Aromatherapy is the use of essential oils extracted from plants to improve physical and mental health. It can either be applied mixed in carrier oil and applied to the skin, where it is absorbed, or inhaled and thereby absorbed into the lungs and nasal passages. Different essential oil blends are believed to have different beneficial properties such as reducing anxiety, managing pain or energizing the mind. In today’s high-stress world, the psychological, emotional and spiritual effects of aromatherapy can help create an atmosphere of calm that encourages your clients to look forward to spending time relaxing in your clinic.
History of aromatherapy
Essential oils have been used for fragrant and therapeutic purposes for nearly 6,000 years in China, Egypt, India. One of the principle aspects of Ayurvedic medicine in India is massage with aromatic oils and similarly, in Greece 2,500 years ago, Hippocrates – known as the father of modern medicine – maintained that ‘the key to good health rests on having a daily aromatic bath and scented massage’.
In the 1880’s the role of microorganisms in disease was recognised and, after observing low incidence of tuberculosis in the flower growing districts in southern France, French physicians first recorded laboratory tests on the anti-bacterial properties of essential oils. The term ‘aromatherapie’ was later coined by French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé, who discovered the healing properties of lavender oil when he applied it to a burn on his hand. He then analysed the chemical properties of essential oils and how they were used to treat burns, skin infections, gangrene and wounds in soldiers during World War I. Gattefossé published his book, ‘Aromathérapie: Les Huiles essentielles hormones vegetales’ in 1937. Dr. Jean Valnet, a French army surgeon also used essential oils in the treatment of war wounds during the French Indochina War and wrote the book, Practice of Aromatherapy, which was translated into the English in 1964.
Though the scientific revolution diminished the popularity of essential oils in everyday life, a global shift towards holistic wellbeing is encouraging the use of natural ingredients such as essential oils for therapeutic, cosmetic and aromatic benefit.
Proven benefits of aromatherapy
While science doesn’t yet support the use of aromatherapy, several studies back up the beliefs. For example, a 1994 study at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center found that the vanilla-like aroma of heliotropin significantly reduced anxiety in patients undergoing MRI scans. Another study measuring the brain’s spontaneous electrical (EEG) activity assessed alertness and mood in 40 adults given three minutes of aromatherapy using two aromas, lavender (relaxing) or rosemary (stimulating). Participants were also asked to complete simple math computations before and after the therapy. Following aromatherapy, the lavender group showed increased beta power (suggesting drowsiness) and reported feeling less depressed and more relaxed. They also performed math computations faster and more accurately. Decreased frontal alpha and beta power in the rosemary group suggested increased alertness and they reported feeling more relaxed and alert and completed the math computations faster.
How essential oils work
Essential oils work by both inhalation and/or topical application. The oils are made up of tiny molecules that are very easily absorbed. Each essential oil has a unique chemical composition of terpenes, esters, oxides, alcohols, phenols, ketones and aldehydes, which interact with bodily systems and can stimulate the immune system, aid cell growth, help eliminate toxins and even kill bacteria and viruses. For example, lavender essential oil has 40 percent linalyl acetate, which is an ester. Studies have shown linalyl acetate to be anti-inflammatory, sedative, anti-bacterial and anti-viral, which explains why lavender oil is useful in first aid and in treating sleep disorders.
When topically applied, the skin absorbs the active chemicals, although the absorption levels are not certain. Aromatherapist Robert Tisserand believes about ten percent of the essential oil that is applied to the skin are absorbed, so ten percent EO applied becomes one percent EO absorbed. Different factors are said to affect the absorption of essential oils. In theory, massaging the area first will increase circulation, thereby causing enhancing absorption of essential oils. Heat will likewise increase circulation and also improve absorption. Because true essential oils have a detectable aroma indicates that an amount of the essence in the product is vaporising, diffuses into the air and then inhaled.
