What is Aromatherapy: The practice of utilizing aromatic essences, that are naturally extracted from plants, for the purpose of balancing the spirit, mind and body. It’s intent is to harmonize and unify physiological, psychological and energetic (spiritual) processes to facilitate the natural healing process of an individual. It is often referred to as Essential Oil Therapy.
Where did the word Aromatherapy come from: The use of essential oils has been around for more than a 1000 years (mostly in perfumery) but the word “Aromatherapy” was not recognized or used before 1937 when French chemist and perfumist, René-Maurice Gattefóssé, wrote his book entitled “Aromathérapie”. His book contains many clinical findings for the use of essential oils in the healing of physical ailments as apposed to just using them as perfumes. This term has since been adopted to describe the practice of utilizing essential oils for their therapeutic and medicinal value.
What are Essential Oils: Volatile, organic compounds originating from a specific plant that contributes to it’s fragrance and flavor. The oils provide the communication for the plant by sending messages to its pollinators (such as bee’s) in order to attract them and to it’s predator’s (such as insects) to ward them off. Essential oils are often called ‘Volatile Oils’ for they evaporate quickly. The word ‘Essential’ refers to its inherent nature or the essence of the plant and ‘Oil’ refers to its attribute as a lipid making it insoluble (unable to mix or dissolve) in water.
Why Essential Oils should be Diluted with a Carrier: Essential oils are highly concentrated. It takes a large amount of plant material to produce a small amount of essential oil. As an example, it takes about 39 pounds of Lavender flowers (Lavendula angustifolia) to produce 8oz of essential oil. Many wonder why the price of Rose Oil is so high. Picture a dozen roses. It takes 30 to 50 roses (Rosa damascena) to produce 1 (one) DROP of essential oil. There are approximately 100 drops of essential oil in a 5ml bottle which means it takes 3,000 to 5,000 roses to fill it. So, next time you pick up your bottle of essential oil, you may want to look at it with awe and respect for the amount of plant material that it represents (as well as respect for the growers and distillers who produce it for you). Diluting these precious oils with a carrier not only makes it more bioavailable (able to be processed) to our bodies and more synergistic, when you dilute your essential oils, you contribute to the sustainability of the plants. When you use herbs (tea or infusion), it take about 1/4 to 1/2 cup to provide medicinal value. Imagine what 1 drop of essential oil will do!
What is a Carrier? In Aromatherapy, when we refer to a carrier, we are referring to a “Fix Oil” (more commonly called a Vegetable Oil). A fixed oil is composed of heavier molecules so they do not evaporate quickly like an essential oil (less volatile). These oils are usually high in vitamins A, E and F and are very nourishing, soothing and softening to the skin. The best Fixed Oils are cold pressed (under 110°) and first pressing (extra virgin). A few examples of carriers are: Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Sesame, Sweet Almond, Coconut, Grapeseed, etc. Jojoba is often put in the Oil category but it is actually a wax. Since it is very stable and very well suited to our skin, it is often used in Aromatherapy. Other carriers can include: Aloe Vera gel, milk and salt but they do not disperse the essential oils as thoroughly as a fixed oil because they are not a lipid (oily or fatty) substance.
Essential Oil Safety:
- Dilute essential oils in carrier before applying them to the skin. For general use, a total of 5 to 18 drops of essential oil to 1oz (30ml) of carrier oil (if using more than one essential oil, the 5 to 18 drops is a total for all). If an essential oil causes irritation to the skin, immediately wash area with soap and water then apply more carrier. *Remember oil & water don’t mix, so a carrier is the best option to diffuse the irritant in the essential oil.
- For children 5-12 years old, elders, pregnant women and those on multiple medications or serious health conditions, start with a low dilution. Safe practice is 1% or a total of 5 to 6 drops per 1oz (30ml) of carrier. While there are various opinions on when to use essential oils with babies or children under 5, it is best to remember that their skin tends to be very sensitive and it is difficult to blend essential oils under 1%. Therefore, it is better to resort to herbal remedies, hydrosols (water left over from steam distillation of essential oils), aloe vera gel, butters and fixed oils to coax a young one back to health.
