Aromatherapy is the use of aromatic plant-based essential oils for therapeutic purposes. The goal of this practice is to promote physical, phychological and spiritual health and balance. The oils are concentrated extracts taken from various plant parts like the seeds, roots, leaves and blossoms

Tea Tree Essential Oil
Credit: "Tea Tree Oil" by Stephanie D. (flickr), licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Even though we still don't really know how aromatherapy actually works and mainstream medicine is rather sceptical about its physical benefits, the popularity of the practice has increased. The use of essential oils is very popular as a natural and easy way for relieving stress. In addition, essential oils are widely used for beauty and body treatments. Specialized spas and beauty clinics employ them for this purpose.

Aromatherapy is fun to practice at home as long as we emply our common sense and caution is exercised at all times. Come to thing of it, we might be doing it already without even realising it. Aromatherapy in practice could be as simple as adding your favourite spice in a dish, arranging a fragrant bouquet of flowers or even wearing your favourite perfume!  


Aromatic plants have been used for millenia in both the East and the West (ref encycl). In ancient Egypt, religious ceremonies included the use of scented waters, oils, incense, resins and various ointments. Herbal and aromatic remedies were employed by the Chinese as early as 3000 B.C. Ayurveda, a practice of traditional Indian medicine, also included herbal treatments.

Essential Oils
Credit: "Essential Oils- Pharmazie-Historisches Museum Basel" by ilovebutter (flickr) licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Romans and the Greeks were also aware of the medicinal properties of many different herbs. Herodotus was the first to record the process of distillation of turpentine around 425 B.C[3]. Hippocrates, the Greek physician, wrote about an array of different medicinal plants. Many centuries later, the process of herbal distilation was mentioned by the Arab physician and naturalist Avicenna.

The modern history of aromatherapy begins in 1937 when French chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé published Aromatherapie: Les Huiles essentielles, hormones végé tales. An English version of the book was published in 1993[1]. French physician Jean Valnet used botanical aromatics as an anticeptic treatment for wounded soldiers in World War II[4]. His work was instrumental in the popularization of essential oil use for medical and psychiatric treatment in France. A bit later, French biochemist Mauguerite Maury popularized the cosmetic benefits of essential oils[5].

The first book on the subject in English was The Art of Aromatherapy written by Robert Tisserand in 1977. This made aromatherapy quite popular in the UK. In the 1980s, it started becoming popular in the USA as well.

Methods of Use

There are three different ways to use aromatherapy: inhalation, direct application on the skin and internal use. I must stress out that the third method should only be emplyed under the supervison of a certified aromatherapy specialist.

1. Inhalation

The easiest and simplest way to benefit from essential oils is to breathe them in. Inhalation can be direct or indirect. A very common practice is to put a few drops of the extract on a tissue or hankerchief and inhale gently. A small number of oils can be used as a steam treatment, added in a bowl of hot water. A commercial steam device can also be used for this method. This particular aromatherapy technique is used to treat respiratory problems and skin conditions. Alternatively, a warm bath with essential oils can have the same effects, not to mention that it is very relaxing.  

An aromatic candle and diffuser
Credit: "Aromatic Candle" by Hugo.arg at the Samogitian language Wikipedia, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

In order to disperse the aromas over a large room or area, there are several devices available such as essential oil diffusers, vaporizers and light bulb rings. These are great aids for creating a healthier home environment.

2. Direct Application

Essential oils are very potent and they must be diluted in a lotion or carrier oil before you can safely use them on the skin. Carrier oils are also known as vegetable, fixed or base oils. These are usually made from the fatty parts of a plant (seeds, nuts, kernels) and they are “heavier” than essential oils (made from leaves, barks, roots). 

Some examples of carriers used for aromatherapy include avocado oil, jojoba, hazelnut, olive oil, pomegranate seed, sesame, sunflower and sea-buckthorn berry oil. Other excellent options include safflower, sweet almond, grapeseed, hazelnut, apricot seed, or peach kernel. These are light oils that can be easily absorbed by the skin.

