How to use essential oils
The word “aromatherapy” was coined by French chemist Rene Maurice Gattefosse in the 1920s when he discovered aromatherapy purely by accident. While working in his laboratory, he suffered a burn, which left him with no choice but to plunge his arm in the nearest cold liquid. The liquid happened to be lavender extract. He became intrigued at his skin’s rapid rate of healing and lack of scar tissue formation. From such humble beginnings, aromatherapy was founded. And lavender oil, to this day, is still recognised as an exceptional rejuvenating and healing oil for the skin.
Sniffing out an impostor
So what are these superb essential oils? They are concentrated extracts obtained from plant species that have a high volatile oil content (“volatile” meaning the capacity to evaporate). Each essential oil is a unique blend of many natural chemicals, each possessing a different action. The synergy between these compounds explains why one essential oil can act on several different symptoms.
When a synthetic fragrance oil is manufactured, only one or a few of the many chemicals found naturally is synthesised. This is usually the compound that gives rise to the specific aroma. Hence, we may be fooled into thinking it smells like the real thing. We may like the aroma, but these cheap versions offer no therapeutic benefit.
Essential oils, on the other hand, have several therapeutic benefits in common: they are antiseptic; they can act on the central nervous system to either stimulate or sedate; and they increase the number of circulating white blood cells, thereby increasing our resistance to disease. Each oil has different chemical components, so it will exert its own unique effects.
Certainly, most quality essential oils are more expensive than the synthetic versions. The higher price is a reflection of the extraction and importation costs (some plant species must be imported from other countries, and some require expensive equipment to extract the essences). And the price is understandable when you consider it takes 100kg of rose petals to make just 250ml of rose essential oil.
The high cost of manufacturing essential oils has led to the production of the synthetic and cheaper fragrance oils. Some manufacturers even charge the same price for the synthetic version, making a substantial profit. Others mix a small quantity of essential oil with a vegetable carrier oil and sell this as “100 per cent pure”. This cut essential oil, though natural, has a fraction of the potency of a pure essential oil.
There are some telltale signs to help distinguish these impostors:
- A fake or overpowering smell.
- Place a few drops of the oil on a brown paper bag. If a large amount of fat soaks into the bag, chances are the oil has been cut with a vegetable carrier oil. (Essential oils are not, in fact, oils.)
- Clear thinking — basil, lemon, peppermint, rosemary
- Party time — orange, lemon, frankincense
- Relaxing — chamomile, lavender, marjoram
- Loving — clary sage, ylang-ylang, neroli
- Natural pesticide
- Put a few drops on a handkerchief and inhale when you have a runny nose
- Add to homemade skincare creams and lotions
- Essential floral waters
- Antiseptic gargle/mouthwash
- Air freshener
- Facial mist
- Add to shampoos and beauty products
- Put a few drops in a pot-pourri bowl
- Put a few drops of a relaxing essential oil on your pillow before going to sleep
- Put a few drops in with the laundry to make your clothes smell extra fresh
Benefits of the real thing
Plants use their essential oils for survival, employing them to aid growth and the production of certain chemicals. Their essential oils can also repel certain pests and attract other insects. Most importantly, plants use their essential oils to protect themselves from disease. By applying these essences of nature ourselves, we can similarly obtain therapeutic benefits.
Essential oils work in two ways: through our sense of smell, which is closely linked to our emotions via the limbic part of the brain; and via absorption through the skin. When essential oils enter the circulatory system, they are dispersed to specific organs and systems to work on not only the physical level but also the emotional and psychological.
Therapeutically, essential oils can be used to relieve a variety of symptoms and for general wellbeing. They can benefit conditions ranging from depression to hyperactivity, sunburn, exhaustion, stress and headaches. The list is endless and many of the benefits are being scientifically proven.
Using essential oils
Essential oils must be diluted because of their highly concentrated nature. Hence they are not to be used internally without instructions from a qualified aromatherapist or naturopath.
As a general rule, essential oils needed to be diluted to about five per cent. If you’re applying them to your skin (directly or indirectly), this equates to half the number of drops of the volume of carrier oil used (for example, 15 drops of essential oil in 30ml of carrier oil).
Essential oils can be used in several ways:
The easiest way to use essential oils is with an oil burner (vaporiser). Incidentally, you only have to use the burner for one to two hours and the effects last up to eight hours. It’s an easy way to create a particular mood, say for a party or an intimate night, or to sedate hyperactive kids. Even though essential oils can be reasonably expensive, they last a long time because only a few drops are used at a time.
It’s a good idea to use two to five oils mixed together. Not only does this enhance their synergistic effect, it also lets you create a personal aroma. For example, you may choose to mix essential oils that are all stimulating before commencing study. Alternatively, you may choose ones that are sedating before retiring to bed. You have the freedom to formulate your own blends according to your taste and needs at the time.
Here are some suggested blends:
Another method of using essential oils is through massage. In his research, Gattefosse discovered that essential oils can take 30 minutes to 12 hours to be totally absorbed by the body.
To use essential oils externally, they must be diluted with a base carrier oil (see the ratio above). The carrier oil also helps the skin absorb the essential oil. You can choose from a variety of carrier oils, including macadamia, grapeseed and avocado. Each has its own benefits and should be chosen according to skin condition and desired effect. For example, evening primrose oil helps retain moisture and keeps the skin smooth, which may be suitable for mature or dry skin. Grapeseed oil is perfect for adolescent skin; it has cleansing and purifying effects on blemished and unclear skin.
Baths and foot baths
Essential oils can be used in a bath or foot bath. This method is doubly effective because you are involving the sense of smell and the absorption of the essences via the skin. Remember to dilute the essential oils with a carrier oil or, alternatively, you can use full-cream milk. Both have the same effect of dispersing the essential oils.
Facial steams can also incorporate essential oils. This is particularly useful for catarrhal states, flus and colds. Antiseptic and mucolytic essential oils such as eucalyptus and peppermint are recommended for this purpose. The left-over water and essential oils can then perhaps be used as a compress on the chest area.
Additional uses for essential oils
Provided you follow the safety instructions, essential oils are considered safe and free from side-effects. And, of course, they have the added advantage of being natural. Essential oils enable us to capture and utilise the perfect essence, potent synergy and therapeutic benefits of nature.
The principle of aromatherapy is simple yet agreeable. From the moment when Gattefosse immersed his burning arm in lavender oil, the evolution of aromatherapy was purposeful, justifiable and, most importantly, therapeutically beneficial for a wide range of emotional, spiritual and physical imbalances.
Note: Essential oils are potent and must be used with caution during pregnancy. Consult a qualified health practitioner for advice.