Getting started with aromatherapy? Here’s a little primer for the beginning to intermediate student of this practice, with some important notes about essential oil safety – There are three traditional methods of using essential oils for ‘aromatherapy’, which have been termed the English, French and German models.
The English model consists of what is now termed ‘aromatherapy massage’ – involving the dilution of essential oils in ‘carrier’ or ‘base’ oils and application topically to the skin. Because both the essential oils and the carrier oils are compatible with the skin, the essential oils are absorbed into the bloodstream with subsequent physiological effect.
Topical application is the preferred method of use for many essential oils. However, MOST essential oils require significant dilution (often to less than 3% of the total volume) as they can cause skin irritation. Lavender Oil and Chamomile Oil are two essential oils that can be applied ‘neat’ or without dilution; others, such as Cinnamon Oil and Oregano Oil should never be applied topically undiluted – they may be applied once highly diluted to the bottoms of the feet. A VERY small amount should be tested first.
The interesting thing about topical applications is that essential oils tend to pass through the skin fairly readily, as they are lipotropic (fat-soluble) and their molecular structure is fairly small. In this manner, their possible effects can be targeted – if one has digestive trouble, rubbing Peppermint Oil diluted in a carrier oil (a pure vegetable or nut oil) into the abdomen may help. In the same way, rubbing Chamomile Oil or Lavender Oil into the solar plexus (bottom tip of the sternum) may help relieve tension.
The French model consists of ingestion and ‘neat’ or undiluted topical application of essential oils. Perhaps these somewhat bravado methods are a result of the French producing some of the world’s finest Lavender oils – also considered one of the safest oils in aromatherapy. As in the English model, essential oils will easily pass through the skin and into the bloodstream. Many individuals directly apply oils such as Frankincense, Sandalwood, and Myrhh to their temples to enhance meditation, for example. This is a practice one should begin slowly with, being sure the body or skin does not show any adverse reactions before proceeding. ORAL INGESTION OF ESSENTIAL OILS IS NOT RECOMMENDED EXCEPT UNDER THE GUIDANCE OF A DOCTOR OR A QUALIFIED AROMATHERAPIST.
The German model is that of inhalation, where the essential oils will directly affect the limbic system, and the intimately associated emotional and hormonal systems. Oils are often diffused in a cold-air diffuser, warmer, or oil lamp – these tools disperse tiny droplets of essential oils in the surrounding air. When inhaled, the oils connect directly to the nervous system’s chemical sensors. Certain oils that are high in sesquiterpenes, such as myrrh, sandalwood, vetiver, and frankincense oils, have been noted to dramatically increase activity and oxygenation in certain areas of the brain when used this way.
With inhalation go slowly and start with a small amount – essential oils are effective in very low doses. You will know when you’ve had enough – we tend to notice a distaste for the smell or even a mild headache coming on if the concentration of certain oils in the air has gotten too high.
Inhalation is often effective for mood-altering effects of essential oils; Rosemary for mental ‘stimulation’, Lavender for relaxation, etc. These effects are a result of essential oil components on the limbic system of the brain – which again is closely tied to the emotional centers.
Essential oil components from one plant may have synergistic effects with another. One may certainly blend essential oils in a diffuser or burner, adding a couple of drops of each oil desired. Often a nice result can be had from mixing a brighter or sweeter oil (Rosemary, Basil, Orange) with one more earthy and grounding (Patchouli, Frankincense, Cedar). The effects are very personal – if you don’t like the smell of a particular essential oil or combination of oils, there’s probably a reason and they’re just not for you! Your intake could be too high or the oil(s) may not be compatible with your body chemistry at that time.
A note about safety: Essential Oils are very powerful components of plants – they have the capability of being harmful if improperly used. Essential Oils can be very helpful in some cases, supportive in others, and have little to no effect on others. They are not intended to treat or cure serious medical conditions; there is no substitute for a consultation with a competent physician for any matters regarding your health, or anyone else. If you are pregnant, planning to get pregnant, or breastfeeding, it is critical you consult your physician before using any essential oil. Please be sure there are no contraindications of an essential oil for your condition before using it! Almost all essential oils should be diluted to the range of 1% to 3% in your chosen carrier (or ‘base’) oil – Lavender and Chamomile Oils being notable exceptions (though diluting them will make them no less effective).
Remember – start slowly, pay attention to how an oil and it’s particular application makes you feel, adjust accordingly, keep learning, and have fun!