Standard dilutions of essential oils range from 2–10 percent.While some are safe to use at higher concentrations, others must be diluted even further to be used effectively and safely. Massage with essential oils is a common therapeutic technique. Another way is to use hot or cold compresses and soaks to treat muscle aches and pains.

3. Internal Use

The third method is internal use of essential oils. This treatment should never be self-administered and can only be followed under the supervision of a qualified healthcare professional. I've heard that some people occassionally use certain extracts in cooking but I wouldn't recommend that. Essential oils are really complex, really powerful substances. In Greek, we have the word “farmakon” which can either mean medicine or poison. So, when you handle these extracts, remember that it cuts both ways. They are not meant to be used in cooking. After all, you can choose among a wide variety of very aromatic fresh herbs for creating delicious dishes.

Some Essential Oils Commonly Used in Aromatherapy

1. Bergamot (Citrus Bergamia)

A Bergamot TreeCredit: public domainBergamot essential oil is an old Italian folk medicine used to treat fever (including malaria) and worms.It has, however, a wide range of applications. Its uplifting properties make it suitable for both mind and body. Bergamot is recommended for depression and stress-related conditions. It thought to ease afflictions of the immune, respiratory, digestive and urinary system. It has a refreshing and delicate aroma, spicy and lemony at the same time. Bergamot is also used as a flavouring for Earl Grey tea and in the perfume industry. Avoid sun exposure after use.

2. Chamomile, Roman (Anthemis nobilis)

ChamomileCredit: public domainAn excellent choice if you are looking for calming and soothing effects. Chamomile has a warm, sweet and apple-like scent. Chamomile is great for the nervous and the digestive system, and it can treat skin conditions well. Use it if you feel nervous, angry, anxious, irritable or if you just can't turn your mind off and relax. It is non-toxic and non-irritant, but you should avoid using it neat on your skin.

3. Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea)

Clary SageCredit: "Salvia sclarea, inflorescence, Boutiers 16" by Pancrat, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.Credit:"Salvia sclarea, inflorescence, Boutiers 16" by Pancrat, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

This essential oil has a heavy, leafy and nutty aroma. It is a deep muscle relaxant and it eases the body and the mind simultaneously. Clary sage is considered helpful for high-blood pressure, stress related problems, digestive problems, asthma, migraines, muscle aches and pains, stress, depression, moodiness, and many more. It is a non-toxic essential oil, but it should be avoided during pregnancy.

4. Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens)

 CypressCredit: public domainCypress essential oil comes from the needles and twigs of the tall evergreen tree. It is used for improving circulation and promoting hormonal balance. It can generally be described as a cleansing oil suitable for respiratory problems. Cypress has a pleasant smoky, forest aroma and it is a fantastic deoderant. Other applications include skin care, treating nervous tension and stress-related problems.

5. Frankincense (Boswelia carteri)

FrankincenseCredit: public domainThis essential oil is produced by steam distillation from the gum resin of the particular plant. In aromatherapy, it is used in skin care to treat dry skin or wrinkles. Frankincense helps with head colds and menstrual problems. It is also considered useful against respiratory problems like asthma as it deepens your breath and helps you relax. It has a distinct woody and spicy fragrance and is often used during meditation. 

6. Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)

Rose GeraniumCredit: public domainGeranium is great as a balancing oil in both a physical and emotional level. It has a strong, sweet and heavy scent (it smells a bit like a rose, but more minty). This is an essential oil with several therapeutic properties and it is widely used in skin care, to treat poor circulation or respiratory problems. Psychologically speaking, geranium is helpful with various symptoms including anxiety, confusion and mild depression. Use with caution because it may cause irritation to sensitive skins.

7. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

LavenderCredit: public domainLavender is a very versatile essential oil. It has a powerful freshly herbaceous and flowery aroma and blends well with several other oils. Lavender is used extensively in skin care and beauty treatments. It also has several therapeutic properties that make it suitable for various skin conditions, respiratory problems, various issues with joints and muscles, headaches, nervous tension, migrains, insomnia, hypertension, vertigo and many other afflictions.  

