An Introduction to Aromatherapy, by Erin Gerych

Click on any of the below options to learn more: | History | Aromatherapy in Modern Times |
| Safety | Applications | Adulteration |


Aromatherapy is defined as the use of essential oils from aromatic plants to restore and enhance health and beauty. In essence, aromatherapy is the modern word for the age-old use of scents to assist natural processes.

The word aromatherapy was coined by Ran Maurice Gattefosse, who was a physician in France around 1928; however, the principals of aromatherapy have been used for at least 3500 years. The mummies that were embalmed in Egypt were preserved almost entirely with aromatic herbs and resins. In fact, I have heard that for a period of time, mummies were smuggled out of Egypt and distilled for the resins!

Aromatherapy, as we know it, took a big step forward with the invention of steam distillation around 1000 AD. This made possible the extraction of the volatile oils, which are now known as essential oils. In times before, large quantities of aromatic herbs would have been required to produce the same effect.

Aromatherapy made another major step with a large block of research being done around 1900 into "scientific" aspects of essential oils. This research included its antiseptic qualities and effects that could be directly quantified, i.e., lavendar oil killed 9 out of 10 colonies of bacteria in a petri dish.

Almost exclusively, this research was done in Europe and has gained a wide degree of acceptance to this day. You can go to almost any pharmacy in Europe and get aromatherapy preparations because they would be prescribed by a doctor.

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In modern times:

Essential oils are produced using three methods. The most widely used is steam distillation. In the steam distillation process, the aromatic plants are placed in a vessel and the steam run through them. The vapor and the cooling steam is then directed into an apparatus called a condenser, where the water becomes liquid again and the volatile oils become liquid. The volatile oils, or essential oils, are lighter than water and are separated. Steam distillation is the most common method used for all aromatic herbs that are not damaged by heat.

There are some herbs, however, that are so oily that if you press them, the essential oils can be extracted directly. This is used primarily for citrus peels. This method is known as direct expression. It is used also for vegetable oils, like canola oil or jojoba oil.

The last method of extracting essential oils is a French word called enflurage. This method is used for delicate scents and is very time consuming. Scents obtained by this method would include Jasmine, Calendula and Honeysuckle.

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Safety with aromatherapy:

Essential oils are, at the very least, concentrated. They should be handled with care. There are only a few oils that can be applied to the skin, undiluted, safely. To maintain safety, most oils should be used by those qualified or trained in their application to prevent undesired side effects. For example, some oils have been historically used to cause abortions.

Rose oil, which is a very mild oil, takes over 2,000 pounds of petals to produce 1 pound of oil. This ratio is just one example indicating how concentrated essential oils are.

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The safest application, by far, is diffusing the oil into the space in the air in a room. Most people have the greatest amount of tolerance, even for oils that might be risky in other applications. For example, you would never put clove oil on your skin, undiluted, however, most people will be able to tolerate a certain amount of clove scent in the air.

The next application is to apply the oils directly onto the skin, i.e., massage oil, in a bath, etc. Again, this takes a certain amount of knowledge as most of the oils need to be diluted to prevent skin irritations or worse.

The last application is internally. I do not recommend this unless you really know what you are doing. It is much safer to use the aromatic herbs themselves to produce the effect desired and minimize the risks involved with essential oils.

The last two applications here can be done if 1) you are sure of your information, and 2) you are sure of the quality of your oils.

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Essential oils, because they are so concentrated, can be quite pricy, some ranging up to over $1,000 per ounce. The economic motivation to produce more of this precious oil leads us to the next biggest concern of aromatherapy.

In order to produce the greatest amount of oil with the least amount of herb, the herb must be extracted very thoroughly. This is normally done using a solvent other than water. Referring back to the Rose example above, if the same 2,000 pounds of rose petals were solvent extracted, it would produce over 5 pounds of rose oil, as opposed to 1 pound by steam distillation. Unfortunately, some of the solvent always remains in the oil, and these have no use in aromatherapy. These oils could cause serious problems if applied to the skin or taken internally because you would also be ingesting or coming in contact with the solvents used.

The next type of adulteration is thinning the essential oil with a less expensive oil with a similar scent or perhaps even diluting it with a chemical. Again, if these can be detected they have no use in aromatherapy.

The third type of adulteration is falsification, calling an oil, perhaps not even an essential oil, an essential oil, again, for financial gain.

A point that is closely related to this; if you are looking for an essential oil, check the spelling. If it is called anything other than "essential", for example, escential, it is NOT a pure essential oil. If it is labeled a "fragrance" oil, it is almost assuredly synthetic, or having synthetic components. Buyer Beware!

One thing you can look for is the least costly oils to do what you desire them to do. This significantly cuts down the risk of adulteration for financial gain. If the oil is inexpensive to begin with, it does not pay to falsify or adulterate the oil.

Stay tuned for introduction to blending and other concerns with aromatherapy!

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