The olfactory system includes all physical organs or cells relating to, or contributing to, the sense of smell. When we inhale through the nose, airborne molecules interact with the olfactory organs and the brain. Molecules inhaled through the nose or mouth are also carried to the lungs and interact with the respiratory system. However, in addition to the several hundred types of olfactory receptors found in the human nose, the human body has another 150 types of smell receptors found in more unexpected locations in the body, such as the heart, the liver and the gut. Scientists have now discovered that skin also harbours unique olfactory receptors and what’s more, they may play a role in healing. Researchers recently discovered that Sandalore – a synthetic sandalwood oil used in aromatherapy – bound to an olfactory receptor in skin called OR2AT4.
Rather than sending a message to the brain, as nose receptors do, the receptor triggered cells to divide and migrate, important processes in repairing damaged skin. Cell proliferation increased by 32 percent and cell migration by nearly half when keratinocytes [skin cells] in a test tube and in culture were mixed for five days with Sandalore. This indicates that certain odorants target ‘smelling’ receptors in the skin, to prompt the healing process.
Vaporisation of essential oils
Because of their volatile nature, essential oils readily diffuse into the air. Vaporising the essential oils forces the molecules to become airborne, where they trigger the limbic system through the olfactory bulb and can be absorbed by the body when breathed into the lungs. Vapour therapy can be as simple as dropping some essential oil onto a tissue or handkerchief and smelling it when needed, but for the purposes of scenting a room or clinic, different devices are available to create environmental ambiance and deliver the benefits of essential oils to your clients.
The most common way of vaporising a room is to add the essential oils to a vaporiser. These are usually ceramic, terracotta, metal or glass and comprised of two separate containers, the top for water and essential oils and the bottom for a tealight candle to provide gentle heat. When purchasing a vaporiser opt for one with a large top reservoir, as it won’t need to be constantly topped up with water. The general rule is to add about six to eight drops of essential oil to the water in the top reservoir, but that will also depend on the size of the room. As soon as the candle starts to heat up the water above it, the essential oil in the water will start to evaporate and the aroma will dissipate.
An alternative to the candle type of diffuser is to use an electric aroma-emitting device. Your oil of choice is applied to filtered plates, which are slowly warmed to disperse the scent. These devices are lightweight, portable and silent and useful around children or in small spaces where candles are a potential fire hazard.
Ultrasonic diffusion creates a fine mist by using ultrasonic vibrations to dispense essential oils into the air using water as a carrier. This mist is created without the use of heat, and helps to add moisture into the air in addition to the aroma-therapeutic benefits of essential oils. The device can run for several hours before requiring more water and oil.
Lightbulb rings are available in ceramic as well as metal. The oils are placed on the ring, and the ring is then placed on a cold, turned-off low wattage (incandescent) standard lightbulb. The lower the wattage, the longer the aroma. As soon as the lightbulb is switched on, the essential oil starts to evaporate and the aroma dissipates.
Guide to essential oil benefits
Consider the following essential oils to deliver wellbeing benefits to your clients and create a relaxing or refreshing ambiance for your clinic.
Settles anxiety: Benzoin, bergamot, clary sage, geranium, German chamomile, grapefruit, juniper, lavender, mandarin, orange, patchouli, rose, sandalwood.
Stabilises emotions: Bergamot, eucalyptus, geranium, lavender, Roman chamomile, sandalwood.
Calming/soothing: Chamomile, coriander, hyssop, lavender, lemongrass, sandalwood.
Counteracts emotional stress: Basil, benzoin, bergamot, fennel, juniper, lavender, myrrh, rose, peppermint, sandalwood, ylang-ylang.
Energises: Basil, bay, cardamom, cinnamon, eucalyptus, lemongrass, rosemary.
Supports clarity: Basil, clary sage, clove bud, juniper, hyssop, peppermint, rosemary.
Supports relaxation: Anise, German chamomile, lemon eucalyptus, lavender.
Supports sensuality: Anise, cinnamon, ginger, jasmine, rose, vanilla, ylang-ylang.
Counteracts sorrow: Bergamot, clary sage, grapefruit, orange, rose.
