For thousands of years fragrant oils, gums, and resins have been used for both medicinal and cosmetic purposes. Ancient Chinese and Indian texts describe the therapeutic, philosophical, and spiritual properties of aromatics. The Egyptians employed them in all areas of life, from seduction to embalming. The Bible discusses special oils for anointing and healing; aromatics were so highly prized that the "wise men" gave them to Jesus at his birth.
French chemist and perfumer René-Maurice Gattefosse coined the term "aromatherapy" in 1928 when he discovered, quite by accident, that lavender oil helped heal a burn on his hand and prevented scarring.
Essential oils are extracted, usually by distillation, from the flowers, leaves, bark, or roots of aromatic plants. Some essential oils can be rubbed directly on the skin to provide therapeutic benefits. Others may be ingested. When inhaled, scents affect the limbic system of the brain, causing shifts in brain wave function that can trigger emotional and/or physical reactions. Here are some popular ways to use aromatic oils:
- Put a few drops of oil in a diffuser or vaporizer and inhale the steam.
- Add several drops of oil plus a half-cup of milk to bathwater.
- Make a massage oil by blending 10–15 drops of essential oil into an ounce of a “carrier” oil, such as almond, grape seed, olive, or jojoba.
- Combine 1 teaspoon of oil, 8 ounces of distilled water, and 1 ounce of isopropyl alcohol in a spray bottle and mist the room with it.
Only pure essential oils offer therapeutic properties––synthetic concoctions lack the plants’ natural vital energy. Some essential oils should not be ingested and some can be irritating to the skin––don’t them full-strength. Citrus oils can cause sensitivity to sunlight. Pregnant women, children, and the elderly, in particular, should exercise caution when using essential oils. Because essential oils are highly volatile, store them in dark, glass bottles in a cool place. Aromatherapy should be considered a complementary therapy, not a substitute for professional medical care.