Aromatherapy is the use of aromatic compounds from plants to affect physical and mental wellbeing. Far from being purely about ‘nice smells’, aromatherapy can have a demonstrable effect on the body and mind, and can be used to help treat a wide range of conditions from insomnia to sunburn. A good example of aromatherapy in mainstream use is the popularity of aromatherapy-based remedies for nasal congestion, such as ‘Vapour Rub’. It can also be used in conjunction with conventional medicine to help treat serious illnesses such as measles, and even the side-effects of cancer treatment; and can also be very useful in first aid situations.
History of Aromatherapy
"Aromatherapie" was the word first used by Henri Maurice Gattefosse in the 1920's to describe his experiments with the use of aromatic plant extracts to facilitate healing. Gattefosse is said to have began work with essential oils after he burned himself in his laboratory and thrust his hand into the nearest cold liquid - a container of lavender oil- to find that it healed faster than expected with minimal scarring. Regardless of whether the story is true, it’s an elegant anecdote, and lavender essential oil has indeed since been proven to contribute to skin healing, with it’s soothing and anti-microbial properties.
However, while he is considered to be the ‘father’ of modern aromatherapy, having produced the first scientific documentation of the components of essential oils and their properties, he was certainly not the inventor of the practice itself. Aromatic oils have been used for healing for thousands of years, with recorded usage as early as the Babylonian Empire in 5000 BC., as well as many references to Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine and biblical references from before the birth of Christ.
How Can It Be Used?
There are many different ways to use aromatherapy, both through a qualified aromatherapy practitioner as well as in the comfort of your own home. If you wish to find a practitioner in your local area, then the International Federation of Aromatherapists is one place to start. They are one of the professional associations for aromatherapists. Please note that there is no national accredited standard for aromatherapy in the UK at present.
Simple home aromatherapy is quite accessible. There are many good books on the subject which are both interesting and easy to use. Julia Lawless’ Illustrated Guide is a good start point for beginners. For those who would like to try the benefits without blending their own products, there are plenty of good quality ready-made products out there from companies such as Neal’s Yard Remedies, Tisserand, and us, of course!
Aromatherapy can be administered in a range of ways, such as bathing, inhalation (through extracts on a handkerchief, vapourisers, oil burners, diffusers, lamp rings, saunas, steam inhalation from basins of hot water or with extracts or sprays used on fabrics), massage, compresses, gargles and mouthwashes, home fragrances such as pot pourri and room sprays, or application to the skin. For safety reasons, essential oils should not be ingested except on the advice of a qualified practitioner, and neat application to the skin should be avoided. Essential oils are very potent and concentrated extracts, and may cause skin irritation unless diluted. Some essential oils are toxic. Special care should be taken if you are pregnant. More safety advice is available in our article on aromatherapy in pregnancy.
Uses For Essential Oils
Essential oils have a wide range of uses, including the use of rose, lavender, neroli, chamomile, palmarosa, geranium and tea tree oils in skin care, rosemary, chamomile, lavender and lemon oils for hair care, citrus and peppermint oils to help relieve nausea, peppermint and clove oils to act as local anaesthetics (particularly regarding toothache), lavender and tea tree oils as topical antiseptics, myrrh oil to ease a painful throat, lavender, frankincense, ylang ylang and valerian to aid sleep, eucalyptus, peppermint, thyme and camphor to relieve sinus congestion and even citronella oil as an insect repellent. On a more serious level, chamomile and peppermint have been used to help treat IBS. The symptoms of chicken pox in children can be eased with the topical application of diluted tea tree or lavender oil, either in cool baths or blended with witchhazel and applied directly (please consult an aromatherapist or your doctor/pharmacist if unsure). Depression, insomnia, anxiety and fatigue are all conditions which have been shown to respond well to treatment with aromatherapy.
Finding Out More
In addition to the wealth of good aromatherapy books available from authors such as Julia Lawless and Valerie Ann Worwood, there are plenty of online resources to provide more detailed information. The Aromatherapy Council is a good start point for information, and to help with finding a therapist, training course or specific information. The ‘Aromatherapy Bible’ website is particularly good for looking at each individual oil and its properties.