The Fragrant Art of Aromatherapy

Free yourself from pain, fatigue, strain and more with the ancient herbal art of aromatherapy.


The scent of each type of essential oil can vary based on where the plant was grown, how it was harvested and the skill of the distiller.

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Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived,” wrote Helen Keller, who was blind and deaf from birth, in The World I Live In (1908). “Odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief.”

Most of us are less attuned to the importance of our sense of smell—in fact, studies have shown that the majority of people consider smell to be the least valuable of the five senses. And yet, smell is the most highly developed of all of the senses at birth. We choose our friends and mates in part because of their particular odors, and our enjoyment of food is dependent on our sense of smell. Whether or not we are consciously aware of it, the effects of scents reach deeply into the body and psyche.

Our early ancestors understood the powerful effects of aromas. They used the smoke of woods, resins, and plants to induce calmness, relaxation, and even euphoria. Essential oils (the concentrated, aromatic components of plants) have been a precious commodity throughout history and have been used extensively in India, China, the Middle East, and Europe. The Egyptians were skilled in using essential oils and employed fragrances such as cedarwood, frankincense, myrrh, and juniper in cosmetics as well as for healing and in the elaborate process of embalming.

The Greeks enthusiastically adopted the use of essential oils from the Egyptians, perfuming their food and drink in addition to their bodies and clothing. The famed Greek physician Hippocrates had a delightful prescription for longevity: a daily soak in a scented bath, followed by an aromatherapy massage. He might have been on to something. Researchers today are finding that essential oils have measurable effects on both the body and the emotions.

What are essential oils?

Essential oils give many flowers, herbs, spices, and fruits their characteristic scents. The pungent scent of peppermint, the spicy aroma of cloves, and the sweet fragrance of jasmine are all the result of the plants’ essential oils. Plants produce these fragrant oils for a variety of reasons: to stimulate growth and reproduction, to attract beneficial insects and discourage harmful ones, and to protect the plant from diseases. Some of these properties are useful for us, too. For example, citronella, cedarwood, and lemongrass are essential components of natural insect repellents, and tea tree, eucalyptus, and thyme are added to common household products such as disinfectants and mouthwashes.

Aromatic oils are found in all parts of plants—the fruit, seed, flower, root, leaf, resin, bark, and wood. Peel an orange, and you’ve released the abundant essential oils found in the fruit’s skin. But not all essential oils are so easily obtained. Most require distillation, a process of heating the plant in water, capturing the steam, and separating the droplets of essential oil from the steam as it condenses. The result is a highly concentrated oil that captures the fragrance of the plant. It takes approximately one ton of rose petals (close to 60,000 roses) to produce just one ounce of rose oil.

The Healing Properties of Essential Oils

As ancient peoples knew, the benefits of essential oils go far beyond their pleasing aromas. These concentrated plant essences retain the healing properties of the herbs and flowers from which they are distilled and can be used for treating both physical and psychological disorders.

When essential oils are inhaled or applied to the skin, the aromatic molecules enter the bloodstream and are circulated throughout the body. For this reason, they can be used for a variety of physical conditions, from fighting respiratory infections to relieving digestive upsets, headaches, and PMS.

The effects of essential oils on the emotions are the result of a different physiological pathway. Chemicals in the air stimulate olfactory cells in the nose; these cells then relay the information to the brain, where smell is perceived. The olfactory nerve pathways are tied in with the limbic portion of the brain, the seat of our emotions, memories, intuition, and sexual response. That’s why the sense of smell is the most influential trigger of memories and emotions of all of the senses.

Think of how certain scents give rise to strong emotions—the smell of cinnamon transports me back to family holiday meals, and the fragrance of lilacs brings a wave of nostalgia for my great-grandmother and her garden. For this reason, an important component of aromatherapy is to choose fragrances that appeal to you, because above all, scents evoke vivid memories and emotions. For example, although lavender is regarded as an excellent scent for easing tension, if you associate it with your punitive second-grade teacher who used lavender soap, then it’s not likely to make you feel relaxed. Trust your nose and your instincts, and you won’t go wrong.

