Since the days of ancient Greece, people have used plants and their essential oils to obtain important benefits for healing mind and spirit. Essential oils are so named because they refer to the “essence” or spirit of a plant and are thought to be a concentrate of its healing powers stored for convenient use.
Advent of Aromatherapy
In the last century, this healing practice has been dubbed “aromatherapy”, but the use of essential oils traces back to Dioscorides in the first century A.D., who documented the healing powers of oils extracted from flowers, bark, stems and all other parts of a wide plant assortment.
Though the steam distillation of essential oils was first perfected in the 11th century, it was early 20th century France that witnessed a new intense interest in herbal treatment and aromatherapy. In fact, the French were the first to use essential oils to treat wounded soldiers in World War II.
How Essential Oils Work
People use essential oils to treat or prevent diseases, induce relaxed or alert moods, increase energy and reduce pain. The pleasant, potent fragrances of volatile oils reach the brain through the olfactory and limbic systems. The oils are never ingested — they are for external use only. Mounting evidence suggests that the molecules of essential oils and compounds stimulate the brain, help the body to strengthen its immune response and promote natural healing. Some studies suggest that many essential oils act as antiseptics.
The essential oils used in aromatherapy are applied in two basic modalities — through inhalation and physical contact.
Inhalation of Essential Oils
Aromatherapy can be as simple as unscrewing a bottle cap. However, a diffuser or vaporizer is a much more effective and economical way to inhale the pleasant-smelling molecules wafting up from essential oils. A diffuser creates a very fine vapor without heating the delicate oils. You can also use a vaporizer by putting a few drops of oil onto a tissue and placing in front of the escaping steam. Never put essential oils into the vaporizer — it will not mix properly and may damage the device. Another simple approach is to sprinkle some oil into a bowl of hot water and then inhale as you use a towel over your head to create a tent.
Essential Oils on the Skin
Because of their potency, you usually dilute essential oils with a vegetable oil complex before skin contact. You place a few drops of the diluted oil in your hands and apply to the desired body location. Massage the oil in with a circular motion. For the ultimate delightful experience, have a masseur apply essential oils as part of a full-body massage. Your choice of oils will dictate your response — anything from deep relaxation to enhanced mental alertness.
You can also purchase soaps, shampoos, conditioners, and creams that are formulated with essential oils. These provide the benefits of these natural products in a convenient form.
Forms of Essential Oils
Essential oils are isolated and concentrated through a variety of methods:
- Distillation — plants and plant materials are suspended over boiling water, allowing the steam to separate out the volatile oils, which are then condensed into concentrated extracts.
- Water solutions — items such as rosewater, chamomile and lemon balm are examples of herbal distillates or infusions in an aqueous solution. They are called hydrosols or herbal distillates and are the condensed water-fractions resulting from distillation.
- Expression — items such as grapefruit oil are cold-pressed from fruit peels.
- Supercritical extraction — delicate flowers and other plant parts are extracted using solvents under high temperature and/or pressure.
- Dried and crushed — some essential oils are retrieved by drying, crushing and warming plants with high oil content. These oils are best suited for use in a vaporizer.
Popular Essential Oils
Eucalyptus oil is perhaps the best known essential oils. There are many different species of eucalyptus, some of which are well suited for aromatherapy. Rose oil and its water-based version, rose absolute, are well loved for their remarkable scents. Lavender essential oil is mild and produces a relaxed mood. Tea tree oil is popular for aromatherapy but is also used in many cosmetic products and shampoos.
There are dozens of essential oils for consumers to choose. It’s fun to research which oils are most appealing for your own personal use. Whether wafting through your rooms, enlivening a bubble bath or delighting your skin with soaps, shampoos and conditioners, high-quality essential oils can make a positive contribution to your life and your lifestyle.
Don’t Be Fooled
Many soaps, hair products and face creams have artificial fragrances not derived from essential oils. These are often chemical concoctions that can have undesirable side effects, such as allergic reactions and drying. When purchasing shampoos, cosmetics and soaps, always make sure you understand what ingredients have been added to provide the fragrance. Once you experience essential oil products, you’ll never settle for less.