Learn the Fragrant Art of Aromatherapy

Relax, energize and heal with the luscious smell of herbs.


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The scent of a rose, a freshly baked cinnamon roll, mint tea brewing or an orange as it’s peeled — all of these are distinctively delightful and all come to us thanks to herbs. When you stroll through an herb garden or open a bottle of herbal lotion or shampoo, the fragrance is often what most captures your attention and imagination.

Our sense of smell is powerful, yet underappreciated. Rudyard Kipling wrote, “Smells are surer than sounds and sights to make the heartstrings crack.” However, most of us aren’t very attuned to how important our sense of smell is — studies have shown that most people consider smell to be the least valuable of the five senses.

Researchers now are finding that essential oils have measurable effects on both the body and the emotions. Use the suggestions in this article to help you get reacquainted with your all-important sense of smell.

Basil “taketh away sorrowfulness, which cometh of melancholy, and makes a man merry and glad.”
— John Gerard


Essential oils are the source of herbal aromas. Formed in all fragrant plants, essential oils are as medicinal as the herbs that produce them. These oils provide most of the taste in the herbs and spices used to flavor food. And they add their scent, as well as their healing properties, to cosmetics and body-care products. Considering all they offer, it’s no wonder that essential oils are the basis of the healing art known as aromatherapy.

Each type of essential oil has a unique chemistry that dictates its medicinal properties. Some of the simplest aromatherapy remedies treat common complaints, such as indigestion, swelling and infection. For example, adding eucalyptus to a steaming pot of water and inhaling the steam helps combat a bacterial or viral sinus infection. Peppermint in a liniment warms muscles and eases away pain. The essential oils of many herbs, such as peppermint and chamomile, are used to relieve indigestion. Essential oils also penetrate through the skin easily, so applying a lotion that contains an anti-inflammatory and antiseptic herb, such as lavender, is an effective healing method.

Even more intriguing is how the various aromas of essential oils affect emotions. Potent scents produced by various herbs can act on the brain to relax us, energize us or even treat depression. Herbalists have long known of these qualities — John Gerard, in his 17th-century herbal, observed that the fragrance of certain herbs increased feelings of happiness and well-being. Lemon balm was said to cheer the heart, and basil “taketh away sorrowfulness, which cometh of melancholy, and makes a man merry and glad.”


Even if you’ve never purchased a bottle of essential oil, chances are you have already incorporated aromatherapy into your life. Every time you drink a cup of fragrant tea or flavor your food with an aromatic culinary herb like basil or rosemary, the aromas have an impact on your mind. In fact, we probably are so attracted to pleasant scents because of the positive way in which they affect our emotions.

While sniffing fragrant herbs may be a weaker remedy compared to taking pharmaceutical drugs, aromatherapy can be used safely and repeatedly without worrying about side effects. Many times, aromatherapy is not potent enough to be used as the sole treatment, but it makes an excellent adjunct approach when combined with other therapies.

Scientists, as well as aromatherapists, are interested in how the power of scent increases emotional well-being. Researchers are investigating if and how the scents historically used to alter emotions actually work. They discovered that just smelling chamomile produces a relaxing effect on brain waves: Simply inhaling the aroma from a cup of chamomile tea is enough to relax a person, before he or she even drinks the tea. Peppermint and eucalyptus have been shown to stimulate the mind and make people more attentive. Researchers even think aromatherapy may help slow the progress of memory problems, such as dementia.

While we wait for research to verify the effectiveness of aromatherapy, aromatherapists like myself continue to investigate ways in which healing fragrance has been used for thousands of years. It’s easy to put aromatherapy to practical use. For example, rosemary and bay laurel stimulate the mind and particularly help memory. One simple trick is to sniff a few leaves when studying for an exam or trying to memorize anything important. Then, sniff them again when you need to recall the information.

When you’re looking for a way to stay awake, make “energy” salts by adding a few drops of peppermint to a couple tablespoons of rock salt (available in grocery stores) in a small, lidded container. Open the container and sniff as desired. I’ve included a simple chart to help you choose the best aromatherapy scents for your needs (see “Traditional Aromatherapy Oils and Their Uses” on Page 44).

