Sunrose Aromatics is a company in Belmont, Maine, that sells more than 300 different types of essential oils, as well as mixtures of essential oils called holistic synergies. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN

It was Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, who said “the key to good health rests on having a daily aromatic bath and scented massage.”

Doesn’t that sound lovely? But it’s not as simple as that.

Viewpoints on supposed benefits of aromatherapy and essential oil use are mixed.

Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society, wrote in the Montreal Gazette in August 2019, “There’s no question that a massage with an essential oil or soaking in a scented bath may have a pleasant, relaxing effect, but it is not going to ‘align your DNA,’ ‘repair your energy field’ or ‘keep your nerves in balance.’”

Meanwhile, devoted aromatherapy practitioners credit it for a number of experiential benefits and leading them to more holistic lives.

If you’re interested in aromatherapy, here’s what you should know before getting started with it.

What is aromatherapy?

According to the Alliance of International Aromatherapists, “aromatherapy refers to the inhalation and topical use of true, authentic essential oils from aromatic plants to restore or enhance health, beauty and wellbeing.” Aromatherapists also use hydrosols, another byproduct of distillation, but they generally use essential oils in practice.

Aromatherapy dates back as early as ancient Egypt as balms, resins and oils were used by priests and doctors for religious ceremonies and embalming. Oils were also being used in China and India during the same period.

Essential oils are made from distilled plant materials such as roots, leaves and flowers. The oils are volatile and will evaporate and dissipate in the air, making it easy for users to smell them almost immediately.

Essential oils users turn to oils to seek relief from muscle aches and pains, to improve circulation, ease sinus congestion and more. They also use them to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression and poor sleep.

Nancy Lubin — an aromatherapist at Camden Whole Health and the state’s first Certified Professional Life Coach — works with clients to create a blend of essential oils to help with comfort and relief in their life.

As part of Lubin’s practice, she will go through a client’s medical and personal history, such as their desired outcome and their preferences in terms of aroma, when making a blend for a client. She will also make sure they are at least doing the baseline of healthy living such as staying hydrated, eating, sleeping and exercising well. Then she will make a blend based on what the client is looking for and their scent preferences.

“[Essential oils are] a wonderful adjunct to a healthy life,” Lubin said.

But that doesn’t mean using essential oils is an end all be all for healthy living and one can just jump in and easily become an expert.

“The idea that essential oils will cure everything is a myth,” Lubin said. “Nothing cures everything and nothing is good for everything.”

That is why using essential oils is more than picking a bottle off the shelf and popping it into a diffuser at home. There is a science to it and it requires a lot of education and care.

How to use them

Two common ways to use essential oils are topically and through inhalation. For inhalation, there are several ways to use the oils, including by diffuser, inhaler or spray. Diffusers — ultrasonic and nebulizing (using water and air pressure respectively) — basically change the oil into a mist that will carry the scent throughout a room. With sprays, on the other hand, a few drops of essential oil are put into a water-based solution. Then it can be sprayed around the room.

Essential oil users can also use the oils through massage, compression or in a bath to help the skin absorb it. With compression, users can add the oil, along with a carrier liquid to dilute the oil, and apply it directly to the area. Peppermint, for example, can be applied to those who have a burn.

Baths can allow essential oil users to use the oil both through inhalation and topically. But since oils are not soluble in water, the oil will float to the top and the full, undiluted oil will go through the skin. The University of Minnesota recommends that bath salts can work to disperse essential oils or use baking soda, epsom salts and sea salts to help.

However, the inhalation methods can cause a risk for oversaturation and practitioners can use too much, which is more of a waste of resources than anything, and creates more ecological and conservation problems.

“Here we are using these natural things,” said Lubin. “If we are using them improperly, it is not helping Mother Nature in any way.”

Also, don’t overuse oils, as doing so may cause users to desensitize from perceived effects. It’s good to mix up the blend so that you can continue to experience the benefits.

To prevent oversaturation with the sprays and diffusers, use a spray for perhaps 15 minutes before bed if you’re using it for sleep or put a diffuser on an intermittent setting so that you are not constantly using the oils. If users use the scent too much, they can become desensitized to it and it may become less effective.

One key point when applying oils to the skin, even though it is okay to use, is to dilute the oil with a carrier oil such as olive oil or coconut oil to avoid skin irritation. Application of the oil undiluted may cause irritation such as itching, burning or a rash.

What to watch out for

Because of the chemical makeup of the oils, it is important to get adequate information about essential oil use from a source such as an online class, trained aromatherapist or book.

Users should also keep in mind that they should order their oils from a reputable source as it is difficult to know whether an oil is contaminated or synthetic.

Because essential oils are highly concentrated, it is crucial to dilute the oils before using them. Oils are generally diluted for all uses except inhalers or ultrasonic diffusers. Lubin suggests using olive oil or almond oil — two regular household items — for dilution due to the fat content. Water won’t work, she said, as the oil particles will just rise to the surface and the concentration will remain the same.

The National Association of Holistic Therapy and Lubin’s website, intention.com, offers resources such as dilution charts so users can see the proper methods and amounts to help with dilution.

It is also highly recommended that essential oils are not ingested due to the high concentration.

“[The] bottom line is that you shouldn’t eat it and you shouldn’t be putting it in your water. You shouldn’t be putting them in your mouth… you shouldn’t be swallowing them,” said Lubin. “Don’t drink essential oils in any form. Because they are highly concentrated and that’s why you need to dilute them.”

However, ingestion of essential oils is a highly debated topic. Others, like pharmacist Lindsey Elmore, author of “Essentials: 75 Answers to Common Questions About Essential Oils and Supplements,” insist that they are safe when properly used. She wrote on her blog that ingesting oils is safe if they’re high quality, properly used and not taken in more than the suggested amount.

Essential oils can also be cold-pressed from citrus. Because of this, the oil can photosynthesize and interact with the sun, increasing the potential for burns on the skin if not used properly.

In 2017, a woman’s Facebook post went viral because she used doTERRA essential oils as part of a yoga class, not realizing the warning on the label saying to stay out of UV rays for 12 hours afterwards. Instead, she went to a tanning bed and suffered from second and third degree burns.

But, “distilled” citrus oils are also available and often chosen for blends that might be used where sun exposure is an issue.

It is always recommended to look at labels and to talk to a trained aromatherapist, especially if you are on any medication. Some common warnings for essential oils use are keeping them out of reach of children (caution with ages 12 and under; none for ages 2 and under) and pets, avoid photosensitizing oils, avoid prolonged use, avoid using undiluted oils, avoid the eyes and avoid flames or fire hazards.

What oils to get

Some of the most commonly used essential oils and their perceived effects, according to the National Association of Holistic Therapy, are:

Eucalyptus: Helps with decongestion and acts as an expectorant.

Ginger: Helps with digestion, nausea and works as an anti-inflammatory agent

Lavender: Can induce calming effects and helps reduces anxiety.

Lemon: Works as an antioxidant and is immune enhancing.

Peppermint: Relieves nausea and relieves and reduces migraines.

Rosemary: Acts as an expectorant, helps with sinus congestion and helps clear the mind.

Rose: Helps relieve stress and anxiety and aids with symptoms of premenstrual syndrome.

Resources

There are plenty of resources for more information online and in print. Some of the top ones include:

  • National Association for Holistic Therapy: naha.org
  • Alliance of International Aromatherapists: alliance-aromatherapists.org
  • American Botanical Council: cms.herbalgram.org
  • AromaWeb: aromaweb.com