People have used herbal aromas to benefit body, mind and spirit for thousands of years. Early records indicate that ancient Egyptians used aromatic plant oils to treat health problems, and Cleopatra was known to use essential oils in her perfumes. In the East, Chinese doctors also knew the healing powers of fragrance.
The science and practice of modern aromatherapy (also known as essential oil therapy) began with the French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé, who coined the term aromathérapie. Around 1910, Gattefossé discovered the healing properties of lavender oil after severely burning his hand in a laboratory explosion. To cool his hand quickly, he plunged it into a vat of pure lavender essential oil. The pain vanished almost instantly and the burn healed without a scar or infection. This result led Gattefossé to a lifetime of research on the subject of essential oils and their healing properties.
Today, aromatherapy is widely practiced. When eaten, sipped as tea or applied to the surface of the skin, many herbs have healing properties. Aromatherapists go one step further, using the fragrances of herbs to treat or prevent health problems, or simply to create a mood. Practitioners of aromatherapy believe that fragrances stimulate nerves in our nose, and these nerves send impulses to the part of the brain that controls memory and emotions. Depending on the types of oils used, the results might be calming or stimulating. The scent of chamomile or lavender, for example, is used to relieve tension and promote sleep, while the fragrance of rosemary is used to improve circulation and enhance memory. And anyone who has ever smelled a peppermint leaf can attest to the scent’s ability to instantly refresh and energize.
Pure plant extracts, known as essential oils, are widely available and key to the practice of aromatherapy. Essential oils are highly concentrated and have an intense fragrance. Taken from the plant’s flowers, leaves, stems, bark, rind or roots, these oils can be mixed with other oils, alcohol or lotion.
Before you use essential oils yourself, however, a few words of caution: Remember that one drop goes a long way. When using essential oils in bath and body products, always be sure to dilute them. The undiluted volatile oils can penetrate the skin, causing skin irritation or sensitivity. Some highly sensitive people can experience an allergic reaction to certain essential oils (though this is rare.) To be safe, first test yourself for sensitivity by applying a small amount of diluted oil to your skin before using it all over your body. (Also, be sure to purchase pure essential oils for aromatherapy use, not fragrance oils, which are synthetic.)
There are many ways to treat your body and lift your spirit with aromatic essential oils. Here are a few of my favorite recipes to get you started.
Three Fast Herbal Fixes
• Aromatic herbal bath: Add 10 to 15 drops of essential oil to your drawn bath water. Stir the water thoroughly before getting in.
• Simple foot or hand soak: Add 5 to 7 drops of essential oil to a bowl or basin of warm water. Soak for 10 to 15 minutes.
• Herbal compress: To treat a headache or skin irritation, add 5 to 8 drops of essential oil to 2 cups of hot or cold water. Stir to disperse the oils. Briefly soak a cotton cloth in the water, wring out the cloth, then place it on the skin. Repeat every 15 minutes for up to one hour.
Herbal Massage Oil
Makes 4 ounces
Massage with aromatic oils can soothe sore muscles, stimulate circulation and/or promote relaxation. To make your own scented massage oil, you can use either essential oils or fresh or dried herbs mixed with light oil. If you use dried herbs, use half the amount of fresh herbs. For a stimulating massage oil, try rosemary, oregano and/or mint. For a relaxing massage oil, try chamomile, lavender and/or basil.
This massage oil recipe also can be used as bath oil; simply pour a tablespoon or two of the prepared oil into the bath.
• 1/2 cup light oil (almond, apricot, sun-flower, canola and light olive oil all work well)
• 50 drops essential oil, 1/4 cup fresh herbs or 1/3 cup dried herbs
If using essential oils, simply mix the two oils in a clean bottle and shake gently. If using fresh or dried herbs, mix oil and herbs and heat gently in the microwave or on the stovetop, but do not boil. Cool oil mixture completely and filter out solids.
To use, pour a small amount onto your clean hands. Rub your hands together to warm the oil, then massage into skin and muscles. Also can be used at the temples and pulse points.
Egyptian Milk Bath
Makes 32 ounces (enough for one bath)
Cleopatra was a renowned ancient beauty known for her use of herbal and cosmetic treatments. One of her favorite practices was bathing in milk and herbs to keep her complexion clear and her emotions calm.
• 5 drops rosemary essential oil
• 5 drops thyme essential oil
• 5 drops peppermint essential oil
• Peel of 1 orange
• Peel of 1 lemon
• 1 quart fresh milk (or equivalent amount dried nonfat milk powder)
Combine ingredients in a large glass bowl or pitcher. Stir well to mix, then allow the mixture to rest 20 to 30 minutes. To use, draw a warm bath and pour the entire mixture into the bath water. Soak in the tub for at least 20 minutes. Rinse off the milk using clear, warm water. (You do not want it to sour on your skin!) Pat your skin dry, then moisturize well.
Vaporized Room Scents
Promote a specific mood inside your home by using a purchased diffuser (a glass or ceramic container and votive candle) to disperse the scent of an essential oil. Follow the diffuser’s instructions. If you do not have a diffuser, simply add a few drops of essential oil to a pan of water and heat it on the stovetop. Try the following basic combinations, or experiment with your own blends.
• 4 drops bergamot essential oil
• 3 drops lavender essential oil
• 1 drop frankincense essential oil
• 5 drops peppermint essential oil
• 3 drops geranium essential oil
• 1 drop eucalyptus essential oil
• 2 drops lemon essential oil
• 1 drop thyme essential oil
• 4 drops geranium essential oil
Place essential oils into the glass bowl of your diffuser. Light the candle to heat the oils and release the scent throughout the room. Use for 5 to 15 minutes at a time.
Janice Cox is the author of Natural Beauty at Home: More Than 250 Easy-to-Use Recipes for Body, Bath and Hair (Owl Books, 2002), available at www.HerbCompanion.com/shopping.