Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+ Join today!.
Stimulate your senses with the age-old art of aromatherapy.
When cold and flu season hits, Kevin Skiest doesn’t head for the medicine cabinet. “During the winter, I spray eucalyptus oil around the bedroom and sometimes put a few drops on my pillow,” explains the father of two from West Haven, Conn. “It seems to open up my sinuses so I can get a good night’s sleep.” He also swears by ginger oil as a congestion solution. “You just hold your head over a steaming pot of water with a few drops of ginger added. It really clears your head.”
Skiest is one of the million or so Americans who have embraced aromatherapy, the use of distilled plant extracts to enhance relaxation and other moods and treat common ailments. The highly concentrated essential oils are derived from familiar plants, such as peppermint, rosemary, lemon and rose, as well as less commonly known species like neroli (orange blossom), bergamot, marjoram and clary sage. Each has its own powerful fragrance and, some practitioners say, a unique language that speaks to our senses.
“Just as music and art are soothing and beneficial, so are scents,” Skiest says. As we become more adept at harnessing the hidden properties of these botanics, some experts argue that problems like insomnia, stress, headaches and even the common cold may be just a whiff away from extinction. But even if the therapy can’t eliminate ailments altogether, many believe it can at least make the healing process faster, easier and far more pleasant to live through.
Despite their New Age reputation, aromatics have been used in health care since ancient times. The Egyptians and Babylonians used incense in religious ceremonies to drive away evil sprits and illnesses. Throughout Asia, people burned fragrant woods and spices to purify homes, heal the sick and strengthen soldiers before battle.
The ancient Greeks and Romans further believed that scented water and incense could boost health and prosperity. The Greek physician Hippocrates—widely considered to be the father of modern medicine—was one of the earliest health professionals to recognize the power of the olfactory nerves in fighting sickness. “One of his beliefs was that a daily aromatic bath and a scented massage were the way to health, very much a principle of today’s aromatherapy,” writes Danielle Ryman in her book, Aromatherapy (Bantam, 1993). “He was aware of the antibacterial properties of certain plants.”
But many practitioners argue that what we now call aromatherapy technically began in 1920, when French chemist R.M. Gattefossé badly burned his hand while working in the laboratory. He quickly plunged his hand into the nearest liquid he could find, which happened to be a container of lavender essential oil. Gattefossé was surprised to discover that within days the pain had vanished and no scars had formed. He coined the term “aromatherapy” and devoted the remainder of his career to exploring the healing properties of essential oils.
Eighty years later, that discovery has snowballed into a $520 million retail industry, which provides the public with scented candles, potpourri and other nose-friendly products, some of which carry an aromatherapy label. But buyer beware, warns Jade Shutes, president of the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy (NAHA) in Seattle, Wash. “There is a clear difference between true aromatherapy and mass-market scented products,” Shutes says. “We do use aromatic extracts for medicinal purposes. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of misconceptions about what aromatherapy is.” Unlike man-made products intended only to provide a pleasant odor and ambiance, genuine aromatherapy oils are derived from natural botanical sources and are designed to improve health, treat ailments and improve quality of life.
Aromatherapy has two primary health benefits, Shutes explains. On the psychological side, essential oils from plants have been shown to have tremendous soothing and stress-relieving capabilities. They also enhance physiological health by boosting the immune system’s ability to heal wounds, fight colds and coughs and relieve the achiness of muscles, stomach and head.
“Our bodies are meant to heal themselves,” says Sylla Sheppard-Hanger, founder and director of the Atlantic Institute of Aromatherapy in Tampa, Fla. “Essential oils can help by enhancing and encouraging the healing process. While they don’t directly stimulate the immune system, they do fight off infections, kill germs and thin out mucus.” All essential oils have antiseptic properties and some, such as garlic and eucalyptus, are antiviral as well.
