With the growing interest in natural therapies and distrust of man-made chemicals, the use of essential oils has become very popular.  As an Aromatherapist, I believe this is a good thing, however it's important to remember that essential oils are much more than just fragrances.  They're highly complex chemical compounds which affect both the mind and body.  Essential oil molecules are very small, which allow them to be absorbed through the skin and respiratory system and into the bloodstream, initiating chemical changes in the body.  Essential oils are available on every high street, but they need to be used with care.

What is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is the controlled use of essential oils to promote health and wellbeing.  Although Aromatherapy in its present form has only been around since the early 20th Century, its origins go back thousands of years.  Around five thousand years ago, the Egyptians were using fats and waxes to extract the beneficial properties from plants, and the discovery of the steam distillation process, a technique which was developed around 1000AD by the Persian physician Avicenna, improved the purity of these extracts.

In the 20th Century scientific studies of the therapeutic effects of essential oils was undertaken by a French chemist, Dr Rene-Maurice Gattefosse.  His work was carried on by Dr Jean Valnet, a French army physician and surgeon, used essential oils to treat severe burns and battle injuries in the absence of medical supplies.  Up until the Second World War, essential oils of Clove, Lemon, Thyme and Chamomile were used as natural antiseptics and disinfectants to fumigate hospital wards and sterilise instruments used in surgery and dentistry. Aromatherapy in its present form was introduced to Britain by the Austrian biochemist, Marguerite Maury.  She pioneered the holistic use of oils blended specifically for each client, combined with massage.

What are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are volatile, concentrated essences obtained from plants.  Many different parts of the plant can be used, including flowers, leaves, twigs, fruit, bark, seeds or roots.  In the case of the Bitter Orange Tree (citrus aurantium), three types of oil can be extracted:  Neroli (steam distilled from the flowers), Bitter Orange (expressed from the fruit peel), and Petitgrain (steam distilled from the leaves and twigs).

The methods of extracting essential oils are:

Steam Distillation - the oldest and most widely-used method of obtaining essential oils, where steam is passed under pressure through chopped up plant material.  The oil evaporates, and when cooled, condenses back into liquid form.  The essential oil floats on the top of an aromatic water - a useful by-product of distillation known as a hydrolat.

Expression - the essential oils are pressed out from fruit peel.  This is the method used for citrus oils, such as Bergamot, Orange and Grapefruit.

Enfleurage -an ancient and now rarely-used process where flower petals are placed on purified fat to extract the aromatic molecules.  Alcohol is added to dissolve the fat.  The alcohol is then evaporated, leaving behind the essential oil.

Co2 Extraction - uses compressed carbon dioxide at high pressure to extract essential oil from plant material.

The Phytonic Process - this is a relatively new form of extraction where environmentally-friendly solvents are used at room temperature.  This creates an essential oil known as a 'phytol'.

Solvent Extraction - this is a complicated process where plant material is covered by a solvent which absorbs the aromatic molecules. This creates a 'concrete' which is mixed with alcohol then evaporated to create an oil known as an 'absolute'.

There is some debate within the world of Aromatherapy as to whether absolutes and phytols should be used in therapeutic work due to the risk of solvent remaining in the oil.

How do Essential Oils Work?

All essential oils have their own therapeutic effects:  most are antiseptic and many of the oils have powerful antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral qualities.  The molecules in essential oils are small enough to enter the bloodstream either through the lungs, by inhaling the vapours, or through the skin, by topical application or massage.  When the aromatic vapours are inhaled through the nose, they also have an immediate effect on the mind and emotions.

Using Essential Oils at Home

There are many ways to gain the benefits of essential oils, including massage and topical application (in base oils, creams and lotions), in aromatic baths and footbaths, in compresses, by inhalation and as a natural room fragrance.  Aromatherapy can be used safely in the home provided precautions are taken.  (See Safety Precautions and Buying and Storing Essential Oils further down this page).