8. Lemon (Citrus limonum)

LemonCredit: public domainLemon essential oil is cooling and very refreshing with a light citrus scent. It is used to strengthen the immune system and treat fever, colds and infections. This oil is also used to tackle confusion and mental fatigue, nervous tension and exhaustion. This essential oil has the ability to make you more alert and concentrated. It may cause irritation and sensitisation in some individuals. Lemon is highly phototoxic so exposure to sunlight should be avoided.

9. Neroli (Citrus aurantium)

Orange Blossom FlowerCredit: public domainNeroli got its name from a princess of Nerola in Italy who loved to use this extract as perfume[2]. It is actually the orange blossom essential oil. It has a very sweet, floral and a bit bitter aroma. The freshly picked orange blossom flowers produce a very calming oil ideal for stress relief and emotional shock. It also helps with digestive problems, poor circulation and various skin conditions or imperfections. As with all citrus oils, it can also give your immune system a boost.

10. Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin)

Patchouli PlantCredit: "Pogostemon cablin (leaves)" by Forest & Kim Starr, licensed under CC BY 3.0

Credit:"Pogostemon cablin (leaves)" by Forest & Kim Starr, licensed under CC BY 3.0

The patchouli plant is native to Indonesia and the Philippines. It is also extensively cultivated in other regions for the production of the essential oil which has a strong earthy, sweet and spicy scent. Patchouli is very useful in skin treatments and it is also considered an effective cell regenerator. This essential oil ages well and it has a distinct exotic aroma. It soothes inflammation and it has antiseptic properties. Patchouli has a variety of other applications ranging from treating stress problems to repelling insects.

11. Peppermint (Mentha piperita)

Peppermint PlantCredit: public domainThis essential oil is very stimulating to both body and mind. It is often used to cure mental and physical fatigue. What's more, it is known for positive effects on the digestive and respiratory systems. Peppermint is a strong stimulant, so it should be used in moderation. The menthol content could cause sensitisation to some people. It is best to avoid use during pregnancy, by those suffering from epilepsy or heart disease and if homeopathic remedies are administered.

12. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

RosemaryCredit: public domainRosemary has a strong herbal aroma with a clear, warm and penetrating note. It is considered helpful against a wide range of nervous, circulatory, muscular and digestive disorders. It is an invigorating essential oil with many mental and emotional benefits. Rosemary isn't recommended during pregnancy or for people suffering from epilepsy or high blood pressure.

This list is far from exhausting since there are many more essential oils used in the practice of aromatherapy. These oils are often blended together in numerous ways to combine their properties and enhance their positive effects.

Precautions for Aromatherapy

Always purchase and use authentic, high quality essential oils. Certain aromatic plant oils are very toxic and shouldn't be used at all. These include (among others) bitter almond, pennyroyal, mustard, sassafras, rue, mugwort, camphor and wintergreen. Many extracts are also unsuitable for internal use, for example eucalyptus, wormwood and sage. It is important that you treat you essential oil bottles as medicine. In order to preserve the quality of your aromatherapy kit, keep your bottles tightly closed and put them in a cool location away from light. You must also store them somewhere safe, out of your children's reach.

That being said, little ones should be treated with aromatherapy only under the guidance of a certified aromatherapist or a healthcare specialist. While some essential oils may be totally unsuitable for kids, others can be used, but should be further diluted before they are safe for them. Some could also be inappropriate for pregnant or lactating women, or people with specific conditions and health issues.

Be always mindful of the dosage you use. This is the number one safety tip for aromatherapy. Aromatic plant oils shoudn't be used undiluted, at least not without being directed to do so by a trained healthcare professional or aromatherapist.

Side Effects

When aromatherapy is practised as directed, there are very few side effects and risks. However, some individuals may experience side effects and these vary depending on the type of oil you are using. One of the most common problems is an allergic reaction called contact dermatitis. Redness and irritation might occur if you apply a pure essential oil onto your skin. It is always best to do a small patch test with a new oil before you start using it regularly.

Phototoxicity may also be an issue when using citrus-based essential oils such as bergamot, lemon, lime, orange, and angelica. These can cause a hightened sensitivity to sunlight and therefore you should limit your sun exposure for at least four hours (some advise even more) after use.