Aromatherapy is a holistic healing treatment involving natural plant extracts — such as lavender, rosemary, and citronella — to promote health and wellbeing. Also known as essential oil therapy, the practice is thought of as both an art and a science, combining different methods of relaxation and healing backed by scientifically-proven benefits.
Aromatherapy has been around for millennia, dating back to 3500 BC where aromatics were used for religious purposes, medicine, and perfume by ancient civilisations including the Chinese, Greeks, Egyptians, Indians and Romans. The actual name ‘aromatherapy’ was invented by French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse after he treated a burn using lavender oil in 1910. Modern-day applications include the introduction of natural oils to skincare products, while massage therapists commonly use these oils in their practices too. Here we look deeper into aromatherapy to explore how it works and its benefits.
What does aromatherapy involve?
Aromatherapy works by inhaling natural oils using diffusers and aromatic spritzers, or absorbing them through the skin through products such as bath salts, body oils and creams, and facial steamers. These can be used alone or in combination.
Inhalation is the fastest route into the body and this can be achieved using a diffuser or spray, or in a steam bath. The airborne molecules interact with the olfactory organs — the system serving the sense of smell — and travels directly to the brain, impacting the limbic system which deals with memories, emotions and stimuli. The essential oils also affect the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, which release hormones into the body when stimulated. For example, lavender oil has a relaxing effect because it interacts with the body to help decrease blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature.
Topical products also work effectively as the skin is permeable and can absorb the chemicals in the essential oils. Although they aren’t absorbed as quickly as inhalation, these can also have cosmetic benefits. The rate of absorption can be increased by applying the product to areas with greater concentrations of sweat glands and hair follicles, like the head, soles of your feet, palms, and armpits, as this is where blood vessels are closest to the skin’s surface.
What are the benefits of aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy has a multitude of uses and can help manage pain, improve sleep quality, reduce stress, soothe joints, and treat headaches and migraines. However, this depends on the oil as each one has different properties and effects. For example, tea tree can fight infection and boost immunity, jasmine may help with depression, childbirth and low libido, while peppermint has been found to increase energy and aid digestion.
Does aromatherapy work?
Studies have shown that aromatherapy can be effective in treating pain for a variety of medical conditions, particularly postoperative pain, gynaecological pain in areas like the uterus and cervix, and discomfort associated with childbirth. However, it’s important to note that aromatherapy is intended as a complementary therapy — not a replacement for conventional treatments. For instance, cancer patients have been known to use ginger essential oil to ease nausea during chemotherapy, while someone who can’t sleep might try lavender oil (which has been shown to decrease anxiety and increase mood) to supplement cognitive behavioural therapy.
How to get started in aromatherapy
These benefits are certainly appealing, but where do you start? As mentioned above, you can use essential oils at home. Place a diffuser in your living room to slowly fill the space with gorgeous scents, or use a spray bottle for a more concentrated dose. You could spritz your pillows for a soothing night’s sleep, for example.
These essential oils can be purchased online or from stores, however, you must make sure they are safe to use. Sellers must adhere to EU regulations regarding the safety and effectiveness of cosmetic products, and ensure it meets packaging and labelling requirements. A quality natural oil will come in a tightly sealed dark glass bottle that details that it is a 100% pure essential oil.
You could consider visiting an aromatherapist to enjoy the full benefits of natural oils. A specialist can help you identify the results you’re looking for and create a personalised treatment plan tailored to your needs. However, before booking a consultation, ensure the practitioner has insurance. This lets you know they are qualified to do their job, and will following correct procedures to provide the best service possible. Check out our aromatherapy insurance page to find out more about why this matters.