Room Fragrance

The simplest and easiest way to use essential oils at home is in the form of a room fragrance.  Most commercially-made air fresheners are filled with chemicals, so why not try a natural alternative?  The easiest way to fragrance a room with essential oils is by using an oil burner or ceramic vaporiser.  Add 2-4 drops of your chosen oil to the water in an oil burner.  As the water heats, the oil molecules are released into the atmosphere - remember to keep the water topped up, as essential oils shouldn't be allowed to burn.  A safer alternative is a ceramic electric vaporiser as there are no naked flames and no hot water to get tipped over accidentally.  Again, use approximately 2-4 drops of oil on the vaporiser.

You can mix and match the oils you choose, depending on personal preference, but a few suggestions to try are:

  • Ravensara, Cajuput or Eucalyptus - to ease the symptoms of colds and flu.
  • Lavender, Petitgrain or Chamomile - to help you relax.
  • Orange, Grapefruit or Rosemary - to energise and lift your mood.

You can also make a natural room spray with essential oils.  To make a room spray, add 20 drops of your chosen essential oil and 200ml of water to a clean spray bottle.  Juniper Berry is a good choice if you want to purify the atmosphere and clear stale energy from a room.  Spray into the air, avoiding wooden furniture and electrical equipment, and shake the bottle well before each use as essential oils don't dissolve in water.

Inhalation

Inhaling essential oil vapours can ease the symptoms of nausea, headaches, fatigue or colds.  The oils can be placed on a tissue, in a bowl of hot water, or in a steam inhaler cup.  Avoid inhalation if you suffer from asthma as it could trigger an attack.

Ginger or Lemon can be used for nausea, Ravensara or Eucalyptus for colds, Peppermint or Rosemary to invigorate, and Lavender or Roman Chamomile for relaxation. 

Place 1-2 drops of essential oil on a handkerchief or tissue and breathe in the vapours.  Avoid getting the oil on your hands and keep it away from your eyes.  For insomnia, Lavender can also be used by placing the handkerchief or tissue inside your pillow.

If using a bowl of hot water, add 1-2 drops of essential oil, place a towel over your head and inhale the vapours, keeping your eyes closed to avoid irritation.  Steam inhaler cups are available from chemists and look very similar to a toddler's trainer cup, with a mask-shaped device on the top.  Hot water is poured into the base of the cup, 1-2 drops of essential oils are added and the top is firmly screwed on.  Steam is inhaled through the mask, and it's important not to breathe in too deeply as the vapours can be very concentrated.

Aromatic Baths

Taking an aromatic bath can help you relax and unwind, ease aches and pains, clear a stuffy head or put you in the mood to party!  Six to Eight drops of oil can be added to a warm bath, although as essential oils don't dissolve in water, small droplets may float on the top of the bath water and cause skin irritation.  To avoid this, the oils can first be mixed with a dispersant, carrier oil or good quality fragrance-free bath base.  Fill the bath with warm water, add the blended oils, lie back, relax and enjoy the vapours for ten to twenty minutes.  A very small amount of essential oil will be absorbed through the skin, with most evaporating into the air.  For this reason, it's recommended that the bathroom door and windows are kept closed until you've finished your bath to get the maximum benefit.

Here are a few ideas for blends you might like to try (the numbers of drops in brackets):

Relaxing Blends

  • Mandarin (2-3) Petitgrain (2) Lavender (2)
  • Geranium (2-3) Lavender (2) Ylang Ylang (2)
  • Lavender (3-4) Roman Chamomile (3-4)
  • Sandalwood (2) Frankincense (2) Patchouli (2-3)
  • Neroli (3) Rose (2)

Invigorating Blends

  • Rosemary (2-3) Bergamot (2-3) Lemon (2)
  • Orange (2) Ginger (2) Mandarin (2-3)
  • Rosemary (2) Juniper Berry (2) Eucalyptus (2)

Blends for Colds and Flu

  • Ravensara (2) Litsea Cubeba (2)
  • Rosemary (2) Eucalyptus (2) Mandarin (2-4)

