By any other name…

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Aromatherapy generously brings the elements of beauty and creativity to the table along with its other healing qualities. It can be used by the average person to support well-being and treat self limiting conditions as well as by a practitioner for more serious situations. The essential oils can be approached through their specific chemistries or the more elusive interface of fragrance and our individual responses to it. By its very nature, Aromatherapy is both an art and a science.

Aromatic medicine or the use of plants with an aromatic component has been a part of physical and spiritual healing traditions for thousands of years. The rose is found in both the Muslim and Christian traditions. Indian sandalwood is a vital accessory in Hindu rituals. In Native American traditions sage is burned to purify the energy of the home, hearth and body as well as creating sacred space within which to do ritual.

Philosophies if Aromatherapy
• Medical Aromatherapy – uses oils and for their pharmacological effects in the same fashion as biomedicine. This modality is predominantly practiced by medical doctors and is most common in France.

• Holistic Aromatherapy – is characterized by using low doses of a blend of essential oils while focusing on the mind body connection. The treatment is reinforced by the person’s ability to use the same oils at home and is commonly used in England.

• Aesthetic Aromatherapy – is the practice of utilizing essential oils in cosmetic products and spa treatments. Often the stated reason for the oils usage is based on the scent alone or vague descriptions such as “promotes well being”. This is the most common practice in the United States.

• Clinical Aromatherapy – is integrated into the biomedical environment. Cancer care, hospice, elder care and psychiatry are a few of the areas in which it is being used with promotion of well being as a major area of focus.

What are essential oils?
The aromatic compounds in a plant usually function as either a defense system to deter predators, or as an attractant to lure pollinators. Essential oils are not just something that smells pretty, but rather a complex chemistry designed by nature to protect and propagate a species. Our culture today has a plethora of synthetic scents that do not promote health, and may indeed cause harm.

It is crucial to use whole and authentic essential oils. Whole is defined as using the entirety of the plant and nothing else. Authentic in this context means that only one species of plant was processed. The aromatic components of plants or essential oils are usually extracted through a steam distillation process. Citrus fruit oils are cold pressed and delicate florals like rose require methods such as solvent extraction or supercritical extraction.

How do I get good quality essential oils?
One of the biggest challenges with Aromatherapy as a modality is obtaining high quality therapeutic grade oils. Oils can be standardized through adding more of the perceived active ingredient. Menthol is commonly added to peppermint oil to make it seem mintier. Oils can also be adulterated in a number of ways including the addition of a chemically similar plant.

Finding top quality essential oils can be problematic. A price can be too good to be true. The best way to choose essential oils is to know the manufacturer. The company should have a direct relationship with the grower of the plants. The Latin name of the plant and the country of origin should be on the label.

Play safely
As oils are very potent, a little bit goes a long way. The three main topics of concern are photosensitivity; skin irritation; and the potential toxicity of oils high in ketones or phenols (Schnaubelt, 1998). Citrus oils, specifically Bergamot have been shown to increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun. The simplest method of dealing with this is to avoid using citrus oils topically before sun exposure. The issue of skin irritation can be handled by diluting the essential oil in a carrier oil and doing a small patch test before applying over the entire body. It is also helpful to use a variety of essential oils as sensitivities may build up with continuous usage of single oil. If photosensitivity and skin irritation are still problematic, it is possible to diffuse the oils into the air and avoid both issues entirely.

The oils that are high in ketones and phenols: rue, santolina, thuja and savory are not commonly available in stores and can be easily avoided. The majority of aromatherapy texts on the market has sections with safety information and supports the wise in home use of essential oils. As with most modalities, the use with pregnant women and very young children is best left to the professional.

How do I choose?
Read about the oils and their actions, and then let your nose be your guide. Combine them with a perfumer’s framework of top, middle and bottom notes or explore which combinations resonate for you. Room sprays, massage blends or bath salts – the oils are an aromatic palate, that can be used for their performance and your pleasure. Enjoy!!!

Schnaubelt, K., (1998). Advanced Aromatherapy: The Science of Essential Oil Therapy. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press

by – Cathy Kaufmann