What Is Aromatherapy? Benefits, Myths, How To

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Essential oil diffusers are all over the ‘gram, but what exactly is aromatherapy and why are people so excited about it?

Simply put, aromatherapy is the practice of using concentrated plant essential oils as a treatment for various health issues.

The science is still emerging on aromatherapy’s medical benefits, but people have used it for millennia for medicinal and religious purposes — although the actual term wasn’t coined until the early 1900s by Rene Maurice Gattefosse, a French chemist who used lavender oil to treat burns on his hands. Ooh, la la!

While essential oils have been touted for use in everything from stress-busting to physical healing, confusion still prevails about what aromatherapy really is and how it can actually help. Want to know more? Join us as we scent out the facts.

While research suggests there are health benefits, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t monitor or regulate the purity or quality of essential oils. It’s important to talk with a healthcare professional before you begin using essential oils and be sure to research the quality of a brand’s products. Always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.

Aromatherapy harnesses the power of Mother Nature, using highly concentrated natural extracts from all kinds of plants. As you might imagine, it takes more than just a couple of flowers to create a bottle of essential oil: In fact, creating a single pound of lavender essential oil (about 500 milliliters) requires 250 pounds of lavender flowers. Wowzers.

But enough about math. Aromatherapy is perhaps best known for its relaxation and mood-boosting powers, and according to experts, its effects are primarily experienced when we breathe in the scents of essential oils. It’s thought their molecules stimulate an area of the brain called the limbic system, which influences everything from our emotions and hormones to blood pressure and breathing patterns.

There are several ways you can get your nose involved.

“A simple way to engage in aromatherapy is by opening a bottle of essential oil and breathing in deeply for a few seconds,” shares Tara Gangadharan, certified aromatherapist and founder of self-care brand Thara Sacra.

You could also use a diffuser to disperse a scent into a larger space, “such as an ultrasonic diffuser,” says Jade Shutes, founder of the School of Aromatic Studies. “These are typically used for approximately 15 minutes, every 2 to 3 hours.”

Whatever your approach of choice, ensure your surrounding space is well ventilated and that you diffuse for shorter periods of time. Less is more!

You can also apply oils to the skin, and many masseurs include them in their routines. However, always make sure the essential oil is properly diluted in a “carrier” such as oils like coconut or argan, or body creams and lotions. It’s also a good idea to conduct a skin patch test to check you don’t have a reaction.

But, no matter how much you might be tempted to take a sip, DO NOT ingest essential oils as they’re highly concentrated and can be toxic. Also, keep ’em away from pets as they can cause serious harm to your furbabes!

We’ve already touched on how essential oils can help us unwind, and research supports their use in relieving levels of stress and anxiety — potentially by up to 30 percent. “For me, the biggest benefit is how aroma can support managing stress,” concurs Gangadharan. And, seeing as stress and sleep are annoyingly common bedfellows, it’s little surprise that aromatherapy has also been associated with improved snoozing.

But it doesn’t end there. Studies have also linked essential oils and aromatherapy to pain relief, reduced nausea and headaches, and busting fatigue. Finally, if you want to improve your performance in the bedroom or at work (ideally not at the same time), aromatherapy has the potential to help there, too.

“If using genuine and authentic essential oils, side effects are incredibly uncommon,” reveals Shutes. However, as with all things in life, using essential oils isn’t completely risk-free — and “most negative effects come from either inappropriate internal use or inappropriate application of essential oils undiluted onto the skin,” she continues.

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy also has an extensive list of safety guidelines, but the following are a few key pointers.

Improper dilution is one of the biggest risks, and can lead to skin rashes, irritation, and soreness — and oils should not be applied to skin that is already broken or irritated. There’s also a risk of experiencing burns if you’re venturing outdoors or into UV light after topical application, as some essential oils (especially citrus oils) can cause skin photosensitivity.

The use of essential oils during pregnancy is also highly debated, thus it’s recommended that they’re avoided during this time. Some oils can also exacerbate or trigger conditions (such as epilepsy) and interfere with medications (including some antidepressants), so it’s important to speak with your doctor before trying aromatherapy if you have an existing condition or treatment plan.

Finally, research also suggests aromatherapy can be harmful to children and pets, so keep oils out of their reach and make sure you don’t diffuse when they’re around.

While research has been conducted into the role of aromatherapy on different aspects of our health, insights still remain relatively low and further investigation is needed. Some people claim their use can help prevent and cure conditions such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and Covid-19 — but there’s no scientific evidence to support this.

Furthermore, the FDA recognizes essential oils as a cosmetic product rather than a drug, and regularly sends warnings to companies who market their products as medicinal.

In addition to easing stress, research suggests this practice may be beneficial in assisting with:

Each oil is believed to have its own properties and effects, meaning some are more typically used for specific purposes. Need a pep in your step? “Citruses tend to be great for uplifting and easing anxiety and giving you a zest for life,” says Gangadharan.

Meanwhile, if you need a focus aid during the mid-afternoon slump, “rosemary and peppermint tend to be great for improving mental function when we are fatigued because the strong aroma wakes your senses up and clears the mind,” she adds.

People have relied for years on lavender as a scent for relaxation, but if you’re feeling a bit emotional, “wood aromas, like cedarwood and cypress, have a strong grounding and stabilizing energy,” Gangadharan shares.

Don’t worry if you find a particular scent isn’t having the intended effect, she assures. “It’s important to remember we all experience aroma differently, so play around and find what works for you.”

Another thing to note? When it comes to choosing an oil, it’s not all about scent. “One of the most important aspects of aromatherapy is the quality of essential oil the person uses,” reveals Shutes.

We’re all about using the best, especially when it comes to our bodies — but exactly how can you separate the good from the ugly? “Important information someone should look for in purchasing an essential oil include: The common name (Lavender), the scientific name (Lavandula angustifolia), and the part of the plant used to extract the essential oils (e.g., leaves, flowers, seeds, roots, etc.),” Shutes says — as, depending on the plant, some areas are better to obtain oil from.

And it doesn’t end there. Also look for “the words ‘genuine and authentic’ or ‘100% plant derived’, and the country of origin,” she continues. “Another important aspect is that the company itself is devoted to the aromatherapy field and is not a fragrance company.”

Want to learn more about how to shop for quality essential oils? We wrote all about it.

Particularly for essential oil newbies, it can be a good idea to visit a qualified aromatherapist to find out which scents are best suited to your needs and learn how to use them properly. (Plus, imagine how amazing their office will smell.)

“With the increase in essential oil use, there’s a lot of misinformation out there — so I always recommend consulting your doctor, a professional aromatherapist, and professional aromatherapy organizations before use,” concurs Gangadharan.

People have enjoyed aromatherapy for millennia, and modern scientific studies suggest essential oils have the potential to support a number of health and well-being concerns. However, more research into the area is required, and there are also many unsubstantiated claims surrounding the practice.

Scents ranging from vibrant lemony zests to comforting earthy tones are all at hand to potentially help make us feel more relaxed, buoyant, and focused. As tempting as it can be to dive straight in, the potential side effects of many oils aren’t ones to mess around with — so make sure you’re clued up first.

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