If you’re having trouble sleeping or simply need to relax, place a drop or two of lavender oil on your sheets to send you off to dreamland. (Because the oil may leave spots on your sheets, mix the oil with a little water in a small spray bottle, then spritz the sheets.) Another technique is to tuck a small lavender-scented dream pillow in your pillowcase. I travel extensively, so I always carry a lavender pillow in my suitcase, as well as a lavender-rose aromatherapy spray (available at health-food stores) to ensure restful sleep.

Shop around to find the many aromatherapy massage oils, bath oils, and skin- and hair-care products that are available these days. You also can buy pure essential oils to make your own creations. When you go to buy essential oils, you’ll notice that they vary greatly in price. Their cost is reflected in how difficult the plants are to cultivate and the oils to produce. When you consider that it takes about 600 pounds of rose petals to produce a single ounce of rose oil, it’s no wonder rose oil is so expensive.


One simple way to use aromatherapy is as a bath oil. Add 3 to 6 drops of pure essential oil to the bathtub (or to a Jacuzzi or hot tub — it won’t corrode if it’s pure essential oil). You also can make a massage and body oil by adding 6 to 8 drops of essential oil to 1 ounce of any vegetable oil or a commercial, unscented massage oil base. Because they are so light, sweet almond oil and jojoba oil are especially good as massage oils. Be careful when using peppermint, cinnamon and citrus oils, especially orange, in skin products. These are “hot” oils that can redden skin and produce a burning sensation.

Fill a room with fragrance by gently simmering a pot of water and adding a few drops of essential oil, which will dissipate into the air. You also can purchase an electric aromatherapy diffuser to which you can add your own essential oil. Place water in the receptacle and add a few drops of essential oil. A candle diffuser also will work, although the scent usually will last only an hour or so. Combine different oils if you’re feeling creative.


Although they’re often less expensive, avoid synthetic versions, which also can be labeled “essential oils.” The increasing popularity of aromatherapy means there are many products available, but even some of those sold in health-food stores are made with synthetics. Aromatherapists worry about the effect of these oils’ synthetic ingredients, especially since many of them contain petroleum compounds and other potential toxins.

When you purchase essential oils or aromatherapy products that contain them, be sure the essential oils are pure and made from plants. Look on the label for the botanical name of the plant from which the oil was derived. Unfortunately, many favorite scents are very expensive or not possible to produce. The scents of magnolia, carnation and lotus are a few examples. Also, rose and jasmine — two of the most popular, as well as expensive, essential oils — are probably synthetic or diluted if sold for less than $120 per ounce.

I’m wary of using the many “aromatherapy” candles that are scented synthetically. I find it worthwhile to spend a little extra on candles or other products that state they contain only natural essential oils. Not only are they better for your health, they smell so much better!


Another safety consideration is that essential oils are very potent. They are far more concentrated than herb teas or tinctures, so be careful with how much and how often you use them. Do not take essential oils internally without the guidance of a qualified aromatherapy practitioner. Keep essential oils away from your eyes.

As a general rule, don’t apply essential oils directly to your skin undiluted. However, some oils are perfectly safe to apply to your skin — for example, lavender oil on burns or insect bites and tea tree oil on pimples.

Remember that these oils go into your skin and eventually your bloodstream, and use caution. Your liver and kidneys are responsible for clearing essential oils, along with other foreign substances, from your body, and an overdose strains them. If you ever feel dizzy, nauseous or develop a headache while using or working with essential oils, your body is sending you a warning to back off. This can occur just from inhaling too much essential oil.

Allergies or sensitivities to essential oils always are possible. Yet people who are allergic to fragrances often find only synthetic fragrances bothersome. Many times I’ve seen students in my aromatherapy seminars enjoy inhaling the fragrance of a natural rose oil when they believed they were allergic to all rose oils. People who are more familiar with synthetic oils are surprised to find how closely the scent of most essential oils resembles the plants from which they came, and how much more pleasant they are. Of course, they also are amazed when they see how effective aromatherapy is as a healing art.

Kathi Keville is an herbalist and aromatherapist with 35 years of experience. She is the author of 12 books, including Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art (The Crossing Press, 1995), with Mindy Green. She teaches seminars at her farm in Nevada City, California, and throughout the United States. Visit her website at www.Aha Herb.com.