What are the benefits of aromatherapy and does it really work?
Karen Young explains how you can support your physical and emotional wellbeing with the therapeutic use of plant essential oils. Additional reporting by Sarah Orme and Sarah Gane
Throughout history, herbs and plant extracts have been used by different cultures for cooking and preserving food, to mark important rituals and religious events, and as key ingredients in cosmetics, medicine and perfume. The ancient Egyptians made incense from wood, herbs and spices to honour their gods, aid health, and as perfume for the body and clothing, while ancient texts from both China and Greece catalogue the different properties and medicinal uses of hundreds of plants. The word ‘aromatherapy’ was coined in the early 1900s, by René-Maurice Gattefossé, a French perfume chemist.
Following a laboratory explosion, Gattefossé applied lavender extract to his hands and noted that it stopped the rapid spread of gas gangrene, potentially saving his life. Further advances in the field were later made by Dr Jean Valnet, a doctor who used essential oils to aid wound healing in the Second World War, and an Austrian biochemist, Marguerite Maury, and her protégés.
But it wasn’t until 1977 that the first book on aromatherapy was written in English by Robert Tisserand, who many consider a modern-day pioneer of aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is now practised widely throughout the world, to help promote health and wellbeing. With guidance from a suitably qualified professional (find an aromatherapist near you at fht.org.uk), it can also be used as a part of our self-care routines.
What is aromatherapy and how does it work?
Aromatherapy is the therapeutic use of plant-based essential oils. These are pure ‘essences’ extracted from flowers, berries, grasses, roots, seeds, bark and herbs, holding the plant’s aroma.
Each essential oil has a unique chemical composition, containing tiny but powerful molecules that can have a stimulating, balancing or relaxing effect on the body and mind. These molecules are absorbed into the bloodstream through the lungs, when inhaled, or the skin, if applied as part of a massage blend or other product.
Once in the bloodstream, the molecules can interact with cells and other molecules. If inhaled, they can also stimulate areas of the brain that are linked to emotion, memory and learning, as well as affecting heart rate, breathing and stress. When applied as part of a massage or compress, this can have the added benefit of improving circulation and relieving muscular tension.
What are the benefits of aromatherapy?
Essential oils are used in maternity units, nursing homes, hospital wards and hospices throughout the UK, to help support people with a wide range of symptoms and conditions. However, they are also extremely useful for tackling ‘everyday’ challenges that many of us face, helping to prevent these from escalating into more serious health problems. Depending on their properties, different essential oils can be used to reduce anxiety and stress, promote relaxation and sleep, or give our energy levels and immune systems a little boost, to name just a few. It all comes down to knowing the properties of each oil and which ones are best suited to our needs.
Has there been any research into the benefits of aromatherapy?
While plant essential oils are used in many over-the-counter remedies and skincare products, research into their health benefits is not as readily available as it is for more conventional medical treatments. However, there are a growing number of studies and clinical trials that suggest different essential oils can help to improve sleep and mood, reduce stress and anxiety, aid wound healing, and reduce the perception of pain in various population groups, including those with acute or long-term conditions.
What are benefits of visiting an aromatherapist?
While essential oils are completely natural, it is important to remember that they are also volatile products that can seriously affect your health if used or applied inappropriately. Aromatherapist and vice president of the Federation of Holistic Therapists (FHT), Mary Dalgleish, explains that, “Certain essential oils can damage the skin if they’re applied just before going in the sun, while others should be avoided during pregnancy or when taking certain medication. This is why it’s so important to see an appropriately trained, professional therapist – whether it’s for an aromatherapy treatment or advice on using essential oils safely at home”.
What’s involved in an aromatherapy session?
“Before your treatment begins, your therapist will carry out a full consultation, asking questions about your medical history, general health, diet and lifestyle,” says Mary. “This will help them to select a small number of oils to suit you and your needs. These will then be added to a carrier oil or cream and applied throughout the course of the massage. The areas treated will come down to your personal preference, but would typically be a full body massage, or a neck, back and shoulder massage, with towels used to protect your modesty and keep you warm. “At the end of the treatment, your therapist may recommend that you use certain essential oils at home – for instance, in the bath or a diffuser – to enhance the benefits gained from your massage.”
How to use essential oils safely
“If buying essential oils, only buy high-quality essential oils – ideally organic – from a reputable supplier, to ensure that these are 100 percent pure and unadulterated,” says Mary.
“Synthetic versions will not have the same properties and could even be harmful. Only buy in small quantities, in dark glass bottles with a dropper at the top, and store in a cool place. Ensure you dispose of the oil safely, in line with the manufacturer’s guidelines. Never ingest (swallow) essential oils.”
Aromatherapy and essential oils should only be used alongside standard medical care and not as an alternative. Consult your GP or other health professional for medical attention and advice.