- During Pregnancy and while breastfeeding, essential oils should be used with caution. It is best to seek the advice of your medical professional or an Aromatherapist who has a clinical knowledge of the contraindications of essential oils, for there are many that should not be used during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. If you do use essential oils during pregnancy or while breastfeeding, it is best to keep the dilution at 1% or below (5-6 drops total per ounce of carrier). (Essential Oil Safety, Tisserand and Young p.152-153 and p.156)
- Essential Oils can be phototoxic and should not be applied topically when going in the sun or tanning bed. Phototoxicity is a light-induced reaction to a photoactive substance, such as sunlight or UV light. This can cause a burning, blistering and/or discoloration on the skin and often occurs up to 18 hours ‘after’ the oil is applied. Many Citrus oils are known to be phototoxic. (Essential Oil Safety, Tisserand and Young p.84-88)
- Some Essential Oils are potentially convulsant for anyone who may be vulnerable to epileptic seizures. (Essential Oil Safety, Tisserand and Young p.134, table 10.2)
- Those with asthma and seasonal or skin allergies should proceed with caution. Essential oils have been known to assist with these conditions when used correctly. For those with asthma or a respiratory condition, it is best to smell essential oils from a fragrance stick or the lid and not directly from the bottle. If tightness of chest or respiratory distress is detected, get to a well ventilated area quickly and/or contact a medical professional. A skin patch test can be performed to check for skin irritation. Skin Patch Test – A drop of oil to 1 tablespoon of carrier can be applied to inner wrist and left up to 24hrs to check for reaction. If reaction occurs, wash with soap and water then dilute with more of the carrier (fixed oil).
- Keep essential oils away from eyes, ears and other sensitive areas or orifices. If an essential oils does come in contact with your eye(s), wash your hands with soap and water then place some carrier (fixed) oil on a paper towel and gently wipe the eye. If irritation persist, you can try a saline solution and/or contact medical advice.
- Those with chemical sensitivities or who have had allergic reactions to perfumes should proceed with caution. (Essential Oil Safety, Tisserand and Young p.658)
- Keep all essential oils out of the reach of children. Essential oils often smell good to a young child and entice them to taste. Many can be poisonous if swallowed. (Essential Oil Safety, Tisserand and Young p.26-27 table 3.2)
- Do not apply essential oils directly on the fur or skin of small animals. As with humans, essential oils can have toxic effects on small animals when not diluted properly, especially cats. Cats cannot process most essential oils in their system so make sure you consult a professional Aromatherapist well versed in essential oils and pet care before using any essential oils with your pets.
Storage of Essential Oils: Essential oils are known to oxidize over time with exposure to light, heat and oxygen. The shelf life can vary from 1 year to 8 years or more, depending on its individual chemical makeup and how it is stored. You can maximize the shelf life of your essential oils by following the practices below:
- Keep your essential oils and blends in Amber or Dark Blue glass bottles. Essential oils do not like light. By storing them in Amber or Dark Blue bottles, you help them maintain their integrity. Do not store pure essential oils in plastic as the have a tenancy to degrade that medium.
- Store them in a cool / dark location. Essential oils love the cold and will last longer if stored in the refrigerator. It is best to have a separate refrigerator to store your oils or in a tightly closed case for their aroma can penetrate your food.
- Keep lid tightly closed. Essential oils are highly volatile (evaporate quickly). Make sure you close the lid tightly after every use.
- Date of distillation matters. If you do not know the date your oil is distilled and it doesn’t have a ‘Best By’ date, you may want to use the essential oil within a year of purchasing and/or opening to ensure the oil has not oxidized.
For more information, you can also check the National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA)