Body & Soul: Make Fragrance Essential

| August/September 2007

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.

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