Do scents have healing powers?

We’ve all seen little bottles of essential oils lined up in our local chemist or healthfood store. They’re so commonplace that you can miss them when you’re searching for a cold remedy or a stress buster. But what you may not know is that aromatherapy is a complex healing discipline that can treat the body and mind in both subtle and powerful ways.

Aromatherapy is only partly about the power our sense of smell has over our moods, feelings and memories. In fact, as a herbal modality its real powers lie in the ability of molecules of essential oil to penetrate the skin, enter the bloodstream and act on the organs within the body. For this reason, the term “aromatherapy” is misleading because it implies treatment with scents, whereas it really is treatment with essential oils.

Essential oils are essences extracted from plants and flowers. They are sophisticated substances with highly specific properties. Essential oils are volatile, which means they evaporate when exposed to air, allowing you to inhale and smell their pure aromas. They’re made up of tiny molecules that can penetrate the skin, but they’re not actually oily; they’re lipophilic, which means they’re easily mixed with fats. And, because human skin is made up of fats, as well as other elements, the oils have an extraordinary affinity with the skin’s molecular processes. (Essential oils penetrate in a similar way to drug patches that deliver low and slow doses of particular chemicals via the skin.)

As well as their penetrative powers, essential oils kill bacteria better than most other natural substances. They’re valuable as antiseptics because, unlike synthetic antiseptics, they fight germs without harming healthy human tissue. Australia’s own tea-tree oil is particularly good at treating skin infections and insect bites.

Essential oils decompose and neutralise bacteria and viruses. Even the fragrance of an essential oil can attack airborne germs at an amazing rate. Studies in Japan have shown that the vapours of lemon essence can neutralise the meningitis virus in 15 minutes and the typhus bacillus in less than an hour.

Smells take a direct path to the brain because they employ nerve cells as transmitters and receivers. Odours travel through the olfactory system in the nose and into the limbic area in the brain, which processes the smell. The limbic centre is also the seat of memory and emotion, which is the reason why the smell of the oils can trigger powerful feelings and help relieve depression and anxiety.

Aromatherapy embraces a number of therapeutic disciplines. Often, essential oils are used in a synergy of touch and smell, stroked on in massage or baths or pressed in with acupressure. In whatever therapy they’re used, the oils soak through the skin while their healing aromas are inhaled. Essential oils can sometimes be swallowed, but they are so powerful that this form of treatment is reserved for highly qualified therapists.

Possibly the most common use of essential oils is to drop them into burners that can be placed in a room and allowed to burn. The oils evaporate into the atmosphere, creating a fragrant, therapeutic environment. Essential oils are also turning up in a vast array of skin and hair care products, blended with other oils and moisturisers.

Aromatherapy in its myriad forms comes into its own when you talk about stress. Sharon McGlinchy, a practising aromatherapist who concentrates on treating stress, says, “Most of my clients are people who don’t know how to get rid of stress. Some come with tummy problems or backaches that seem to disappear after a course of aromatherapy massage.”

Sharon relaxes tense muscles and nerves by pressing and moving them in rhythmic strokes with her hands and fingers. The massage itself is relaxing, sending messages to the brain telling it to let go and stop producing acid in the stomach, tension in the muscles and pressure on the nervous system, but the smells also relax the mind and body. “Aromatherapy is one of the most potent and accessible forms of stress management known to humankind,” says Sharon.

The Beauty of aromatherapy is it’s available to everyone. Virtually anyone can become their own DIY healer with essential oils. Simple things make a big difference: the introduction of an aromatherapy burner can change the ambience of an office; the gift to yourself of a monthly massage can improve your wellbeing and help prevent stress; and an aromatherapy bath at the end of the day can be a complete recipe for relaxation. Aromatherapy offers simple, effective ways to enhance life and promote long-term health.

Essential oils

Essential oils are potent substances with healing properties. They should be treated with care and in high doses can be toxic. You need only 10 drops of any oil in a bath and, when used for massage, essential oils must be mixed with at least 50ml of a carrier or base oil such as almond, avocado or olive oil. There are probably more than 200 commercially produced essential oils on the market today. The 17 listed here are commonly available and help treat a variety of ailments from stress to muscle cramps.

1. Basil, Ocimum basilicum

  • From flowering tops and leaves of the herb
  • Aroma — sweet and spicy
  • Benefits — helps concentration, focus and inspiration. Helpful in the treatment of menstrual problems.