Uplifts: Allspice, basil, balsam fir, clary sage, clove bud, lemon, orange.
Combining aromatherapy and massage
When a muscle is tensed due to stress, circulation is reduced, which blocks the absorption of oxygen and nutrients. By releasing this tension through massage, circulation is improved and oxygen and nutrients come back to the area. Many wellness practitioners believe a combination of massage and essential oils offers the best of both worlds when it comes to easing common complaints such as stress and aches and pains.
And it turns out it could be just what the doctor ordered; plentiful studies show excellent results using massage therapy in the treatment of stress. A recent New Zealand study involving nurses working in emergency departments found that aromatherapy massages dramatically reduced stress levels. The researchers found that 60 percent of the nursing staff in their experiment reported suffering from moderate to extreme anxiety due to their work. The percentage of nurses reporting anxiety dropped to just eight per cent after aromatherapy massage treatments. Another clinical trial involving 122 patients in intensive care showed that massage aromatherapy using lavender oil helped improve mood and reduce anxiety, while a Korean study reported that lavender hand massage reduced aggression in patients with dementia.
While some may question the validity of aromatherapy massage, from a scientific perspective few would argue that the treatments do offer general revitalisation. Most clients thoroughly enjoy the ‘feel good’ pampering of aromatherapy massage and therefore beauty therapists may consider it a valid treatment.
Aromatherapy massage recommendations
An aromatherapy massage treatment should last for one hour. Two to three aromatherapy massage sessions per week is considered ideal and perfectly safe, although aromatherapists usually recommend a break of two to three days between successive sessions to allow time for the body to activate and excrete toxic substances without stress. A light touch and more frequent sessions of shorter duration (20-30 minutes) are more suitable for babies, children and elderly. The dosage of essential oils used for these groups is also different – usually half of the drops given in the standard recipes. After a massage session it is advisable to ensure your client drinks a glass of water to assist toxin excretion. They should also be advised to abstain from smoking and drinking alcohol for at least one day after
a massage session.
Therapists should complete certified training of the indications, contraindications and safe dosage of essential oils before embarking on any practice. Essential oils can take from 18 to 24 hours to be processed and eliminated by the body. It is therefore critical that therapists make clients aware of any potential concerns such as increased risk of sun damage on skin exposed to citrus oils of lemon (Citrus limon), lime (Citrus aurantifolia) and bergamot (Citrus bergamia). Clary sage (Salvia sclarea) increases the risk of intoxication if the client consumes alcohol shortly after the massage. As essential oils pose a potential risk to pregnant women, for safety reasons they
should be avoided throughout pregnancy or if a client is
trying to conceive.
There are also certain contraindications for massage: Those are clients with: phlebitis and/or thrombophlebitis, recently out of surgery, heart condition, acute infections, fever, wounds, blisters, warts, rash, bruises and varicose veins, cancer or who are pregnant. Caution is also required when massaging people suffering from osteoporosis, hypertension, diabetes and epilepsy, especially when essential oils are used. A general rule is clients with a health condition should always consult their doctor prior to a massage.
Before being applied to the skin, pure essential oils must be diluted with a carrier oil to avoid severe irritation or reactions in some individuals. The term ‘carrier oil’ is reflective of their purpose in carrying the essential oil onto the skin. It is a vegetable oil derived from the fatty portion of a plant, usually from the seeds, kernels or the nuts and in addition to giving good ‘slip’ for the purpose of massaging the skin, they also contain a number of benefits for skin health.
Carrier oils should be stored away from heat and light. The addition of jojoba oil as 10 percent of your carrier oil will help extend the shelf life of your blend by slowing down oxidation. Adding Vitamin E oil to any aromatherapy blend will also help extend the life of most vegetable oils. One or two capsules (200-400 IU) per two-ounce bottle of carrier oil is enough. It is best to keep things fresh by only making enough of a blend to last a few months and it is highly recommended to refrigerate your blends, which may help them keep for six months or more.
