Shopping Cart

Your cart is empty

Continue Shopping

Introduction to Aromatherapy

What is Aromatherapy?

Coined in the 1930's, the term "aromatherapy" is used to describe the therapeutic use of pure, steam-distilled essential oils. It's a relaxing, revitalizing, and rejuvenating holistic treatment that calls upon a variety of plants for their curative powers and aromatic presence. Essential oils can be administered in a variety of ways, many of which are aimed at creating a pleasant, healing environment for the body. By choosing essential oils based on their inherent beneficial qualities, practitioners can tailor aromatherapy to the needs of the individual. Though aromatherapy may not "cure" ailments outright, it can subtly influence the body's ability to heal itself through either direct action or by creating the stress-free environment that is optimal to your body.

Most aromatherapists use only steam-distilled essential oils. Others choose to include limited absolutes, concretes, and CO2 extracts (all extracted from plants and used like essential oils) in their healing repertoire. Aromatic oils can be administered in a variety of ways:

  • Topical skin applications (diluted)
  • Hot or cold compresses
  • Dilution in bath water
  • Diffusion into the air
  • Steam or direct inhalation
  • Internal use (not recommended)

What is Not Aromatherapy? Sagebrush Smudge Sticks

Sadly, widespread misinformation about aromatherapy has led to a lack of understanding about what it is and what it isn't. The notion of aromatherapy as simply the enjoyment of pleasant smells has been fostered by an increase in commercialization in recent years. Despite what some well-known companies would have you believe, aromatherapy is not something that artificially scented candles, plug-ins, or sprays can provide. Though there are ways to enjoy essential oils at home, most consumer fragrance products are not considered aromatherapy, and are rather just chemical-laden products scented with synthetic fragrances with the word "aromatherapy" on their labels. Even completely natural products, like natural incense or smudge sticks (like the wildcrafted Artemesia tridentata smudge sticks pictured to the right) are not aromatherapy.

Origins and History of Aromatherapy

Humans have long understood the benefits of plant extracts. For many thousands of years, the use of aromatics was strongly tied to sacred rituals, and the role of healer and shaman were often one and the same. Before the rise of manufactured pharmaceuticals, people also looked to herbs for physical and mental relief. Ancient people prepared plants for medicinal and aromatic use by infusing them in oils and animal fats, or by creating botanic macerations. Once the process of distillation was discovered and perfected, aromatic waters and "essential" oils (a term coined by alchemists) were introduced. Although not noticed until thousands of years later, these early healing practices were a hybrid between herbal medicine and aromatherapy. Historical evidence shows that many ancient cultures understood, and even documented, the medicinal power of plant extracts. When certain plants were found to influence and enhance physical, mental, and emotional well-being, this vital information was passed down from one generation to the next.

Lavender DriedBy the 1700's, essential oils were commonly being used for medicinal purposes, and in the late 1800's, many chemists and pharmacists began investigating the science behind aromatic healing. Though synthetic drugs were prevalent at the turn of the century, there was continued interest in the healing power of essential oils. The term "aromatherapy" was first used in a 1938 book by French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, Aromatherapie: Les Huiles Essentialles, Hormones Vegetales.

Legend has it that Gattefosse became interested in learning about essential oils after burning himself in the laboratory. Looking for relief, he dunked his hand into the closest liquid, which happened to be distilled lavender oil. Amazed at how well his hand healed, he set about investigating and documenting the medicinal uses of essential oils, drawing upon his background in science to bolster his findings. Others went on to further research and promote the therapeutic use of essential oils, and since the 1970's, the general public has become increasingly aware of the field of aromatherapy.

More recently, aromatherapy has become heavily intertwined with the beauty and spa industry. This has lead to a great deal of hype and misinformation, as the educational trend slipped farther and farther away from the medical and scientific evidence. Traditionalists, believing that aromatherapy has benefits far beyond relaxation, are now working to revive the science-based practice of aromatherapy.

