Before I delve further into aromatherapy topics, I thought I should cover the basics. I’ve previously covered safety so that leaves history, what aromatherapy and essential oils are, how they work and how to store them.
Although science is only beginning to study the properties and benefits of essential oils, the plant essences have been in use for 5000 years. They were used for incense, perfumes, salves and compresses. Egyptian embalmers used aromatics (myrrh) in their search for immortality. In 2000 BC, essential oils were used in Ayurvedic medicine in India. Greek soldiers took myrrh into battle to treat their wounds. In 1910, Rene Gattefosse was working on an experiment when he badly burned his hands and stuck them in the nearest vat of liquid, lavender essential oil. He discovered that his burn healed very quickly and left very little scarring. Gattefosse became interested in the healing properties of essential oils and later named it aromatherapy.
Aromatherapy is actually a misnomer, as essential oils can be used in different ways. In addition to inhalation, essential oils can be applied topically, internally (douche or suppository) and orally (although this is not approved in North America). It is a holistic therapy and uses essential oils to promote health and well-being. Aromatherapy can help physically and psychologically.
Although essential oils are not oily, their chemical composition is similar to carrier oils. They evaporate, are aromatic and occur in various parts of plants (leaves, flowers, roots, bark, etc.). Essential oils are complex, being composed of 100-600 different constituents. There are about 300 essentials currently available and some can come from the same plant. The bitter orange tree gives us three different essential oils; neroli from the blossoms, petitgrain from the leaves and bitter orange from the fruit.
Essential oils can diffuse through the skin because of their small molecular structure. Robert Tisserand states that the various constituents of an essential oil may be absorbed at different rates, which probably results in the oil composition changing. Ever notice how a scent changes on your skin over time? We can only smell chemicals that are capable of existing in a gaseous form. An odour activates one or more olfactory receptor cells which are directly connected to the brain. Did you know that if the air is very dry, our ability to smell is decreased?
Essential oils should be stored in dark glass jars in a cool and dark place to extend their shelf-life. Although they don’t go rancid, they can degrade and be less effective or cause skin sensitization. Essential oils with the shortest shelf life include grapefruit, spruce, cypress, fir, frankincense, juniper berry, lemon, lemongrass, lime, mandarin, petitgrain, pine, rosemary, sweet orange and tea tree. Most essential oils will last 2-3 years but some oils such as sandalwood, patchouli, vetiver and rose get better with age.
Since science hasn’t caught up with the popularity of essential oils, there is often a lack of evidence which leaves some people skeptical. Essential oils are very concentrated plant compounds and are often used in medicines. Over the remainder of the year, I’m going to share with you the scientific evidence that is available.