Consider gifting any remaining oil blend to the client for use as a spot treatment or bath oil. It is a useful way to increase client satisfaction and engagement. Be sure to give the client a “directions for use” sheet so they know how to use the oil at home. If a small bottle of the undiluted blend itself is given, be sure to include proper dilution instructions informing them that the undiluted essence would be appropriate for room diffusion and inhalation, for dilution into bath salts, or for being added to an unscented carrier oil for topical use.
Each carrier oil offers a different combination of therapeutic properties and characteristics that benefit different skin types.
Sweet Almond Oil – Suitable for all skin types, sweet almond oil is best known for its ability to soften, soothe, and condition the skin.
Apricot Kernel Oil – Similar to Sweet Almond oil, but more suitable for sensitive and prematurely aged skin.
Macadamia Nut Oil – One of the best regenerative oils available, it is high in monounsaturated fatty acids, and closely resembles skin’s own sebum. Helpful as a healing oil for scars, sunburns, minor wounds and other irritations.
Avocado Oil – This ultra rich oil contains high amounts of Vitamin A, B1, B2, D, and E as well as amino acids, sterols, pantothenic acid, lecithin, and other essential fatty acids. Ideal for use with sensitive skin, problem skin, and other irritations such as eczema.
Olive Oil – A popular oil that suits all skin types and is favoured for its high stability.
Fractionated Coconut Oil – Fantastic for general moisturizing and provides a protective layer, which helps to retain moisture in the skin. It is suitable for those with inflamed and irritated skin, and those with skin sensitivities.
Hemp Seed Oil – Exceptionally rich oil high in essential omega fatty acids and Vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B6, C, D and E. is useful in skin that requires healing and restoring dry, damaged skin.
Sunflower Oil – Rich in Oleic acids and Vitamins A, D, and E, this oil is deeply nourishing and conditioning for dry, weathered, aged, and damaged skin.
Jojoba – One of the most favoured in the carrier oil family because of its advanced molecular stability and because
its absorption properties are similar to the skin’s sebum.
Jojoba oil can act as a second skin while helping control acne and oily skin.
Recommended dilutions for massage oils
The massage or body oil dilution varies depending on the client being treated. A two to three percent dilution (10 - 12 drops per ounce of vegetable oil) is suitable for general use; one percent dilution for pregnant women or people with health concerns and children (five drops per ounce of carrier oil)
Basic aromatherapy blending kit
There are many essential oils to choose between, however picking a few for the purpose of uplifting, relaxing or for easing muscle tension will give a good basis to begin with.
Key essential oils
Chamomile – calming and relaxing and useful in treating. sprains and strains.
Eucalyptus – eases muscular aches and pains.
Geranium – uplifting and calming.
Grapefruit – uplifting and energizing.
Lavender – stress, insomnia, nervous tension.
Lemon – uplifting, revitalising, clears the mind.
Orange – uplifting, refreshing, stimulating.
Rosemary –strained muscles.
Tea Tree – aches and pains.
Scotch Pine – eases muscular aches and pains.
Ylang Ylang – stress and anxiety.
You will need only a few basic supplies to begin practising aromatherapy. Start with a measuring cup, measuring spoons, and perhaps some small funnels. If storing oils and blends you have made yourself you will need a few small amber glass bottles with orifice reducer and cap. Label your blend with the date it was made and the ingredients. This also applies if you are planning on gifting any oils to your clients after a massage.
Some essential oils are sold in bottles that have a ‘reducer’ that allows only a drop of oil to come out at a time. These require some patience – do not shake the bottle or several drops will come out at once. Glass droppers are useful for obtaining just the right amount of essential oil and are sold in drugstores, some natural food stores, and by some essential
Don’t put a dropper from one oil to another, as this will contaminate the oils. Simply rinse the dropper in rubbing alcohol and wait a few minutes for the alcohol to completely evaporate before putting it into another oil. Having two or three droppers allows you to rotate them for rinsing and drying.
A pipette can be used to measure out small amounts of
To measure larger quantities, use a Pyrex measuring cup with a pour spout or a set of measuring spoons.