How you administer the oils depends on the nature of the problem, Sheppard-Hanger says. Typically, people suffering from respiratory ailments, such as clogged sinuses or bronchial infections, benefit most by inhaling certain oils or diffusing them into the air. For inhalation, add six to 12 drops to a pot of steaming water, then lean over the pot, cover your head with a towel and take several deep breaths. To diffuse oil into the air, mix about 10 drops in seven tablespoons of water and add the mixture to a spray bottle. Then you can spritz the mixture around the room to set a specific mood, such as in the bedroom to relax you before sleep. Just keep in mind that aromatherapy sprays are short-lived, since the fragrance dissipates relatively quickly into the air. Popular oils for respiratory problems include eucalyptus, cedarwood, basil, frankincense, lavender and sandalwood.
For people with a topical inflammation, such as a burn, rash or bee sting, several drops of essential oil can be applied directly to the skin after the oil has been blended with a “carrier,” or less concentrated oil—typically light vegetable or nut oils like jojoba, almond and sesame. Because the essential oils used in aromatherapy are highly concentrated, they can irritate the skin if applied directly without blending. Several drops of lavender, geranium, chamomile, benzoin or tea tree mixed with three tablespoons of a carrier should do the trick.
Hot and cold compresses can be used to soothe muscle aches, bruises and headaches. To make a compress, add five to 10 drops of oil to about four ounces of water, then soak a small washcloth in the mixture and apply to the sore area. Basil, ginger, grapefruit, marjoram and fennel are just some of the more popular choices for this treatment.
But you don’t have to wait for an illness or injury to use the therapy, Sheppard-Hanger says. “The number one benefit of aromatherapy is relaxation, which counters our number one problem: stress,” she explains, suggesting that you can soak your worries away in a bath mixed with a few drops of rose, jasmine or lavender. Or you can create a soothing massage oil by blending your favorite essence with a carrier. With any luck, your thoughts of traffic jams, parent-teacher conferences or looming deadlines will dissipate into the air along with the fleeting fragrance.
A Fragrant Future
Aromatherapy oils are available in most natural food stores and via mail order. Many enthusiasts also purchase them online, where business is booming. Paula Dzikowski, a licensed massage therapist and owner of an online company called Precious Aromatherapy, urges buyers to shop around and familiarize themselves with the types of oils available—and their average prices—before making a purchase.
Though the price should remain fairly consistent from one retailer to another, costs vary greatly among the oils themselves. Extracts range from the very inexpensive, such as lemon (around $5 for 10 milliliters), to the most extravagant, like jasmine (around $50 for one milliliter). In general, floral fragrances are the most expensive, Dzikowski explains, “because the essence molecules of flowers are so tiny that it takes much more botanic material to create even a small amount.”
With time, most aromatherapy users come to identify which scents they like best and which oils attack their ailments most vigorously. Many extracts are known for particular healing abilities—such as clary sage’s reputation for easing the pain of premenstrual symptoms—but each person’s reaction to each oil will nevertheless vary. “It’s hard to validate scientifically,” Dzikowski says. “You’re studying the relationship of energy patterns in the body, and different scents will affect people in different ways. For example, I have a hard time with peppermint, but others find it very stimulating.”
“People who try aromatherapy are usually surprised at its subtle but powerful healing abilities, says NAHA’s Shutes. She herself discovered the therapy by accident: After graduating from college, she developed severe back pain while traveling in Europe. “Someone suggested I visit an aromatherapist, and after I did, the pain just disappeared,” Shutes explains. “From that moment on, I knew that was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.”
Though aromatherapy remains a largely untested discipline, anecdotal evidence throughout the centuries does seem to validate the antiseptic, antifungal and antibacterial properties of plant essential oils, in addition to their mysterious abilities to erase tension and stress—the “evil spirits” of modern life. “I see it as an art form,” Dzikowski says. “If nothing else, aromatherapy helps enhance our appreciation for what’s around us. Some people use it to ‘fix’ things, to heal problems. But in the end, what it really brings you is pleasure.” And that, after all, is nothing to turn up your nose at.