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What Is Aromatherapy? Health Benefits and Risks

Aromatherapy is the use of plant-derived essential oils to treat a variety of medical conditions. Essential oils are diluted in carrier oils – most often vegetable oils like sunflower oil or sweet almond oil – before being massaged onto the skin, added to the bath or released into the air by heating or by putting a few drops on a tissue or pillow. Hence, the essential oils enter the body either through the skin with a massage or in the bath, or through the nose when inhaling their vapors. It is believed that molecules of essential oils stimulate the brain and promote the release of certain hormones and enzymes and may even directly influence the function of many internal organs. Today, aromatherapy is used as an alternative treatment for pain, wounds, infections or stress. It is a safe treatment as long as the highly concentrated essential oils are not taken by mouth or applied directly on the skin undiluted.

Oils Used in Aromatherapy

The essential oils used in aromatherapy come from over two hundred different plants. They are found in many parts of the plant, including the veins, sacs, glands and glandular hairs of aromatic plants.

There are several ways of getting the essential oils out of plants with distillation being the most frequently used method. The quality of the oil may vary, though, depending not only on the way in which the oil was extracted from the plant but also on the conditions under which the plant was grown and how the oil has been purified and stored. Aromatherapists insist on using natural oils that have had nothing added to them (e.g., no chemicals to make essential oils last longer).

Essential oils are sold in many forms – as single oils, mixed together in blends or already mixed with carrier oils. Organic oils are also available though it is not known whether they have better therapeutic qualities than regular oils. Because most essential oils break down in sunlight, people should look for those that are stored in coloured rather than clear bottles.

Conditions Treated with Aromatherapy

Although aromatherapy can help people relax, its power to treat medical conditions has not been scientifically proven. Some opponents even argue that its demonstrated relaxing effects are merely due to the massage rather than the oil itself. Other skeptics think that aromatherapy is just a pleasant placebo. However, aromatherapists are convinced that their therapy really works for many health problems and that a certain oil treats a certain condition. For example, lavender helps the patient get to sleep, orange blossom oil has a calming effect while lime oil prevents excessive perspiration and tea tree oil helps fight skin fungus associated with excessive perspiration. Conditions commonly treated with aromatherapy include depression, anxiety, stress, skin infections, itching, psoriasis, burns, wounds and pain. In the meanwhile, there is no proof that diseases such as arthritis, diabetes or Alzheimer’s can be cured with aromatherapy.

Health Risks Associated with Aromatherapy

The use of essential oils, when applied properly, is generally safe. The oils should not be taken by mouth or put on the skin without first diluting them in a bland carrier oil, typically a vegetable or nut oil. And, even when diluted, some people may experience an allergic reaction to the oil on their skin. Aromatherapy should not be used on pregnant or breast-feeding women and young children. The oils must be stored well away from children.

Certain specific risks may be associated with some essential oils, hence, patients should speak to their doctor before using them. In addition, some experts warn that aromatherapists are at an increased risk of cancer since some oils may cause cancer if used often enough. However, there is no clinical proof of this.

How Aromatherapy Works

As the person breathes in the essential oil’s scent, their body’s sense of smell is stimulated. In response, the brain releases certain chemicals which can affect the person’s mood. But, if the oil is massaged onto the skin, it will be absorbed into the bloodstream. Thus, it will be able to reach internal organs and potentially affect their function.

For the oils to enter through the skin the patient should:

  • Gently massage the essential oils which have been mixed with a carrier oil onto the skin. The role of the carrier oil is to help spread the essential oil over the skin.
  • Add six to eight drops to a bath and sit in it for at least ten minutes.

For the oils to enter through the nose the patient should:

  • Put a few drops on a paper tissue, piece of cloth or pillow and take three deep breaths.
  • Add essential oils to a hot bath, a basin of hot water, or heat a few drops in a saucer of water or oil burner. Warm, moist air will carry some of the essential oil into the air so that it can be inhaled.

Unless already mixed with carrier oils, just a few drops of essential oils should be used (the label on the bottle usually gives advice depending on how the oil is being used) whether they are added to a bath, a saucer of water, a tissue or to carrier oil. On the skin, aromatherapists normally use an oil blend of which only 1-3% is the essential oil. However, essential oils that are mixed with carrier oils can be applied in much greater quantity.

Essential oils should be kept in a cool dark place to prevent them from breaking down. It is also necessary to replace the cap after use because all essential oils are volatile and will gradually evaporate.

Patients may want to see an aromatherapist for treatment and advice that is tailored to their individual needs. Although aromatherapists are not regulated in the way that physicians are, many of them work alongside doctors. Therefore, their advice may also include necessary dietary and lifestyle changes. In addition, only aromatherapists may provide treatment that involves the oral use of essential oils.

Where to Find More Information: National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy