract insects and other pollinators
Consider this example, sage (salvia officinalis) is a culinary herb that is often added to meals.
A component of its essential oil is alpha-thujone which is known to be one of the more harmful essential oil components.
As a normal part of its growth, levels will fluctuate depending on the season.
When sage is harvested after flowering, it has higher levels of alpha-thujone. As a result, it is typically harvested before flowering season.
Therefore, anyone who is attempting to distill their own essential oils needs to have a thorough understanding of botany and phytochemistry.
Essential oils are different from other plant compounds as a result of their volatility and concentration.
Depending on the plant material, essential oils can be sourced from flowers, leaves, roots, and even bark.
Some plants produce essential oils in all parts.
An example of this is bitter orange which can produce petitgrain essential from the leaves, neroli essential oil from the flowers, and bitter orange essential oil from the fruit peel.
Other plants will produce essential oils only from one aspect. An example of this may be seen in jasmine essential oil which is sourced only from jasmine flowers.
As a result of their differing origins, there are different methods to extract essential oils.
They broadly fall into 3 different processes including expression, distillation, and solvent extraction.
This form is used the only citrus-based essential oils where the peel of the fruit is compressed, punctured, or grated releasing oils that will be absorbed by a sponge.
Distillation is the process of converting a volatile liquid into a vapor that is then condensed and collected.
Steam distillation is the most common and requires only water as a solvent, making it suitable for sensitive oils such as neroli and rose.
Generally, distillation is used for floral oils including rose, lavender, and chamomile.
Extracting essential oils from plants that have lower concentrations of oil requires the use of solvents.
This process is also best used for resins (oakmoss) and other plants which have more delicate fragrances.
Common solvents include ethanol and gases which become liquids under pressure (carbon dioxide).
A traditional method of solvent extraction involves the layering of flowers into highly purified solid fats or oils.
This time-consuming, labor-intensive method is called enfleurage and is still used for jasmine and tuberose which explains their expense.
Essential Oil Safety
The most important rule when working with essential oils is to ensure that the oils are pure, natural, genuine, and authentic.
Professional suppliers and reputable companies will usually have the following information:
- Botanical name of the plant
- Part of the plant used
- Country of origin
- Extraction method
- Quality specification (some companies will present gas chromatography certificates)
The correct botanical name is especially important because there may be multiple herbs that use the same name.
For example, there are many varieties of rose, lavender, and chamomile.
Roman Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) is best used for inhalation and for its calming, sedative properties as a result of its high ester composition.
In contrast, German Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla or Matricaria recutita) has a high content of alpha-bisabolol which gives the oil its distinctive blue hue and is also responsible for its use as an antispasmodic and antibacterial activity.
While using essential oils is a good way to improve your overall health and wellbeing it is important to remember:
- Never apply directly to the skin, always dilute the oils into a carrier oil such as sweet almond oil
- Never ingest oils
- Check for potential allergies
- Avoid sensitive areas such as eyes
- During pregnancy avoid rosemary, hyssop, sage, jasmine, peppermint, juniper, and myrrh.
- If epileptic or hypertensive avoid: hyssop, rosemary, sage, fennel, eucalyptus, sage, thyme, and rose.
- Photosensitivity can occur with oils from the Citrus family.
- Ensure there are more than 5 hours from application to sun exposure.
There are also essential oils that are dangerous and should be avoided.
- Bitter almond
- Boldo leaf
- Yellow camphor
- Jaborandi leaf
To be safe, essential oils should always be diluted before use.
The following conversion table provides a guide to working out dilutions.
To work out a dilution ratio, divide the number of essential oil drops by the total volume (in drops) of the completed product.
For example: Total drops of oil ÷ Total drops of full volume
5 drops per 100 drops (5ml) = 5 ml at 5% Dilution
15 drops per 100 drops (5ml) = 5 ml at 15% Dilution
15 drops per 300 drops (15ml) = 15 ml at 5% Dilution
30 drops per 300 drops (15ml) = 15 ml at 10% Dilution
Using Essential Oils
Depending on the person and the nature of the health issue, essential oils can be used in two main states
These can be broadly broken down into 2 pathways:
In liquid states, essential oils may be absorbed via the oral mucosa or through dermal tissues (skin) via massage.It is important to remember that essential oils should not be taken internally unless under the guidance of a trained, experienced, and licensed professional.As all substances need to be metabolized by the liver, great care needs to be taken to ensure that no damage occurs.Some essential oils are safe, beneficial, and well-tolerated. Culinary herbs such as rosemary, mint, thyme and oregano are great examples of foods that have essential oils and have been used safely for centuries.It is important to note the difference between essential oils when taken in food and essential oils taken neat.