What is an Aromatherapist?

Someone who has spent time reading, studying, training, experimenting, and treating with essential oils is an aromatherapist. People seeking aromatherapists or aromatherapy training need to be aware that certification is not regulated by the government or any national organization, and licensing does not exist in the U.S. It can be hard to determine the background and knowledge level of a particular practitioner or course, so when starting out, check online resources such as the NAHA and AromaWeb. A good book for aromatherapy beginners is The Complete Book of Essential Oils and Aromatherapy by Shirley Price. This contains recipes to follow, and allows the reader to learn through guided experimentation. Any practitioner or course should have a focus on safety, and although some claim that "pure" essential oils can be applied neat (undiluted), in reality they can be irritating and damaging to skin. Always dilute essential oils before applying to skin. For those past the beginning stages, check out resources available on A.G.O.R.A.

How Does Aromatherapy Work?

Aromatherapy works in two distinct ways: while essential oils help heal the body through their known physiological properties, their aromas stimulate the olfactory system. It's well documented that smell and memory are inextricably linked. Certain smells can bring back fond childhood memories, or they can remind us of times or things we'd rather avoid. Because aromas have a strong influence on the brain, they can even change the way we feel. By harnessing this powerful mind-body connection, aromatherapy can elicit various physical responses through the use of essential oils, which have been shown to boost the body's immune system as well.

Aromatherapy can be used for everything from acute issues such as colds and coughs, to chronic conditions such as insomnia or acne. It's great for prevention, relaxation, and immune stimulation, and although there are precautions, it is generally thought of as a safe holistic and/ or complimentary treatment for imbalances. As with any new treatment, if you have major medical issues, are pregnant, or are taking medication, always check with your PCP before starting aromatherapy.

How to Use Aromatherapy at Home

There are a number of easy ways to enjoy the benefits of essential oils at home, and the aroma need not be strong to be effective. Oil warmers (often called oil burners, like the one pictured to the left) are designed to diffuse aromas into the air with the warmth of a candle. The reservoir on top is filled with water, and 3-5 drops of undiluted essential oils dropped into the water. The candle heats the water, which in turn gently warms the oil, releasing the scent into the air. Do not let the reservoir run dry, or the oils will burn, leaving you with a sticky resin, almost impossible to remove. During winter months, a similar but slightly more subtle effect can be achieved by placing a few drops of essential oil in a mug of water and setting it on top of a radiator. Oil warmers are ideal for scenting entire rooms to create moods of relaxation or to increase concentration.

Clay diffusers work by absorbing the oil and slowly releasing the aroma into the environment. These small terracotta clay pots, bottles, or pendants can be placed on a desk, bedside table, or even worn to create a pleasant environment for yourself. Energy clearing and rejuvinating oils like juniper and lemon can be placed on a clay diffuser and hung by a door, or relaxing essential oils like lavender or rose can be worn on a pendant to keep close-by.

A clearing essential oil like eucalyptus can be placed in a steamy bowl and the steam inhaled during cold and flu season to help clear out your head, or a blend of peppermint and bergamont can be placed on a cotton ball, carried and inhaled as needed. Essential oil portable inhalers can also be used to carry an aroma with you at any time.

Essential oils can be diluted into a spray, which can be then used to scent the air, your linens, car, clothes, or your body. Massage oil can easily be made at home by adding a few drops of essential oil of your choice to one ounce of a carrier oil like jojoba, or 5-10 drops of essential oils can be diluted in a tablespoon of carrier oil, and then dispersed into bath water.

As a general precaution, keep all essential oils away from the eyes and out of the reach of children, and never apply essential oils to the skin neat.

Aromatherapy by Wunder Budder

Portable Aromatherapy Inhalers

Shop Aromatherapy for Chakras

You may also like:

What are Chakras? An Introduction to Chakras

Top 5 Carrier Oils for Skincare

Most Commonly Misused Natural Terms