How to use essential oils at home
Following advice from a qualified aromatherapist, there are a number of ways oils can be used at home including:
- Simple inhalation – One to two drops of essential oil can be added to a tissue or pillowcase and gently inhaled when required. It is also possible to buy jewellery and aroma-sticks that can hold drops of oil for inhalation.
- Steam inhalation – To help clear the head and sinuses, add three to five drops of an essential oil such as eucalyptus (which is a key ingredient in Olbas oil) to a bowl of hot water and inhale for up to 10 minutes. Placing a towel over the head and bowl is helpful, but keep your eyes closed to reduce the chance of irritation.
- Diffusers – There are now an array of different ways to diffuse oils into the home, from traditional burners and aromatherapy reeds, to ultrasonic diffusers and atomizers. The amount of essential oil added will depend on the diffuser – always follow the manufacturer’s recommendations.
- In the bath – Essential oils are not water soluble, so will create a film on the surface if added directly to bath water. Add 5 to 20 drops to Solubol or Castile soap, which you can buy online. Both of these products help to disperse oils, but ensure you follow the instructions.
- Skin products – While essential oils should never be used neat on the skin, they can be added to a plain skin cream or carrier oil, such as almond, coconut or jojoba. It is always best to consult an aromatherapist about the type of essential oils and number of drops to use, as this can vary according to a number of factors, including the amount of product being made up, and where it is being applied.
- Cleaning products – essential oils are a common feature in many household cleaning products.
Five of our favourite essential oils
- Bergamot – A member of the citrus family, bergamot oil can be both calming and uplifting, making it ideal for stress, anxiety or depression. It’s also useful for urinary tract infections, such as cystitis.
- Chamomile – There are two types commonly used in aromatherapy – German and Roman. The German variety contains a compound known as chamazulene, which has a powerful anti-inflammatory action, and is particularly useful for aches and pains.
- Eucalyptus – A stimulating oil and powerful decongestant, eucalyptus can help to relieve catarrh and blocked sinuses.
- Lavender – This oil has a calming, balancing effect on the mind, and is particularly good for anxiety, headaches and sleep problems. In aromatherapy blends, it can also help to soothe aching muscles and joints.
- Rosemary – Considered one of the most stimulating essential oils, rosemary is perhaps best known for its ability to boost memory and concentration, making an ideal study aid. Like eucalyptus, it is also a useful decongestant.
How aromatherapy can help you to cope with grief and loss
Comforting fragrances can help us to recall positive memories and help us through difficult times. While particular scents are known for their benefits in difficult situations, it’s important to seek the advice of a professional to ensure it’s tailored for you. Sarah Gane spoke to an aromatherapist to find out how we can use fragrance to find reassurance…
“Scents affect us all on an individual level… While [they] can assist someone dealing with grief and loss, there is no magic wand or formula,” explains complementary therapist and aromatherapist, Rosie Frost.
“Scents that are enjoyed may help, some can give temporary relief. Sometimes an article of clothing that still has the scent of a deceased loved one can bring some comfort or their favourite perfume or aftershave, equally the scent could bring too much distress at a particularly inconvenient time and place.
"Some aromatherapy oils are considered suitable due to their properties, but [these] will vary with each individual’s life and loss experiences, grief process, mood or even time of day. That is why when visiting an aromatherapist, a detailed personal medical history record is taken, which should include scent preferences, including any dislikes.”
Once you or an aromatherapist has picked your oils, there are a few different ways you can use them at home. Aroma nasal inhaler blanks could be customised with your preferred oil: simply pop a few drops onto the cotton swab and seal back up. Handy if you’re out and about too.
If you’re relaxing at home then the more conventional wax melt warmers can hold essential oil wax or drops of the standalone oil.
For a more atmospheric approach, aroma diffusers are a great flame-free way of surrounding yourself with scent. They work by using ultrasonic waves to vaporise water and the essential oil in the tank to produce a cool, dry, fragrant mist. Depending on which brand you buy, some can even act as lamps too. Check out Muji, Neal’s Yard and John Lewis for more.
While it is vital to give yourself plenty of time for nurturing and self-care, it’s also important to confide in close friends or family when you feel ready to, as Rosie suggests: “Pain and loss brings powerful feelings that can be overwhelming. I would not recommend anything other than to find suitable support if struggling and feeling alone.”
How we can use our sense of smell to improve our wellbeing
Do you ever find that a smell can evoke powerful memories? We're still learning about the science behind our sense of smell and why it has such a strong link to our memories. Sarah Orme spoke to Suzy Nightingale of The Perfume Society to find out more about the benefits of aromatherapy…
Although our sense of smell is one of our five senses, it hasn't been as widely researched as sight and hearing. Perfume expert Suzy has long been fascinated by our sense of smell and how it can influence our emotions. She regularly runs workshops to teach people to develop their sense of smell as part of her work for the Perfume Society.