As part of a food substance, the quantity of essential oil is relatively low. In comparison, these same essential oils may be given in higher doses to treat health conditions.
This usually means that the oil is encapsulated, allowing it to be released in the small intestine before moving into the bloodstream where it will exert its effects.
Inhalation is the easiest method of delivery for essential oils as it allows the oils to be suspended in (usually) water that is then heated. As the water is evaporated, the oil is also liberated into the environment.
Ways to use essential oils:
Using essential oils in their liquid state, massage involves diluting essential oils into a base (carrier) oil to be absorbed by the skin. Aromatherapy massages are typically slow, gentle, and relaxing.Dilutions between 1 – 3% are typically used for a massage (ratio 30 drops of oil: 50mls of carrier oil).Carrier oils need to be chosen with care (don’t use nut-based oils on someone with nut allergies!).As a general rule, cold-pressed vegetable oils such as apricot kernel, avocado, soybean, or jojoba work very well.
Aromatherapy massage works well for people suffering from fluid retention, anxiety, musculoskeletal disorders and people who have issues with circulation.
Best For: relaxation, stress, tension and anxiety relief, pain relief
The easiest method of essential oil delivery is through inhalation.For a stuffy nose or restlessness, a few drops of lavender essential oil on a tissue or pillow can be quite soothing.A few drops of essential oils into potpourri or into a water-filled pump-action spray bottle make an easy room deodorizer.If using a vapouriser (either electric or candle based) the ratio is 5 – 10 drops of essential oil: 100mls water.
If using steam inhalation the ratio is 2 – 5 dps : 1 liter of water and inhale for no more than 10 minutes at a time.
Best For relieving nasal and sinus congestion, facial spa treatment
- Baths, Showers and Compresses
Add 3ml of essential oil : 100ml of bath oil as a base mix.
Of this mix, add 10ml of bath oil into a warm bath and soak for at least 15 minutes.
Best For: relaxation, stress, tension and anxiety relief, pain reliefShowers: A few drops in the corner of the shower will help to relieve anxiety and refresh the mind.
Cold compresses: A few drops of essential oils to a cold, wet towel before applying externally to the body is best used to relieve headaches, fevers and treating minor sprains and inflammation.
Hot compresses: A few drops of essential oils to a towel that has been soaked in hot water before applying to the body is best used to relieve muscular tension, pain, stomach aches and cramps.
- Creams, Lotions, Ointments and BalmsLotions are the thinnest and fastest form of topical applications.They have higher water content and are suitable for providing fast moisture to skin surfaces.Creams and ointments have higher oil and fat contents and are more suitable for drier areas of the skin or thinner skin surfaces that require special care.
Balms have the highest fat content and are best suited for creating a waterproof barrier over the skin.
Essential oils can be added at a dose of 1-5% of a total product. For example, a 100ml cream may contain up to 5mls of essential oils.
A quick recipe for a balm is:
20gm soy wax
40ml sweet almond oil
Heat the wax until melted
Add the sweet almond oil and mix well
Add in up to 6-12 drops of essential oil before pouring into sterilized glass jars
- PerfumesThere are a variety of perfume strengths that can be made as shown in the table below.When creating your own perfumes, use good quality alcohol that contains no aroma.Perfumer’s alcohol is best, although good quality Vodka will do nicely.
**After mixing oils, store in a dark glass jar for 5 days turning gently every day
Essential Oils for Daily Use
Using essential oils is limited only by your imagination. For example, oils can be used for
- Insect repellant
- Improving health and wellness
- Natural beauty products
- Pet care
As discussed earlier, the following essential oils will be most useful.
All of these oils can be used singularly or work well in combination with each other.
Lavender essential oil is the most important essential oil and can be used for virtually everything. It is also safe to use at all stages of life.It is a natural antibiotic, antiseptic, anti-depressant, sedative, and immuno-stimulant.Its gentle floral tones allow it to blend well with other scents and it is often used to sweeten sharper notes in perfumery.
