Aromatherapy, or the use of plant-based essential oils to cure disease and improve mood, has been around since the 10th century. We consider how to make essential oils, how to use them and what to look for when buying them.

Using plant oils to heal and enhance one’s mood has been around since the 10th century, yes – but a serious popular and scientific interest in aromatherapy only began in the early nineteen hundreds, helped largely by chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé’s successful treatment of his badly burned hand with lavender oil.

Now, along with other ‘green’ and ‘alternative’ practices of healing, aromatherapy is seeing a resurgence in popularity. But you don’t need to go to a ritzy spa to get an aromatherapy treatment; you can do it yourself.

Unless you distill your own oils you’ll have to purchase some. A look around the internet showed that prices can range from a few dollars a bottle to over fifty dollars. However, industry regulations regarding the purity of oils are not yet fully standardized, so to make sure you are, in fact, buying therapeutic grade oil (as opposed to food grade, which often contains synthetic materials), purchasing from a local naturopathic store is probably the best option. While there is no major difference between oils from organic plants versus inorganic plants (except, perhaps, in price), some aromatherapists prefer to use only organic, as there is no chance of traces of pesticide in the oil.

There are three methods for application of aromatherapy.

1. Direct Application – applying the oils to the skin, via creams, lotion, salve, et cetera. This is used in massages and skin care, and is the method which Monsieur Gattefosseacute; used. Be careful, however, as essential oils are very concentrated and application to the skin without first diluting them with a neutral oil, such as almond or olive, or in ethanol, can result in irritation or allergic reactions.

2. Direct Inhalation – breathing in perfumes or incense to help the respiratory system or aid in decongestion. This also has psychological benefits.

3. Aerial Diffusion – spritzing oils into the air, to purify the area.

Some advocate the ingestion of essential oils, but this should never be done without the supervision of a licensed practitioner(*). Seemingly harmless oils, such as eucalyptus, are toxic internally. Many oils, harmless or only causing illness in humans, are fatal to domestic animals, with cats being the most susceptible. Pregnant women should also be especially careful with anything they do involving oils. It’s also important, if using oils in conjunction with candles or other sources of heat, to be aware of the oil’s flash point, or temperature at which it ignites; the flash point is different for each oil.

But, if used correctly, essential oils can be incredibly beneficial.

Common aromatherapy oils and their uses

  • Allspice: Induces numbness, pain relief
  • Anise: Treats arthritis, clears congestion, kills and repels insects
  • Basil: Headache relief, sharpens concentration
  • Black Pepper: Stimulates circulation, soothes muscle pains
  • Frankincense: Treats anxiety, soothes respiratory system
  • Geranium: Treats acne and dull skin
  • Jasmine: Aphrodisiac
  • Lemon Oil: Mood enhancer and relaxant
  • Linden Blossom: Headache and insomnia relief
  • Yarrow Oil: Treats inflammation of joints and reduces influenza symptoms
  • Ylang Ylang: Treats muscle tension and PMS symptoms

Keep in mind that this list isn’t nearly exhaustive. With an oil corresponding to nearly every plant, the possibilities for aromatherapy are nearly endless!

(*) Editorial note: Actually we like putting a couple of drops of lavender oil in our flapjacks, so we’re probably to be filed under those advocates. Never done us any harm. Or we’ve used one drop of peppermint oil in a glass of water as a makeshift mouthwash. The possibilities are endless. But yes, eucalyptus oil is toxic if ingested – look at all those poor inebraited koala bears. You, too, might be prone to an irritant reaction if you drink the stuff, and life’s rule of thumb is to never gulp a whole bottle of anything…