What is aromatherapy?

By Christine Ruggeri

Today, it’s very common to experience aromatherapy in a range of wellness locations, including massage centers, yoga studios and spas, and chiropractic offices. So what is aromatherapy, exactly?

Aromatherapy essential oils are made using dozens of different plants, flowers, herbs, roots and trees grown all over the world — which have proven, powerful effects on boosting overall  physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.

For over 5,000 years, aromatherapy has been a trusted practice among cultures spanning the globe. Professionals turn to aromatherapy for its ability to help support a healthy response to inflammation, support skin health and ease feelings of stress.  

You're likely to find over 40 different high-quality aromatherapy oils available in health food stores and online (although many more than this exist). Some popular aromatic oils you might recognize include tea tree, lavender and peppermint oil, used in everything from toothpaste to laundry detergent.

What Is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy utilizes fragrant essential oils that are derived from a wide variety of beneficial plants. When inhaled or applied to the skin, these high-quality essential oils (also sometimes called volatile oils) have generally been shown to support overall wellness. 

Here's some facts about how essential oils work:

  • Plants contain certain beneficial chemicals as a means of warding off insects or rodents, and other threats.
  • The active ingredients within the oils are taken directly from high yields of these plants or herbs through a process known as distillation, which is then mixed with alcohol to preserve their strength. The finished result is a very concentrated oily formula that can be mixed with other substances.
  • Because they're very strong, essential oils used in aromatherapy practices are usually combined with a carrier oil, such as almond, jojoba or coconut oil, before being applied directly to the skin.

Note: You should always read and follow label directions when using any essential oil product. 

Aromatherapy can be performed in several different ways:

  • Diffusing a single oil or combination of essential oils into the air 
  • Inhaling oils through the nostrils directly from the bottle
  • Receiving massage therapy utilizing essential oils
  • Soaking in an oil-infused bath
  • Rubbing oils directly onto the skin

What types of plants produce popular essential oils used in aromatherapy? 

  • Herbs like rosemary, thyme, oregano or peppermint
  • Leaves from eucalyptus plants
  • Grasses, such as lemongrass
  • Fennel seeds
  • Zest from fruits such as oranges, grapefruit or lemon
  • Flowers, including rose or geranium
  • Wood or bark from trees including cedar or pine
  • Roots from ginger
  • Resin from frankincense trees
  • And many more

Related: What Are the Best Essential Oils? 

Benefits of Aromatherapy

While more studies need to be conducted, a growing pool of both human and animal studies has shown that aromatherapy oils can have both calming and stimulating effects, plus helps to support overall health and specific health interests.

The key to achieving results from aromatherapy is to use pure, high-quality oils rather than those with synthetic ingredients or fragrances. The effectiveness of aromatherapy practices always depends on the quality of the oils used, plus the how they are being used. 

1. Creates A Relaxing Environment

Essential oils used in aromatherapy, such as lavender and frankincense, feature a peaceful and calm scent. They support feelings of relaxation, and one often-cited study suggests that aromatherapy may boost a person’s outlook and feelings of positivity. 

If you're new to aromatherapy, an excellent way to create a relaxing environment is to add about five drops of lavender to a warm bath or diffusing it at home. 

2. Contributes to Your Evening Routine

Aromatherapy oils may help you to unwind and create a calming atmosphere. This is why they are often used as part of an evening routine. Some popular oils for nighttime use include lavender, chamomile, frankincense, rose and ylang ylang.

While you’re winding down for the day, diffuse soothing essential oils in your bedroom, like lavender and frankincense. You can also make an aromatherapy spray that you spritz on your sheets. 

3. Has Invigorating Properties

Some aromatherapy essential oils have cooling, invigorating effects. They can be used to boost energy, fight fatigue and help “offer a breath of fresh air.”

To experience the cooling and uplifting properties of aromatherapy, diffuse essential oils like eucalyptus, myrrh, rosemary and peppermint, or simply inhale their aromas directly from the bottle. 

