Aromatherapy Essentials: Part 1

Mankind has used plants for healing since prehistoric days.  Using various methods of preparation, plants provided a way to heal illness, tend to wounds, and to make life more bearable. The ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and the Vedic civilization in India were all known to have used oils that were infused with various plants for purification, producing restful sleep, and even to accompany the dead into the afterworld.

What is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy uses the power of the scent of pure essential oils in a holistic approach to health and well-being.  Essential oils themselves can be extracted from the leaves, stems, fruits, flowers, leaves, seeds, bark, roots, and other plant parts.  These oils can be hundreds of times more powerful than the plants themselves and because of this, care must be taken in utilizing them.   and can help promote healing through the power of our sense of smell. When massaged into the skin along with a carrier oil, the properties of the plant can pass into the skin and be utilized within the body.   Every plant has hundreds or even thousands of chemical constituents contained within them.  These constituents work together to contribute to the healing properties of the plant. One thing that I have learned both as an herbalist and as a woman deeply connected to her Indigenous ancestry, I have found that all living things have a spirit, and plants are no different.  Because of this, the spirit of that plant is present within an herb or an essential oil when used for healing. Whether you are using essential oils for their psychological, physiological, or spiritual benefits, that spirit will always remain present. This will be the first in a series of articles that I hope to put here on the Alchemia Magic website to help others discern what is right for them when getting started in the wonderful world of aromatherapy and essential oils.

Getting Started in Aromatherapy

Make no mistake: Getting started can be a fairly pricey proposition. Even when buying a pure essential oil from a reputable producer,  you may end up making a substantial investment. While some of this is due to supply challenges directly resulting from the current Covid-19 pandemic, or from shortages due to political conflicts, over-harvestation,  climate change, or the all-too-common practice of outright price gouging.  I will discuss this later in this post.

The best way to get started in aromatherapy is to begin with no more than one, or up to three essential oils.  Study all that you can about each oil you choose and make a set of notes for yourself.  Hands-on experience really should include careful notetaking rather than relying on memory. When you start making your own blends or need to note the results you have gotten in your aromatherapy adventure, it’s great to have a set of notes to fall back on.

Providing that the person doesn’t have an allergy to it, I always recommend the essential oil of lavender (Lavendula angustifolia)  to start with.  Along with being extremely relaxing and its ability to ease anxiety, promote resetful sleep, and give a sense of overall contentment, lavender essential oil has other important uses as well.  It’s also excellent for repelling insects or ceasing some of the itches from insect bites,  and easing the pain of minor burns. Lavender is also one of just a handful of essential oils that can be used without a carrier oil and put directly on the skin.

Another essential oil that has a wide variety of uses in terms of healing is Tea Tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) and one that may be put directly on the skin. For some people, like myself, for example, tea tree oil needs to be cut with a carrier or it can cause my skin to peel or even blister.  Everyone is different, so always proceed carefully.

What to Look For

  • Always purchase essential oils that are in dark glass bottles.  The dark glass prevents light from getting in and extending the life of your essential oils.
  • Be sure that you are purchasing a “100% pure essential oil”.  There are many off-brand essential oil companies that dilute their oils in order to tempt you with a lower price.
  • Do your research. Don’t just take the word of a salesperson about an oil. Find out if the company they represent is reputable and how they handle issues in terms of quality and customer service. Reputable companies will be forthright and will be more than happy to send you any information you need as well as Material Data Safety Sheets, also known as MSDS or SDS sheets. This information will likely contain information about an oil’s country of origin and how to safely handle spills or other mishaps.

Safety Precautions

  • As with most any other strong type of substance, be sure to keep your essential oils out of the reach of children or pets.
  • If you are using essential oils around children, try to use half the recommended amount.
  • If you are pregnant, nursing, or taking certain medications, consulting with your physician or other healthcare professional before using or even handling essential oils is a must.
  • Do not take essential oils internally unless under the supervision of a qualified herbalist, certified aromatherapist, or other healthcare professional. If you have asthma, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, or severe skin allergies, this is especially important.
  • In the same way, be extra cautious with essential oils with pets. Consult with your veterinarian before using any essential oil on any animal.
  • Some oils, such as tea tree oil, for example, should never EVER be used on cats.

Using Essential Oils

There are a number of ways to use essential oils. The most obvious of these is through our sense of smell.  Essential oils can be enjoyed by

  • Using a diffuser  or vaporizer – one to four drops of a single essential oil or blend added to a water-filled vaporizer can effectively distribute the scent throughout a room for hours.
  • On a handkerchief or piece of cloth – As in the days of old, adding a drop or two onto a handkerchief and kept in your purse can be helpful. Today, with many of us wearing masks, a single drop of your favorite essential oil can be pleasant.
  • Inhaling directly from the bottle – Take a breath and enjoy the scent.  You can even create a bottle of smelling salts by placing coarse ground salt into a half-ounce bottle and adding 6 -10 drops of your favorite essential oil or blend.  Make sure that it has a cap so that the scent will not evaporate quickly.
  • Add them to massage oils – As I mentioned earlier, most essential oils do require a carrier oil when being used on the skin. A massage of sweet almond, jojoba, sesame, or other carrier oil infused with a few drops of essential oil can be relaxing,  relieve stress, and soothe aching muscles in a way that nothing else can.
  • Use in the bath – While your bath is being drawn, add a few drops of essential oil to the water before getting into the tub.   Depending on the oil a bath infused with essential oils can help detoxify and revive.  Some oils, like peppermint (Piperita mentha), however, may sound like a good idea on a hot, sticky day, but speaking from personal experience – contact with your intimate bits can end up being less than pleasant.  I can promise you that such a miscalculation isn’t something that you will soon forget!
  • Perfume – Some essential oils are just fantastic as perfume.  With the use of a carrier oil, you can use one or several different essential oils blended together to create your very own customized perfume. Don’t be afraid to experiment.  To test your personalized blend, take one, two, or any number of oils and put a drop of each onto a cotton ball until you get something you like.  Make careful notes and store the ball in a glass bottle or vial for future reference.

Beware of Price Gouging

There is a whole lot of information on essential oils out there today – and there is a lot of misinformation as well.

There are carefully worded marketing materials mainly coming from multi-level marketing (MLM) companies that sell products that are little more than pure propaganda.   This, according to those at the top of these organizations, are mean to justify selling essential oils at their highly elevated pricing.  Most of how they sell their oils are aimed at a consumer market with little to no experience in herbal properties, uses, or contraindications.  The words “therapeutic grade” when used in connection with any essential oil is strictly a marketing term. This is one of those times when not having good information other than marketing hype can be dangerous.

Remember: The more expensive an essential oil is, does not necessarily mean that is of a higher quality.

Years ago, I used to work for a natural products company that supplied to Whole Foods and every other natural foods grocer and natural foods cooperative throughout the  U.S. and Canada.  We had our own on-site laboratory staffed by scientists who would not only constantly test the quality of our oils but would test those of our competitors as well. In the vast majority of cases, the oils of some of these companies which claim to be “therapeutic grade” were no better, and in some cases, of lesser quality than what we produced.  If someone is charging you $50 for a half-ounce of lavender essential oil and another reputable dealer with a strong reputation for quality is selling it for half that, you may want to carefully consider which is the better value.

In the next post, I will cover the various types of carrier oils that are used in aromatherapy.