Aromatic plants have been used for various purposes for thousands of years worldwide. Their use has changed through the centuries, from initially being used in concoctions or infusions, to then being steeped in vegetable oil to make perfumes or burned for their aromatic properties.
As time went on, people wanted to extract the aromatic parts of the plants, so they began to distill them to create what we have come to know as essential oils. These days, studies on essential oils conducted as a result of the growing interest in the innate properties of aromatic plants have lent scientific credence to the benefits of aromatherapy.
What is aromatherapy?
The word aromatherapy originates from the Greek words aroma (aroma or smell) and therapia (therapy), which when combined, literally means therapy through smell. Aromatherapy should not be confused with phytotherapy (herbal medicine), where active ingredients of a plant are extracted using other means (concoctions, infusions, steeping fresh or dried herbs, etc.). Aromatherapy is a form of aromatic medicine that uses the virtues of aromatic essences, commonly called essential oils, which are extracted from various parts of aromatic plants (their flowers, leaves, roots, seeds, fruit, wood, etc.) in order to obtain therapeutic benefits.
The world “aromatherapy” was coined by French chemist and scholar, René-Maurice Gattefossé, in the late 1920s. Gattefossé, who worked in the laboratories of a cosmetics firm, was intrigued by the therapeutic virtues of essential oils and ancient traditions. Indeed, he would spend his life reconciling the old ways with the modern science he knew so well. The story goes that after severely burning his hands in a lab explosion, he applied lavender essential oil on his wounds and was astounded by how well they healed, and with very little scarring. This started a lifelong fascination with essential oils, which inspired him to experiment with them in order to learn more about their antiseptic and healing properties.
Why and how is aromatherapy used?
Aromatherapy refers to the use of essential oils to prevent or treat a condition or to maintain health. Essential oils are known for their many benefits and therapeutic uses. Here are but a few of the many ways they can be used to promote health or treat various conditions and diseases:
- Diffused in the air or diluted in cleaning products, they naturally disinfect, deodorize and aromatize, while removing pathogenic germs in order to help prevent microbial diseases and boost the immune system.
- Applied topically, they are powerful painkillers for migraines, dental pain, cramps, muscular pain, rheumatism, skin problems, etc. They also promote blood flow.
- Inhaled, they can clear airways and are known for their expectorant and purifying qualities. They can also relieve stress, anxiety, and help fight insomnia.
- Essential oils are known for their strong aerial antiseptic, antifungal and anti-scarring properties and for helping to stop viral progression.
The properties of essential oils vary by botanical species and the part of the plant extracted. They naturally restore balance to the body to promote good health.
The importance of wisely choosing your essential oil
It’s important to look for quality when choosing a bottle of essential oil in a store. Be sure to examine the following elements:
- The Latin name (botanical): avoids confusion between different plants from the same botanical family.
- The chemotype: identifies the chemical profile of the essential oil.
- The part of the plant used: some plants can produce different essential oils depending on the producing organ. E.g.: cinnamon bark vs. cinnamon leaf.
- The country of origin: indicates the country and region of origin.
- Warnings and contraindications.
For therapeutic use, favour an essential oil derived from organically produced or wild plants, certified by Health Canada with a Natural Product Number (NPN).
Safely using essential oils
Being very powerful aromatic extracts, essential oils should be used safely to optimize their effectiveness. Essential oils can be used in various ways: by air (inhaled or diffused), by dermal route, topically (in the bath, during a massage) or internally. Always consult an aromatherapist or medical specialist to ensure you are using them correctly.
The correct dosage for the right usage:
Diffused with a diffuser to clean or freshen the ambient air. Favour an electric pure steam diffuser or an ultrasonic cool mist diffuser, keep windows open, and do not use at bedtime. Choose essential oils with pleasant aromatic properties and avoid irritating or harsh oils such as cinnamon, clove, oregano, peppermint, anis, fennel, tarragon, etc.
Note: Babies under the age of 3 should not be exposed to essential oils, even in diffusion mode. Over this age, favour gentle oils such as lavender and camomile.
Note: Since pets, especially cats, are very sensitive to essential oils, it is best not to diffuse them in their presence.
Applied topically after first conducting a patch test (see warnings). Always dilute essential oils in vegetable oil or a hydrating lotion base before applying on the skin. The concentration of essential oils should be 1-5% and in some cases, up to 10% at most. Some oils can be applied directly on the skin (e.g.: lavender, tea tree) but only in a small amount and on a very limited area of the body.
In the bath: Dilute 5 to 20 drops of essential oils in an emulsion (emulsifier/dispersant) solution or in a neutral bubble bath or milk bath. Never put pure essential oils in your bath, as they are not water soluble (due to their density, they rise to the surface).
During a massage: Simple or combined (complex) essential oils must be diluted in vegetable oil (e.g. jojoba or sweet almond oil) before the massage. A concentration of 1-5% of essential oil is generally recommended.
When making your own natural products with essential oils (cosmetics, shampoos, cleaning products, etc.). For cosmetic use, a concentration of 1-3% is generally recommended. Use up to 6 drops of essential oils per 10 ml of cosmetic products. Do not heat the essential oils; add them at the end. Essential oils are not fats per se as they do not contain lipids. They can only be combined with fatty substances such as vegetable oil, a hydrating lotion or vegetable butter.