- Tea tree
This bright herbaceous scent is an essential oil from an Australian tree that has been used by first Australians for centuries.It is a potent anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, making it particularly useful for health and wellbeing.Applied topically it has shown promise for the treatment of candida, ringworm, and acne.
It is also used with lemon essential oil and bicarbonate soda for a fantastic, natural cleaner.
Lemon essential oil is instantly recognizable by its light, citrus scent.It is also antiseptic and antibacterial and when used in massage oil is useful for stimulating circulation and lifting the mood.Be careful not to use this undiluted as it can cause skin irritation.
Peppermint has a long history of safe use, particularly within the food industry where it is used to flavor everything from toothpaste to ice cream.New research confirms that it is particularly beneficial for digestive upsets, particularly for those suffering from inflammatory bowel conditions that present with bloating and pain.It is also used to great effect in steam inhalations to relieve congestion.
Applied topically in massages, it helps to improve circulation and relieve sore, swollen legs and relax muscles.
As discussed there are a few varieties of chamomile available, as a general rule, the two favored varieties include German Chamomile and Roman Chamomile.Roman chamomile (Anthemis nobilis) is particularly well suited for massage, inhalation, and vaporization where its sweet floral tones are used to induce relaxation and relieve anxiety.German Chamomile (
Matricaria recutita) is better suited for skincare lotions and creams where its anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties help to soothe inflamed skin.
Another Australian native, Eucalyptus is distilled from the leaves and twigs of the tree.Indigenous Australians have long known to crush leaves on wounds to help fight infection and relieve muscular pain.A combination of peppermint and tea tree in steam inhalation is particularly useful for relieving symptoms of colds, flues, and other sinus infections.
When used in a balm, the same combination can be used as a chest rub to relieve congestion. A hot poultice or compress will provide relief from muscular aches and pains.
Rosemary is another culinary herb with a long history of safe use.In modern history, it is used in Remembrance Day commemorations and other days of military tribute due to its association with memorials.New research has also confirmed that rosemary has the ability to improve cerebrovascular circulation improving memory and mental cognition.
This makes it the perfect herb to use in a room spray or diffuser when studying.
In health care, a few drops in shampoo or condition will improve hair tone and quality, particularly for darker-colored hair.
A beautiful shrub with a floral, herbaceous scent, Geranium works well to discourage unwanted household pests.It is also popular in skincare products due to its mildly antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties.When inhaled, it helps improve sleep quality and improve mood. W
hen used in a warm bath it heightens relaxation.Geranium blends very well with lavender and chamomile in massage oils.
Thyme is a familiar culinary herb that has potent anti-viral properties. It is useful for the treatment of stubborn coughs and acne.Mixed with tea tree in bicarbonate soda, it can be sprinkled on the ground around entries and windowsills to discourage ants and other pests.As it is quite strong, it should be used in moderation and never undiluted.
Clove essential oil has long been used as an antiseptic and anti-bacterial agent.It has been successfully used for the treatment of toothaches for many years.When used as a massage oil, its warm, spicy tones improve circulation and help to relieve muscular tension.
As it is quite strong, a little goes a long way, in-room sprays can be sweetened with lavender and lemon essential oil.
References for this Course and Further Reading
- Valerie Ann Worwood 1996. The Fragrant Pharmacy. 7th ed. Great Britain: Bantam.
- Salvatore Battaglia 1997. The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy. 2nd ed Australia: The Perfect Potion (Aust) Pty Ltd
- Penny Rich 2002. Practical Aromatherapy. 2nd ed. UK: Parragon
- Gill Farrer-Halls (2005). The aromatherapy bible : the definitive guide to using essential oils. New York: Sterling Pub. Co.
- Tourles, S.L. (2007). Organic body care recipes : 175 homemade herbal formulas for glowing skin & a vibrant self. North Adams, Ma: Storey Pub.
- Tisserand, R., Young, R. and Williamson, E.M. (2014). Essential oil safety : a guide for health care professionals. Edinburgh Etc.: Churchill Livingstone/Elsevier, Cop.
- International Journal of Clinical Aromatherapy: https://ijca.net/
- International Journal of Aromatherapy: https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/international-journal-of-aromatherapy