For thousands of years, people have been distilling and processing specific plant materials to extract their powerful healing essences. The Egyptians are believed to have been the first to discover the therapeutic value of aromatic plants. The Egyptians used plants and oils as incense, in perfumes, as medicine and in cooking. With further progress in the arts of chemistry and distillation, the production of elixirs, balms, floral waters and fragrant oils flourished.
Essential oils are made from flowers, leaves, bark, roots, fruits, seeds, grasses and resins. Considered to be the life force of plants, they are highly concentrated, volatile substances that contain vitamins, minerals, enzymes and hormones. Pure essential oils are directly extracted from different parts of plants; which part depends on the oil concerned. Because essential oils are so concentrated, it takes a huge amount of plant materials to produce them. For example, four million jasmine blossoms are required to yield about one pound of jasmine oil, and it takes 5000 pounds of rose petals to produce one pound of rose oil. Consequently, these essential oils can easily become very expensive and rare.
It is important to recognize the differences between pure essential oils and synthetic fragrances that try to mimic the scent of essential oils. Chemical reproductions, commonly referred to in ingredient lists as “fragrance,” do not offer any true olfactory response and therefore are not therapeutically effective. Synthetic fragrances have been the norm for so long that many people have grown accustomed to them and are unaware of the ways in which they differ from essential oils. In fact, the adulteration, dilution and imitation of pure oils has become a big business -- at the consumer’s expense. Why use an imitation scent when the real thing is readily available and infinitely more useful? Whenever possible, look for the highest level of quality and use only 100% pure essential oils.
Consumers should also be aware of the overuse and misuse of the word aromatherapy. Just because a product says “aromatherapy” on the package does not mean essential oils are present. Aromatherapy refers to the art and science of using pure essential oils to relax, balance and stimulate the body, mind and spirit. In some respects, the word aromatherapy can be misleading because it suggests that it is a form of healing that works only through the sense of smell and only on the emotions. This is not the case. Each oil, apart from its scent, has a unique combination of properties that directly interact with the body’s chemistry.
Essential oils can affect the body in three ways: chemically, physically, and psychologically. The chemical effect takes place when oils absorbed into the skin enter the bloodstream and interact with hormones, enzymes, etc. For example, when essential oils are diluted in a carrier oil and used for massage, they are easily absorbed through the skin and transported throughout the body. Essential oils can also have a physical effect, such as stimulating or depressing the central nervous system. Psychological effects occur when an essential oil influences an individual’s mood or state of mind. Inhaling oils introduces specific aromatic properties into the olfactory bulbs; inhalation of essential oils is one of the fastest ways to bring change and transformation to thoughts and feelings.
Essential oils can be used on a regular basis to ease physical discomforts, alleviate emotional stress and maintain health and beauty. When applied safely, essential oils can bring much-needed relief to many symptoms. There are several different ways in which to experience the benefits of aromatherapy. One does not need to be sick or troubled to use essential oils. In addition to addressing various ailments, they can also be used to enhance, strengthen and promote vitality. Many oils have special properties ranging in effect from antiseptic to aphrodisiac. Since they penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream so quickly, essential oils are a wonderful addition to massage therapy. Whether the effect will be calming or invigorating depends on the chemistry of each oil. Some promote relaxation and a general feeling of balance, while others stimulate and rejuvenate. All essential oils can be used to encourage a feeling of well-being as well as preventing and treating health problems.
Essential oils can be incredibly effective, but they can also be dangerous if used incorrectly. It is very important to remember that, because these oils are so highly concentrated, it is not usually advisable to ingest them or apply them directly to the skin. Unless working with a practicioner who is trained in their use, it is wise to always dilute essential oils before applying them to the body. Any vegetable, nut or seed oil (such as olive, almond or apricot seed) can be used.
One of the easiest ways to use essential oils is in the bath. Bathing with essential oils is a great way to take time to relax and reconnect with yourself. When the bathwater is ready, put about ten drops of your favorite essential oil(s) into the bathtub and agitate the water to disperse the oils. Lavender is an excellent essential oil to use in the bath, especially for winding down at the end of a long day. Or try a footbath, using peppermint or rosemary oil to rejuvenate tired feet.
To learn more about essential oils and ways to use them, find a good book to use as a resource -- there are many available. Make sure to follow basic safety precautions, and have fun exploring the wonderful and profound healing properties of essential oils!
Nicole Eby worked at Community Pharmacy from 1998 to 2004.