Aromatherapy Guide: How to Use Essential Oils for Your Well-Being

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In "Aromatherapy," authors Kathi Keville and Mindy Green offer the latest information for those interested in aromatherapy, including more than 90 formulas for using essential oils in health and first aid, skin and hair care, massage, relaxation, and more.
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Citrus essential oils can boost energy and mood.
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Never apply undiluted essential oils to your skin. Instead, dilute them in carrier oils.
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Few things can move us so deeply or have so profound an impact on our psyches as the memories evoked by specific scents. A smell can take us back to childhood or conjure up a lost love as real as the day we experienced it. Smells invoke long-term memory and make the past present as no other sense can. The most direct of all of our senses, smell has an immediate impact, unimpaired by the passage of time. Aromatherapy, the art of using aromatic essential oils, relies on the subtle effects of smell to relax or stimulate the body, mind and spirit. You can harness the healing power of scent at home using these tips and instructions for how to blend botanical essential oils and choose the best skin-friendly carrier oils.

The Best Carrier Oils

There are many ways to use essential oils for aromatherapy, but in general, you shouldn’t apply undiluted essential oils to your skin. Instead, dilute them in carrier oils, called such because they can be used to deliver essential oils’ powerful aromatherapeutic benefits. To get the most from the healing effects of aromatherapy, it’s important to know the best carrier oils to use in combination with your plant extracts.

Carrier oils are ideal for delivering essential oils because their molecules are larger than those of essential oils and do not easily penetrate the skin. What distinguishes one oil from another is primarily whether it contains healing compounds, such as vitamins and other nutrients, and how thick it is.

A few oils (such as evening primrose, borage seed and black currant seed oil) contain skin nutrients such as gamma linoleic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid. Seed and nut oils such as sweet almond, grape seed and walnut contain vitamins A and E as well as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These soothing, nourishing and nutrient-rich oils are among the best carrier oils. They’re also known as “fixed” oils because they don’t evaporate like essential oils do.

The saturation rate of carrier oils measures how thick they are. The more saturated the oil, the thicker it is, the longer it stays on the skin and the longer its shelf life. Unsaturated oils give the illusion that they are being absorbed into the skin when they are actually slowly evaporating. Commonly used unsaturated oils include soybean, safflower, olive, sunflower and canola; commonly used saturated oils include coconut, palm and palm kernel. The most suitable oil depends on the application. Most body workers prefer saturated oil for massage so they have a continually oily surface on which to glide their hands, but many cosmetics use less-saturated oils that feel less thick and sticky.

Other factors to consider are smell and color. The light smell and color of almond, hazelnut and grape seed oils put them among the most preferred oils for cosmetics. Avoid unrefined oils (cooking oils), which can leave you smelling like food. Whenever possible, choose expeller- or cold-pressed oils, which have not been exposed to potentially damaging temperatures above 110 degrees. Organic oils are always preferred.

Simple Aromatherapy Blends

Create aromatic fragrances and enjoy the therapeutic benefits of aromatherapy by blending essential oils at home. Use the recipes in Simple Aromatherapy Blends to make a massage or body oil, or omit the oil the recipe calls for and blend the essential oils in 1 ounce jojoba oil to make a perfume. As you mix each blend, start by adding a single drop of each oil. Sniff as you add each drop, and observe how it changes the blend. If you feel adventurous, alter proportions to your liking.

To avoid cross-contamination among your essential oils, use separate droppers or rinse the dropper in vodka or pure grain alcohol and dry it between scents.

Reprinted with permission from Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art, Second Edition by Kathi Keville and Mindy Green, 2009. Published by Crossing Press, an imprint of Ten Speed Press and Crown Publishing Group.

How to Use Essential Oils

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

Baths: Add 3 to 10 drops essential oil (or a combination of oils) to your bath. To prevent possible skin irritation, first dilute the essential oil in 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil or liquid soap. To create scented bath salts, mix 10 drops essential oil with 1 cup Epsom salts or baking soda in a plastic container, shake well, and then add to the tub and stir to dissolve. Soaking for 10 to 20 minutes in an aromatherapy bath is a good way to deeply relax or energize, depending on the oils used.

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

Saunas: Add 2 drops essential oil to 2 cups water; pour onto heat source in sauna 1⁄2 cup at a time. This formula is a whole-body treatment; it also can be helpful for alleviating muscle soreness.

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

Steam inhalation: Pour 2 quarts boiling water into a heatproof bowl. Add 3 drops 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. This is excellent for relieving sinus congestion, colds or sore throat, and also for deep cleansing the skin.

Air freshener: Add 6 drops essential oil to 1 cup water in a clean spray bottle. Shake well, and use to neutralize odors as you would any air freshener. To prevent staining, avoid spraying onto wood surfaces or upholstered furniture.

—Laurel Vukovic

Top 10 Essential Oils for Your Apothecary

Stock your essential oil collection with these 10 fundamental oils.

• Lavender: antiviral, antibacterial, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory

• Chamomile: anti-inflammatory, digestive, relaxant

• Marjoram: anti-inflammatory, antiseptic

• Rosemary: pain relief, decongestant, circulatory tonic

• Tea tree: antifungal, antibacterial

• Cypress: astringent, circulatory tonic, antiseptic

• Peppermint: digestive, clears sinuses, antiseptic, decongestant, stimulant

• Eucalyptus: decongestant, antiviral, antibacterial, stimulant

• Bergamot: anti-inflammatory

• Geranium: antifungal, antiinflammatory, eases nervous tension 

Science of Scent

Scientific studies on the effects of aromatherapy have been mixed. In one Japanese study, researchers found that smelling lavender or rosemary essential oils reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In a study of elementary school teachers in Taiwan, researchers found that exposure to bergamot essential oil reduced anxiety, particularly in those with high degrees of anxiety. Yet other studies, most famously a recent Ohio State University study, have found aromatherapy to have little to no effect (although researchers did find that lemon oil elevated test subjects’ moods). There is good reason to be wary of “aromatherapeutic”
products such as candles and sprays, which often contain synthetic fragrances rather than essential oils. But it does seem safe to say that, at the very least, the scents we find pleasing can help us relax or improve our mood. Use the tips in this article to employ the sweet art of aromatherapy and test its benefits yourself.  

— Jessica Kellner


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