2. Bergamot, Citrus bergamia

  • From the peel of the citrus bergamot tree
  • Aroma — rich, sweet, floral
  • Benefits — uplifting, relieves tension and anger, clears blemished, oily skin, natural deodoriser

3. Chamomile, Matricaria recutita

  • From the dried flowers of the herb
  • Aroma — strong, fruity
  • Benefits — calming, brings balance and tone to sensitive skin

4. Clary sage, Salvia sclarea

  • From flowers and leaves of the tree
  • Aroma — powerful, floral, nutty
  • Benefits — sedative for muscle stress, uplifting, warming

5. Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus globulus

  • From partially dried leaves of sub-tropical plants
  • Aroma — strong, fresh, menthol-like
  • Benefits — cooling and refreshing, useful decongestant, insect repellent, treats blemished skin

6. Frankincense, Boswellia carterii

  • From the bark of the frankincense tree
  • Aroma — woody, spicy, deep and refreshing
  • Benefits — elevating, soothes the mind

7. Geranium, Pelargonium graveolens

  • From the flowers and leaves
  • Aroma — rosy, leafy, often used in perfumes
  • Benefits — seductive, sensual and euphoric, tones dry and sensitive skin, relieves exhaustion

8. Jasmine, Jasminum officinalis

  • From the flowers of the jasmine plant
  • Aroma — rich, exotic, warm, king of the essential oils
  • Benefits — according to folklore, jasmine is a love potion, treats dry skin, uplifting

9. Lavender, Lavandula officinalis

  • From the flowers of the lavender plant
  • Aroma — strongly herbaceous, floral
  • Benefits — purifying and calming, gentle antiseptic, treats burns effectively

10. Neroli, Citrus aurantium

  • From the petals of the orange tree blossoms
  • Aroma — sweet, floral, citrus
  • Benefits — hypnotic, euphoric, refreshing, uplifting

11. Orange, Citrus sinensis

  • From the peel of the orange fruit
  • Aroma — strong, refreshing, cooling
  • Benefits — dispels tension, opens communication, uplifting

12. Patchouli, Pogostemon patchouli

  • From dried leaves of the young patchouli plant
  • Aroma — herbaceous, spicy, woody, earthy, exotic
  • Benefits — alluring and seductive, good for dry, brittle, maturing skin

13. Peppermint, Mentha piperita

  • From the leaves and flowers of the rapidly dried herb
  • Aroma — fresh, strong, minty
  • Benefits — decongests, stimulating and cooling, treats headaches and aids digestive disorders

14. Rose otto, Rosa damascena

  • From rose petals
  • Aroma — rich, sweet, delicate, floral
  • Benefits — sensual, seductive, positive feeling, opens heart energy, rejuvenating on mature and sensitive skin

15. Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis

  • From flowering tops and leaves of the plant
  • Aroma — strong, refreshing, herbaceous
  • Benefits — stimulates and invigorates the senses, purifying, good for muscle stress, helps treat dandruff

16. Sandalwood, Santalum album

  • From the inner wood of the tree
  • Aroma — heavy, exotic, woody
  • Benefits — good of all skin types, aids dehydrated skin, helpful treatment against colds and flu

17. Ylang ylang, Cananga odorata

  • From the flowers of the tree
  • Aroma — deep, exotic, powerful, floral, sweet
  • Benefits — calming, general elixir for all skin types

Aromatherapy treats

Add a healing and balancing aromatherapy ritual to your everyday routines and watch stress melt away.

Harmony bath

4 drops geranium

4 drops clary sage

1 drop basil

For: calming and regulating nerves and hormones


Enliven massage

3 drops orange

2 drops rosemary

2 drops ylang ylang

50ml almond oil

For: pick-me-up for the mind and body


Overwhelmed employee formula for burning

6 drops lavender

3 drops sandalwood

2 drops geranium

For: aids concentration, creates inner calm


Nikki Goldstein is an author and journalist who has written 10 award-winning books including the acclaimed GirlForce series. She has contributed to Notebook, The Sydney Morning Herald, Vogue, The Financial Review Magazine and Body & Soul.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

You May Also Like

cough relief

The only cough relief you need this winter

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 05 28t121831.547

Daily Rituals for Radiant Skin and Mindful Living

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 05 10t151116.716

Harmony – empowering women for over 30 years

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 05 15t112753.315

Kidney stones