"I think we're still discovering how important it is to us, because it's been so overlooked for centuries really, which is crazy because it's one of our main senses," she says. "For example, scientists haven't been able to prove yet how we actually smell – how a smell gets into our nose and is then transferred into our brain."
"Some people believe theories that molecules are shaped in different ways and we have shaped receptors in our noses. Some people can smell better than others, that might explain that. It hasn't been proved definitively one way or the other, which is extraordinary when you think about it."
7 ways your sense of smell boosts your wellbeing
Our sense of smell makes food taste better
Our sense of smell is strongly linked to our sense of taste. When Suzy's running a scent workshop, she brings along some jellybeans or flavoured chocolate and gets the attendees to hold their nose while eating them. They are then asked to describe what they can taste.
"You sometimes get sweet flavours, if it's something sour you might just be able to taste that it was slightly sour or salty," Suzy says.
"But that's it. You just get the mouthfeel so you can taste whether it's waxy or crunchy. When you let go of your nose, that flavour floods into your mouth."
If you've got a cold, your sense of taste will be completely dulled. It's also possible to lose your sense of smell as a result of cancer treatment or an accident – or even to smell 'phantom' smells such as burning toast.
You can train your sense of smell
When perfumers are training, they are taught to associate smells with other things. Suzy says that when we're learning to identify smells, our brains are automatically searching for what it might be.
"You're thinking: I think that's lemon, I think that's rose," she says. "When you're learning how a smell is emotionally important to you, you have to disassociate yourself from that technical, logical way of looking at a smell."
When perfumers smell something for the first time, they think how they would explain it if it were a texture. Would it be velvet? Or suede? Would it be rough or smooth? Crisp linen? Cotton?
"They might also think of it as a colour," Suzy adds. "Is it a bright yellow? Is it a soft pastel yellow?"
A perfumer might also associate a smell with a particular place or a person that they know.
We have an emotional connection to certain smells
You might not have thought about this before, but certain smells can trigger strong emotional reactions.
"Some people have a very positive memory come to mind when they smell something, but other people might have the complete opposite reaction," Suzy says.
It's often only when people really think about it they realise that they associate a smell with a less pleasant memory. For example, lavender might bring back memories of visiting an aunt who they didn't get on with when they were a child.
"For the rest of your life, every time you smell something that reminds you of that visit to your aunt's house you replay it emotionally."
Our brains react in a unique way to smells that trigger memories
Scientists have been able to show that scents are linked to our memories. When someone smells a fragrance during brain scan different areas of the brain light up and the results are entirely personal.
Suzy says: "Although they don't know exactly why it's hitting those parts of the brain, they can prove that those parts of the brain are lighting up for you and those exact parts of the brain wouldn't light up for anyone else.
"It's an entirely emotion-based response. Once we understand that, we can explore that at greater length and use it for the rest of our lives – to enhance our lives."
Sometimes in Suzy's workshops, people start to cry because a smell triggers a strong emotional response. When that happens, Suzy encourages them to write down their impressions and thoughts to see it reminds them of anything.
You can use scents to enhance a memory
Choosing a special scent for your wedding day is very popular. "I think people do want a special memory just for that day," Suzy says.
"You're not going to wear an outfit that you wear every day, you're not going to eat food you eat every day, so why would you want to smell the same way that you do every day?
"Some people do have a wedding scent that they only wear then for very special occasions such as anniversaries, or if they want to cheer themselves up and they want to remember all of those happy feelings."
But you don't have to restrict this to your wedding day, you can also use scent to remember other special occasions.
You can bottle a memory
Some perfumers will work with you to create a smell that captures a memory. For example, you could choose scents that make you feel happy on a special occasion, then get a perfumer to make this into a custom scent for you.
"If you have very positive memories associated with lavender or rose oil or a particular fragrance, or even a body lotion. If you focus on it every day and link it with happy memories, so for example the feeling of velvet or sunshine, or a very distinct image, you can learn to tap into those positive memories whenever you want," Suzy explains.
Using scent can be a mindful exercise
"After our initial workshop, what we ask people to do just for five minutes a day – usually in the morning because that's when your sense of smell is at its sharpest – is just to sit down and smell something," she says.
"It doesn't have to be an essential oil or a fragrance, because not everyone happens to have those to hand all the time. It could be a shampoo or a cooking ingredient. Just smell that and go through the same steps and lock that in your mind with a distinct image or a series of colours and textures."
Once you've got into the habit of doing that, your sense of smell will become sharper.
Feeling inspired? Why not have a go at making your own soap step by step with Tamsyn Morgans' easy tutorial?
Featured image by Getty Images/BSIP/UIG.