Scientific Support for Aromatherapy

Researchers throughout the world are proving what ancient peoples intuitively knew: Essential oils have powerful effects on the mind and body. John Steele, an aromatic consultant in Sherman Oaks, California, and Robert Tisserand, a leading British aromatherapist, have studied the effects of various essential oils on brain wave patterns. They’ve shown that beta brain waves, which indicate a state of heightened awareness, are increased when stimulating oils such as black pepper, rosemary, or basil are inhaled. Calming oils such as neroli, jasmine, lavender, and rose produce more alpha and theta brain waves, indicative of relaxation and well-being.

In other studies, researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York found that patients who were exposed to the scent of heliotrope (a vanilla-like fragrance) while undergoing diagnostic medical tests were significantly less anxious. At Duke University Hospital, a study found that the daily use of fragrance dramatically improved the mood of women at mid-life. In a study published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, researchers at Wheeling Jesuit University discovered that the scent of peppermint improved the mood, motivation, and performance of athletes. And in a study reported in the British Medical Journal Lancet, elderly patients suffering from insomnia found that the aroma of lavender helped them fall asleep more quickly and enabled them to sleep longer than did prescription sedatives.

• Aromatherapist Jeanne Rose offers these tips for choosing pure essential oils: Place a drop of essential oil on a piece of paper. If a greasy spot remains after an hour or two, the product has probably been diluted with other oils. Add a drop of essential oil to water. If the oil forms a cloudy slick on the surface of the water, it’s probably a synthetic oil.

• Don’t buy or store essential oils in plastic bottles because the essential oils can dissolve the plastic. For the same reason, don’t leave rubber-tipped droppers in essential oils, because they’ll disintegrate into a gummy mess.

• To best preserve the properties of essential oils, store them in a cool, dark place.

• The shelf life of most essential oils is approximately two years (one year for citrus oils). Some oils, such as sandalwood, frankincense, and patchouli, improve with age.

Using Essential Oils Safely

In general, don’t use essential oils undiluted on your skin. However, with knowledge and experience, you’ll probably discover that some essential oils are perfectly safe to apply directly to your skin (unless your skin is especially sensitive). For example, lavender can be used for insect bites or burns; tea tree oil can be dabbed on pimples; and sandalwood, rose, or ylang ylang can be applied as perfume oils.

• Do not take essential oils internally without the guidance of a qualified aromatherapy practitioner.

• Keep essential oils away from your eyes.

• Avoid oils that can cause photosensitivity: Bergamot (unless it is labeled as bergapten-free), lemon, lime, and orange essential oils can all cause uneven skin pigmentation if used within four hours of exposure to sunlight.

• Keep essential oils out of the reach of children. When using essential oils for children, use only nontoxic and non-irritating oils such as lavender and chamomile. Use one drop of essential oil in a bath or in one teaspoon of massage oil for babies up to twelve months; one-third of the adult dosage for children one to five years old; and one-half of the adult dosage for children up to the age of twelve.

• Use essential oils with caution during pregnancy. In general, use half of the usual adult dosage while pregnant, and stick with nonstimulating oils such as chamomile, frankincense, lavender, geranium, grapefruit, neroli, rose, and sandalwood.

15 Commonly Used Essential Oils

Basil alleviates depression and helps to restore mental clarity. It relieves headaches, sinus congestion, indigestion, and sore muscles. The sweet, spicy, balsamic fragrance blends well with bergamot, clary sage, rosemary, and peppermint.

Bergamot has an uplifting quality and eases anxiety and depression. It has antiseptic properties and is helpful for respiratory and urinary tract infections and indigestion. The fresh, spicy, citrus-floral scent combines well with basil, lavender, lemon, and peppermint.

Chamomile is soothing for both body and mind. It calms anxiety and stress, relieves insomnia, and is excellent for children. It helps to ease headaches, digestive distress, and menstrual cramps. The slightly sweet, herbaceous fragrance blends well with geranium, lavender, lemon, and patchouli.

Clary sage is deeply relaxing and has powerful antidepressant properties. It helps to ease muscle pain, as well as PMS and menopause symptoms. Use in moderation, unless you want a sedative effect. The complex, sweet, herbaceous scent combines well with bergamot, lavender, sandalwood, and ylang ylang.

Cypress relieves emotional stress, insomnia, and grief. It increases circulation and is helpful for varicose veins, hemorrhoids, and water retention. The pungent, sweet, balsamic scent combines well with clary sage, lavender, lemon, and sandalwood.