4. Supports a Healthy Skin Routine

Diluted essential oils can be spritzed onto the skin or scalp can have soothing effects that support your healthy skin routine. The most popular aromatherapy essential oils for skin include lavender, clary sage, frankincense, lemon and helichrysum.

To make a homemade aromatherapy oil spritzer that you can spray into the troubled area of your skin, add 10–20 drops of oil to a spray bottle containing about four ounces of water. You can also add essential oils to your face or body wash. 

6. Soothes Occasional Discomfort

Some aromatherapy oils can be used to sooth occasional muscle or body discomfort. Reports show that peppermint oil, for example, can help to soothe muscles when applied to those areas. Oils like frankincense and rosemary may also help to ease discomfort, especially in the head. 

7. Has Cleansing Properties

Essential oils are often used in home cleaning sprays because of their cleansing properties (without unwanted chemicals). Plus, oils like lemon, orange, tea tree and lavender have fresh and sweet fragrances that help to create a clean aroma in your home. 

9. Soothes the Tummy

Aromatherapy oils, such as ginger, turmeric, grapefruit, peppermint, lemon, chamomile and eucalyptus may help to soothe the tummy and overall digestion. These essential oils can be used aromatically, by inhaling directly from the bottle or using a diffuse and applied topically to the wrists and abdomen. 

History of Aromatherapy 

For thousands of years, aromatherapy essential oils have been an important part of self-care — used as perfumes, tonics, cleansers, salves and more. Records show that some of the earliest civilizations to adopt the use of aromatherapy include the ancient Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.

There are some very interesting facts about the history of aromatherapy. Over 2,500 years ago, for example, Hippocrates recommended aromatic baths for overall well-being. Aromatherapy oils were also used by ancient Egyptian priests during religious ceremonies.

In the late 1800s and into the 19th century, researchers began using botanical extracts and “active ingredients” were identified in beneficial plants. The extractions were used to prepare decoctions for health-supporting purposes. 

Eventually, aromatherapy made its way to the U.S. and essential oils were being used for personal care purposes, for bathing, cooking and purifying the air. Today, sales of aromatherapy lotions, candles, oils and fragrances are higher than ever before.

How to Find a Good Aromatherapist

There are a number of different organizations that now train and certify professional aromatherapists. The goal of these programs is to overcome the lack of education standards in the aromatherapy industry and to promote safe practices.

Aromatherapists are typically trained in some of the following topics and practices:

  • History of aromatherapy
  • Profiles of 20 of the most powerful and popular essential oils
  • Ensuring quality of essential oils
  • Physiology of aromatherapy (including methods of absorption, olfaction, the limbic system, the lymphatic system, the immune system and the skin)
  • Offering approaches to clients with various essential oils depending on their health interests
  • Contraindications and safety concerns of certain essential oils

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy offers resources on its website to locate a qualified aromatherapist in your area.

Other Considerations

You should always consult your healthcare professional before starting any new dietary or lifestyle regimen, including aromatherapy essential oils. Always follow label directions and suggested use guidelines.  

In general, only use oils internally when the oils are approved for ingestion, according to the label and suggested use. If you have sensitive skin and want to use aromatherapy oils topically, make sure to dilute oils with a carrier oil (like coconut oil or jojoba oil) before applying them to your skin.

Because some oils are photosensitive, do not apply essential oils topically before going out in the sun.

Final Thoughts

  • Aromatherapy involves the use of essential oils for their potential benefits. This has become increasingly popular in recent decades, although essential oils have actually been used for centuries.
  • Aromatherapy works by utilizing aromatic oils that contain many different active components. These components contribute to the extracts ability to help support a healthy response to inflammation, support healthy digestion and more. 
  • Aromatherapy essential oils can be used aromatically, topically and, in some cases, internally (only if the label and directions indicate internal use).

Christine Ruggeri is a writer and nutrition counselor based in New York. She's worked for Ancient Nutrition and the Dr. Axe team for five years. She has a degree in Education with a concentration in English from Iona College, and received her health coach certification from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.   

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