Blends for Muscular Aches and Pains

  • Black Pepper (2) Ginger (2) Mandarin (2-4)
  • Marjoram (2-4) Lavender (2-4)

Massage and Skin Application

Massage is a whole subject on its own - far too complex for one paragraph - but mixing oils for massage and skin application follow the same dilution process.  Essential oils need to be mixed with a carrier before applying to the skin, either a base oil, such as Grapeseed or Sweet Almond, or a naturally-based plain base lotion or cream.  Mineral oils are not used in Aromatherapy as they are not absorbed by the skin.

For skin application, add 2-3 drops (up to a maximum of 5 drops) of your chosen essential oils to each 10ml of base oil or lotion.  Apply to the skin using very gentle pressure.  In general, movements are made towards the heart, except when applying oil to the abdomen where a clockwise direction is used (following the natural movement of the digestive system), and upward and outward movements on the face.

You can make your own soothing facial oil for a fraction of the cost of a ready-made product.  Mix one drop of Rose Otto (or up to five drops of pre-diluted Rose Otto) with a teaspoon of Rosehip Seed Oil, Sweet Almond Oil or Jojoba.  Massage gently into your face and neck with upward and outward movements, avoiding the eye area.  Rose Otto is an effective oil to use in skincare.  It's beneficial for dry or sensitive skin and with regular use can soothe facial redness.  It has a rejuvenating effect on tired or ageing skin, especially when blended with regenerating Rosehip Seed Oil.

Buying and Storing Essential Oils

In order to benefit from the healing properties of the oils, it's important to buy them from a reputable supplier.  This will ensure that the oils are of good quality and have been stored correctly.  The oils must be labelled as 'Pure Essential Oil' with the botanical name of the oil, the country of origin, batch number and best-before date.

  • Store your essential oils in a cool, dark place in their original bottles with the lids tightly closed to prevent evaporation.
  • Carrier oils (known as 'fixed oils' or 'base oils') should also be kept in a cool, dark place, preferably refrigerated.  Jojoba, which is a liquid wax, may solidify if refrigerated but will become liquid again when returned to room temperature.
  • Essential oils are flammable, so keep them away from naked flames and other heat sources.
  • Avoid spilling essential oils on varnished or plastic surfaces as this could cause damage.  Some oils may also damage plastic baths.
  • Keep essential oils away from children and pets.
  • Most essential oils will keep for up to two years, although citrus oils have a shorter shelf-life of around six months once opened. 
  • Some of the more expensive oils, such as Rose Otto, Neroli and Jasmine are also available pre-blended in a 5% or 10% dilution of Jojoba making them more affordable.  If stored correctly, these can also have a shelf-life of up to two years.
  • Once essential oils are mixed with a carrier oil they are best used as soon as possible. If you wish to make up a blend to use at a later date, mix in a glass bottle, label with contents and date of preparation and store in a cool place away from direct sunlight.

Safety Precautions

  • Before using any essential oil, check it is suitable for your needs.  For example, some essential oils can inhibit the effects of homeopathic remedies or are unsuitable for anyone with high blood pressure.
  • Never use essential oils in the eyes or around the eye area.
  • If you're currently undergoing medical treatment or on medication, check with your doctor before using essential oils.
  • Essential oils should never be taken internally.
  • Always dilute essential oils before applying to the skin.  Occasionally a very small amount of Lavender or Tea Tree may be used directly on an insect bite or minor burn, but this could lead to skin irritation or sensitisation.
  • Don't apply essential oils to damaged or broken skin.
  • Avoid prolonged used of the same essential oil to avoid sensitisation, and carry out a patch test if you're uncertain about the suitability of an essential oil for your skin type.
  • Seek the advice of a qualified Aromatherapist if you plan to use essential oils during pregnancy or wish to use them on children.

If you experience severe reactions to any oil, discontinue use and seek medical advice.