Eucalyptus has potent antibiotic and antiviral properties. It effectively relieves colds, flu, and sinus infections and is also excellent for muscle aches, wounds, and skin infections. The sharp, camphorous scent combines well with lavender, lemon, and peppermint.

Geranium helps to ease tension, emotional stress, and is useful for PMS and menopausal discomfort. It also is used topically for burns, cuts, bruises, and wounds. The citrus-rose fragrance blends well with bergamot, lavender, patchouli, and rose.

Lavender is soothing and relaxing and helps to restore physical and emotional well-being. It eases anxiety, tension, fatigue, headaches, and PMS symptoms; it also has antiseptic and wound-healing properties. The sweet, floral, herbaceous fragrance combines well with bergamot, clary sage, lemon, peppermint, and sandalwood.

Patchouli is calming and helps to relieve stress, emotional fatigue, and insomnia. It’s excellent for acne, dandruff, and fungal infections such as athlete’s foot. Good-quality patchouli has a rich, earthy, fragrance and combines well with clary sage, geranium, lavender, and sandalwood.

Peppermint is stimulating and energizing and helps to allay physical and mental fatigue. It relieves digestive distress, eases tension headaches and stuffy noses, and soothes insect bites. The potent, refreshing menthol scent combines well with basil, bergamot, lavender, and rosemary.

Rose has gentle relaxing properties and helps to alleviate nervous tension and associated complaints such as headaches and insomnia. It also eases grief and depression and is considered to be an aphrodisiac. The deep, sweet, floral fragrance blends well with clary sage, lavender, and sandalwood.

Rosemary is stimulating and counteracts mental and physical fatigue. It increases circulation, eases muscle soreness, and relieves respiratory congestion. The strong, minty, balsamic fragrance combines well with basil, lavender, and peppermint.

Sandalwood promotes calmness and serenity and has been used for centuries as a perfume and incense. It’s also used for treating genital, urinary tract, and respiratory infections. The warm, woody, complex fragrance blends well with bergamot, clary sage, lavender, patchouli, and rose.

Ylang ylang has strong sedative properties and helps to ease depression, frustration, and insomnia. It also has aphrodisiac properties. The intensely sweet, floral fragrance combines well with bergamot, lemon, and sandalwood.

How to Use Essential Oils

Following are a few of the many ways that you can bring the pleasure and benefits of essential oils into your life.

Baths: Add 3 to 10 drops of essential oil (or of a combination of essential oils) to a bathtub of warm water. To prevent possible skin irritation, first dilute the essential oil in 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil or liquid soap. You can also mix 10 drops of essential oil with 1 cup of Epsom salts or baking soda in a plastic container, shake well, and then add to the bathtub. Stir the water with your hand to dissolve the mixture. Soaking for 10 to 20 minutes in an aromatherapy bath is a good way to experience the benefits of essential oils; the bath can be deeply relaxing or energizing, depending on the oils used.

Massage: Add 10 to 20 drops of essential oil to 1 ounce of almond, grapeseed, or jojoba oil. Use as you would any massage oil. Excellent for deep relaxation, easing muscle stiffness, improving lymphatic circulation, and enhancing overall well-being.

Saunas: Add 2 drops of essential oil to 2 cups of water; pour onto heat source in sauna 1/2 cup at a time. A whole-body purifying treatment; also helpful for alleviating muscle soreness.

Simple inhalation: Place 1 drop of essential oil onto a handkerchief or tissue; inhale as desired. Depending on the oil used, can allay stress, improve concentration, or clear the sinuses.

Steam inhalation: Pour 2 quarts of boiling water into a heatproof bowl. Add 3 drops of essential oil. Make a tent over your head and the bowl with a large bath towel. Inhale the fragrant steam for 10 minutes, taking care to not burn yourself with the steam. Excellent for relieving sinus congestion, colds, sore throat, and also for deep cleansing the skin.

Air freshener: Add 6 drops of essential oil to 1 cup of water in a clean spray bottle. Shake well, and use as you would any air freshener. To prevent staining, avoid spraying onto wood surfaces or upholstered furniture. Neutralizes odors and provides a calming or energizing influence, depending on the oils used.